Geopolitics on the rocks

Prabhu Guptara

Are you safe? Whose responsibility is it?

North America, East Asia, India

The impact of technology on geopolitics*

Geopolitical security no longer depends only on what is now called ‘hard power’– that is, on military strength (including coercive diplomacy, and the creation of alliances in order to threaten or deter) and economic resources (ability to provide aid, bribes, and economic sanctions based on population size, territory, natural resources, and social stability).

The rise of new technologies means that we are now in a world where the line between hard power and ‘soft power’ is disappearing, as the world moves from ‘informatized’ military capabilities to ‘intelligentized’ military capabilities.

That exact phrase is China’s which, in July this year, released its Artificial Intelligence (AI) development plan, providing some insight into an otherwise opaque world.  The Chinese plan focuses on:

  • enhancing autonomousunmanned systems;
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) enabled data fusion, information processing, and intelligence analysis;
  • war-gaming, war-simulation, and war-training;
  • intelligent support to command decision-making;


  • defense, offense, and command in information warfare.


However, it is the USA which still leads in the automation and ‘intelligentization’ of military hardware. In the context of ‘reinvigorating American military technological dominance’ the U.S. released a “National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan” in October 2016, followed by two other reports on AI commissioned during the Obama Presidency.  Though the ascent of Trump to the Presidency has surprisingly meant relatively little further action till recently, the stage now finally seems to be set for follow up.

In any case, as a result of the impact of technology, hard power becomes ever more difficult to evaluate – and even to identify.  No one has yet discovered a method for calculating how many supercomputers with what capabilities are employed by which military.  How can you tell what level of development in autonomy is embedded in which weapon or weapon system?  Even if a method could be found for such things today, there is little guarantee that the method would continue to be valid for more than a few days, given the speed at which developments are taking place in each of five key disciplines: artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, control theory, Virtual Reality and simulation.  Each of the five can be developed, on relatively small budgets, in facilities the size of a small garage.

The rise of weapons that are partially or wholly ‘intelligent’ and autonomous, is sometimes called the third revolution in warfare - with gunpowder representing the first revolution, and nuclear power the second.

Different levels of autonomy have been distinguished:

(1) machine assistance marks weapons and systems that select targets but attack them only if there is a human command – e.g. Israel’s “Iron Dome”;


(2) automated weapons optionally under human supervision – e.g., Samsung’s SGR-A1 which, on detecting an intruder, automatically issues a verbal warning, while simultaneously alerting a remote soldier - who can then fire SGR-A1’s machine gun if the intruder does not surrender; alternatively, if the robot is in automatic mode, the SGR-A1 will itself shoot, in accordance with its programming;




(3)  fully-autonomous “launch and forget” weapons and weapon-systems which can select targets and attack without any necessary further human input or interaction at all.  Examples of such systems, currently deployable, include “combat robots that are fully automated and use … artificial intelligence to identify targets and make independent decisions”.


We are already in the middle of a “metaphorical arms race” in autonomous systems development, according to a Chatham House report, which worryingly notes also that there is a “shift in R&D effort and expenditure from military to commercial settings …. Military autonomous systems development … pales in comparison with the advances made in commercial autonomous systems such as drones”. Further, the report claims that, at present, “highly skilled roboticists and related engineers” prefer the commercial to the military sector, because commercial funding far outstrips military funding. That may well be so in the West; but whether that is true, and how far it will remain true, is open to question for countries such as North Korea, China and Russia.

Not surprisingly, some individuals and organisations are therefore calling for an outright ban on fully-autonomous weapons systems. Others prefer to seek regulation. Yet others believe that it is already too late for a ban or even for regulation, and argue that autonomous weapons systems are preferable to human-led systems on moral as well as military grounds.

Whatever one’s position in relation to that debate, the fact is that unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are now commonplace in military arsenals.  Unmanned surface vehicles for marine environments (USVs) are arriving soon, as are unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs): the world’s largest arms fair, organized by Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), takes place every two years in London; this year, it featured a UGV from the German company, Rheinmetall.

Its Multi Mission Unmanned Ground Vehicle, or MMUGV, is a modular robotic platform whose base module sells for around 500,000 USD.  At the time of the exhibition, Rheinmetall claimed that “around 1000 weapons modules” had already been sold.  The MMUGV carries a payload of 750 kg on land, though only 300 kg during amphibious operations.  When fitted with a range extender, the MMUGV can operate for up to 24 hours by itself.  No doubt, once solar technology has been incorporated, such vehicles will be able to operate by themselves more or less indefinitely.

While the above is an indicative rather than exhaustive look at the impact of technology on what was traditionally considered ‘hard power’, we need to look also at developments in what the Chinese plan calls “defense, offense, and command in information warfare”

Just a few days ago (November 27), the U.S. Justice Department indicted, for industrial espionage, three Chinese nationals from the Guangzhou-based cybersecurity firm Bo Yu Information Technology Company Limited (Boyusec)[i].

The interesting thing is that most if not all of Boyusec’s hacking is apparently directed by the China’s People’s Liberation Army Unit 61398.  Why should this unit not do the hacking itself?  Why should it prefer to use an apparently private company for the purpose?  Because that strategy provides the Chinese government plausible deniability regarding whether it is involved[ii]. A similar strategy is being pursued by Russia.

Earlier, espionage was possible primarily by getting someone inside a target organization to hand over industrial or military secrets. Now, technology enables the theft of industrial and military secrets without the necessity of having any collaborators inside target organisations.

Does that change the nature of geopolitics?  Not on its own.  But, earlier, a target state (e.g. the USA) could, without too many considerations, charge any collaborator who handed over sensitive information, as the person was usually a citizen or at least a resident of the country that had been targeted.

Now, however, charging the person stealing the information becomes complicated by geopolitics, since the thieves are not necessarily either citizens or residents of the target state. Indeed, the thieves cannot even be convicted in absentia without taking into account geopolitical considerations[iii].

Is industrial or military espionage the only area of geopolitics impacted and complicated by technology?


Consider terrorism.  September 11 is a classic case of terrorism by foreign agents intruding into the territory of a target country.  However, the more recent growth of ‘homegrown terrorism’ (i.e. terrorism by citizens of one country but in the interests of an alien ideology) “has really muddled the traditional line between international terrorism and domestic terrorism,” as a former director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Mike Leiter puts it. 

Western legal systems treat “domestic terrorism” quite differently from how they treat “international terrorism”. Domestic terrorists are investigated, prosecuted and punished under domestic criminal law. But foreign terrorists are dealt with by intelligence and law enforcement agencies using warrantless wiretaps, the cultivation of informants, and even drone attacks. It is not at all clear how best to deal with terrorism in your territory being espoused by hate-mongers who are based in another country but to whom your citizens have access through technology. Thanks to technology, the line between domestic and international terrorism has become increasingly porous.

Or consider the outcomes of recent elections in democracies, which appear to have been influenced by technology in the hands of foreign nationals.  Did Putin’s henchmen influence the election of Trump by organising an army of trolls (people paid to pose as ordinary social media users) in order to post highly targeted social media posts?  Similarly, did foreign money influence the election of Trudeau in Canada?  Was foreign money implicated in the 2017 elections in Germany which have eventually weakened Merkel’s power?  Did “trolls” contribute to the election of Modi in India?

One study found that "on average, a (foreign) electoral intervention in favor of one side contesting the election will increase its vote share by about 3 percent", which is an effect large enough to possibly change the outcome. If so, in the cases just mentioned, what geopolitical and other agendas, similar or different, did the foreign funders have?  Foreign governments can of course still try to intervene in target countries through military means, or attempt to fund political parties or politically-active groups.  But now technology also enables increasingly direct intervention into voting machines, and indeed with voters via voter registration databases - and such intervention is increasingly difficult to detect.

However, influencing elections in one or two target countries may be a minor matter.  At least in comparison with threatening the entire “international order” as the UK Prime Minister May accused Russia of doing just a few days ago.  She said that Russia was “seeking to weaponise information….deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the west and undermine our institutions”.

Disinformation and propaganda have always been used in war, they are now being used under new names such as “fake news” in times of apparent peace. 

More broadly, geopolitics is impacted by factors such as technologically enhanced and globally “organised and emerging crime”, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and environmental crimes.  The global organisation of these is impossible without the patronage of highly-positioned elites and cliques within governments.

Till recently, keeping you safe from foreign forces was the responsibility of your country’s defence forces and intelligence, perhaps in coordination with the defence and intelligence forces of countries friendly to yours.  Keeping you and your property safe from threats inside your own country used to be the responsibility of police forces.  Keeping your investments safe was the responsibility of specialised financial and business agencies, mostly in your own country.  But the impact of technology is changing all that.

While Western countries still separate the world of business from security matters, this is increasingly coming into question.  The USA’s creation of its Department of Homeland Security through the integration of all or part of 22 different federal departments and agencies, has been followed by increasing coordination with still other agencies, resulting in a “whole-of-government approach to national security”. 

The danger is that this reduces freedoms and increases authoritarian tendencies in free democracies, making them less distinguishable from totalitarian countries. Western laws are based on the assumption that citizens’ privacy isn’t affected very much by “foreign” surveillance; however, as Timothy H. Edgar puts it, today, “the world is both digital and transnational.  Drawing lines between different kinds of personal data and between Americans and foreigners is both more difficult and more arbitrary than it was 40 years ago”.

Technology also appears to be making more difficult and arbitrary the distinction between war and peace, taking us into a time when everything in economics, politics, technology, law and society is contested constantly and in every possible way.


[i] The three were charged with hacking into the computer systems of Moody’s Analytics to steal information from a prominent economist there; of Siemens AG for industrial espionage in relation to transportation, technology and energy units; and of the GPS company Trimble to steal business data on the development of a new global navigation satellite system. Why should these companies have been targeted?  Moody’s products and services for financial analysis and risk management, Trimble’s advances in geolocation and Siemens’ work in guidance and navigation are of interest to the Chinese for commercial and military reasons (the two increasingly go hand-in-hand, in the case of China).

[ii] “China firmly opposes (hacking) and responds in accordance with the law to all forms of cyber attacks,” was the statement by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on 28 November 2017

[iii] In May 2014, U.S. prosecutors indicted five officers of Unit 61398 for hacking into U.S. metal, nuclear, and solar firms in order to steal trade secrets, and to plant malware:  However, the case could not proceed, or at least has not proceeded so far, because China threatened retaliation  As a result, the US is now carefully charging the three named in the November case as individuals and not in relation to state sponsorship - as had been the case with the five in May 2017.  The geopolitical consequences of charging three individuals are nil, but the impact is also nil, as the three individuals are safely ensconced in China and cannot be pursued in any meaningful sense there without the cooperation of the Chinese government – which will no doubt proclaim adherence to international law and treaties but put every possible obstacle in the way of the convicted individuals being extradited.  By contrast, in the case of the indictment launched in May2017, the consequences of PLA officers being convicted would have been significant in terms of government-to-government relations between China and the USA.