top of page

AI and the New International Order

Bella Baker

Image credit: 紅色死神 via Flickr.

The world will watch two key trends unfold over the course of this year. The first trend will be the intensification of great power competition between the United States and China in an increasingly volatile international landscape. The second trend will be the rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies which have the potential to rapidly transform state power both militarily and economically. Combined, these two trends make for a tumultuous forecast for 2024.

Over the past eighteen months, some analysts have increasingly applied a Cold-War analogy to the AI arms race between the US and China. In part, this stems from the upsurge of public policy interest and concern associated with OpenAI’s ChatGPT platform, which rapidly accrued approximately 180 million users worldwide following its late 2022 launch. The popularity of ChatGPT has, for the moment, appeared to have given the United States some primacy over certain AI technologies, positioning it ahead of China, where OpenAI technologies like ChatGPT encounter resistance due to strict censorship laws. In this way, China treads a tricky balance between managing state support of AI and ensuring state control remains in place.

AI will undoubtedly impact US-China strategic and military capabilities, with both states currently leveraging AI technology to pursue military modernisation programs. In 2017, Xi Jinping set the goal for China to achieve global AI supremacy by 2030, and in line with his 13th Five-Year-Plan, funded various AI military projects which involved developments in robotics, autonomous operating guidance and control systems, advanced computing and intelligent unmanned weapon systems. In a bid to continue its economic and military ascendance, AI R&D remains a national priority under Xi’s leadership, and, in wake of the US’ recent strides, he is ostensibly  poised to commit further resources for the development of AI for military purposes.

However, the US has made it increasingly difficult for China to acquire the computer chips it needs to develop advanced AI technologies, with the Biden Administration further tightening regulations around their export to China, making it increasingly difficult for potential Chinese military end users to obtain controlled technology. Worsening macroeconomic conditions in China have also limited its ability to engage in retaliatory economic coercion. If China can produce semiconductor chips efficiently and at scale, the effectiveness of the US controls will be reduced. For the time being, the US maintains the upper hand, giving it both an immediate technological advantage, as well as greater capacity to set global norms on the uses of contemporary technologies.

This is also important economically. AI’s capacity to rapidly accelerate economic growth gives it vital importance for state power in the coming decades and will critically influence the global balance of economic power. PWC predicts that AI will deliver up to $15.7 trillion in global GDP growth by 2030, much of which will be due to productivity increases. Data by Accenture Research and Frontier Economics further reveals that AI could “double annual economic growth rates” within the next ten years. According to Capital Economics, in 2024, AI will most likely help the US economy maintain its preeminence over China in terms of GDP measured at market exchange rates.

Yet, a recent US government ranking of companies producing the most accurate facial recognition technology revealed that the top five companies were in fact all based in China. As an autocratic regime that is heavily dependent on the collection of data to monitor its citizens, AI presents Xi with a unique opportunity to increase state control. Chinese companies focusing on developing AI in service of this aim receive generous government funding and contracts, which in turn bolsters consumer commercial technology. China is the world’s largest exporter of facial recognition technology, having exported surveillance technologies like national identity cards and internet monitoring software to Ethiopia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Bolivia, South Africa and Ecuador. In this respect, China holds precedence over the US and will likely shape norms around surveillance in the countries to which it exports this technology.

As the Roman maxim goes, if you want peace, prepare for war. Whether or not war between the US and China eventuates, one thing is for sure: AI will play a decisive strategic role in international affairs in 2024 and beyond.

Isabella is a Dalyell scholar at the University of Sydney studying a Bachelor of Arts and Advanced Studies in Global and International Studies. She is interested in global affairs, national security, and human rights with a particular focus on Australia’s relationship with China and the Indo-Pacific.


bottom of page