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What does the US-China AI rivalry mean for Southeast Asia?

This post is also available in: Indonesia

Part 2 of a two-part series on the geopolitics of Artificial Intelligence (AI), and what this means for Southeast Asia. Read Part 1 here.

This post is part of EngageMedia’s broader efforts to document how AI affects Southeast Asia, from its benefits and uses, to its complications and dangers. Read our latest report on AI governance.

Countries in Southeast Asia have varying degrees of AI readiness, or the preparedness and capacity to develop and use AI technologies to implement change. The region is primarily a user of technology imported from two front-runners in the AI race: China and the US.

It has been suggested that the AI race may cause fragmentation in AI development globally, as China and the US develop separate standards and ecosystems in technological infrastructure, such as 5G networks.1 On one hand, this fragmentation may threaten technology evolution and international collaboration; on the other hand, it may provide diversity, encourage innovation, and introduce checks and balances through the decentralisation of power.2

Southeast Asia will need to consider the strategic implications of the rise of China and the continued dominance of the US in the AI space, as well as the technology decoupling of these two countries. In the second of this two-part series, we consider what the US-China tech rivalry means for the region. What are the implications of choosing the technology of one country over the other? Will Southeast Asian countries face problems related to digital colonisation and national sovereignty?

Going beyond a data colonisation lens

Some scholars have taken the theoretical lens of digital or data colonisation to analyse the position of the Global South in the geopolitics discourse, listing the ways in which algorithms can be used to oppress, exploit, and dispossess vulnerable populations.3,4 However, experts and academics in the AI field interviewed for EngageMedia’s study on AI governance in the region did not favour digital colonisation as an overarching framework to discuss the situation of Southeast Asia. The general sense is that even though the extractive outcomes are similar, focusing on national sovereignty distracts us from seeing the matter holistically as a complex interplay of state and market forces working together and against each other.5

While it is acknowledged that data predominantly flows towards China and the US, and that the region’s dependency on technologies coming from the two AI superpowers may disadvantage Southeast Asian nations and their peoples, some interviewed experts stated that the exploitation of data would occur with or without the involvement of foreign companies because Southeast Asia’s data protection regulations are either weak or non-existent. Similar harms from misusing or abusing data collection would arise anyway with local players. It is therefore more important to focus on a strong regulatory and policy foundation locally so that data protection and technology usage do not merely rely on the ethics or goodwill of the owners of the technologies – regardless of their origin.

One of the respondents also made a case against data localisation (the restriction of cross-border data flows), pointing out that more local control over data does not mean better control. From the point of view of data protection, sovereignty over data should be considered at a much lower level than at the level of nations, such as individuals or communities owning their data.

National interest a foremost consideration

It is also important to recognise that Southeast Asian countries have the agency to choose the technologies that they use and to negotiate for favourable terms. Some respondents alluded to this when asked about the implications of the US-China tech rivalry, stating that Southeast Asian states would choose what is best for their countries, whether in terms of price, functionality, or from a strategic point of view.

For example, a case study on Alibaba’s activities in Malaysia (including a Digital Free Trade Zone and Alibaba’s City Brain smart cities program) argues that Malaysia derives real economic and infrastructural benefits from working with Alibaba, geopolitical or privacy concerns notwithstanding. The study ultimately concluded that other countries “desperately need to improve the quality of their game in Southeast Asia”, and that “railing against Chinese government-dominated initiatives and the DSR [Digital Silk Road] is not an adequate strategy”.6

A study from ISEAS on 5G adoption in the region shows countries in Southeast Asia display different levels of trust towards China (with Laos and Cambodia having the highest preference for Chinese providers, versus the Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore with the lowest). While trust towards China was higher in 2019, telecommunications providers within the region appear to have diversified their vendor selection in 2020, following the high-profile US restrictions on Chinese technologies. At the moment, Nokia (Finland) and Ericsson (Sweden), alongside Huawei and ZTE (both China) are the biggest players in the 5G landscape in Southeast Asia, with US companies (Altiostar, Cisco, and Qualcomm) having no significant presence.7

In the short term, the rivalry between the US and China in the region may offer Southeast Asian countries the leverage to negotiate better terms than they would get otherwise and provide more choices to balance their own interests. However, in the longer term, the bifurcation of Chinese and American technologies, standards, and norms leads to the decline of multilateralism. This can create disadvantages for weaker countries as they may not have the negotiating power or enforcement capabilities of a bloc. Additionally, international efforts of developing common norms, trickling down to local laws, may be derailed.8

Southeast Asian nations must find ways to identify and address some of the inherent weaknesses and challenges that undermine their capacity to plan for and support the adoption of AI technologies. This will enable them to reap the benefits of AI on their own terms and find their place in the AI ecosystem dominated by the two superpowers.


1 (Cheney, 2019)
2 (Feijóo et al., 2020)
3 (Mohamed et al., 2020)
4 (Couldry & Mejias, 2019)
5 The scholarly works cited do not focus on national sovereignty either, expressing that the Global South should not be seen geographically but by vulnerable populations. However, respondents usually took ‘colonisation’ to mean the exertion of power from one country on another, implying intent of the colonisers to encroach into the sovereignty of another nation.
6 (Naughton, 2020)
8 From interview data

​​About the Author

Dr. Jun-E Tan is an independent policy researcher based in Kuala Lumpur. Her research and advocacy interests are broadly anchored in the areas of digital communication, human rights, and sustainable development. Jun-E has written extensively on digital rights and AI governance in the context of Southeast Asia, and has participated in numerous international and regional fora on these topics. More information about her work can be found on her website,


Cheney, C. (2019). China’s Digital Silk Road: Strategic Technological Competition and Exporting Political Illiberalism (Working Paper No. 8; Issues & Insights). Pacific Forum.

Couldry, N., & Mejias, U. A. (2019). Data Colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject. Television & New Media, 20(4), 336–349.

Feijóo, C., Kwon, Y., Bauer, J. M., Bohlin, E., Howell, B., Jain, R., Potgieter, P., Vu, K., Whalley, J., & Xia, J. (2020). Harnessing artificial intelligence (AI) to increase wellbeing for all: The case for a new technology diplomacy. Telecommunications Policy, 44(6), 101988.

Mohamed, S., Png, M.-T., & Isaac, W. (2020). Decolonial AI: Decolonial Theory as Sociotechnical Foresight in Artificial Intelligence. Philosophy & Technology.

Naughton, B. (2020). Chinese Industrial Policy and the Digital Silk Road: The Case of Alibaba in Malaysia. Asia Policy, 27(1), 23–39.

2 thoughts on “What does the US-China AI rivalry mean for Southeast Asia?”

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