Balancing China’s role in the UK’s AI agenda

The Bletchley Park summit can help the UK assert itself in AI governance. Doing so requires a delicate approach to China.

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This week, the UK will convene world leaders, tech executives and a select group of civil society in a two-day summit to discuss artificial intelligence (AI) safety.

One of the topics that generated a great deal of controversy and speculation is China’s participation in the summit. The decision to extend an invitation to China has been met with criticism by many, including from the prime minister’s own party. Former prime minister Liz Truss wrote to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, urging him to reconsider the invitation.

She emphasized the need to work with allies rather than ‘those seeking to subvert freedom and democracy’. Despite these controversies, the PM maintained his position asserting that there can be ‘no serious strategy for AI without at least trying to engage all of the world’s leading AI powers’.

This stance underlines the PM’s aspirations for the UK to take a leadership role in global AI governance, while acknowledging China’s pivotal position in this endeavour.

China’s involvement in the summit remains uncertain

Although China has accepted the invitation, its final attendance remains uncertain. China seems to be leaving the possibility open for a last minute withdrawal, particularly given the recent US tightening of controls on its access to AI technology. This adds to the event’s intrigue, leaving many pondering the potential implications and significance of China’s involvement or absence.

This prompts the question of whether the UK can navigate its approach to China, serving as a mediator that bridges China’s AI expertise with existing concerns.

This situation suggests that China is interested in contributing to the UK’s AI governance efforts, but not without conditions. It prompts the question of whether the UK can effectively navigate its approach to China, serving as a mediator that bridges China’s AI expertise with existing concerns. Achieving this objective necessitates a nuanced approach.

UK’s approach to China

Over recent years, the UK government has maintained a clear narrative and approach about the acute threat that China poses to the UK. The Integrated Review Refresh, stated that China ‘poses an epoch-defining and systemic challenge with implications for almost every area of government policy and the everyday lives of British people’.

The National Cyber Strategy emphasized how ‘China’s technical development and evolution is likely to be the single biggest factor affecting the UK’s cyber security in the years to come’. The long debate around 5G, which led to the UK government preventing Huawei from participating in building the country’s 5G infrastructure due to its close association with the Chinese government, remains fresh in memory.

Furthermore, the UK has aligned itself with its allies, particularly the US, in warning against the various threats posed by China. In an unprecedented joint appearance, the heads of the UK and US security services came together in 2022 to warn about the Chinese growing technical capabilities, with the FBI head stating that China posed the ‘biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security’. Additionally, the UK along with its allies have also collectively attributed the 2021 Microsoft exchange, a global wave of cyberattacks and data breaches, to Chinese state-backed actors.

The UK’s invitation to China for the summit might appear contradictory to its stance, but there are reasons for it.

In parallel to all this, the ongoing USChina ‘tech war’ continues. In a recent move aimed at China, the Biden administration strengthened export controls on advanced AI chips, making it difficult for US companies to supply high-performance semiconductors to China. This will have significant implications for curtailing China’s AI ambitions.

While the US and the UK have distinct approaches to handling China, driven by their own foreign policy strategies and priorities, there is an underlying expectation for the UK to align more closely with the US approach. As such, the UK’s invitation to China for the summit might appear contradictory to its stance, but there are reasons for it.

A cautious approach

The UK has high ambitions, to not only become a global leader in AI regulation, but to also become a technology ‘superpower’. It recognizes that achieving this will require involving China in some regards.

China’s involvement is sought beyond the summit. The UK is likely inviting China to take part in a new global AI research body, which, if it materializes, would be a significant step and would make this body distinct from existing transatlantic or European AI initiatives.

Not only is China one of the leading countries on AI capabilities, it has developed detailed regulations on for emerging technology which will have a big impact on AI in China and globally. China has deployed AI tools that illustrate both the potential and some of the existing and future risks of these technologies. So, the UK’s decision to include China in the summit underscores its commitment to engage in a substantive dialogue with a key AI player.

The UK has high ambitions, to not only become a global leader in AI regulation, but to also become a tech superpower. Achieving this requires including China.

In the  2023 Integrated Review Refresh, the UK acknowledged the need to leave room for ‘open, constructive and predictable relations’ with China with a preference for ‘better cooperation and understanding, and predictability and stability for global public good’, caveated by adding that this cooperation ‘will depend on the choices China makes’. Inviting China to the summit is in line with this new approach.

China's participation cont

Ultimately, China’s participation at the table won’t be solely dictated by the UK’s preference. A day after the US updated its export policy, President Xi Jinping introduced the Global AI Governance Initiative at the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum. The initiative emphasized the importance of collaboration between countries on AI governance while also explicitly opposing barriers and unilateral coercive measures, seemingly in a nod to the US efforts.

Recent news seems to confirm that several of the G7 leaders will be missing the summit, posing a challenge to the UK’s ambitions. Hence, if China participates in the summit, it would influence the dynamics and significance and, arguably, help the UK assert its role in global AI governance.

The UK should play the long game adopting a delicate approach and narrative that can persuade dissenting voices within the UK and its allies about the importance of involving China. This should be done while taking a cautious approach to the associated risks. The benefit from this approach could have an impact well beyond the UK and demonstrate true global leadership on the part of UK government.