Research event

Cloud empires’ physical footprint: How geopolitics and trade shape the global expansion of U.S. and Chinese data centre infrastructures

A presentation by Prof. Vili Lehdonvirta (University of Oxford). This event is part of the Digital Governance Research Colloquium hosted by the Centre for Digital Governance.


The United States and China have by many measures emerged as the world’s digital superpowers, and other countries are to varying extents dependent on their digital infrastructures. What factors explain a country’s “cloud infrastructure alignment”—the degree to which the country's cloud computing infrastructure belongs to U.S. versus Chinese companies? Previous literature on technology geopolitics offers several potential views. According to a market liberal view that emphasises corporate agency, digital infrastructure expansion is largely a market-driven process correlated with other cross-border trade. According to a "digital imperialism” view that emphasises U.S. and Chinese agency, the superpowers extend their infrastructures to countries that they seek to dominate. According to a “national security” view that emphasises host government agency, third countries avoid adopting infrastructures from hostile superpowers. A “Cold War” view suggests that cloud infrastructure alignment is moreover correlated with security bloc memberships. We synthesise this largely qualitative literature into a simple model in which a third country’s cloud infrastructure alignment depends both on its trade ties and on its security alliances and conflicts with the two superpowers. We test this model with a novel data set of 298 hyperscale cloud availability zones located across 38 third countries combined with trade and security variables. Model estimates suggest that cloud infrastructure alignment is associated with imports but not with exports: countries that import more from China than from the U.S. tend to lean heavily towards Chinese cloud infrastructure and vice versa. Model estimates moreover suggest that countries that have been involved in militarised disputes with the U.S. or China lean heavily away from that superpower's cloud infrastructure. Estimates also suggest that countries that are engaged in security cooperation with the U.S. or China lean toward that superpower’s cloud infrastructure, but this evidence is weaker. We conclude that trade and third-country strategic choice appear more influential in shaping infrastructure alignment than imposition by the superpowers. Future research should pay more attention to the role of third-country strategic choice in technology geopolitics, including in hotly contested regions such as Southeast Asia.

Vili Lehdonvirta is Professor of Economic Sociology and Digital Social Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. He leads a research group examining the politics and socio-economic implications of digital technologies. He is one of the world’s most cited authors on gig work and the platform economy. His current research examines the geopolitics of digital infrastructures. His books Cloud Empires: How digital platforms are overtaking the state and how we can regain control and Virtual Economies: Design and analysis are published by MIT Press. He is a frequent keynote speaker and has advised the European Commission, the World Bank, and other public, private, and third-sector organisations on digital policy and governance.

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