Today’s digital world is built on the back of innovative open source solutions like Linux or Python. Across sectors, from critical government infrastructure to academia to industry, the open source movement has played a pivotal role in driving technological progress forward.

The AI-driven world of the future is no different — it will be highly dependent on the widespread availability of open source models.

This has clear national security implications. Whoever builds, maintains, or controls the global open source AI ecosystem will have a powerful influence on our shared digital future. It is therefore imperative for Western technology companies to maintain a leading position in the development and implementation of cutting-edge open source AI solutions.

Unfortunately, concerns about AI safety are leading many Western policymakers to develop new proposals that limit the abilities of businesses and academic institutions to develop AI in a transparent and open source manner. Though the West is not united, across regulatory regimes, governments are having serious debates about the future of AI and whether or not it will be open or closed.

Undermining the West’s ability to develop, distribute, or contribute to open source AI systems sets the stage for China to extend its influence into the world’s developing AI infrastructure. Such a future would be embedded with China’s techno-authoritarian values, rather than Western democratic ones. As Chinese startups have already begun to “win the open source AI race,” this is a future that may soon be here.

Drivers of China’s AI Open Source Ascendancy

While the idea of a global China-backed open-source AI ecosystem sounds almost paradoxical considering the Chinese Communist Party’s demand for censorship and information control, the threat is real. There are two drivers behind the rise of China’s support for open source AI development and their desire to develop a leading role within it – history and Western policies intended to limit China’s technological growth.


In the 1990s, the global spread of the Internet brought with it a new era of technology-enabled optimism. Along with the manifold promises of the Internet came the naïve belief that democratized access to information would usher in the end of authoritarian regimes. China was no exception, viewed by many as ripe for disruption driven by advancements in communication technologies.

Technologically, China was far behind U.S. advancements. Politically, it was considered a “second-rank middle power” that was consistently unable to deliver. Speaking in 1997, President Bill Clinton argued that increased linkages and openness would make it increasingly difficult for “[China’s] government to stand in the way.” China did embrace the Internet, but it was accompanied by increasingly rigid regulations to limit and control what information was available. The Internet not only failed to disrupt Chinese authoritarian rule but further entrenched it.

Now a global technological superpower, China does not want to repeat the mistakes of its past and is actively positioning itself to be the world’s AI leader. Domestically, China integrates AI across many technological systems to strengthen its control and censorship. Internationally, China has had substantial success exporting AI-empowered “smart city” solutions as part of its “Digital Silk Road” initiative. China has multiple “Unicorn” startups – that is, businesses with a valuation of more than USD 1 billion – a flourishing technology ecosystem, and a talent pool that is being developed and retained at rates that far surpass the West.

The China of today is one defined by its booming domestic tech sector, strong digital state capacity, and clear ambitions for growing its global digital reach.

The West’s Response

Facing a powerful and rising “Digital China,” the West has begun a barrage of new initiatives to limit China’s international technology ambitions. To prevent China’s influence in the world’s Internet infrastructure, the United States and its allies have heavily resisted Chinese undersea cable projects. Highly reliant on Western semiconductors, recent regulations such as the U.S. CHIPS Act limit China’s current access to state-of-the-art chips.

The United States has declared that flagship Chinese technology companies, such as Huawei and ZTE, pose national security risks and should have limited access to its markets as a result. Beyond controls targeting their domestic technology industry and global expansion, China is further excluded from many international forums dedicated to forming an international approach to AI governance, such as the Global Partnership on AI. In response, China and its domestic technology industry have been quick to embrace and support open source solutions to bypass this adversarial pressure and to further their goal to “Delete America” from their domestic market.

Though China has been steadily increasing its contributions to the open source world in recent years the current AI race has expedited these contributions. As a result, China now has multiple tech giants supporting, maintaining, and distributing open source AI-based solutions. Beyond open source models, China has also developed new open source operating systems for desktops and mobile devices and has become increasingly influential in open-source RISC-V chip technology, which can be used for cutting-edge processors for smartphones and AI systems.

Defending the Open-Source Ecosystem

Now, just as in the 1990s, technological innovations and regulatory responses meant to constrain China’s growing ambitions may have inadvertently produced the opposite result. At the cost of limiting China’s ability to use or purchase Western-built technologies, China has been pushed into the open source ecosystem where they are better positioned to influence the world’s future digital infrastructure.

Fears over China’s rapid advance in AI capabilities have also led many in the West to view open source AI models as partially responsible – China is simply copying Western innovation. It is undeniable that China has benefited from open source AI solutions, though to what extent is still debatable. Regardless, it is a mistake to think that limiting or curtailing open source AI developments will successfully limit China’s international AI ambitions.

Instead, as China continues to develop its domestic AI capabilities and further its investments in open source development, it is essential for the West to reassert its support for open source AI. It is of paramount importance to develop new regulatory regimes that provide support for the development, usage, and export of open source AI solutions.

This will require policymakers in the West to develop a regulatory regime that enables and empowers the building and implementation of cutting-edge open source AI solutions. This includes revisiting procurement practices to allow for more widespread usage of open source solutions by governments, creating new funding incentives to develop open source AI solutions, and creating new international agreements to cooperate on open source AI developments.

Failure to foster and sustain open source AI innovation will have disastrous consequences for the West’s national security interests. It would allow Chinese firms to develop many of the open source AI models that will form the foundation of much of the world’s critical infrastructure. The result could be a future embedded with techno-authoritarian rather than Western democratic norms and values.

IMAGE: A screen image shows a red cross and an error message “Try another question” given by a Chinese AI chatbot in response to a question about a potential war over Taiwan. (Photo by GREG BAKER / AFP)