Ms Fizza Batool is a student of International Relations from Kinnaird College for Women. She is particularly interested in geo-economics, geopolitics, area studies, diplomacy, conflict and peace, strategic and defense studies, political economy, and global politics of the environment.
The Digital Silk Road
The Digital Silk Road is motivated by China’s desire to improve its digital infrastructure and standards, open new markets for its IT (Information Technology) behemoths like Huawei, Alibaba, and Tencent, and establish a more Sino-centric global digital order. For recipient nations, the Digital Silk Road presents both advantages as well as challenges since they profit from China’s technological aid and investment while also potentially running the danger of digital reliance, monitoring, and cyber-attacks.
The Digital Silk Road is a revolutionary method of funding technology that has significant implications for China’s interactions with the rest of the world as well as its own technical advancement. China has inked Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with 30 nations, spanning from Laos to Peru, according to the Hinrich Foundation. One-third of the 138 BRI nations, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, are working together on the Digital Silk Road initiative.
Features of the Digital Silk Road
The installation of underwater cables connecting China to other continents across the oceans is one of the key components of the Digital Silk Road. China has invested in or plans to invest in at least 16 submarine cable projects, totaling more than 80,000 kilometers and covering six oceans and regions. These cables are expected to enhance China’s ability to connect to the internet globally, its data transfer capabilities, and its digital impact.
The development of satellite networks, which offers underdeveloped nations and isolated regions internet access and navigational services, is another aspect of the Digital Silk Road. China intends to deploy several satellite constellations, including the StarNet Project, the Hongyun Project, and the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS). These satellites were designed to work with or against current systems like GPS, Galileo, and Starlink.
The spread of China’s digital services and e-commerce platforms into other markets is another important Digital Silk Road. For instance, Chinese businesses such as Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei, and others have created or acquired online marketplaces, payment systems, cloud computing services, artificial intelligence applications, and smart city solutions across several nations and regions. Cross-border trade, financial inclusion, technological innovation, and social governance are all goals of these services.
The Digital Silk Road is a strategic project which demonstrates China’s ambition to dominate the digital economy and establish new standards for online behavior. It is confronted with challenges and criticism from other nations and stakeholders, however, there are concerns about its effects on data security, privacy protection, digital sovereignty, and geopolitical rivalry.
The Indo-Atlantic Ocean presents a significant problem for the Digital Silk Road in terms of maritime security, as other regional and international entities are concerned about China’s rising aggressiveness and presence there. The Indo-Atlantic Ocean serves as a crucial route for the flow of trade, energy, and information. It also serves as a strategic setting for geopolitical conflict and cooperation.
To secure the efficient operation and upkeep of its digital infrastructure, including underwater cables, satellites, and data centers, the Digital Silk Road depends on the security and stability of this maritime region. It, however, also poses a challenge to the current order and interests of other Indo-Atlantic Ocean partners, who view China’s digital growth as a method of furthering its political, economic, and military goal.
To oppose China’s influence and defend their own interests in the area, these stakeholders (the United States, India, Japan, Australia, France, and the European Union) have established numerous alliances and initiatives. A few of these include the Indo-Pacific Strategy, the EU (European Union) Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision, and the France-led Maritime Security Mission in the Persian Gulf.
Fostering Strategic Competition
The strategic competition in the Indian Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, and African Region is significantly impacted by the Digital Silk Road. For China’s goals in business, geopolitics, and energy security, these sectors are crucial. They are, however, also opposed by other powerful nations, including the US, India, France, and the EU.
On one hand, by developing alternative digital standards, norms, and governance models, the Digital Silk Road may promote strategic competition while potentially undermining the US-led liberal order. It may also provide China access to confidential information, the ability to sway public opinion, and the ability to use digital dependencies for coercion.
On the other hand, it may also open doors for debate and collaboration on matters like data protection, digital inclusion, and innovation. To offset China’s influence, the West may respond by increasing their own investments and collaboration in these regions’ digital infrastructure and growth and improving their capacity for cyber defense and resilience to safeguard the digital assets and interests of both them and their allies.
The Prospects of A Cyber Conflict
The Digital Silk Road also has the potential to trigger tensions and distrust between China and other nations, particularly the United States and its allies, which could lead to a cyber war in international relations. Potential sources of cyber conflict include:
Cyber espionage: China may utilize its digital infrastructure for data theft from other nations, including the stealing of intellectual property, military secrets, and personal data. This might jeopardize the targeted nations’ economic and national security interests and lead to retaliation or responses.
Cyber sabotage: China may use its digital infrastructure to interfere with, harm, or otherwise interfere with the vital networks and systems of other nations, such as their power grids, transportation networks, or communication networks. Economic losses and kinetic conflict might result from this.
Cyber influence: China may use its digital infrastructure to sway public opinion and behavior in other nations, disseminate propaganda and false information, and more. This might undermine the targeted nations’ beliefs and norms and interfere with their political systems and social stability.
The Digital Silk Road has important repercussions for China’s ties with a substantial portion of the world as well as for the nation’s own technical advancement. However, its nature and ramifications are frequently overlooked or misinterpreted. Economically, it makes use of China’s private tech sector’s skills in entrepreneurship to establish the country as a major player in the global digital ecosystem, particularly in developing nations where there is a need for accessible and dependable digital services and infrastructure.
With trade tensions on the rise and technology decoupling, the Digital Silk Road also assists China in expanding its market base and reducing its reliance on Western technology providers. Strategically, it enables China to exert its soft power and influence through initiatives in digital diplomacy and governance, such as promoting its idea of cyber sovereignty, providing capacity-building and training programs, and taking part in the creation of international standards and norms for digital technology.
By giving China more access to vital assets like data and spectrum and by giving it potential leverage over other nations through debt or reliance, the Digital Silk Road also advances China’s hard power and security aims. Therefore, it must be carefully evaluated and managed by all parties concerned, since it will have significant effects on world politics, economy, and security in the twenty-first century.
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