Envisioning China’s Digital Silk Road

 /  Jan. 25, 2020, 7:08 p.m.

President Xi

China has become one of the leading providers of infrastructure beyond its borders with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which focuses on infrastructure development and investment initiatives that would stretch from East Asia to Europe via the Eurasian landmass. Such infrastructure in Eurasia not only enables physical transportation of goods but also carries information of paramount strategic importance through various technological networks encompassing large volumes of data traffic. China’s vision for the BRI is not fixated merely on the conventional realms of natural resources and physical connectivity. In addition to the conventional infrastructure projects, such as railways, energy pipelines, and highways, BRI aims to digitalize the route in a way that serves the twenty-first century’s technological needs while also gaining a strategic advantage in information wars. Thus, many BRI projects are of strategic importance in terms of ongoing technological disputes and international competition. 

While digitalization suggests wireless infrastructure, it is the physical infrastructure that China is creating that carries a significant amount of strategic information, especially in the case of military infrastructure. For example, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) research, China’s involvement in the building of submarine fiber optic cables is drastically increasing. In Asia, China owns or assists with the building of 29.7 percent of the existing cables, while data shows that China currently has a whopping 54.2 percent share in all planned cables. Globally, China is the owner or supplier of 11.4 percent of the existing cables and 24 percent of the planned cables. 

More so than conventional infrastructure projects like railways, these submarine communications cables have highly strategic functions. Modern cables use optic fiber technology to carry digital data, which involves a wide range of information, including information conveyed through telephones and through the internet, encompassing most portable electronic devices. As a result, submarine communications cables now carry the majority of international data. They serve as channels between various land-based stations to perform transoceanic information transfer. Moreover, with its deep involvement in the construction of such facilities, China is wiring itself into the blueprint of technological development in developing countries. 

One of the most notable projects is the Pakistan & East Africa Cable Express (PEACE) network. The PEACE network is a fifteen thousand kilometer long submarine cable system. An undersea cable, the PEACE system will connect Pakistan’s Gwadar Port to a landing point near Mombasa in Kenya. It is one of many undersea cable links being built by Chinese companies like Huawei Marine. According to its official introduction, the network aims to reduce network latency by adopting shortest direct route connectivity and enhancing route diversity between Asia, Africa, and Europe. Indeed, upon its completion, PEACE will become the shortest route of high-speed information traffic between Asia and Africa. Moreover, it will provide higher capacity and increased stability compared to the preexisting networks, which were challenged by low traffic and constant blackouts.

However, the significance of the PEACE system is not limited to its technological and commercial benefits. We see its strategic importance in its starting point: the Gwadar Port is a key part of the China-Pakistan economic corridor, which is a collection of geographical linkages in the domains of road, rail, and air transportation system between China and Pakistan. It also projects its influence on Iran, Afghanistan, India, and Central Asia. Moreover, the PEACE system leads to East Africa, where China carries out a great number of its flagship infrastructure projects, with a potential additional connecting point in France, which has long been a hub for submarine networks in Europe. In participating, French telecommunications companies hope to seize the opportunities presented by the rapid African technological development and the Sino-African economic exchanges in general. The cable system also encompasses Djibouti, where China has constructed its very first overseas military base. On a greater scale, according to the Hindu Business Line, it is an attempt to connect large swathes of Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and even Europe to a technological network dominated by the Chinese state or by one of its corporations, making China an indispensable and even dominant actor in the age of global digitalization. Additionally, it is evident that PEACE connects China’s BRI focal points around the globe. Although most of these projects are spread in different regions, an interconnected technological network may be a remedy for geographical confinement and scatteredness.

The fact that the initial BRI model is fairly land-based, being dominated by projects like Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway in Indonesia, Abuja-Kaduna railway in Nigeria, and Vientiane-Boten railway in Laos, poses substantial challenges of connectivity to China with its projects spreading all across the globe. However, an extensive technological network, such as that envisioned by the PEACE system, will compensate for the limitations of the land-based projects. Thus, we can clearly see the complementary functions of the digital Silk Road and the new physical silk road.

PEACE is not alone in this endeavor, however. It is accompanied by a substantial number of other Chinese cable projects. According to the CSIS Reconnecting Asia project, some notable initiatives include:

  • The 820-km, $44 million Pakistan-China Fiber Optic Project, completed in February 2019. Eighty-five percent of the project is funded by the Export-Import (Exim) Bank of China through a concessionary loan, with the remainder funded by Pakistan’s government.

  • The Exim Bank of China loaned $328 million to the Nigerian government to build a Huawei-commissioned telecoms network in September 2018.

  • An African Information Superhighway, which involves the construction of a 150,000-km optical cable covering forty-eight African countries was proposed by China Communications, a subsidiary of China Telecom, in March 2017.

These are all fiber-optic cable projects undertaken by China, drastically increasing China’s access and ownership of the flow of global data traffic. Additionally, given the fact that many of these projects take place in developing countries where there is neither fully-developed preexisting national technological structures nor substantial competition, China has a better chance of turning its own vision for the region’s technological network into reality.

In addition to serving China’s geopolitical goals, these networks have transformative impacts on the connectivity and technological advancement of developing nations. In fact, the networks’ developmental values to African nations are as paramount as their strategic functions to China and other participating countries. According to Connecting Africa, international connectivity is an important element in the maturing communications market for Africa: expanding beyond Africa’s pre-existing optical terrestrial routes will allow prices to be brought down and the possible development of 5G service. Moreover, the technological realm is expected to become more inclusive as international communications companies are increasingly involved in the technological projects in Africa.

One of the major obstacles of these technological connectivity projects is the concern for information security. According to CSIS, the deployment of infrastructure along the BRI largely excludes US technology, which naturally evokes US concerns about the surveillance of data traffic, which is suspected to be plausible if the projects are undertaken by companies such as Huawei, and the risk of the potential interception of critical financial and security information. However, China’s monopolization of such global networks is relatively unlikely. It is important to understand that no nation is able to single-handedly construct such international communications systems. The principle of maximizing capacity and speed means that many technological outposts for such communications systems have to be stationed in Europe, which necessitates cooperation with European communications companies in order to provide the best data route. Thus, it is evident that instead of excluding and isolating entities like the EU, technological connectivity will require global collaboration by its nature. And, as we have seen, projects like PEACE have already brought together communications companies from various continents, including Chinese, French, and African telecommunications companies. Thus, even though collaboration with the United States is not necessary, given its relatively low geographical relevance in projects concentrated in Eurasia and Africa, China will be acting in tandem with many US allies, whose interest will be in ensuring information security. 

China’s monopolization on the technological infrastructures is still possible. However, contrary to what one might believe, the prospect of this monopolization does not solely depend on international competition. Rather, it is subject to these countries’ abilities to grasp and develop a mature internal technological system with the capacity to be independent from predominant foreign involvement and operate autonomously. Currently, many countries in Europe are formulating plans and taking steps to increase their control over these domestic infrastructures, which will gradually become more plausible with technological maturation, and which will allow them to work with China. 

The photo featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons 4.0 International. The original can be found here.

Valerie Zhu

Valerie Zhu is a second-year student, double majoring in Political Science and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Currently serving as the Chief Coordinator of The Peacebuilding Project at UChicago, she is interested in global conflict resolution and spent the past summer in Jerusalem studying the narratives and the issues of coexistence inside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


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