China’s Digital Silk Road: Strategic Technological Competition and Exporting Political Illiberalism
Clayton Cheney is a nonresident fellow at the Pacific Forum and a practicing attorney in New York City.
Great power competition has returned as a defining feature of the geopolitical landscape, with the United States and China vying for regional and global influence. Technological development will be crucial to the outcome of this competition, and China has adopted a model that combines state-led capitalism with a form of political illiberalism supported by a broad range of digital technologies. Beijing is using the Digital Silk Road, a subset of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to enhance digital connectivity abroad, extend its influence, and further China’s ascendance as a technological superpower.
Announced in a 2015 Chinese government white paper, the Digital Silk Road has both foreign and domestic policy objectives that include creating China-centric digital infrastructure, exporting industrial overcapacity, facilitating the expansion of Chinese technology corporations, accessing large pools of data, and projecting sharp power as well as manipulating political perceptions, thus undermining democratic processes abroad. While China’s Digital Silk Road has the potential to enhance digital connectivity in developing economies, it simultaneously has the capacity to spread authoritarianism, curtail democracy, and curb fundamental human rights.
The project is comprised of four interrelated, technologically-focused components. First, China is investing in digital infrastructure abroad, including next-generation cellular networks, fiber optic cables, and data centers. Second, the initiative contains a domestic focus on developing advanced technologies that will be essential to global economic and military power, including satellite-navigation systems, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. Third, because China recognizes the importance of economic interdependence to its international influence, the Digital Silk Road promotes e-commerce through digital free trade zones, which increase international e-commerce by reducing cross-border trade barriers and establishing regional logistics centers. Fourth, China is working to establish its ideal international digital environment through digital diplomacy and multilateral governance. This has included using multilateral institutions to establish technological standards related to telecommunications infrastructure and promoting the principle of cybersovereignty at UN forums.
The United States has sought to constrain the Digital Silk Road and China’s technological ascendancy by presenting Chinese technology corporations as an unacceptable risk to international security, including attempts to persuade allies to prohibit Chinese corporations from contributing to their critical digital infrastructure. These efforts have had limited success, with Australia, New Zealand and Japan banning Chinese corporations’ involvement in developing their 5G networks, while others such as the United Kingdom and Germany have been less willing to completely block Chinese involvement in such infrastructure. Additionally, the United States has included digital connectivity as an aspect of its Advancing a Free and Open Indo-Pacific Region policy in an effort to counteract Chinese investment in digital infrastructure in the region.
Through the Digital Silk Road, and the BRI more broadly, China aims to maintain the liberal economic system that has permitted its rise while promoting an illiberal political environment. An illiberal political order would promote authoritarian regimes, curtail individual rights, and hinder the rule of law around the globe. China is not only exporting it forms of digital authoritarianism or digital Leninism through digital infrastructure, it is also providing a model and guidance on how governments can use technology to repress their populations.
Washington is correct to challenge Beijing in the technological and economic spheres; however, if the United States approaches this strategic competition as it has generally approached foreign policy under the current administration, without sufficiently promoting liberal political values, it will play into China’s hands. The United States should take a more holistic approach that includes working with allies along the BRI to counteract the spread of digital authoritarianism and ensures that international digital connectivity creates a secure, free and open cyber environment, including through the involvement of international organizations, civil society, and the private sector. The United States and like-minded democracies should provide a positive model of technological development and digital connectivity that promotes their core values, otherwise the competition for global technological supremacy could usher in a politically illiberal international order.
This blog post is an adaptation of a working paper for the Pacific Forum. The full paper can be accessed here.