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Issues & Insights Vol. 19, WP8 – China’s Digital Silk Road: Strategic Technological Competition and Exporting Political Illiberalism

The Digital Silk Road is the component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative that aims to establish China as the global technological superpower. While the Belt and Road Initiative is generally understood to be a foreign policy initiative, it is important to view the Digital Silk Road as both a foreign and domestically focused aspect of the initiative. The first step to analyzing this component of the Belt and Road Initiative is to create a conceptual roadmap to understand the components of the Digital Silk Road. This paper argues that it comprises four interrelated, technologically focused initiatives. First, China is investing abroad in digital infrastructure, including next generation cellular networks, fiberoptic cables and data centers. Second, it contains a domestic focus on developing advanced technologies that will be essential to global economic and military power. These advanced technologies include satellite navigation systems, artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Third, because China recognizes the importance of economic interdependence to international influence, the Digital Silk Road promotes e-commerce through digital free trade zones. Last, digital diplomacy and governance, including through multilateral institutions, are key to China creating its ideal international digital environment.

After outlining a broad conceptual map of the Digital Silk Road, this paper focuses on how China’s investment in digital infrastructure and the strategic technological competition between China and the United States will shape the international orders in the Asia-Pacific region and globally. It argues that China perceives technological advancement as the sphere in which it can most adequately challenge the United States’ global power without creating direct confrontation, including possible military confrontation. Second, the United States seeks to constrain the Digital Silk Road and China’s technological ascendancy by presenting Chinese technology corporations as posing an unacceptable risk to international security. Third, China does not want to replace the current international order that has persisted since the end of the Second World War. Rather, it would like to maintain the liberal economic order that has permitted its economic rise and export its form of digital authoritarianism to create an illiberal political international order. Finally, through investing in data centers and pursuing data localization policies, China aims to achieve strategic geopolitical objectives by projecting sharp power abroad, which will be facilitated by big data.

Ultimately, this paper concludes that while it is likely that the intensifying strategic technological competition between China and the United States will result in separate spheres of technological influence, due to the intertwined nature of global technology supply chains and the degree of economic and political interdependence between the United States and China, it is unlikely that this competition will create separate, noninteroperable technological ecosystems divided along political lines.