The Digital Silk Road (DSR) is the component of China’s signature foreign policy initiative, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), that aims to enhance global digital connectivity and to facilitate China’s ascendance as the global technological superpower. As great power competition reemerges as the defining feature of the geopolitical landscape, the implementation of the DSR and the response by the international community will have a profound impact on the future architecture of the international order. Digital technology has become ubiquitous throughout all aspects of society, and China’s ability to lead in this sphere will shape global governance and permit China to secure immense economic and strategic benefits. From a European perspective, the DSR situates European nations and the EU in the difficult position of being caught in the middle of the strategic technological competition playing out between the United States and China.
To understand the geopolitical and economic implications of the DSR it is important to create a conceptual map of what comprises the DSR. The DSR is China’s comprehensive approach to establishing itself as the global technological leader, and the initiative is best conceptualized as both a foreign and domestic initiative. First, China is enhancing digital connectivity through foreign investment in digital infrastructure, including fiberoptic cables, 5G cellular networks, and data centers. These investments are concentrated in developing nations, which will greatly benefit from improved digital connectivity. Second, China is focusing large amounts of domestic investment in making itself the leader in advanced, dual-use technologies, most notably artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and global satellite technology. Third, China recognizes the economic benefits available in the digital realm, so it has prioritized establishing digital free trade zones and expanding its digital payment platforms abroad. Fourth, China is exporting its view of cybernorms and governance in the digital space through multilateral institutions and diplomatic engagement, with the goal of promoting the principle of cybersovereignty. Lastly, China is investing heavily in smart cities, both domestically and abroad, which will serve as nodes along the DSR to bring together the four interrelated, technologically focused aspects of the DSR. China has become the pioneer in the smart city sector, with approximately 500 of the 1,000 smart city projects worldwide being undertaken in China, and it is shifting its focus to establishing smart cities abroad through its most prominent technology companies.
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing a reevaluation of all aspects of international relations in light of the pandemic’s impact on the future international environment, and the BRI is no different. While many of the traditional infrastructure BRI projects, such as energy and transportation infrastructure projects, will be delayed or abandoned due to resource constraints, DSR projects will likely accelerate. Digital infrastructure projects are relatively low in cost, with the potential for large economic benefits, which China views as a manner to improve its economic outlook following the downturn caused by the pandemic. Furthermore, as more aspects of society begin operating in the digital realm, being the leader in providing digital infrastructure and a technological superpower will have vast economic and strategic benefits. The Chinese government’s continued support for the DSR amid the pandemic can be seen through the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi himself expressing support for 5G expansion during the pandemic.
As an emerging superpower that views itself as a legitimate challenger to the United States dominance on the international stage, China believes that strategic technological competition allows it to challenge American superiority without creating direct confrontation between the world’s two most powerful nations. Through foreign investment in digital infrastructure and smart cities, China believes it can create illiberal spheres of influence that will allow it to project its power in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. For this reason, much of the DSR foreign investment targets nations with either authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning governments. Democratic nations must challenge China’s establishment of politically illiberal spheres of influence by providing a different model of digital development that permits an environment under which democracies can flourish.
China’s objectives in pursuing the DSR include shaping the international order to more closely resemble its domestic governance structure. Specifically, China believes it benefits from an international order that promotes economic openness, while at the same time supports political illiberalism. China has used digital authoritarianism to repress the rights and civil liberties of its own citizens, and it is in the process of exporting this model abroad. China is not only exporting political illiberalism and digital authoritarianism through foreign investment in digital infrastructure, it is also providing a model and training for how governments can use legislation, monitoring, and censorship to create technologically enabled totalitarian states. Western democracies, including those European nations that view promoting democratic values as a vital national interest, must provide an alternative to digital infrastructure development that preserves democratic values and protects human rights.
Europe is positioned at the intersection of the strategic technological competition playing out between the United States and China. This is true because it is home to several of the most prominent global technology companies, especially in the telecommunication space, and because it has historically been a staunch proponent of democratic values and individual rights. China has been targeting European nations with BRI investments, especially those European nations that have experienced the current global slide towards authoritarianism. These efforts have been successful to some degree with Italy signing on to the BRI, the 17+1 cooperation framework between China and Central and Eastern European nations and Greece, and several European nations, including the United Kingdom, permitting Chinese corporations to be involved in developing their 5G networks.
European nations and the EU should, to the extent possible, present a united position in addressing the DSR and the BRI more generally. China benefits greatly when it deals with European nations on the bilateral level, which enhances its bargaining power. The European position should not be outright opposition to Chinese investment in Europe or around the globe, but such investments must be undertaken in a manner that does not undermine democratic norms and human rights. Europe and the EU should support Chinese investments that enhance digital connectivity in the developing world, as these investments are sorely needed, but Europe should collaborate with China to ensure these investments are pursued in a sustainable and democratically viable manner. Regarding Chinese investments in the digital sector in European nations, the EU should strengthen its current screening mechanisms in order to minimize the risks that such investments pose security threats or are being used to concentrate governmental power in authoritarian-leaning European nations. Finally, the EU should take a leading role to ensure that Sino-American strategic technological competition does not lead to a bifurcated global order.