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  • Reconstructing Order:The Geopolitical Risks in China's Digital Silk Road
  • John Hemmings (bio)

China, Global Order, 5g, Information and Communications Technology

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executive summary

This essay examines the strategic intentions and origins of the Digital Silk Road and the implications for the U.S. and like-minded countries.

main argument

The People's Republic of China (PRC) is attempting to incrementally reshape the global order through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). To this end, it is using—among other means—new disruptive technologies that will allow it to dominate data and communications in the political, economic, and social realms across the large expanse of the initiative. The Digital Silk Road has been a part of the PRC's approach since at least 2015, when it first appeared in a government white paper on BRI. The Digital Silk Road binds together new technologies in "bundles," such as smart cities, smart ports, and satellite-networked communications, using 5G as a baseline for other technologies like artificial intelligence, data analytics, and the Internet of Things. Success in using this communications infrastructure to dominate markets, standards, and political elites would give China a multiregional base from which to project its norms, systems, and networks to the wider global market. In the long run, this will not only give a competitive advantage to Chinese companies but also allow them to spread more widely across remaining markets.

policy implications

  • • The Digital Silk Road has deep geopolitical implications. Building the backbone of communications infrastructure in BRI countries will allow the PRC to access, analyze, and exploit in real time the large data sets of recipient countries.

  • • Through these technologies and its tech companies, the PRC is exporting its governance model, surveillance system, and financial institutions.

  • • Policy elites in recipient nations could become vulnerable to even greater influence operations as Chinese tech companies administer their networks in real time and collaborate with stage actors like the United Work Front Department.

  • • The PRC could use the centralization of data in smart port systems to create a deniable, surgical sanctions system by interdicting or slowing the container traffic of states or their leaders. [End Page 6]

One of the principal defining features of this age is the rise of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the strategic competition that is accompanying it. For many years, there were questions as to China's trajectory, the nature of its domestic political and economic reforms, and its ultimate ambitions as a great power. Would it seek to revise or challenge the liberal international order, or would it become a status quo power?1 The current period under Xi Jinping has brought this question into sharp relief as China has changed its policies, messages, and intentions from Deng Xiaoping's "hide and bide" approach to the "moving to center stage" approach of Xi. One of the most evident aspects of this—widely discussed in academia, Western media, and business circles—is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). According to a Chinese white paper, BRI aims to "promote the connectivity of [the] Asian, European, and African continents and their adjacent seas...[and] set up all-dimensional, multi-tiered and composite connectivity networks."2

Academics debate whether China's foreign policy behavior constitutes a limited-aims or revisionist vision of the global order.3 This essay argues that what the PRC is doing with the Digital Silk Road (DSR) is strategically significant. It is a deliberate attempt to create "a global information highway with China at its core,"4 in effect developing its own sticky power through technology "bundles" comprised of smart cities, smart ports, e-commerce and digital currency, communications networks, and satellite networks.5 This is, at its heart, a long-term effort to incrementally create an order more in line with China's preferences, first at the regional level and then by extension at the global level. The United States and other liberal democracies must understand the nature of these changes and the long-term impact on the liberal postwar system they have created and upheld. [End Page 7]

This essay is organized as follows:

  • ≈ pp. 8–12 examine the strategic intent and activities of the...


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