China’s Silk Road, From the Physical to Digital

Byron Black

IO – Ever since 2013, China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, or OBOR, has become the signature policy of Xi Jinping and his Communist Chinese Party, or CCP, for realizing their vision of connecting China with the rest of the world through a vast network of Chinese-financed seaports, roads, railways, energy-related projects and airports.

The grandiose scheme–involving trillions of dollars in investments–has already reached practically every corner of the world, from Asia to Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas, encompassing in total nearly 140 countries. Here in Indonesia alone, there are several dozen commitments between Beijing and Jakarta for OBOR-related projects valued at $91 billion.

OBOR has not been without controversy. After several countries defaulted on project loans, it has come under immense scrutiny in the West and the international community. Many believe Beijing has a much larger agenda, looking to leverage its commercial relations through OBOR’s megaprojects, giving the CCP a place at the table on foreign policy issues with recipient countries. Others criticize China for setting debt traps, effectively giving the CCP the means to seize strategic assets such as deepwater ports like it did in Sri Lanka when the borrowing country goes into arrears.

That one should be cynical about Beijing’s OBOR Initiative and its underlying strategic and political intentions has strong merit. It is not just another infrastructure development scheme. Like other emergent superpowers in the past such as Great Britain and the United States that practiced mercantalist policies to augment their

power and influence abroad, China’’s version of “Chopsticks Mercantalism” through its far-reaching infrastructure initiatives has and will continue to servebits hegemonic ambitions.

Yet what most foreign policy makers fail to appreciate is that China is continuing to expand its influence in multiple dimensions, not just one. OBOR can be seen as being part of the CCP’s commercial strategy to keep foreign countries aligned with Beijing’s interests and toe the party line when it comes to contentious issues such as democracy in Hong Kong or the treatment of the Uighur Muslims. Once completed, it will also offer Beijing control over the interstate energy highway starting in the Middle East and through the strategic waters of the Indian Ocean, the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea-this would not only provide China with security over its energy supply lines but also give it a tremendous advantage in times of conflict.

Besides OBOR, the most obvious example of Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions is its forays in the East and South China Sea. Using a carrot-and-stick strategy with ASEAN countries to expand its footprint throughout the maritime commons of the region, Beijing has artfully deployed its financial and military prowess to incentivize Southeast Asian statesmen to tread carefully when protesting its intrusions upon their sovereign territories. And, for the most part, it has worked: Beijing started reclaiming land, building artifical islands and claiming offshore resources throughout the South China Sea in 2013. Until now, there has been very little progress through diplomacy and otherwise to moderate Beijing’s behavior.

Another dimension of China’s

strategy lies within digital space. For example, the CCP’s aggressive use of cyber weapons to intercept communications and steal classified information from foreign governments, engage in corporate espionage and carry out cyberattacks on the critical infrastructure of adversaries are well documented and known to intelligence agencies around the world.

In fact, China’s army of cyber warriors are considered top-tier, and as modern warfare into the 21st century will increasingly be based on the cyber capabilities of nation states, China has shown the world that it is easily capable of punishing those who veer from its party line. The most recent example of this is Australia which, after calling for a global inquiry into the origins and early handling of the coronavirus triggered a furious response from Beijing, there were a flurry of cyber attacks on Australian government agencies. The message from Beijing was simple: this is just a sample of what we can do with those who cross us.

In a recent report from the Institute for Strategic Studies, or IISS, think tank experts looked at China’s Digital Silk Road Initiative, or DSR, which was launched by Beijing in 2015 and has emerged to become an important component of the overall OBOR strategy.

Already nearly one third of the participants in OBOR have signed MOUs to participate in DSR, mostly developing countries in need of relatively cheap yet high-quality technology expand their wireless phone networks and broadband internet coverage.

As with OBOR, there are serious concerns about DSR initiatives. Western analysts are concerned China will use DSR to assist au-

thoritarian countries to use these technologies to strengthen their grip on power. There are reports that Chinese technology companies have already helped government officials in other countries to develop surveillance capabilities which could be used against opposition groups as well as monitor and censor the internet.

Besides being used to prop up and strengthen authoritarian regimes, there is also a risk that if Chinese firms under the DSR Initiative were to build other countries’ 5G networks this could be used to spy on foreign government officials, risking Beijing using data breaches to blackmail political elites for higher political purposes that serve the interests of China.

Regardless of whether a country signs on for OBOR or DSR, hard questions need to be posed about the downside risks involved. Certainly not every project needs to be suspect, but a healthy dose of scrutiny would go a long way for ensuring our national interest is being protected.