Great power competition has returned as the defining feature of the geopolitical landscape on the global stage, with the United States and China vying for global and regional influence. China is asserting its influence on the international stage, most notably via its signature foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI marks a shift in Chinese foreign policy from Deng Xiaoping’s “hide your strength and bide your time” approach to Xi Jinping’s belief that it is now China’s time to “take center stage in the world.” China’s success in implementing one specific aspect of the BRI, the Digital Silk Road, will be of critical importance in determining China’s ability to shape the emerging international order of the 21st century. Through the Digital Silk Road, China is engaging in strategic technological competition with the United States and is exporting its model of digital authoritarianism around the globe.
First announced in a white paper in 2015 issued by the Chinese government, the Digital Silk Road is the portion of the BRI focused on enhancing digital connectivity abroad and furthering China’s ascendance as a technological superpower. While the BRI is viewed as a foreign policy initiative, it is more appropriate to conceptualize the Digital Silk Road as both a foreign and domestic policy initiative comprised of four inter-related technological components.
First, China seeks to become a world leader in providing physical digital infrastructure, which includes next generation or 5G cellular networks, internet infrastructure including fiberoptic cables, and data centers. Second, China is investing in the development of advanced technologies with important economic and strategic uses, including satellite navigation systems, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. Third, China and its largest technology corporations have recognized the importance of digital commerce and its essential role in continuing China’s rise as an economic superpower, so digital free trade zones are being created under the auspices of the Digital Silk Road to facilitate international e-commerce. Finally, cyberspace and advanced technologies are largely ungoverned spheres without established norms on the international stage and China has increased its digital diplomacy and internet governance efforts through multilateral forums to establish international norms that conform to its conception of the future digital world, premised on the principle of cybersovereignty. Authoritarian regimes around the globe are welcoming these efforts as they view cybersovereignty as a useful pretext for repressing their citizens’ ability to exercise their fundamental rights of freedom expression and association through digital mediums.
Taken as a whole, this conceptualization of the Digital Silk Road views the initiative as a comprehensive effort by the Chinese government to establish itself as the technological leader on the global stage and to promote its vision of norms and principles governing the cyber and digital realms, which will have vast and unforeseeable impacts on the future of the geopolitical architecture well beyond the Asia-Pacific region.
As the great power competition between the United States and China intensifies, China will increasingly attempt to carry out this competition in the technological and economic spheres. China aims to engage in strategic technological competition to challenge American global power without provoking direct confrontation. In response, the United States has undertaken diplomatic efforts to constrain the Digital Silk Road and the global expansion of Chinese technology giants by presenting such expansion as an unacceptable risk to international security. Some of these efforts have garnered significant public attention, including the case of 5G telecommunication networks and Huawei.
While one of China’s objectives in implementing the Digital Silk Road is restructuring the current international order, Beijing does not want to completely replace that order. China has benefited greatly from the liberal economic order, which has allowed the country to thrive economically and bring hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty. This economic growth is essential to the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic legitimacy. Nevertheless, through the Digital Silk Road, China strives to create a politically illiberal international order. Exporting its form of digital authoritarianism or digital Leninism is a key component of its effort to promote a global order predicated upon economic liberalism and political illiberalism.
Washington is correct to challenge Beijing in this strategic competition in the technological and economic spheres; however, approaching this question in a transactional and values-free manner plays into China’s hands and increases the likelihood that the international order will be reshaped on terms favorable to China. The United States must take a more holistic approach to the great power competition that will shape the geopolitical architecture of the 21st century. Most notably, this approach must recognize that liberal political values, including democracy, human rights, and rule of law, play an important role in creating an international environment that is most beneficial to the United States in pursuing its interests. The United States must provide a positive model of technological development and international connectivity in the digital sphere that promotes its core values, which can serve as alternative to China’s Digital Silk Road.
Clayton Cheney is a Nonresident WSD-Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum as well as a practicing attorney in New York City.