Digital Diplomacy: China’s Geopolitical Ambitions through the Digital Silk Road

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Soft power has emerged as a pivotal instrument of public diplomacy, gaining ever-growing significance. Nations possess the capability to exert influence through various elements of soft power such as sports, arts, science, and tourism, thereby enhancing their appeal on the global stage. In the contemporary world, soft power cannot be merely viewed as a consequential outcome; rather, it stands as one of the primary sources from which influence emanates.

Digital Diplomacy is intricately linked to both Public Diplomacy and Cultural Diplomacy, enabling it to exert influence over these fundamental aspects of Traditional Diplomacy. Diplomats now utilize various tools available through technology and Social Media to shape public opinion. Their networking, communication, and information gathering processes on digital platforms can have a significant impact. By leveraging Social Media, Diplomatic actors have the opportunity to cultivate a positive image and establish meaningful connections with the public. This engagement allows them to combat hate speech, violence, and the formation of echo chambers in society. Through these digital channels, Diplomacy extends its reach beyond traditional means, facilitating a more direct and impactful dialogue with the people they serve.

The essence of Digital Diplomacy lies in its aim to keep the global audience informed and engaged by staying up-to-date with the latest international issues while maintaining transparency. Utilizing digital tools, leaders and officials can effectively communicate with other countries and non-governmental organizations. Unlike traditional diplomacy, which often addresses target groups, Digital Diplomacy focuses on reaching and engaging with individual stakeholders directly. This personalized approach enhances the effectiveness of diplomatic efforts and facilitates more efficient crisis management, enabling a proactive approach to avoid potential crises and risks.

The Digital Silk Road, an integral part of China’s vast Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), stands as a monumental global infrastructure project aimed at bolstering digital connectivity and fostering collaboration among participating nations. Launched in 2015, this ambitious venture encompasses a wide spectrum of industries, including satellite navigation, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, e-commerce, and telecommunications. Spanning across the continents of Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America, the Digital Silk Road carries profound implications for shaping the future of the digital landscape.

Driven by China’s vision to access new markets and diversify economic opportunities, the Digital Silk Road aspires to transcend traditional boundaries and propel the global digital order into a new era. With a strategic intent to move away from the digital dominance of the United States, the initiative seeks to forge new pathways for digital innovation and influence, thereby contributing to a more multipolar digital world.

China’s vision for the Digital Silk Road stems from its aspiration to enhance its digital infrastructure and standards, unlock new markets for its leading IT giants like Huawei, Alibaba, and Tencent, and establish a more Sino-centric global digital order. However, recipient nations face a dual prospect as they benefit from China’s technological aid and investment while also facing potential risks of digital reliance, surveillance, and cyber-attacks.

The Digital Silk Road represents a groundbreaking approach to funding technology, bearing significant implications for China’s global interactions and its own technological progress. The Hinrich Foundation reports that China has already established Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with 30 nations, ranging from Laos to Peru, while the Council on Foreign Relations indicates that one-third of the 138 Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) nations are actively collaborating on the Digital Silk Road initiative.

One of the integral elements of the Digital Silk Road is the establishment of underwater cables linking China to various continents across the oceans. China has dedicated investments or intends to invest in no less than 16 submarine cable projects, spanning an impressive distance of over 80,000 kilometers, and encompassing six oceans and regions. These ambitious initiatives are set to significantly bolster China’s worldwide internet connectivity, data transfer capacities, and overall digital influence.

The Digital Silk Road encompasses various aspects, one of which involves the advancement of satellite networks to provide internet access and navigational services to underdeveloped nations and remote areas. China is actively involved in this effort, with plans to deploy multiple satellite constellations, including the StarNet Project, the Hongyun Project, and the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS). These satellite systems are designed to complement or compete with existing ones like GPS, Galileo, and Starlink.

Another significant dimension of the Digital Silk Road is the expansion of China’s digital services and e-commerce platforms into international markets. Leading Chinese companies such as Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei, and others have either established or acquired online marketplaces, payment systems, cloud computing services, artificial intelligence applications, and smart city solutions in numerous countries and regions. Their goals encompass cross-border trade, financial inclusion, technological innovation, and advancements in social governance.

As a strategic project, the Digital Silk Road illustrates China’s aspirations to dominate the digital economy and set new standards for online conduct. However, it has faced challenges and criticism from other nations and stakeholders. Concerns have been raised regarding data security, privacy protection, digital sovereignty, and geopolitical competition as the initiative progresses. These issues are central to the debates surrounding the potential impacts of the Digital Silk Road on the global digital landscape.

The Digital Silk Road significantly impacts strategic competition in the Indian Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, and African Region, bearing immense importance for China’s business, geopolitics, and energy security objectives. However, this initiative faces opposition from other influential nations, such as the US, India, France, and the EU.

By creating alternative digital standards, norms, and governance models, the Digital Silk Road can fuel strategic competition while potentially challenging the US-led liberal order. Moreover, it provides China with access to sensitive information, the capacity to influence public opinion, and the potential to exploit digital dependencies for coercion.

On the other hand, the Digital Silk Road might foster discussions and collaborations on crucial topics such as data protection, digital inclusion, and innovation. As a response to China’s influence, the Western nations may increase their investments and partnerships in digital infrastructure and growth in these regions. Additionally, they can enhance their cyber defense capabilities and resilience to safeguard their digital assets and interests, as well as those of their allies. This approach aims to balance the power dynamics and counteract China’s dominance in the digital domain.

The Digital Silk Road possesses the capability to engender tensions and foster distrust between China and other nations, specifically the United States and its allies, potentially escalating into a cyber war on the international stage.