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Reconstructing Order: The Geopolitical Risks in China’s Digital Silk Road

Asia Policy, NBR, 28 January, 2020

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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.

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Exploring China’s Orwellian Digital Silk Road

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With Patrick Cha, The National Interest, 7 November, 2020,t,

The past decade has been difficult for political leaders in Kenya. Terrorist attacks at Westgate Mall in 2013 and Garissa University College in 2015 had left hundreds of people injured or dead. Additionally, rising crime figures in rapidly-growing cities like Nairobi and Mombasa left the impression that Kenyan security forces were losing control of Kenyan cities. Worse still, a series of carjackings and tourist robberies began to effect a major source of revenue. It was with relief then that the Kenyan government received an offer to build a new Smart City program by the prominent Chinese tech company, Huawei. Partnering with Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile network provider, Huawei promised to build a network architecture, utilizing big data analysis, a large number of connected devices and sensors, to help give Kenya “new tools to improve public services such as crime-fighting, and to keep an eye on what is going on generally.” Working closely with Kenyan officials, Huawei created a command center and public surveillance system linking 1,800 surveillance cameras with 195 police bureaus and 7,600 police officers across Nairobi, with a further 200 cameras at city checkpoints.

While the centralizing of data on crime and municipal services will be a great boon to rapidly-growing cities across Africa, the Indian Ocean, and Central Asia, they are not without their dangers. As we will discuss in this and a follow-up piece, Beijing’s rapidly expanding influence over the digital space of the Indo-Pacific will have real-world effects on the people who live inside such systems, impacting how comprehensively states are able to surveil their citizens. They may also have an impact on the geopolitical landscape as states that fall under the People Republic of China’s (PRC) digital system, may be aligning to a new type of political, digital and economic order, analogous to that built by the United States and its allies after World War II. While looking at a map of the Smart Cities growing across the Central Asian landscape, it is possible to imagine that a new type of political order is arising. As Western experts begin to understand the inner workings of how the Chinese state uses various technologies in packages like the “Integrated Joints Operations Platform” (IJOP), used by the Xinjiang Bureau of Public Security to persecute and monitor the Uighur—understanding China’s use of technology for political effect is of the utmost importance.

The primary conduit and driver for the PRC’s digital strategy is the Digital Silk Road—a supporting pillar of the Belt and Road Initiative—which was first developed in March 2015 in a White Paper jointly issued by the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Development and Reform Commission, and the Ministry of Commerce. In it, the three ministries advocated for “countries along the Belt and Road . . . [to] improve the connectivity of their infrastructure construction plans and technical standard systems . . . and form an infrastructure network connecting all sub-regions in Asia, and between Asia, Europe, and Africa, step by step.” And so various parts of the Chinese state and private sector have driven themselves into the task with gusto and enthusiasm. Only five years later, nearly a quarter of the 4.2 billion people living in urban environments now live under PRC Smart City and Safe City network and surveillance technologies. Huawei and ZTE have developed contracts or have built Smart City technologies around the world, in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, with Huawei building smart cities in over 200 cities across forty countries and regions, and ZTE building smart cities in over 170 cities across sixty countries.

As with infrastructure, China has understood what local and regional governments need and catered to those needs in expert fashion. The world’s urban population is predicted to grow by an additional 2.5 billion people in the next thirty years, with a doubling of the global middle class taking place in and around China and India, providing a huge expanse in the region’s urban space. The building of so many new cities and the hyper-growth of so many current cities will require a major outlay in infrastructure, energy, and transportation hubs. It will also require the efficient allocation of resources, energy, and—as the mainstay an increasingly digital global economy—access to digital networks and the internet of things. Just as the British Government helped promote Cable and Wireless’s expansion across its empire in the late half of the nineteenth century, so the PRC is helping to fund its companies in this new digital infrastructure expansion across the Eurasian landmass with the Silk Road Fund (dominated by the People’s Bank of China) taking the lead. It is, as many observers have already noted, a strategy with deep geostrategic implications. It is also a strategy that has security implications for the West, for the United States, its allies, and for other rising powers—such as India, South Africa, and Brazil.

The most visible signs of this digital infrastructure are the fiber cables, the network base-stations, the satellite networks, and the Smart Cities provided at the “consumer” end. Smart Cities coalesce data, connecting, and computing service platforms with existing information sources under one roof in Intelligent Operation Centers (IOC). These centers integrate disparate information from different sources to create—in the jargon—a real-time, comprehensive, and actionable image of city operations. IOCs provide a centralized data-exchange platform critical to day-to-day operations of administrative, industrial, environmental, energy, and security systems. In layman’s terms, the IOC acts as a living organism that continuously assesses citywide operations and identifies requirements through sensors and cameras that are distributed around key nodes allowing for real-time monitoring and predictive analysis. Powered by the expanse in data provided by 5G technologies, multiple sensors can be deployed from street lamps tell electric companies that they’ve gone out, to buildings can regulate their own heating and ventilation. Smart Ports provide the additional capabilities of device automation, intelligent scheduling, and trade surveillance to improve resource allocation and ship transfers. The premise is that a better-integrated and effectively-operated city boosts economic activity, and promotes sustainable growth into the future.

And therein lays the rub. Centralized access to personal, commercial, and political data carries with it a huge centralization of data that is at odds with concepts of the rights to privacy. On the Digital Silk Road, this centralization of data benefits China as much as it benefits host nations, introducing vulnerabilities into the host nations that could be utilized if they were to ever come into conflict or suffer diplomatic tensions with Beijing. By acting as network architects and administrators, Beijing will be privy to data streams in real-time across a large portion of the world, enabling them to develop influence and power across a number of different matrixes. In the first instance, that power and influence would be over the foreign policy elites of host nations, including civil servants, political and military leaders, journalists, the legal and commercial sectors in the form of information. This might be used as kompromat—to leverage key individuals in critical moments of internal discussion—on issues Beijing judges central to its interests. The IJOP in Xinjiang combined information gathered from multiple data sets—including CCTV, banking, employment, and health records, Wi-Fi sniffers, security checkpoints, and facial recognition—to monitor the details of people’s daily lives at the level of minutia. Whether or not the smart city programs incorporate these functions in given states will be of critical importance to the lives of their inhabitants. Second, it enables Beijing to expand its legal and political norms and values—albeit, bundled as part of these technological packages. As Tin Hinane El Kadi has written for Chatham House, many countries sign deals with Chinese tech companies that install these systems with little or no oversight or adopt repressive cybersecurity laws that resemble China’s. Third, it is likely to be used to further China’s economic expansion across developing economies, providing massive amounts of raw consumer and market data, giving Chinese firms advantages that their competitors—local and Western—will be unable to challenge. This will be particularly true in sectors that China has judged to be of national security interest, such as biotech, new materials, wearable devices, information communications technology, AI, and the internet of things. It might be used to coerce foreign policy elites “downstream” from the port host nation by applying pressure on the supply chain. A Southeast Asian state at odds with Beijing, for example, could find critical goods held up in ports in Pakistan or Sri Lanka—in a deniable and unofficial sanctions system.

Through the development of this “network-of-networks” across the Indo-Pacific region, the PRC will be able to access and monitor large swathes of data running through the national networks of scores of host nations across the Indo-Pacific space, using big data and artificial intelligence logarithms for analysis. It is possible that this age is witnessing the building of the largest intelligence-collecting program in human history, giving China real-time access to the digital economies, finances, crimes, and personal lives of the citizens of three-quarters of the world. It is unquestionably a defining moment in the history of data. As we continue our own Western debate on the role big data companies will have in liberal democracies and tensions between privacy and the political and economic exploitation of data, we would do well to look at the world that China’s tech industry is seeking to remake in its own image. It is not a world we have lived in before.

Through the development of this “network-of-networks” across the Indo-Pacific region, the PRC will be able to access and monitor large swathes of data running through the national networks of scores of host nations across the Indo-Pacific space, using big data and artificial intelligence logarithms for analysis. It is possible that this age is witnessing the building of the largest intelligence-collecting program in human history, giving China real-time access to the digital economies, finances, crimes, and personal lives of the citizens of three-quarters of the world. It is unquestionably a defining moment in the history of data. As we continue our own Western debate on the role big data companies will have in liberal democracies and tensions between privacy and the political and economic exploitation of data, we would do well to look at the world that China’s tech industry is seeking to remake in its own image. It is not a world we have lived in before.


India’s Ambiguity and the Chinese Threat

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RUSI Commentary, with Tanya Sen, 24 May, 2018

Nearly eight months after the Doklam border stand-off, the leaders of Asia’s two largest powerhouses met for informal diplomatic talks, in what seemed to be an attempt to reset their bilateral relationship. Thus far, media in both countries has presented the meeting as a great success, citing new diplomatic beginnings and lauding the pragmatism of their respective leaders. The apparent thawing of diplomatic ties echoes the Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai narrative of the 1950s and comes after the two countries reached a record trade value of $84.4 billion in 2017. Yet despite the public hyperbole and the evident enthusiasm of China’s state-run media, it is not clear that one meeting can overturn the structural drivers of Indo-Chinese competition.

China and India are both focused on restoring their status as great regional and even global powers following periods of imperial predation by European states over the past two centuries. They are both heavily influenced by social, economic and political theories that are rooted in Western intellectual trends. Still, such similarities are trivial in the face of structurally-driven competition. With large territories, massive populations and expanding economies, both have the ability to shape their regions along with areas further abroad. Consequently, their rivalry is fed by the desire for dominance over the other – something that is best explained through a realist lens. The deeper explanation is the status of insecurity that results from the security dilemma, whereby both countries are constantly looking to gain a competitive advantage in terms of regional accommodation, and the future global order. This justifies the fears of Indian leaders that they may be lagging behind China in this grander global race.

The old non-alignment orientation is falling out of favour with Indian policymakers for this very reason. While this decades-long policy has been a defining model in Indian politics in the past, Prime Minister Modi’s state visits and multilateral engagements point to a departure from India’s non-aligned ways, towards multi-alignment that better fits today’s global order. Yet despite this shift, India’s grand strategy seem to lack clear direction. For, while India might be equipped with the resources, it lacks the strategic mobilisation needed to rival China’s own assertive vision.

The concerns and suspicion have steered India towards the adoption of an odd hedging relationship with Beijing that is by now familiar with scholars of Chinese foreign policy. Nearly every country must determine the trade-off between economic reliance on China and concern over its ambitions; Australia’s prime minister summed up this dilemma last year, by saying that Canberra’s China policy was based on ‘fear and greed’. In response to this conundrum faced by many others, Indian policymakers are identifying key partners to offset Chinese power. The most notable of these is Japan; after all, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the pioneer of the Indo-Pacific concept. His proposal for the creation of a  Quad – an informal four-nation strategic dialogue encompassing Japan, India, the US and Australia – was revived in 2017 after laying dormant for around a decade. India’s efforts seem to be overshadowed by the setbacks in its way, many of which have been present for a large part of its political history.

As the two powers rise in the same region, attempts by China to secure its energy supplies by land and sea inevitably involve Pakistan. This competing set of regional interests can also be seen in China’s ‘String of Pearls’ relationships with Sri Lanka, Pakistan and even the Maldives, all of which traditionally lie within India’s sphere of influence. China’s ‘all-weather friendship’ with Pakistan is a continual irritant to relations with India. The truncated power asymmetry acquired by Pakistan, with immense support from the Chinese, has ensured an enduring rivalry and the encirclement of India. The Indo-Pakistani conflict has long dominated India’s foreign policy, and constant contestation in India’s immediate neighbourhood has prevented it from taking on a leadership role in South Asia. Finally, the lack of an alternative Indian grand strategy to non-alignment works against its own power ambitions. On one hand, India is keen to be taken seriously as a world power. On the other hand, Indian foreign policy elites seem stuck between contrasting narratives of India as a developing power or India as a superpower. This confusion over India’s power acts as a drag for its policymaking elites in reshaping a new grand strategy for dealing with China.

China, by contrast, has been quick to identify its rival’s weaknesses and even quicker to develop and realise its foreign policy ambitions. Such has been the rate of China’s successes in its Belt and Road initiative, that India’s lack of organisation means that it seriously risks adversely affecting its primacy in its own back yard. While this hedging approach might be the most politically expedient method for dealing with Chinese manoeuvres, it is holding India back from creating its own alternative vision for the region. So, while the rapprochement with China may be part of this hedging approach and might appear to be enough to relieve short-term tensions, structural factors will continue pushing the two Asian giants in opposing directions. And none of this will substitute for India’s need to wake up to the perils on its periphery, by developing a more robust foreign policy community and seeking a clearer strategy for its region.


The New Great Game in the Indo-Pacific

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E-International Relations, 23 April, 2018

This past March saw a mini-crisis develop in the Indian Ocean and it all revolved around the tiny island nation of Maldives. The crisis began in earnest after Maldivian President Yameen Abdul Gayoom declared a state of emergency after rejecting a Supreme Court ruling to free opposition leaders. Indian media reported on the movement of Indian military units around the country, the implication being that they might interfere. Within days, however, a squadron of Chinese naval vessels entered the East Indian Ocean, putting India on the back foot – the chain of 1,192 coral islands that make up the Maldives is a mere 400km from India’s southern coast. President Modi put India’s military on alert, but did nothing in the end, perhaps due to the Chinese flotilla. While the crisis seemed to finish almost as quickly as it started, it highlighted a growing trend of Sino-Indian tussling for influence in a region traditionally dominated by India. In recent years, Beijing and Male have increased economic ties as the Maldives joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative and signed a free-trade agreement. The Maldives is but one such country in India’s neighbourhood that China has taken under its Belt-and-Road wing. To outside observers, it is clear that a new Great Game is underway, one that sees China using a combination of infrastructure development and loans, to develop its maritime trade and naval power. In response to China’s growing influence in a region it considers its own, Delhi has begun partnering more actively with Japan and the US, particularly in development projects and strategic groupings like the Quad.

Prior to 2012 China didn’t even have an embassy in the Maldives. Due to the island country’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean, however, it’s not difficult to see why the Maldives may have become the latest pearl in China’s ‘string of pearls’. It has already developed a major commercial port in Gwadar, Pakistan and a military logistics base Djibouti, its first overseas. Strategically, Djibouti is located near the Bab al Mandab, allowing for access to the Red Sea and Suez Canal. The country is also in dire need of infrastructure improvements, which China, through Belt and Road, is offering to finance. This isn’t the first time China has invested billions of dollars in the name of development – especially to strategically located countries. Pakistan, a long-time rival of India, has received support from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to build a hydropower plant in its Punjab region, which is estimated to cost $1.42bn. In total, China has pledged $62bn to fund the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – again, right in India’s backyard. The same has been happening in Bangladesh, where in 2016 President Xi signed deals worth $21.5bn, showing interest in developing a deep sea port in Pyra.

India and Japan are now taking a page from China’s playbook, treating economic development as strategic leverage. The two have made regional moves into Bangladesh and North-eastern India, however their strong suit is their Asia Africa Growth Corridor, where they are working to create routes in the Indian Ocean region that circumvent China. The Iranian port Chabahar will be especially useful to India—who has pledged $20bn for its construction—in light of the fact that Pakistan currently blocks India’s over-land route into Afghanistan. Of course, even in Africa the India-Japan duo is contending with high levels of Chinese investment. However, there may be space for more sustainable investment in both Africa and the Indo-Pacific region by the two, as an increasing number of recipients of China’s largess fall into the ‘debt trap’ laid by Beijing. Laos is in a $6.7bn hole (a fourth of the tiny country’s GDP) due to a Chinese-led high-speed railway, meant to connect China to mainland Southeast Asia through Laos and Thailand. Similarly, Djibouti’s debt to GDP ratio is now at 85%. A recent report by the Centre for Global Development has warned that Djibouti and seven other countries “face a significantly increased risk of sovereign default if planned BRI projects are implemented”. Sri Lanka has become the poster-child for China’s debt diplomacy after Beijing’s $5bn investment into Hambantota port led to the country leasing the portback to China for 99 years to avoid default. For a country that had seethed about the 100 years of humiliation and predation by foreigners, China certainly seems to be making an about-face.

Watching with increasingly alarm, Tokyo and New Delhi pushed hard to resurrect the US-Japan-India-Australia Quad – as an ‘alternative’ to Belt and Road. Thus far, talks have focused more on the importance of keeping the Indo-Pacific region “free and open”, especially with regard to “maritime safety and security”, only hinting at an alternative infrastructure strategy, however this is rapidly changing. This Great Game is less about ‘containing’ China as Beijing would have us believe, and more about diversifying choices available to countries in the region. Naturally, there is a geostrategic ‘balancing’ element to this as well. Canberra, bullied by Beijing in a domestic scandal involving Chinese interference in its domestic affairs, has pushed for closer relations with both the United States and ASEAN as a way of balancing China’s interference in its domestic affairs. It is beginning to find the true cost of having China as its largest trading partner, and has begun a national debate on how to respond to this, racked by cynical accusations of racism. While the Trump administration consider possible policy options in a ‘free and open strategy’ – see Eric Sayers excellent prescriptions here –  Japan and India are already moving forward on their own infrastructure diplomacy.

As countries begin to realize the implications to Beijing’s ‘debt diplomacy’, there’s definite scope for Delhi and Tokyo to make headway as an alternative type of development pact. While Sri Lanka has been seeking increased investment from Tokyo and Delhi in recent months to unburden itself from Chinese loans, the two need to be more forward-reaching in what they can offer. They also need to design a broader strategy, rather than merely reacting to China’s development plans on an ad hoc basis. This reactive strategy has already cost them the ‘race’ in countries like Nepal and the Maldives. Due to their geographic locations, both countries have historic ties to India, however both have aligned by China over infrastructure investment. The BRI is financing a fibre optic network throughout Nepal (with a command centre in Kathmandu), ending the country’s dependence on India for internet bandwidth. The Maldives Ambassador to China, Mohamed Faisal, noted that though India was offered “a number of projects”, they “did not receive the necessary finance” to be brought into the development stage. Now, India is facing a security problem in the region, as China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy ties up countries right on India’s doorstep.

There is something Mahanian in the way China is building up its maritime power and increasing influence over trade in the region. Mahan, a 19th century American naval strategist who viewed the domination of maritime routes for both commercial and strategic gain, has become obligatory reading among Chinese naval thinkers. Tracing the logic identified by Mahan a hundred years ago, Chinese moves look very hegemonic in design, adding the supplemental development twist as bait. This strategy seeks to safeguard and control vital sea lines of communication (SLOCS), bringing trade and energy from Europe and the Middle East. In doing so, China also seeks to contain India’s own rise and stop it from dominating its own ‘near abroad’, the height of hypocrisy considering the US’ support for its own rise and its own strategy in the South China Sea.

Sadly, the Indo-Pacific is swiftly becoming the locus for a re-emergence of geopolitics, writ large, and all the professions of “win-win” are fading into the background as Chinese merchants and bankers are increasingly being followed by Chinese navy vessels. This new Great Game sees India and Japan competing with China for SLOC security in the Indo-Pacific and may see a re-emergence of gun-boat diplomacy if we’re not careful. Robert Zoellick once called for China to become a “responsible stakeholder”, and while Beijing claims it is not a status quo challenger, the fact is that it is redrawing the rules of the game. While there is some justice in this, China’s authoritarian regime type makes the prospect of a Chinese-led hegemony an untenable one for liberal democracies. How the new Great Game plays out in the Indo-Pacific depends on the willingness of Asia’s other great powers to defend a system, rather than contain an empire.


Looking to create a ‘Global Britain’? Japan and the Royal Navy might hold the answer

The Telegraph, 15 December, 2017

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The image of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson shaking hands with their Japanese counterparts, Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera in the National Maritime Museum yesterday was heavy in symbolism.

Taking place in Greenwich, resplendent in all its naval glory, pointed not only the two countries’ shared naval history, but to a common naval future. The fact that global geopolitics is increasingly maritime in nature means that a post-Brexit Britain, a “Global Britain”, may need to look increasingly to the sea.

According to James Rogers at HJS, it makes sense for Britain to work with Japan given “the nature of their export-oriented economics and reliance on the maritime commons for national wealth.”

Given Britain’s geography and growing naval capabilities, its security posture may be increasingly maritime in nature. To some, this may sound like harking back to Britain’s imperial past, but it is actually about securing Britain’s future.

Around 80 percent of global trade is seaborne at present and predicted to continue increasing.

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