The Digital Silk Road is the technology dimension of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy vision. As the maps below illustrate, it is advancing in several areas: wireless networks, surveillance cameras, subsea cables, and satellites. While not exhaustive of China’s digital activities, these activities literally stretch from the ocean floor to outer space, and they enable AI, big data applications, and other strategic technologies. In all four areas, China is gaining globally and positioning itself to reap commercial and strategic rewards, especially as emerging economies grow.
The Digital Divide
The developing world is still coming online, with more than half of humanity having limited or no access to the internet. During the 1990s and 2000s, as U.S. companies focused primarily on larger, wealthier markets, Chinese providers began serving lower-income and rural markets: Russia, Kenya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, and even rural America. Today, even as Chinese tech companies face more scrutiny in advanced economies, they are doubling down in emerging markets, where the majority of the world’s population growth is expected and affordability often trumps security concerns.
Hikvision Surveillance Cameras
Developed in collaboration with IPVM
Having grown rapidly at home, China’s surveillance giants aim to dominate global markets. Together, Hikvision (cameras displayed above) and Dahua supply nearly 40 percent of the world’s surveillance cameras. Only China has companies that are competitive at every step of the surveillance process, from manufacturing cameras to training AI to deploying the analytics. Chinese surveillance technology is being used in more than eighty countries, on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
Chinese Subsea Cables
China has graduated from being dependent on foreign companies for subsea cables, which carry over 95 percent of the world’s international data, to controlling the world’s fourth major provider of these systems. Before being sold to Hengtong Group in 2020, Huawei Marine (a joint venture between Huawei and Global Marine, a U.K. firm) laid enough cable to circle the earth, including transcontinental links from Asia to Africa and from Africa to South America. These connections avoid U.S. and allied territory and could become even more valuable during a conflict.
China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System
Completed in 2020, China’s BeiDou system is more accurate than GPS in the Asia-Pacific region and slightly less accurate globally. BeiDou powers a growing list of vehicles, farm equipment, phones, and other consumer products and offers even more powerful services that guide Chinese missiles, fighter jets, and naval vessels. Beijing has begun offering these military-grade services to partners and could use them as a sweetener in the future when selling arms. Strategically, China is reducing its reliance on GPS and increasing the world’s reliance on BeiDou.
The maps above illustrate the expanding reach of China’s Digital Silk Road, but they are far from exhaustive, and China’s digital activities continue to evolve. For more information, including recommendations for how the United States and its allies should respond, read The Digital Silk Road, and see Reconnecting Asia’s resources and analysis on technology.
- China Satellite Navigation System Management Office Test Evaluation Research Center, Accessed August 27, 2021, http://www.csno-tarc.cn/.
- DataReportal, “Digital 2020 Country Reports,” February 18, 2020, https://datareportal.com/reports?offset=1582005511370&reversePaginate=true&tag=Digital+2020.
- Hengtong Marine, “Projects,” Accessed August 27, 2021, http://www.hengtongmarine.com/index.php/cases/cases.html.
- HMN Tech, “Huawei Marine Achieves over 100 Contracts,” February 4, 2020, https://www.submarinenetworks.com/en/vendors/hmn-tech/huawei-marine-achieves-over-100-contracts.
- Lu Xiaochun, “Update on BeiDou Navigation Satellite System and PNT System” (presented at Stanford 2019 PNT Symposium, Stanford, California, October 30, 2019) 23.
- Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “China’s Surveillance State at Home & Abroad: Challenges for U.S. Policy,” (Working Paper for the Penn Project on the Future of U.S.-China Relations), https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/web.sas.upenn.edu/dist/b/732/files/2020/10/Sheena-Greitens_Chinas-Surveillance-State-at-Home-Abroad_Final.pdf.
- Shodan Search Engine, Accessed September 7, 2021, https://www.shodan.io/.
- Telegeography, “Submarine Cable Map,” Accessed August 27, 2021, https://www.submarinecablemap.com/supplier/hmn-tech.