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Having launched an “Information Silk Road” and an exclusive satellite navigation system, BeiDou, China has virtually upgraded the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) network into a multi-dimensional super-project with a land, sea and space presence. Assimilating vast regions under a virtual umbrella to create an extensive zone of influence, the BRI will have its own Internet deep-sea cables connecting it globally, while BeiDou satellites help navigate all the machinery from aircraft to submarines.

Projected to connect all the countries participating in the BRI with technological links in addition to trade investments and infrastructure projects, a completely self-sufficient economic and security system has been conceived. According to research conducted by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, this information and space corridor comprising a vast network of undersea cables, satellite networks and terrestrial links could make China “one of the world’s most important international submarine-cable communication centers within a decade or two.”

However, with this access to deep-sea cable networks, China could monitor or divert data traffic, and even cut off links with entire countries if it wished. Relaying 98% of global telecommunications data and situated in international waters, these cables are vulnerable to cyber-intrusion, particularly in underdeveloped countries, where such tampering cannot be monitored. Fearing such a breach, British national security adviser Mark Sedwill warned the UK Parliament in 2017 that attacks on undersea cables could have “the same effect as used to be achieved in, say, World War II by bombing the London docks or taking out a power station.”

Considering the global impact of managing satellites and deep-sea Internet cables, these new BRI features could further complicate relations between the US and China. Though it is essential and useful digital technology, the US might consider it a long-term surveillance strategy and try to prevent Beijing from getting more control over the global telecom infrastructure. Having similar reservations, other global powers would also wish to enhance the security of sensitive internet data from all over the world.

To balance this scenario, Western countries could increase investments in Asia’s digital economy and work on improving GPS (Global Positioning System) accuracy. Globally, Chinese companies are handling nearly 90 undersea cable projects either as owners or suppliers already. However, Internet users usually have no say over which cable systems transmit their data across the continents and just 380 active submarine cables handle global Internet traffic via 1,000 landing stations.

Once BRI countries are totally dependent on Beijing for their Internet freedom and defense operations, they will have to manage their issues with China only, as it will run and maintain their undersea Internet cables and satellite navigation. This is positive, as having an exclusive space and digital system as part of the Belt and Road Initiative may prevent Internet disruption in participating countries.

Having an exclusive space and digital system as part of the Belt and Road Initiative may prevent Internet disruption in participating countries

Initially, though, Beijing had started out with these plans as it wanted to benefit from the global digital economy and arrest China’s slowing economic growth. Implementing an “Internet-Plus” strategy, Beijing developed cross-border e-commerce to increase trade volume, build a China-ASEAN Information Harbor and generally encourage digital economic cooperation. After some years, the Internet dimension of the BRI was formally introduced in 2017 to connect China digitally with the Arab world and onward to Africa by laying fiber-optic cables across Pakistan.

Crossing the sea from Gwadar Port in Pakistan, the digital corridor links China’s Xinjiang with Khunjerab on the Pakistani-Chinese border by land, providing a safe route for voice traffic between the two countries. Once it is completed in 2020, 6,299 kilometers of underwater cables will extend to Djibouti from Gwadar and form the Digital Silk Route between Asia and Africa.

In tandem, a space-based Silk Road provides satellite navigation support to all BRI countries. Introduced in the Pakistani coastal city of Karachi, the first Beidou base station of the Space Silk Road became operational in 2017. Spreading across Southeast Asia, BeiDou is progressing rapidly now and 30 BRI countries are linked up. Striving for better accuracy, Beidou aims to replace the American GPS satellite network that has dominated the field for decades.

Outstripping GPS, which runs on 31 satellites, the total number of satellites launched by China under BeiDou reached 40 last year. Apparently, eight more satellites operated by the Chinese BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) have become functional, according to a report presented at the second China-Arab States BDS Cooperation Forum in Tunis last week. Providing high-quality navigational service to the Arab world, the positioning accuracy of these satellites is categorized as better than 10 meters. Over the next year, there are plans to launch at least 10 more satellites to provide BDS global services.

Setting its sights on “serving the entire globe by the year 2020” with “100 times more accuracy,” China is very focused on its space program. For the time being, though, the plan is to extend BeiDou services to all the 64 BRI countries. Switching to intelligent manufacturing by 2025, China will also be harnessing artificial intelligence, fifth-generation telecom and space communications satellites as core technologies vital to its economic growth in the future.

In recent years, the highest number of AI-related academic papers and more than one-fifth of AI patents are from China as research continues at a rapid pace, so the challenge has only just begun. Ultimately, China wishes to establish an independent alternative system under its sole technology standard and control, and it seems likely that it will be successful.

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