The Belt and Road Initiative, Technology and Trust
THE FUTURIAN #1
The ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) is the most visible manifestation of China’s economic resurgence, its overwhelming geopolitical ambition, and its sense of purpose. The multi-trillion-dollar initiative and its supercharged timeline is the Chinese government’s long-term vision for the future. The BRI covers international infrastructure, investment, technology, digital infrastructure, and trade routes; comprehensively integrated together in strategic, geopolitical, and economic terms; making the ‘Digital Silk Road’ a key component of the BRI.
The evolution of the BRI must be considered in the context of digital technology but also in the context of ‘political technologies’ such as states and intra-state activities. It should be acknowledged how these technologies interact with other cutting-edge information technologies and the resulting evolution of governance. In this macro-context, national or civilizational interactions are part of a complex technological network. When insights from complexity theory and network theory are incorporated into one’s perspective, the evolution of the BRI and its vision can be viewed in a new light. This provides a viewpoint which could be useful when considering how technology impacts the intentions driving an initiative such as the BRI. The economic future of China is technology dependent and effective utilization and transfer of technology will be at the heart of the BRI. Further to this, as BRI members develop, there will be greater demand for advanced technologies, wherever they come from.
‘Technology’ covers the development and utilization of technical capabilities in relation to people and the environment. Technologies are material and non-material or digital inventions that have enabled human beings to survive, thrive and advance, and they ought not to be considered in isolation from the era or the societies in which they exist. Rapid technological improvements hurtle towards an almost inevitable inflection point regarding common considerations of society and individuals. Ubiquitous technology companies now wield previously unimaginable power. Through direct or indirect data mining they know the deepest secrets of millions of people. Data driven algorithms are used to steer preferences and are used to undermine trust through information filtering and belief reinforcement, and yet trust is the key element to maximising technological capability. Lack of trust in governments, powerful individuals and initiatives which drive future technological development creates debilitating social ambivalence towards the evolution and use of technology and this in turn weakens the political decision making required for true technological success.
For China, technology and success are almost synonymous and the ‘Made in China 2025’ strategic plan is the blueprint of China’s intent for seizing leadership in advanced technology. It is a world leader in digital payment systems and the intent is to surge forward in ICT, artificial intelligence, robotics, high-speed railways, biotech and medical technology, pharmaceuticals, space technology, renewables, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, nuclear-energy, and military technology. To fuel this surge China needs access, one way or another, to commodities from developing countries or cutting-edge technology from developed countries.
The danger from the current global crisis has showcased China’s strategic biotech capabilities. Chinese leadership in other key technology sectors can be noted from its young, large, and ambitious technology workforce, its recent accounting for a third of all space-launches, its pushing ahead with ambitious plans for cleaner and safer next-generation nuclear power, and its acknowledged strength in 5G telecom networks and digital platforms. With this in mind, we can see that China’s ‘Technological Tianxia’ will be one of fast, technologically driven economic and social change with a centrally managed approach, including the use of technology for military and power-projection. The speed of this change is considerable. China took just over a decade for over a billion people to double industrial output per person. In comparison, the UK took well over a century and the US took about half a century. The technology driven vision of the future will be a distinctive factor for an imagined community such as the BRI and this vision will be driven by Chinese technology prophets, entrepreneurs, influencers, and venture capitalists.
The institutional base underpinning the BRI in China in both its physical and digital forms, continues the long tradition of a unified Confucian ruling entity which seeks to represent the interests of the whole of society, which contrasts with a Western-style political party approach. The Chinese political culture is characterized by valuing a longer-term vision and a more holistic perception of politics which places high value on the country’s long-term stability and prosperity. China has become an increasingly potent rival because of its economic and technological prowess.
Rapid technological innovation has blurred the boundaries separating war and peace resulting in the growth of ‘hybrid’ conflict, which, coupled with the potential for ‘sub-threshold’ conflict and increasing involvement by non-state actors, means that hybrid conflict could become pervasive, occurring without the limits of geography. This is especially notable in cyberspace which has become a volatile zone with military, business and non-state capabilities becoming increasingly based on critical real-time systems.
Rapid technological improvements suggest that more conflict may occur between human-controlled or autonomous-machines; and coupled with growing artificial intelligence this could alter not just the approach to war but the very nature of war itself. Increased use of artificial intelligence in all spheres could inadvertently trigger conflicts if there are not adequate levels of international governance available. There is justifiable unease and distrust in many parts of the world arising from the interconnection between China’s political system, its national mission, power projection capabilities and its increasing technology dominance, in the marketplace as well as the political and military spheres.
Given the current Chinese approach to capitalism, security, and power; it is almost unimaginable that a Chinese technology company will say no to government requests for data. Fears sparked by the potential for sensitive citizen data being handed over by the likes of Huawei to the Chinese government, has led Western governments to repeatedly challenge Chinese companies and the state over cybersecurity, standards, and Chinese ambitions to radically overhaul the internet. Given these trajectories we need to embrace a future in which large powerful technology companies in China and the West are incentivized to collaborate to keep a dystopian future at bay.
© Carl Michael 2021