Understanding the Digital Silk Road

Justin Hendrix / Jun 23, 2024

Audio of this conversation is available via your favorite podcast service.

In October 2023, during the third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China's leader Xi Jinping signaled a shift in focus from more grandiose physical infrastructure projects to 'small yet smart' initiatives. This shift underscores the need to understand China's ambitions to reshape global digital governance, moving away from an open and free internet towards a model rooted in government control and mass surveillance.

The advocacy group Article 19 documents this shift in a recent report titled "The Digital Silk Road: China and the Rise of Digital Repression in the Indo-Pacific," examining China's influence on digital infrastructure and governance in Cambodia, Malaysia, Nepal, and Thailand. As the Indo-Pacific remains strategically significant for China in deploying next-generation technologies, the report argues that assessing China’s regional partnerships and their implications for digital repression is crucial for understanding its broader ambitions to reshape global digital norms.

To discuss these issues in more depth, Justin Hendrix is joined by:

  • Michael Caster, Asia Digital Program Manager at ARTICLE 19; and
  • Catherine Tai, the deputy director for Asia and the Pacific team at Center for International Enterprise (CIPE).

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.

Catherine Tai:

My name is Cathy Tai. I'm the deputy director for Asia and the Pacific team at Center for International Enterprise, CIPE. My work at CIPE is usually about, we talk to business associations on how do we promote market economy, market oriented reforms, but in recent years, Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure and Chinese investment has become a major topic of concern.

Michael Caster:

My name is Michael Caster. I'm the Asia digital program manager with Article 19.

Justin Hendrix:

And Michael, this conversation was prompted by a report that you helped to author called The Digital Silk Road: China and the Rise of Digital Repression in the Indo-Pacific. That's going to be the topic of our discussion today. Both of you have looked at this question in a couple of different ways. Want to just start by asking the question, what is the digital silk road? Just to contextualize it in the most basic terms.

Michael Caster:

Sure, thanks. And I think it's a really good question, because there isn't necessarily a uniform definition. It's an umbrella concept for evolving digital policies and priorities under China's larger Belt and Road Initiative. And so rather than think of the digital silk road as a distinct policy on its own, it's a patchwork of evolving parties, priorities, investments, and strategies aimed at executing Xi Jinping's ambition for China to become a global technological superpower by developing the technologies and policies to poetically and alarmingly rewire the world and rewrite the rules that govern the digital space.

And so we can trace back the evolution of the digital silk road as an evolving concept to a document from China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology 10 years ago in 2014, when it started to first lay out some of the connections it wanted to see between data, information communication technologies, and the then quite nascent BRI, or Belt and Road initiative.

And then it was formally introduced a year later in 2015 in a white paper by the National Development and Reform Commission. So initially it was talking about things like rolling out backbone networks, fiber optic undersea cables, satellite technology exchanges, and it's evolved over time to include a number of other things, like AI, emerging technologies, and certainly intersecting with China's ambitions to be a global norms and standards setter.

Catherine Tai:

Just want to add very quickly, I think Michael touch on what digital silk road is, and I just want to quickly talk about how digital silk road is being perceived, because there's a huge infrastructure deficit around the world. So in developing countries, they really are excited about what China is promising. So it's really making a splash everywhere. It's actually quite popular, because China can offer affordable telecommunication infrastructure, so that's a hard infrastructure and usually it's done by Chinese national champions. So in terms of the ability to provide at affordable price range, that really is something welcomed by many developing countries.

And so that's the hard infrastructure part. And then on the soft infrastructure part, China also is trying to push and promote digital economy. So China is trying to connect its own domestic digital economy and promote its digital giants. ByteDance, TikTok, the likes of Ali in terms of cloud computing, in terms of data center, in terms of how they can better utilize these digital platforms overseas to collect and amass huge amount of data. So I think when we are looking at the digital silk road, there's this hard infrastructure, but then there's also the soft infrastructure part.

Justin Hendrix:

So basically there seem to be two things on offer. One is the infrastructure that regular people recognize as being very valuable to them, the ability to communicate, faster internet, possibly cheaper internet I assume. And then there's the sort of backbone infrastructure that comes along with that, the fiber optic systems, the 5G systems, much of that harder infrastructure that is the province of telecom firms and in some cases governments.

But Michael, in your report you also chronicle the fact that there's another main sales point here, which is networking authoritarianism. That seems to be one of the main things that's on offer, the ability for governments to control all that internet traffic and be aware of what's passing through the pipes.

Michael Caster:

Yeah, definitely. And I definitely want to echo too, I think what Cathy said is really an important thing to recognize, both in just acknowledging that it is popular because there is a need for connectivity, there is a need for digital development in many parts of the world. And I think that we have to begin our understanding of the digital silk road and the problematization there with that understanding, because we're not going to have good recommendations, we're not going to be able to address where this leads to human rights abuses, if we don't acknowledge at the end of the day that people need support with connectivity. And if actors are not stepping in to support that, then it leaves such a big vacuum open for China to come in and to provide that connectivity support.

And really one of the problems why it's so alarming that it is China doing this is because it's not just providing the infrastructure for connectivity. As it's rolling out new digital infrastructure, it's also supporting through knowledge exchanges, through policy exchanges, through signing various MOUs. So it's the digital infrastructure, but also, governments that are signing up for these agreements need new laws, new regulations, new policies for that new digital infrastructure. And so that's then leading to an embrace of China's model of digital governance, which in large part promotes a type of digital authoritarianism, a type of very state controlled, top-down, non-transparent... A lot of really alarming concerns.

And what we've seen, perhaps, in the region is how this has played out in tandem. And one area that I think is particularly emblematic is the support for greater network infrastructure, combined with the support or the embrace of a lot of these countries for this type of centralized total network control from China, emulating the Great Firewall. So in 2021 in Cambodia, the subdecree on the establishment of a National Internet Gateway came into force, which basically calls for the creation of a Cambodian version of the Great Firewall.

There the political will is still very much there. There's technical capacity, so it hasn't been implemented or rolled out in full. In Thailand, in 2015 and again in late 2022, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society came out saying, "We need a single internet gateway." They called it there, but basically pointing to what China's doing in this very totalizing control, saying that they need to adopt something there. In Nepal, last year in August, Nepal put out a national cybersecurity policy. We've written about this at Tech Policy Press. In the national cybersecurity policy, it calls again for the adoption of a national gateway of some form. And right now, Pakistan is still in these unfolding conversations to try and get the technology from China to implement a China-style Great Firewall.

And so we're seeing this sort of tandem approach of rolling out the network infrastructure and the governance of that infrastructure, leading to the Great Firewall is really the epitome of that state-controlled internet or the blueprint for a global splinternet away from the free, open, and interoperable internet that we want to see. And so this, again, is why it's so alarming when... Absolutely, addressing those connectivity needs, but doing so based on a model that really promotes a type of authoritarian governance, rather than, again, multi-stakeholder, transparent, rights-based approach.

Justin Hendrix:

Cathy, in addition to the countries that Michael's looked at in his report, you've studied this issue in other nations as well, including the Philippines. Maybe as another example, just in addition to Thailand, Nepal, Malaysia, Cambodia that Michael's offered up here and covered in the report, tell us what's happening in the Philippines and how it relates to this issue.

Catherine Tai:

So in the Philippines, I think the situation a little bit different, because the Philippines, it is a democratic country. And so what we are seeing in the Philippines is that in addition to the general common challenges of Belt and Road projects, that is lack of transparency, it violates and also bypass the local procurement laws and rules, the additional risks that our case study identifies through the documentation of this DITO Telecom case study.

So basically DITO Telecom, it's the third largest telecommunication joint venture between China Telecom, which is a state-owned company from PRC, and a local company, Mislatel. So led by a tycoon, Dennis Uy, basically this tycoon has been a very strong supporter and then also donator to President Duterte's campaign when he was running for presidential election, and some other bidders that were participating to try to become the third largest telecommunication company in the Philippines were somehow disqualified for reasons that's just not clear.

And so eventually what you have in the Philippines is that China and the Philippines still have territorial dispute, and you have a Chinese state-owned firms that has a very large stake to operate and then to run telecommunication towers in the Philippines. And the armed forces of the Philippines basically identify that there will be a national security threat, because they have territorial dispute, because the Chinese telecommunication companies will be able to collect information based on Chinese laws.

There's a Chinese law, the National Intelligence Law that was introduced, implemented in 2017, basically stated that Chinese entities, so Chinese personnel, Chinese companies, in this case the China telecom, they are required to support, assist, and collaborate with the intelligence work of PRC. So I was told by my friends from China that if you're a state-owned company and if you work for state-owned companies, that was a tacit rule, that it's your obligation to share any sort of intelligence that you have gathered. But here in 2017, basically it's written into a law. But they basically turn a more tacit understanding into a legal document that everyone has to follow and abide by. So this is something that the partner has identified and think this is a violation of privacy, of data security, of many things, and that's something that a lot of countries and personnel, they need to be paying attention to.

Another project that was proposed also during Duterte era, so say Philippines, basically the idea was they want to deploy 4,000 cameras around Metro Manila to basically make the city safer, because make the city safer or make the country safer was the campaign slogan of Duterte when he was running for the president. So that was something very important to him. But because the implementer is or was going to be Huawei, and Huawei was banned by a few countries because of some violations but also national security threat, the Safe Philippine project eventually was stalled, because strong pushback domestically from the Filipino citizens and journalists and different outlets and agencies. But the DITO Telecom, it's still ongoing. China Telecom is still the joint venture partner of DITO Telecom in that case.

Justin Hendrix:

Michael, you make all the right claims in your report about concerns on free expression. You appeal to United Nations principles on human rights and free expression. You talk about the potential dangers. What do you see as potentially countering this strategy by China to convince these countries to emulate its approach and to adopt its technology? Are any of the powers that be, whether it's western countries or western companies in a position at all to intervene?

Michael Caster:

Yeah, I think that's a difficult one, right? Definitely it goes back to, I think, beginning with, again, that realization that there is a need for digital development and connectivity. And one of the problems is that right now, China is a leading actor providing that support.

Now unfortunately, often that support is tied up with also the adoption of this very authoritarian model of digital governance. Or for example, like in Nepal, we see a sort of quid pro quo, where Nepal will call for various development partners to provide more economic and development support, including for digital infrastructure. And in the case of China, it's calling on China to provide this support. And in exchange, Nepal is adopting China's One China policy and its position on Tibet, which has unfortunately meant that in Nepal, this type of quid pro quo has led to the Nepali government really just increasingly cracking down on and itself perpetuating human rights abuses against Tibetans in Nepal.

And so to counteract some of these types of trends, one thing that we really need to see is just more resources being made available to support connectivity and internet development around the world. And the support should definitely be coming from and being based on human rights principles, internet freedom principles, support from countries that have a rule of law or a democratic tradition that can provide the support needed to develop infrastructure connectivity away from this reliance on China. Because then within that vacuum, China comes in and pushes its own agenda as well.

Also, I think we really need to see more governments, more tech companies in particular, moving away from this, I think counterproductive narrative that sort of says, "If not us, then China." And so there's also a number of these cases where we find governments or tech companies from democratic or rule of law respecting countries saying, "Yes, these governments might be building a repressive digital apparatus, ecosystems, infrastructure, and we'll provide them the tools and technology that they need to develop. It's better that it's us than Huawei or ZTE or something."

So in the Cambodia case for example, I remember in Cambodia a few years ago, I was speaking with someone, a senior official at an embassy from, let's say the democratic like-minded countries, who was almost promoting the fact that they had been promoting a company from their country to help Cambodia with the development of the National Internet Gateway, saying, "At least it's us and not China doing that." But again, historically, we just remember, what was the origin of the Great Firewall in China?

Before China became the technological powerhouse that it is today, it relied heavily on a foreign company, Cisco, to build out its Great Firewall. While we need to see more resources being made available to support digital development and connectivity, we also need to ensure that countries and companies aren't stepping in and just saying, "Okay, we'll help you to develop this potentially rights-abusing infrastructure, and it's better that it's us than China."

It really then pulls back to, then, these issues that companies have responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Countries have obligations under international human rights principles. We need to see adherence to this, and we need to push for more transparency, certainly human rights impact assessments, due diligence, greater transparency at every step of the process, which is both for the countries or companies that are stepping into help with these things, but also ensuring that civil society, independent journalists, experts in the tech sector, academia and others in these countries, are able themselves to do the research, do the investigation, do the documentation with any partnership that's being rolled out to ensure that they are all compliant and ultimately in their best interest.

So again, human rights principles, more resources, greater transparency. Top line, I think these are some of the things. Easier said than done, of course, but I think we need to keep these in mind as we look for solutions.

Catherine Tai:

So if I may add on top of that, I think Michael really touched on something that's really important. When we talk to partner countries in developing world, our question's "Aren't you scared that China has amassed all these data?" And then the response that we got was, people are worried about if they have the next meal on the table, so how much does data worth to them? That's maybe the 10th, 20s even for intellectuals, right? And then for everyday citizens, they might not even think about it because that's not really their priority. So how can we better communicate about data, right? About China's use of digital companies, very large national champions, in developing countries? I think we really are having difficulty, and then that's a really big challenge for us, to make people care.

And the second thing I do want to mention is, I found it interesting that a lot of times, people take whatever China offers without asking, "Why is China offering this?" And so I think there's also a little bit gap in terms of understanding the intentions from the PRC side. So does China offering cheaper, more affordable infrastructure because they want to offload the industrial capacity, or do they want to do that because they are trying to explore the governance model? Or maybe both. So I think just asking why China is offering this and then better understand the dynamic of it would also be really helpful to try to mitigate some of the potential risks that some of the digital silk road infrastructure projects that brought.

Last is that there are some newer and more recent laws from China that have extraterritorial reach. As I mentioned earlier, the National Intelligence Law. China also has data security law and personal information protection law. And then I think in your previous episodes you talk about the national security law of Hong Kong. I think more and more regulations coming out of PRC and Hong Kong that have extraterritorial reach, and when it comes to data, when it comes to privacy, even if you're outside of China, your rights might still be violated. So I really think that's the part that more awareness about this topic will be very helpful.

Justin Hendrix:

Maybe I'll ask you both. Is there a country that you've studied that you think does demonstrate the sort of effort amongst civil society groups, media, other types of entities that need to come together to help to scrutinize these deals, help to scrutinize these laws, and perhaps advocate in favor of alternatives? Is there one particular place where you'd point to and say, "That's a success story," or at least the beginnings of the success story?

Catherine Tai:

The Philippines actually offer a pretty good example, because that shows that people are asking the right questions, right? Do we get a good deal? Is our national security being threatened and undermined? Is our privacy being protected? So I think they're asking the right questions. And we've seen similar dynamic being played out in Indonesia, in Malaysia. They are debating if they should go with western carriers or Chinese carriers.

So I think as long as these questions are being asked, and then there are genuine debates and discussions within these societies, and then after they weigh the pros and cons, say, "Because of the price, we still decided to go with Chinese carriers," I think that's acceptable, because they already had that discussions and they are making the best decision they think they're making. But I think in a lot of countries what we are not seeing is we don't see that sort of discussions and debates. But I think another thing is, this also has high correlation to how open the society is, how democratic the country is, to allow these sort of debates and different opinions to really take place.

Michael Caster:

Building on that, again, it's back to that emphasis on transparency and access to information and the ability to make informed decisions right after weighing the impact. Human rights due diligence is really important at every stage, right? And transparency by design to ensure that, again, if a possible partnership with a Chinese telco or other, say, digital infrastructure or provider is being discussed, that you have all the information necessary to make an assessment of that.

And that includes what is often the case, these are companies that are coming in that are presenting themselves as independent of the state or independent of the Communist Party, as authentic private economy, private companies. In China over the last several decades, there's been a variety of laws, from 1993's company law up to most recently a directive from the council on strengthening the united front work in the private economy, and the united front work is like China's influence and manipulation efforts.

What we see from this is, again, a role for the private sector, particularly in these strategic industries like tech and along the Belt and Road Initiative countries, is to, and this is directly from in the party's own words, quote, "unswervingly serve the party," and to promote positive influence, positive image of China. So we also find that you have to peel back the various layers of the onion sometimes to reveal where the party influence is controlling, influencing, manipulating what these erstwhile private actors are engaging in.

So it's not often that it's a public-private partnership with a Chinese company coming in, signing an agreement, say, with the government of Malaysia or Philippines or Indonesia or whatever. But there's really a lot more layers there that need to be unpacked and need to be understood how they operate in terms of pushing influence, pushing agendas, and so forth. So I think that's definitely one element that needs to be supported and worked on a lot more.

The US recently put out its Indo-Pacific strategy, and it calls for things like deepening treaty alliances with Australia, Japan, Korea, the Philippines is in there as well, but also strengthening new relationships with Indonesia. And Vietnam is a tricky one of course, because the US has increasingly embraced or signed strategic partnerships with Vietnam as a bulwark against China's rise, when in fact Vietnam is very much so a digital dictatorship in and of itself. And that's a whole other conversation for another episode, right? But it's this embrace of Vietnam because it's better Vietnam than China, right? So it's not ensuring that there's uniformity to how these principles are being adopted and pursued.

But there is mention of Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific strategy, and I do think, back to your question, and Cathy may have many other comments here because Cathy, I know, is from Taiwan, but Taiwan, I think, does offer a number of really good examples, particularly in... One thing I left out earlier that we need to keep in mind is multi-stakeholderism, right? The approach to all of this digital governance conversation needs to be based on multi-stakeholderism.

And I think one thing that Taiwan, as a better practice, can offer is the vibrancy of its civic tech community and how you have civil society, from legal aid practitioners, journalists, technologists, engineers, parliamentarians and so forth, engaging in this sort of process of pushing transparency, pushing multi-stakeholder approach to infrastructure, governance, connectivity, all of these things that I think are really important.

And I think Taiwan has a lot of, obviously, very advanced technologies, and the role that Taiwan can play in all of this, I think really is valuable to explore further. And so I think there's definitely a lot of good practices that could be learned from and greater integration, certainly, of Taiwan's civic tech community with civil society in the rest of the region, who are grappling with some of these same issues.

Catherine Tai:

Can I just add something on the multi-stakeholder approach? I think this is a really important point. I remember four or five years ago when I went to the United Nation Internet Governance Forum, it's supposed to multi-stake approach, right? And then when you look at civil society groups and representation from Russia and China, in my opinion it really was absent. Because really, a genuine civil society group from China will not be able to attend. I think that also shows how important a genuine multi-stakeholder approach should be, but in practice it's also not happening in a lot of other countries.

Justin Hendrix:

Could I maybe ask the two of you to comment about the UN and its role in this? Michael, in your report, you do talk about some of the same things that Cathy just brought up, the need to ensure interoperability, multi-stakeholderism over multilateralism, and China's approach to digital sovereignty. You also appeal, of course, to various UN documents. You talk about the idea that the UN, governments, and the Freedom Online Coalition need to work together. What do you think of as the right role for the UN here? Is it doing the right things at the moment?

Michael Caster:

The UN is important for a lot of reasons, and China's identified that quite early on. It has been pushing a fairly systematic approach to how it's engaged with the UN, and some people might say hijacked the UN. And this goes across all UN agencies, not just the human rights mechanisms, and in particular those that deal with technological standards or various sort of digital regulations.

But one example perhaps of China's influence that the UN is, recently the special rapporteur on unilateral sanctions did a country visit to China, and part of her concluding observations was basically to say that the sanctions on China... Which, again, have been imposed because of widespread and systematic human rights abuses, many of them targeting Uyghurs and Tibetans and other ethnic minorities, amounting to acts of genocide in some places. But this supposedly independent expert of the Human Rights Council said that these sanctions are contrary to human rights principles, they are infringing on China's rights and development and so forth.

It's worth pointing out that China gave $200,000 earmarked specifically for that mandate holder, and this is a narrative that China has been pushing within the human rights mechanisms. Look at the International Telecommunications Union. China has been definitely using committee appointments, working group appointments, nearly the chairmanship of the ITU at its last election, or was it a year ago, two years ago I guess now, efforts to retain a high level of influence.

This is significant, because these are institutions that are having conversations at the global level about norms, human rights norms or technical and digital norms. China's been very active at the ITU on certain artificial intelligence or facial recognition norms. Right now at the UN General Assembly, as we are speaking, member states are negotiating a draft from China on a resolution on AI, and China's pushing its language into the global digital compact. Its language, which steers these documents very much away from, again, that multi-stakeholder, free, open, interoperable approach, using language of safety, security, national security to twist narratives away from the universality of human rights into this sense that sovereignty and national interest trump commitments to international and universal norms.

China's been, I think, quite good at positioning itself in these types of bodies. And then we look at, again, we go back to the region, the Indo-Pacific, through digital silk road partnerships, and we can look in other parts of the world and see similar phenomena playing out. But national level, or let's say bilateral, agreements are signed, adopting Chinese technologies, Chinese norms or standards on those technologies. They then become slowly normalized throughout more countries partnering with China on the adoption of certain tools and technologies, which makes it then easier to push at the international level that these norms are, well, norms. Right?

So I think this is really alarming, and this is why I think we need to approach what China's doing at the regional level and at the inter-regional level through its digital silk road partnerships, very much also as part of its efforts at international norm setting, whether it's through standards development organizations like the IETF or IEEE or the ITU, or obviously, from a human rights perspective, from the Human Rights Council, and so on and so forth.

Catherine Tai:

I think Michael gave a really great, comprehensive overview of basically peoples have been thinking about the cooptation of China into many different organizations, international organizations. The word, the verbiage that's used at the UN at many different locations. So then they basically take China's initiative and then turn it into UN language, like "global development initiative," "common prosperity," these sort of things. It's very easy to find.

And as Michael said, China's intentional influence, infiltration into standard setting bodies, it's also very well documented. I think one thing that's worth watching is how China is influencing digital governance discussion agreements and dialogue at regional level, especially in ASEAN. This year ASEAN is doing this DEFA, the Digital Economy Framework Agreement, so it's the first regional bloc dialogue on digital governance. And so how China influences it or not, I think it's definitely worth watching.

Michael Caster:

I hadn't actually been thinking about this for a while, until just last week it popped back into my mind, but a few years ago, around 2020, 2021, when secretariat actually had announced plans to partner with Tencent to manage all of its video conferencing. And it took a concerted effort from human rights groups around the world, both those working on China and more broadly, to put pressure on the secretariat to withdraw this partnership with Tencent.

Tencent is behind WeChat and other Chinese platforms that are known for very high levels of censorship and surveillance, particularly sensitive topics like Uyghurs, Dalai Lama, Tibet, Taiwan, things like this. And this is supposed to be a platform that would be used for conversation, communication at the global level as part of the UN secretary organized millennium development communication, when these are topics that are absolutely necessary to discuss, and yet on a platform that is known for dropping calls, censoring this kind of content, or at least acquiring and misappropriating user data on those platforms.

So again, it's just a sign that whether or not it's a matter of willful ignorance or just not caring, or again going with where the money is, if China is contributing more money to the secretariat, more money to different UN agencies, then it's going to gain more influence and more control. So I think it also goes back to the need to recognize the value of member states making financial contributions also to back up their principles.

Justin Hendrix:

Michael, in your report, you make recommendations to the United States, and a lot of those are about things like treaty alliances, things like supporting internet freedom efforts and things of that nature. Is there a sense, though, perhaps in the countries that you're traveling to there and the ones that you cover in these reports, that one of the arguments in favor of the Chinese alternative is that all this internet freedom talk is really just, I guess, code word for US or Western influence, and that really there's a double standard here, and that these countries aren't so committed to freedom of expression and what have you as they say they are.? Do you encounter that as a strong argument along this digital silk road?

Michael Caster:

That's the argument from the repressive states, certainly. Populations in these countries, as much as people don't want to be tortured, don't want to be subjected to enforced disappearance or arbitrary deprivation of their liberty, these core human rights, people also want freedom online. They want to be able to express themselves. They want to be able to assemble and associate with their peers online free of coercion, or not being concerned that what they say or do online will lead to them being detained or ill-treated by the authorities.

I think these types of narratives are common, right? They're common. China, Russia, Iran, a number of countries around the world that are the serial rights abusers, push this narrative that universality of human rights is just a western concept, but it's devoid of history. Right? Pen-Chun Chang, P.C. Chang, was on the drafting committee for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was Chinese. There were others from around the world who were part of drafting the core documents of the human rights mechanisms, as are there today a global coalition of states, part of setting and negotiating and enforcing internet freedom or other fundamental rights online. It's certainly not a Western only concept.

Korea, for example, just joined the Freedom Online Coalition. There's definitely value in greater unity among the democratic states and Asia and other parts of the world. There's definitely... As much as there's a greater role that Taiwan can play within this, same with Korea, same with Japan, at least if we look at the Indo-Pacific, go around the world and see that.

So I do think civil society can push back more on that narrative, but also we need to have their back, right? Because many of these are repressive states pushing these narratives to delegitimize the grievances of their people and their populations, who are often then subjected to pretty horrible reprisal when they try and actually express their heartfelt belief and desire and call out for greater rights. Again, whether that's greater rights online or in the physical world.

Justin Hendrix:

Cathy, anything to add there?

Catherine Tai:

We're looking at how to mitigate the risks of these large digital infrastructure projects. So one thing that we're trying to do more is to show that there are alternatives. Because one thing we often get is that there's nothing but Chinese telecom infrastructure is affordable. And I think that's something the US, the Japanese, the Koreans' companies are realizing.

One thing that we are noticing is that there are more joint collaboration between some Asian telecommunication firms and US firms and some other European firms. And then to show that there are alternatives to Chinese investments that are providing higher level of transparency and that are bringing more benefits to local communities. And so for us, it's about mitigating the risk, but also trying to make most of some of these infrastructures that are bridging digital divide or increasing internet connectivity.

Justin Hendrix:

I should ask you both if there's some moment in time, or some event that you're watching very closely that's going to happen in the near term, that will signal for you some direction on these matters, something that you think is crucial that's coming up in the next few months.

Michael Caster:

I think there's sort of maybe two things that are related.

In theory, Hong Kong this year is supposed to put forward a cybersecurity law. I think it's going to be important to see what happens there, just because it's part of the alarming deterioration in internet freedom in Hong Kong, which we've talked about before, but also because I think we can get another view into this particular piece of digital governance that is really, I think, one of the prevailing trends where China has had a great deal of influence, around the region at least, if not around the world.

Even in countries that are supposedly more closely aligned, let's say, with the US to follow China's rise like Vietnam, their Vietnam cybersecurity law, a number of articles very closely resembled China's. We see close collaboration and learning in Cambodia, in Malaysia. Couple years ago at the International Telecommunications Union plenipotentiary, Malaysia and China signed an MOU on cooperation on cybersecurity, and then just earlier this year, Malaysia pushed out a cybersecurity law, which has a number of problematic provisions.

So I think cybersecurity is one area where, in China's policies and priorities, we've seen over the last few years, in its own words if pushed, this is an area that it wants to accelerate its partnerships and influence. And I think we will need to follow this as a thematic area. Article 19 is launching some new activities directly, and monitoring and hoping to build capacity among civil society in the region around China's influence over cybersecurity norms that we're looking forward to.

I think the other thing just to keep in mind is, last year at the third Belt and Road Forum, Xi Jinping said, the 10th anniversary of the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, moving away from the grandiose infrastructure projects to small but smart, or small but beautiful, projects. So some of this is on EV and green stuff, but a lot of it's digital.

So I think we are definitely going to see re-evaluating and then revamping where China's positioning itself in the digital space. Cybersecurity norms, certainly one. Artificial intelligence, definitely one. And I think there's a few others really worth continuing to follow. And learning from what's happening in the Indo-Pacific, in partnerships closest to China where a lot of its piloting projects and policies are rolled out, and then to learn from that, to have a better sense of what some of these things are going to mean, perhaps more at the global level.

Catherine Tai:

So what I will be watching is a lot of countries started to pay attention to economic security issues. Economic security is actually quite big in Japan, and then also on critical infrastructure including telecommunication, national grid, these sort of basic infrastructure. And of course, Japan doesn't want to rely on a single country over these issues, and then it's being very proactive in doing this. And so I would be curious to see how other Indo-Pacific, Asian countries, even Europe, approach this economic security issue, especially when it comes to critical infrastructure.

And as Michael said, the newer, more evolved version of the BRI is smaller yet beautiful, and digital space is definitely something that China is going to put a lot of effort into. So how developing countries try to manage and the divestment of the TikTok issue... So these are very large Chinese tech companies that are very present in a lot of different economies. So I think this will be the area that we pay more attention to.

Justin Hendrix:

A great deal more to research and investigate as those events unfold in the next few months. I appreciate the two of you telling me about these things and taking us on a tour of the developments across these various countries across Asia. Thank you.

Catherine Tai:

Thank you.

Michael Caster:

Thank you very much.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...