China has the second largest economy in the world, valued by the International Monetary Fund in 2018 at $14 trillion – not far behind the US at $20.4 trillion.

And now, with a view to narrowing that gap, the country is embarking on a huge programme of digital infrastructure expansion that’s been named the Digital Silk Road – a reference not to dark web drug supermarkets, but to ancient trade routes linking east and west that date back to Biblical times.

In 2013, the Chinese government announced the ‘belt and road initiative’ (BRI), a major 21st-century overhaul of the various roads, railways and ports that connect China with central Asia and Europe. Somewhat counterintuitively, the ‘belt’ in the name refers to overland routes, the ‘road’ to sea routes but, in 2015, China announced plans for a third component – the Digital Silk Road.

This is a wide-ranging project, but it will have two key aspects. Firstly, China will be providing upgraded internet connections in the form of new undersea cables linking east and west, as well as the roll-out of broadband in countries en route where such infrastructure is under-developed or non-existent, boosting their economies. And, secondly, China’s BeiDou satellite navigation network is to be massively expanded so that it becomes a true, global rival to the US-owned GPS system.

Big bucks

The numbers involved are staggering. Chinese firm ZTE, for instance, was recently given a $23 million loan by the World Bank to develop a fibre-optic network in Afghanistan, while another $32 million has been earmarked for dealing with environmental challenges posed by the development works – just two of dozens, if not hundreds, of different projects falling under the Digital Silk Road banner.

And that’s not to mention the estimated $25 billion cost of expanding the BeiDou network from a mere 17 satellites covering the Far East, to 35 covering the entire world. The new satellites have already been launched – one of the biggest projects for 2019 will be commissioning them and bringing them online.

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In total, the Digital Silk Road alone (in other words, not counting the rest of the BRI project) is estimated to involve nearly $200 billion’s worth of investment. This will undoubtedly give a huge boost to the Chinese economy, as well as to countries such as India, Pakistan and Nepal, but some observers in the West have expressed their unease.

They argue that China’s extensive surveillance and censorship, makes it unfit to ‘own’ such a large chunk of the world’s communications infrastructure – and point out that satellites that can guide drivers, can also guide missiles.


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Russell Deeks is a freelance writer with nearly 30 years’ journalism experience, working across the fields of music, technology and science – which, he says, cross over more often than you might think. Despite the drawback of holding a degree in English & American Literature, he has been a regular contributor to BBC Science Focus since 2006.