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Central Asia and Gulf States Are Key Battlegrounds in China’s Cyberspace Bid

  • Beijing sees cyberspace as a strategic battlefield in the evolution of US-China rivalry, with both Central Asia and the Gulf important arenas
  • China has for decades tried to establish international digital-governance norms and standards that align with its own values and vision of cyberspace

Despite coping with several negative economic factors, including the coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising oil prices, the economies of Central Asia and the Gulf states are both forecast for growth – in part due to advanced Chinese technologies.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development expects Central Asia’s gross domestic product to grow by 4.9 per cent in 2023. Rising oil prices are also breathing new life into Gulf monarchies’ post-oil economy development drive, with the International Monetary Fund predicting regional growth. The IMF forecasts that the United Arab Emirates will be the fastest growing Gulf economy this year at 4.2 per cent, just ahead of Oman at 4.1 per cent, and Saudi Arabia’s 3.7 per cent.

In both regions, economic development is mainly anchored on Made in China technologies. Washington’s call to remove all civilian and military networks from Beijing’s digital embrace resonates in the Middle East, but its echo is lost in Central Asia.

Since the 1990s, Beijing has openly stated cyberspace is a strategic battlefield in the evolution of the US-China balance of power, and both Central Asia and the Gulf are decisive arenas in that battle.

Both regions rely on a young and digitally savvy population and an authoritarian decision-making process that fits well with China’s “no questions asked” transfer of cutting-edge technology. China has, over the last three decades, managed to secure its own national cyberspace – creating a “cyber fortress” to preserve state security according to Communist Party values – and is now poised to export its cyber norms.

In Central Asia, China’s near abroad, the Chinese policy banks actively subsidise new technologies from information and communication technologies to AI-controlled facial recognition.

Riyadh and Dubai are looking at Beijing’s one-stop shop as a way to become regional leaders in the Middle East and North Africa in the development of blockchain technologies and central bank digital currencies. In both cases, technology transfers via the digital silk road are a core component of China’s internationalisation of its visions and values ​​in cyberspace, which include a state-centric approach to digital governance.

The increasing complexity of interaction between the real and virtual worlds is only just being appreciated in the West, which still considers the internet an open and free communication space. However, countries like China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia – where the control of information is paramount in running the state machine – have a vision of cyberspace opposite to that of the West.

While full digital decoupling is not on the horizon, the increasing influence of Chinese standards and technologies is a cornerstone of Beijing’s cyber sovereignty strategy, in place of the Western open-internet model.

China’s hi-tech offer with no strings attached seems too good to be true, however. Beijing is not shy to state that Chinese cyberspace is an integral part of China’s national territory – a far-reaching concept – which triggers several laws related, but not exclusive, to the digital domain but also to national security.

Following the “two sessions” in March, China’s State Council stressed the importance of technology self-reliance for long-term growth. While reform of the Ministry of Science and Technology is aimed at a more vital and far-reaching organisation, Beijing’s control over big data started many years before.

All along the digital silk road, the impact of Beijing’s centralised control of big data is extensive, supported by a growing set of norms and regulations. China’s cyber fortress counts on three sets of laws governing data processing activities: the Cybersecurity Law; the Data Security Law (DSL); and the Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL).

These laws govern most data protection and set the rules for data management and flow across China’s borders. Also, PIPL and DSL include long-arm jurisdiction that applies to organisations’ data-processing activities and personal-information flow outside China, if such events affect Chinese national security.

In this respect, the impact of Chinese-style cyber sovereignty from Central Asia to the Gulf is based on two overlapping tactics. The first relates to the digital silk road’s infrastructural expansion from fibre optical cables to data centres and smart cities.

The second is China’s decades-long effort to establish international norms and standards. One example is Beijing’s growing interest in the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations’ specialised agency responsible for all matters relating to information and communication technologies.

The increasing influence of Beijing’s hi-tech industries and their expansion from Central Asia and the Gulf states is a significant victory for China

In this respect, China’s concept of cyber sovereignty is an economic and security pillar of Beijing’s strategic competition with the US. However, while China benefits from masses of data produced at home, currently used to fine-tune algorithms and specific artificial intelligence, the battle for digital supremacy continues.

The increasing influence of Beijing’s hi-tech industries and their expansion from Central Asia and the Gulf states is a significant victory for China, but it is not the end of the story.

Beijing’s ambitions for digital ascendancy are marred by intrinsic weakness derived from the Communist Party’s monolithic, top-down strategic planning and implementation approach. Namely, Beijing’s overreliance on big data tends to miss the human variable in the equation.

Especially in a state-enterprise culture rooted in a risk-averse mentality that hampers technological innovation and, most importantly, the needed flexibility in a fast-changing environment. Beijing addressed the problem for many years, establishing an international network to identify and recruit scientists worldwide.

It’s unclear whether renewed US efforts to curb Beijing’s appetite for foreign talent will hamper China’s quest for technological supremacy. Dealing with Beijing’s efforts to remake cyberspace in its image is like trying to pick up a drop of mercury with a fork. Stab it all you want, but when you try to pick it up, the drop just slips away.

Source: South China Morning Post