Home / Geopolitics / China’s Digital Silk Road to enahnce sci-tech innovation in One Belt, One Road initiative and fuel its military growth

China’s Digital Silk Road to enahnce sci-tech innovation in One Belt, One Road initiative and fuel its military growth

China is making rapid advancements in many technologies thus narrowing its gap with western world.  One of the strategy adopted by China to fuel its innovation engine is to have international research collaborations. During the period of the “Twelfth Five-Year Plan” (2011-2015), China’s international research collaboration partners grew to span 188 countries and regions around the world, enabling the country to assimilate into the global scientific community.The accelerated pace of China’s international scientific research collaboration papers from 2006 until 2015 was accompanied by a substantial increase in output of its research papers. China quadrupled its international collaboration research output to 71,000 papers in 2015 (4.4 times) from its 2006 output of 16,000 papers, becoming the world’s third most prolific academic research collaborating country.


One Belt, One Road Originally announced in fall 2013 refers to the New Silk Road Economic Belt, which will link China with Europe through Central and Western Asia, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which will connect China with Southeast Asian countries, Africa and Europe.


Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pet project, it is heavy on infrastructure—calling for new roads, railways, bridges, and ports—to recreate the overland and maritime trade routes that once led to China. Nearly 70 nations have agreed to cooperate in the plan, which aims to foster industrial development not only in the developing nations of Asia and Africa, but also in China’s western provinces, which have yet to share in the economic prosperity of the country’s coastal regions.The ambition is immense. China is spending roughly $150bn a year in the 68 countries that have signed up to the scheme.


The 2-day Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation  was organised in Beijing in May 2016. “Innovation is an important force powering development,” Xi said in a speech to the opening session of the forum. And so the initiative will include technical cooperation in fields including artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, and smart cities. He also mentioned the need to pursue economic growth that is in line with sustainable development goals, and that rests on environmentally friendly approaches.


The second Belt-Road Forum (BRF) was held in Beijing from 25-27 April 2019. The three-day event was organized to promote the ‘Belt-Road Initiative’ (BRI) – President Xi Jinping’s multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure development and investment venture. The Summit was attended by 40 global leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, China’s two closest allies. The gathering was larger than the first Summit held in 2017, which had just 29 participants. Among the new entrants were Austria, Portugal, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Thailand. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte became the first G7 leader to join the BRI.


It blends political, economic, technological and  strategic dimensions. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is revitalizing China’s economic and political ties with countries across the region. But, it is also redefining its research connections with those nations, including in Europe. During the Innovation Road, a sub-forum of the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, which was held in Beijing on April 2019, Science and Technology Daily reporter noticed that the subject was how best to cooperate with international partners and create the future together with innovation.


Alongside the physical infrastructure, another ambitious project on the anvil is the ‘digital silk road’ aimed at enhancing digital connectivity. This will enable Chinese dominance of 5G technology and networks, arousing concerns amongst Western nations. By 2018, China’s Beidou navigation satellite system had been widely used in transportation, land planning, precision agriculture, and other civil areas in over 30 countries and regions along the “Belt and Road” route, and it is the information and communication technology that supports the construction of land and sea cables and backbone networks in 12 countries.


China’s desire to become a world technology and science powerhouse by 2049. China is forming strong worldwide international collaborations to boost its indigenous innovation. These technologies then shall also boost military innovation, through China’s “military-civilian integration” military development strategy that the Chinese leader Xi has repeatedly stressed upon.

China’s Digital Silk Road

Innovation and the Digital Silk Road are moving to the forefront of Beijing’s efforts to develop the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Chinese government has greatly expanded the ambition and scope of the Digital Silk Road from its early focus on fiber optic cables, as described by the National Development and Reform Commission in a paper called “Vision and Actions”, and space industry-related projects. The recent official BRI progress report also speaks of other areas including smart city projects, cloud computing and big data.


Taking account of Beijing’s updated policy goals, the MERICS BRI Tracker database covers infrastructure – meaning cables and network equipment, including 5G – plus data and research centers, smart city projects, and large e-commerce and mobile payment deals.


Chinese entities have provided more than USD 17 billion for Digital Silk Road projects completed since 2013, according to MERICS BRI:

  • at least USD 7 billion in loans and FDI for fiber-optic cable and telecommunication network projects completed since 2013
  • more than USD 10 billion for e-commerce and mobile payment deals
  • for smart and safe city-related projects, at least several hundred million USD
  • for data and research centers, the available information is too limited to make an estimate.


“Total FDI and loans on Digital Silk Road projects lag behind China’s spending for energy projects, but the amount is growing fast, in line with the rising importance of the IT sector for the Chinese economy. We believe our calculations are conservative, given the lack of data and transparency around financing for a high proportion of the projects surveyed.”


Chinese activities related to the Digital Silk Road make an important contribution to providing Internet access to more communities in developing and emerging economies; quite in line with European efforts to do so. Chinese ICT infrastructure financing in Africa surpassed the combined funds from multilateral agencies, G7 nations and the African countries themselves in 2015 and 2017, with annual funding surpassing USD 1 billion.


Three main motivations drive the Digital Silk Road:

  • the wider BRI push to help Chinese companies become global champions
  • Beijing’s ambition to achieve broadly defined high-tech leadership
  • the explicit goal of spreading China’s homegrown cyber norms and standards by leveraging the strength of its IT sector.


China’s fiber optic cable and telecommunications equipment industries got clear market share goals in the “Made in China 2025” industrial strategy. Beijing has since aided their international expansion with policy support and massive lines of cheap credit.


Meanwhile, the State Council’s “National Informatization Strategy” (2016 – 2020) called upon China’s thriving private tech giants of the digital economy – Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu – to support the Digital Silk Road while becoming global leaders in areas like e-commerce and mobile payments.


China’s International Scientific Collaboration through BRI

BRI builds on decades of scientific cooperation, which emerged following the adoption of economic reforms introduced by the former leader, Deng Xiaoping, along with the open-door policy. Cooperation was also fostered by the first National Science Conference in 1978 to promote research interactions between China and foreign counterparts. In 1982, the State Council established the China Science and Technology Exchange Centre to link local industry and research communities with their foreign counterparts. The first cooperation agreement between China and the European Commission was signed in 1998.


Higher education cooperation was introduced to the Belt and Road agenda at the Euro-Asia Economic Forum 2015 in Xi’an. Leading Chinese universities were encouraged and funded to establish Belt and Road Institutes, think tanks, and conferences to explore new alliances inspired by the initiative. A prominent example is the University Alliance of the New Silk Road led by Xi’an Jiao Tong University, which now involves more than 100 universities across five continents, including more than a dozen members from Russia and Western Europe.


Since 2016, through the implementation of the “Belt and Road International Science and Technology Organization Cooperation Platform Construction Project” and the “Belt and Road Folk Science and Technology Humanities Exchange Joint Plan”, the CAST has promoted pragmatic cooperation with national science and technology organizations along the “Belt and Road” and the UNESCO. Specifically, China and other countries will cooperate in the field of academic exchanges, talents training, mutual certification of engineering capabilities, jointly building international organizations and other aspects.


In May 2017, China published its Belt and Road technology and science innovation action plan, pushing for more cooperation in areas such as digital economy, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and quantum computing. It included plans to advance the development of big data, cloud computing and smart cities, and offered to sponsor 2,500 young scientists for short-term research visits to China, train 5,000 foreign scientists, engineers and managers, and set up 50 joint laboratories.


After China announced the Belt and Road Science, Technology and Innovation Cooperation Action Plan, the Ministry of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China (MOST) immediately put it into practice. Wang Zhigang, the Minister of Science and Technology, pointed out that the MOST has organized the implementation by conducting science and technology people-to-people exchange, building joint laboratories, cooperating in science parks and promoting technology transfer. The four actions have already made fruitful results.


An analysis of jointly authored research publications in the Web of Science database shows that China’s collaboration with researchers based in other countries has grown significantly since 2014. Worldwide, more than 36% of China’s research publications now also include an international co-author.



The USA is currently China’s biggest cooperation partner. In the case of the USA, not just the government, but also the private sector, universities, and so on undertake cooperation for their own purposes with a relatively high degree of freedom. Private-sector companies have their eyes on China’s enormous markets or see China as a major source of research personnel. Universities actively pursue cooperation with China to secure international students and to enhance their own research potential. Such activities make for a large volume of cooperative relationships both in the USA and in China. Networks with developed countries in Europe, such as the UK and Germany, had been most important to US science and technology, but today it appears that ties with China just as close.


China  companies  have  acquired many  U.S. firms in key advanced technology sectors like semiconductor development and manufacturing. Chinese corporations have also opened research centers in the United States to tap American talent, and made early-stage investments in American startups focused on cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics. A small Silicon Valley venture might find access to their intellectual property a minor price to pay for a game-changing capital infusion.


The US government, on the other hand, limits cooperation mainly to certain sectors because of national security concerns. Partly because of the idea that China aims to become a military power, cooperation on technology related to nuclear weapons or to space development, for example, is clearly prohibited.



In June 2017, China and Europe held their third innovation dialogue (the first was in 2013), discussing collaboration under Europe’s €80 billion (US$91 billion) funding programme, Horizon 2020. It resulted in a roadmap for partnership through flagship initiatives (in food, agriculture and bio-economy, environment, climate and sustainable urbanisation, aviation, biotechnologies and biomaterials, and surface transport ) and key priority areas (peaceful use of nuclear energy, non-nuclear energy, information and communications technology, space research and the geosciences).


EU-China research cooperation is now, more strictly than in the past, allocated on an equal basis under the renewed Co-funding Mechanism, with each side spending 200 million renminbi (US$29 million), or €26 million, annually from 2018 to 2020. The mechanism was first launched in 2015 to support joint research and innovation projects under the Horizon 2020 framework.


Germany is also enthusiastic about cooperation with China. It was one of the first developed countries to expand such cooperation. German industry, especially the automobile industry, pushed cooperation with its eye on the gigantic Chinese market, and research organizations such as the Fraunhofer Society actively pursued research cooperation with China. Human exchanges are also flourishing. Personnel who studied and performed research in Germany are making marks in government and academia. A representative example is Wan Gang, the current Minister of Science and Technology. After studying at a German university, he worked for Audi before returning to China. A characteristic topic for cooperation now being pursued is water treatment in places such as Qingdao.


The UK has some of the world’s leading technical research universities. Although China sends a considerable number of students to that country, cooperation has not made sufficient progress, and the UK’s presence in the manufacturing  industries that support China’s economy is weak. In recent years, however, the UK has become aware of the importance of China’s science and technology potential and size. It aims to expand cooperation through steps such as the creation of the Newton Fund, a funding mechanism for science and technology cooperation with developing nations including India. Although to a lesser extent than Germany, France has been one of the leading European nations pursuing cooperation with China. It is gradually building a record of cooperation in fields where it is strong, such as life science and ICT.


Italy has relatively lower science and technology potential itself, so it has not expanded overall cooperation to the extent that other European nations have. Still, as the level of China’s science and technology has risen, Italy has pursued cooperation in Big Science fields such as particle physics and in the design sector that is one of its strengths.


The expanding trade routes have especially spurred scientific partnerships between China and smaller European nations, such as Latvia. Several countries have considerably strengthened their links with China in recent years. Latvia tops the list of 10 European countries, based on its compound annual growth in joint research publications with China since 2013. It has seen an increase of 62% in publications in which at least one China-based researcher is mentioned as a co-author


Australian universities are helping China’s military surpass the United States

Australia is also expanding cooperation with China. Utilizing the advantage of being part of the English-speaking world, it had long actively sought to bring in Chinese students. With the development of China’s science and technology level, it has also been working to expand research cooperation


World-first collaboration between the University of New South Wales and the Chinese government, celebrated as a $100m innovation partnership. This $100m deal included an initial $30m from eight Chinese companies to support Australian research. Since 1988 the Torch program has brought businesses together with universities and researchers inside China to create high-tech startups. The Chinese government says it has accounted for 11% of the country’s GDP.


Since then 29 Chinese partners and one Indian one – Adani Solar, a subsidiary of the resources giant – have signed on to the UNSW Torch project. They include at least seven firms working in industries with dual use military potential such as aerospace, GPS navigation, underwater cameras and nanotechnology. The research is not funded directly by the Chinese government but by the companies themselves. One of the companies participating in the scheme is Huawei Technologies, the Chinese firm banned from participating in Australia’s national broadband network in 2013 on security grounds, based on the advice of Asio – the Australian national security agency.


Rory Medcalf, the head of the Australian National University’s national security college, has expressed concern that research with potential for military use could bypass existing controls. “The fundamental question to ask is if there is [a] prospect of technology discoveries being shared that could potentially give China a military advantage in the region over, for example, US and its allies, and therefore potentially Australia.


China seeks more sectors to cooperate with Israeli hi-tech startups

China is seeking more sectors to cooperate with Israel in high technology under the background of the “innovative comprehensive partnership” established between China and Israel.China-Israel hi-tech cooperation has been further expanded from sectors such as agriculture, medicine and biology to leading-edge sectors such as life science, smart city, aging tech, robotics and 3D printing, according to them.


These foremost hi-tech sectors are also what Chinese and Israeli entrepreneurs at the summit are eager to cooperate in the near future. These sectors are also widely viewed as emerging ones with huge market potentials. Especially, aging technology is seen an important one to be developed in China where the population of old people is sharply increasing. China and Israel are seeking full collaboration in hi-tech from the very beginning and the collaboration has mutual bases, said Yona Yahav, mayor of Haifa city in an interview with Xinhua.


Russia China Technology Cooperation

China and Russia have seen rapid development in industrial, economic and technological cooperation, said Viktor Kladov, head of the Russian company’s international cooperation department, in an interview with Beijing’s Economic Observer. Putin discussed at SPIEF 2016 for the Eurasian Economic Union and China to conclude free trade agreements with each other.


In October 2014, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation signed an agreement with Rostec to promote joint development and production of dual-use technology, including electronic components, information technology, and new materials.


In November 2014 at China’s Zhuhai Airshow, Chinese defense firms AVIC, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, and two subsidiaries of China Electronics Technology Group Corporation signed four agreements with Russian defense firm Russia Technologies (Rostec). The agreement between AVIC and Rostec covers potential collaboration in fixed-wing and helicopter manufacturing, engine production, aircraft materials, avionics, and other areas





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