May 15

Is there a tech agenda in China’s One Belt One Road Initiative?

The market town – the one hub of commerce for a region, river or road – has now become Amazon.com. But more than two millennia ago, global market towns were the designated stopping routes on the Silk Road trading lanes covering half the world. And now with extensive publicity those roads appear to be reopening as part of China, and the world’s, biggest global infrastructure project. China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative is expected to re-connect Asia, Europe and all the lands in-between via road, rail and shipping ports destined to change the face of world commerce. This week, Beijing hosted the largest diplomatic meeting to date to publicize and promote its intentions.

But behind all the fanfare, I have a question. What are the digital plans in this project?

After all, we are no longer dealing with camels and caravans and sailboats. In this 21st century resurrection of the old trade routes, does China have a plan for a digital network to guide, supplement or even, provide surveillance over global trade, and individual personal travel along the way? To begin, the One Belt One Road project refers to the literal construction of highways, railways and shipping ports accessing 65% of the world’s population, who today control one-third of world GDP and one-quarter of all the goods and services moved around the world.

In case you’re wondering, the belt is the physical roads, and the road is the seaways (I know confusing, but I guess belt and water did not work). Big numbers means big spending – the usual cost estimates start at the comfortably round $1 trillion price tag, and go up from there. Some commentators put the entire package at closer to $4 trillion. But, again depending on who you ask, this is not benevolence or aid – it’s loans from China to the receiving countries who then turn around and pay for China’s companies to complete the construction. So that’s the basics, what about the tech?

Now when I think about the tech impact, I’m imagining a Life Online scenario as it would play out in my technothriller books.  But to bring the ideas closer to home, think of the average consumer and the implications for online shopping. You could make your purchase for goods coming from anywhere in the world, and track the entire shipment from manufacturing through distribution along the new Silk Road. This would mean there is a control hub somewhere (maybe, in China) that effectively tracks all the cargo, and people, moving through the Belt and Road countries. The official reason for this would be to provide security and reassurance to commercial businesses. The unofficial reason could be to control a significant portion of world trade and to, at a moment’s notice, say, cut-off vital shipments bound for a country that may not be playing along with the bigger agenda. I’m thinking that’s a credible outline for a future Life Online thriller.

Surprisingly, the official news coverage of the One Belt One Road story does not really mention digital or electronic commerce, which is surprising. Why would they be building a replica of a two-thousand year old trading network? Why not update it for the 21st century?

I’ve seen some mention of the idea of a “Cyber Silk Road” in e-commerce. This refers to the opportunity for smaller companies to do business online and transport goods with more efficiency. Obviously all products will move faster than back in Marco Polo’s day. The number one impact of OBOR will be the shortening of transportation times, sometimes by half, from China to Central Asia and Europe. But is that all the digital productivity Belt and Road will offer?

In the Life Online books, the entire world is connected via The Network, which is run under the auspices of the United Nations. The Network tracks all human activity including trade and personal travel. If China has created a digital network connecting One Belt One Road, this independent project would one day need to be integrated with the world system. You can also imagine the military implications. The central hub for OBOR would be able to provide military interests with an up-to-the-second map of all activity on major trans-national roads and rails, and in ports, which would greatly facilitate strategic decision-making.

As a traveler, I love the idea of taking the Beijing to London railway one day. But as a future world observer, I cannot help but wonder what kind of technology underlies all of the OBOR projects, and whether or not the plans include surveillance and tracking. For that part of the story, we will have to wait and see. In the meantime, I think I should start working on the plot for the fictional version of the story.

If you want a detailed overview of OBOR check out this “visual explainer” from the South China Morning Post.

I also go into more detail about the initiative and the facts future tech folks can track in my You Tube video about OBOR.

And join the conversation on social media or let me know your thoughts via email.