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China’s party-state is deepening its hold on the digital information ecosystems of developing countries.
Earlier this month, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman announced while on a tour of the Pacific Island states that U.S. President Joe Biden “is looking forward to welcoming” Pacific Leaders in September 2022. Although the exact date of this unofficial Pacific Islands summit has not been announced, the summit appears to be part of the larger U.S. response to an April 2022 framework agreement on security cooperation between China and Solomon Islands.
The vaguely worded draft agreement, leaked on social media in March – the final text has not been made public – discussed a deepening of relations between China and Solomon Islands to include the deployment of “police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces” at the request of the Solomon Islander government. The security agreement was met with surprise and concern from officials across the Indo-Pacific, especially in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
China’s security ambitions, not only in the traditional military realm but also in the digital world, are growing across the Global South. Recently, China tried to deepen security ties, including network governance and cybersecurity, through the failed bid to get Pacific Island states to sign its China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision.
To prevent China’s party-state from deepening its hold on the digital information ecosystems of the Global South, the U.S. and like-minded democracies need to offer viable digital democratic alternatives. Recent developments in the Pacific Island countries illustrate both China’s vision for governance throughout the digital stack and how the party-state cultivates critical points of leverage through digital infrastructure development.
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The German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Alliance for Securing Democracy, in conjunction with the International Republican Institute, has released a report titled “China and the Digital Information Stack in the Global South.” Through five country case studies – Thailand, Myanmar, Uganda, Nigeria, and Jamaica – this report defines the digital information “stack” and explores how China’s party-state exports the digital information stack globally. Through our research, we found that China’s party-state works with industry to advance digital information operations related to geostrategic goals far beyond China’s shores.
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Global South countries need to be more aware of the tradeoffs of China’s involvement in their digital information stacks. This involvement ranges from Chinese tech companies in the submarine internet cables and 4G and 5G mobile networks of Thailand and Myanmar, to Beijing helping shape ideas on data and cyber sovereignty in Nigeria. Chinese technology companies’ equipment is used to spy on domestic political opposition in Uganda. And, lastly, even far more resilient Jamaica has had its leaders express openness to Chinese technology companies’ assistance in improving government efficiency and maintaining public safety.
We found that even among these diverse countries, facing disparate forms of Chinese involvement, the level of awareness and caution about future Chinese leverage is too low. Regardless of whether a country is a strong democracy like Jamaica or ruled by a repressive military junta like Myanmar, more scrutiny of China’s involvement across the digital information stack is necessary.
The digital information stack consists of five layers – network infrastructure, devices, applications, content, and governance – and each layer of the stack includes several components. The network infrastructure layer includes physical infrastructure components like submarine and terrestrial cables, telecommunications equipment, and initiatives like the Digital Silk Road. The device layer includes mobile electronics like phones, laptops, and others, as well as Internet of Things devices. The applications layer consists of software, cloud services, social media, and digital payment services. The components of the content layer are the Chinese party-state’s messages and narratives, especially Chinese news programming on television and “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” online. Lastly and most relevant for the Pacific Island countries, the governance layer includes the proliferation of rules, regulations, policies, and standards intended to govern digital spaces and tools.
China’s efforts at influencing the governance layer in Global South countries are of particular concern because they frequently involve shaping policy and elite opinion in favor of a state-centric model of cyber governance, in which regimes have broad latitude to control the flow of data and information within their territory. In countries like Thailand and Myanmar, authoritarian governments seek to replicate China’s “Great Firewall,” a system of laws and technological measures that allows the Chinese party-state to shape 1.4 billion people’s information space to suit its political preferences. Both Southeast Asian states have passed deliberately all-encompassing cybersecurity laws that emulate the ague and broad nature of China’s 2017 Cybersecurity Law. And while the Thai government seems to have backed down from plans to control all digital traffic in and out of the country, Voice of America reported in February 2021 that Chinese technicians were helping the junta set up such a system in Myanmar.
In Uganda, Chinese efforts at shaping the governance layer have focused on human capital development, with China deploying extensive training programs at both the popular and elite levels aimed at fostering dependence on, and brand loyalty to, Chinese telecommunications firms like Huawei and ZTE. The programs target not only the technology sector, but also law enforcement, intelligence, military, and other spheres with profound influence over the future of Ugandan technology, surveillance, and censorship policies. Nigeria established the Nigeria Data Protection Regulation, the name of which evokes the EU’s GDPR, but the substance of which hews closer to Chinese data policy regulations that focus on state sovereignty over personal data, even when couched in the language of protecting privacy.
Jamaica remains an outlier in many ways compared to the other case study countries. Jamaican government officials are wary of allowing Chinese technology companies due to their proximity to the U.S. and fear that Jamaican companies could violate U.S. sanctions and blacklisting laws that target companies like Huawei. Additionally, Jamaica reformed its laws on libel, slander, and defamation, giving it the most freedom of speech and expression out of the five countries examined in this report. However, Jamaica shows that China can continue to make inroads with countries that have robust democratic institutions. Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness expressed on a trip in 2019 to China that learning how to develop Jamaica’s ICT infrastructure is a priority of the Jamaican government, and that equipment from Chinese technology companies like Huawei could play a role in maintaining public order, fighting crime, and improving government efficiency.
Looking at these five countries, we found several ways that the U.S. and like-minded democracies could assist Global South countries like those in the Pacific Islands when China proposes agreements like the China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision and bilateral deals like the one with Solomon Islands. The U.S. and partners should bolster the efforts of Global South countries to monitor China’s influence, especially agreements and deals tied to ICT companies. Similarly, these efforts could be used to improve legislative oversight of Chinese ICT companies and other entities seeking involvement in a host country’s digital information stack. And lastly, the U.S. and like-minded partners should offer support for developing and maintaining protected communication channels through initiatives like the Open Technology Fund.
In conclusion, to be viable alternatives to countries across the Global South seeking to improve their digital information stacks, the U.S. and like-minded democracies need to use the full range of tools available to seek more transparency from ICT companies tied to the Chinese party-state. That way, these countries appreciate the full scope of the agreements they enter into and can avoid the privacy, public safety, and data security pitfalls they often entail.
Bryce C. Barros is the China affairs analyst at the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Alliance for Securing Democracy and a security fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
Nathan Kohlenberg is a research assistant at the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Alliance for Securing Democracy and a security fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Truman National Security Project, Alliance for Securing Democracy, or the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
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