Beijing Aims to Use ‘Belt and Road’ Project to Achieve Dominance in Space and Cyberspace

By Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers U.S., China, and Taiwan news. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
December 11, 2019Updated: December 12, 2019

The Chinese regime aims to harness its global trade and infrastructure network to build cyber and space projects that could harm the United States and its allies, experts warned at a recent forum.

In recent years, the regime has been aggressively rolling its massive infrastructure investment project, the “One Belt, One Road” initiative (OBOR, also known as Belt and Road Initiative, BRI), with aims to connect the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia via a network of ports, railways, and roads.

While on the surface the plan is marketed as an economic win-win for both Beijing and participant country, the regime is also leveraging these connections to further its ambitions to become a military, cyber and space power.

“They [China] do aspire to prepare informationized capable [military] forces, forces capable of fighting informationalized or even intelligentized approaches to warfighting across the globe,” said Chad Sbragia, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for China.

Sbragia made the remark at a discussion hosted by Washington-based nonprofit the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) and Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security on Nov. 13.

He added: “And it will be mapped in large part to where the BRI is most heavily concentrated.”

Beijing rolled out “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR, also known as Belt and Road Initiative, BRI) in 2013, for the objective of building up geopolitical clout by financing infrastructures throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, and Europe.

The initiative has been criticized for putting developing countries into a “debt trap,” as they struggle to pay back hefty Chinese loans.

“We need diplomatic, economic and security efforts to respond to China’s Belt and Road activities, and they have to be integrated in ways that in the past haven’t been done as well as they should,” he added.

Sbragia added that a whole-of-government approach, including interagency cooperation and strengthening alliances and partnerships, is key to the U.S. response.

The discussion was held in part to accompany a new NBR report issued in September, which partly highlighted how the Chinese regime aims extend from the land and maritime routes under OBOR into space and cyberspace domains.

“BRI projects related to space and cyberspace could increase participating countries’ economic dependence on China in ways that might give Beijing even greater leverage over them,” stated Michael S. Chase, senior political scientist at the U.S. think tank RAND Corporation.

Chase’s views on Beijing’s ambitions were found in one of the report’s chapters, titled “The Space and Cyberspace Components of the Belt and Road Initiative.”

Space Information Corridor 

China has long had the ambition to be a space power, dating back to the era of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who told China’s rubber-stamp legislature National People’s Congress in 1958 that the country needed to develop satellites.

Months before Mao’s statement, both the Soviet Union and the United States launched their first satellites.

Chinese satellites are now part of China’s ambition to build a “spatial information corridor” for countries signing up to China’s OBOR, according to Chase. These satellites make up a part of China’s Beidou satellite navigation system, which it builds as a competitor to America’s GPS-3.

Citing Chinese state-run media, Chase pointed out that Chinese weather and meteorological satellites were already providing data to OBOR countries by June 2018.

Beijing viewed Baidou as an “important component of a strategy for implementing” OBOR, to “further integrate the countries along the Belt and Road routes into a vision for the achievement of China’s regional and eventually global economic and security objectives,” according to Chase.

There have been several instances that Chinese officials publicly commented on this space corridor.

In October 2016, China’s State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) and the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) released a joint document titled “Guiding Opinions on Accelerating the Construction and Application of the ‘One Belt One Road’ Spatial Information Corridor.”

The document stated that the corridor would provide services such as environmental monitoring, computing platforms, and port projects. And it will take about ten years to complete the regime’s vision of this corridor, extending to regions around the world, including Southeast Asia, North Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, and other parts of Africa.

In December 2017, China’s state-run media Xinhua reported that SASTIND and NDRC held a joint meeting on the OBOR’s space information corridor. The meeting urged Chinese companies in aerospace space to “go out,” by assisting with infrastructure projects to build up the information corridor.

Xinhua added that Beidou had covered nearly 30 countries along OBOR, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Burma.

Ultimately, Beijing aimed to have the information corridor to serve a number of applications, including urban planning and financial services, Chase said.

“Some Chinese sources list emergency rescue, counterterrorism, and peacekeeping operations among the potential applications, highlighting the importance of the initiative for the PLA [China’s People’s Liberation Army],” Chase stated.

Cyberspace (Digital Silk Road)

The report also pointed out that China’s plan of bringing “digital silk road,” which focuses on building communications networks, smart cities, and e-commerce activities. The plan was first referred to as an “information silk road” in a NDRC’s white paper in 2015.

“The largely unspoken goal of the Digital Silk Road seems to be increasing Chinese economic and political influence in the area of ICT [information and communications technology] along the Belt and Road routes,” Chase stated.

Specific infrastructure projects involving the digital silk road was mentioned in a communique following the second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in April this year. It named projects such as transationational fiber-optic highways, and promoting e-commerce and smart cities.

Citing estimates by U.S. consulting company RWR Advisory Group, Chase pointed out that the regime was installing fiber-optic cables in 76 countries, through companies such as state-run mobile provider China Mobile, and Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE.

In October last year, Huawei Marine, a joint venture between Chinese tech giant Huawei and the U.K.-based submarine communications firm Global Marine Systems, announced its Peace Cable project: a 12,000 km (7,456 miles) long underwater high-speed internet cable system connecting Pakistan, South Africa, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, Egypt, and France.

Huawei is also known to be building “smart cities” complete with its surveillance technology and cameras in several countries, including those along OBOR. According to Chase, ZTE also has smart city projects in OBOR countries.

“The expansion of Chinese infrastructure and networks could be accompanied by an increase in Chinese capabilities for intelligence collection—and perhaps network disruption—along the Digital Silk Road,” Chase warned.

“Even if China is only partially successful in implementing the Belt and Road Space Information Corridor and the Digital Silk Road, they could help Beijing expand its influence, potentially at the expense of the economic and security interests of the United States,” he added.