B&R offers digital prosperity as well as infrastructure

By Li Qiaoyi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/8 21:28:39

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT


While some people still regard the Belt and Road (B&R) initiative mainly as a drive by China to export its rail, road and port construction capabilities, there are signs that the sprawling initiative will increasingly turn into a giant platform not only for China but also for other technologically sophisticated economies to jointly build digital prosperity along the route.

This could be of growing importance for the B&R to be recognized as a global connectivity initiative that is viable as well as hotly sought-after.

In a recent example, the "B&R" Digital Economy Strategic Alliance was launched last week in Jinan, East China's Shandong Province. The alliance, formed by Chinese server giant Inspur in partnership with four global IT heavyweights - US tech majors  Cisco and IBM, US financial services software provider Diebold Nixdorf and Sweden-based telecoms giant Ericsson - aims to provide various technology solutions such as data centers and cloud services to economies along the B&R route.

The first-of-its-kind alliance will receive support from the China Export and Credit Insurance Corporation and two Chinese policy banks - the Export-Import Bank of China and China Development Bank. It envisions building projects firstly in South Asian and African countries, including Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Nigeria before reaching out to a broader spectrum of B&R economies.

The alliance varies from other B&R related tie-ups in that it contributes to a change in perception of the B&R, and shows it is not just an infrastructure building spree. This might herald a new trend in translating the B&R initiative into reality.

Back in March 2015, China called for "the construction of cross-border optical cables and other communications trunk line networks," as well as efforts to improve international communications connectivity, and the creation of "an Information Silk Road."

This essentially means incorporating a variety of sectors that are capable of generating digital services such as telecommunications and e-commerce into the B&R. 

It is true that the country's three telecom carriers have already invested in building fiber-optic connectivity in B&R countries and regions. And two of the country's leading telecom equipment firms, Huawei and ZTE, have also engaged themselves in providing telecommunications products and solutions for markets along the route that are in need of a digital infrastructure upgrade.

Nevertheless, digital connectivity has been given less attention than the more traditional part of the B&R, even though the digital component of the initiative has become perhaps more impressive. For example, the City of Pearl, a futuristic smart metropolis to be built in Manila in the Philippines, has been billed as one of China's biggest B&R investments yet. It will feature innovations such as driverless vehicles and intelligent buildings.

Nevertheless, the B&R initiative is still seen as having more basic infrastructure as its primary focus. The latest data from the Ministry of Commerce showed that in the first three quarters of the year, Chinese businesses have helped in establishing 75 economic and trade cooperation zones in 24 economies along the route, creating over 209,000 jobs. This obviously suggests that the more traditional part continues to be the focus of attention, at least in statistical terms.

But as the Chinese economy becomes increasingly known for its high-tech power ranging from satellite communications to artificial intelligence, there will apparently be more opportunities down the road to use the B&R route as a thoroughfare for imparting China's technology expertise and experience in economies lacking in such technological sophistication.

Meanwhile, given that the Chinese government and a number of Chinese businesses have played key roles in implementing the initiative, other countries and foreign firms might have concerns over whether they will simply play a supporting role. 

But as Huang Gang, vice president of Inspur Group, told reporters after the launch of the "B&R" Digital Economy Strategic Alliance, in addition to ensuring that other economies participating in the B&R can learn from China's experience in transitioning toward an innovative and intelligent economy, it's important to let the outside world understand that the initiative is not an isolated system but is intended to involve all possible participants.

According to research firm IDC, the IT market in a total of 64 countries and regions along the route is worth approximately $200 billion per annum, pointing to huge potential to be uncovered in building B&R digital prosperity. Hopefully a rising number of tech giants from across the globe will want to get involved in building digital dividends along the route that will also spell profit for them in the longer run.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times. bizopinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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