China has been a strong player in the political, military and economic affairs of the Asia-Pacific region; the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) is, then, a natural progression of China’s influence. The BRI, in spirit, is meant to emulate the ancient silk route. Trade via the silk route included a huge network of strategically located trade posts and markets and it thoroughly streamlined transport, exchange, trade and distribution of goods beside silk. Digital connectivity
Digital Silk Road
The BRI, in essence, encompasses the same concept. Regional connectivity has been the mainstay of the project; key sectors of development under the BRI are energy, transport, infrastructure, education, innovation, and socio-cultural exchanges. The growth of the internet and digital sector have also become important features of the project .
Connectivity has undergone a drastic change in the 21st century. It is no longer limited to traditional roads and railways; it is, rather, the virtual connectivity that facilitates the functioning of sea and land routes in real time. China has envisioned the integration of markets along the BRI, connecting countries with a network of next-generation digital infrastructure and satellite coverage.
Through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), China and Pakistan plan to expand and deepen their collaboration in the areas of new and emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information and communications technology (ICT) . Against this backdrop, CPEC’s digital connectivity initiatives include strengthening digital infrastructure and enhancing e-commerce in Pakistan, and developing common technology standards between China and Pakistan
CPEC and Digital Connectivity
The CPEC is hailed as a “game-changer” within Pakistan for its potential to revamp the social, economic, and political fabric of Pakistan. The CPEC will contribute not just to Pakistan’s traditional economy but will greatly facilitate and improve its digital economy, through various digital connectivity initiatives within its domains.
Optic Fiber Cable
The cross border fiber optic cable is a 820-kilometer-long fiber optic cable project at a cost of $46 million, which stretches from China’s western Xinjiang region, enters Pakistan through the Khunjerab border, and then travels through Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) to Mansehra, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to connect to Muzaffarabad in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and onwards to Islamabad and Rawalpindi, where it is connects with the existing optical connectivity network of Pakistan.
The cable is also connected with the first ever local Internet Exchange Point (IXP) in Islamabad to exchange and control internet traffic. The potential advantage of IXP is that different Internet Service providers (ISPs) can connect at a single point, which will serve as a secure interconnection point to exchange the local information within the country by avoiding international network links.
The optic fiber cable will also lessen the cost of internet with improved performance. It will not only link Pakistan to China, but also to the several BRI countries spread across landlocked Central Asia and Europe.
This digital connectivity with rest of the world through China will provide a more secure path for internet traffic as in the existing fiber optic network some of the internet traffic routed through India may cause a security risk for Pakistan. It will also promote and facilitate regional economic cooperation and enable various ICT integration services between both countries. The cable will facilitate regional trade, e-commerce, e-governance, and will play a role in the development of industrials roads, railways, aviation, and ports.
Pakistan currently has only one landing station for the respective submarine cable located at Karachi to handle the entirety of the country’s internet traffic; any fault in this landing station will interrupt the provision of internet throughout the country. An alternative landing station is planned to be set up at Gwadar Port which will help to eradicate and mitigate this problem. This will help to reduce dependence on existing submarine cable routes and provide a more secure and reliable international communication network. By 2020, 6,299 kilometers of underwater cables will extend from Gwadar to Djibouti and across the Digital Silk Route between Asia and Africa.
Space is another dimension which is gaining a lot of attention. China has already launched satellites for Pakistan, including a remote sensing satellite launched recently in 2018. Now, there is a proposal to cooperate for a manned space flight with the aim of sending a Pakistani astronaut into orbit by 2022. Their cooperation also extends to space security efforts in multilateral forums.
At the same time, a space-based Silk Road will provide satellite navigation support to all BRI countries. The first BeiDou base station of the Space Silk Road is already operational in Pakistan since 2017. BeiDou is making rapid progress with 30 BRI countries already linked up . When completed, the ambitious global initiative will use an exclusive satellite navigation system. Altogether BeiDou, fiber networks, 5G, and submarine cables will create a multi-dimensional digital mega-project across land, sea and space.
By connecting industries and infrastructure projects along the BRI, China’s satellite navigation and communication system hopes to dominate the new digital infrastructure in the BRI space. Google, Amazon, and SpaceX, for instance, are all developing projects to provide broadband services around the globe. As (such) new ideas for space-based internet services emerge, China will already be well ahead of the curve. On 16 July 2018, China announced its plans to launch 320 low-orbit satellites (the Hongyan constellation) to provide worldwide communication services.
This will comprise a global two-way, real-time data transmission system along with other multimedia data services. It is expected to provide energy and engineering companies with services, including the management of global assets, personnel positioning, and emergency rescue and communication services. Eventually, this satellite communication network will take the place of the ground-based network, and will allow for a universal connection for cellular devices. The same is planned to be extended to Pakistan.
Huawei, a leading Chinese multinational technology company, is also pushing for 5G deployment in Pakistan where it already has a strong established presence in the market.
Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has set up its 5G Working Group with members from telecommunication operators, vendors, manufacturers, academia, R&D organizations, regulators, relevant ministries and the Frequency Allocation Board (FAB) . Over 65 million Pakistanis now subscribe to 3G and 4G services launched 5 years ago. The subsequent 5G-uptake in Pakistan is also expected to be swift.
Development of E-commerce because of digital connectivity
The digital connectivity along, and as a consequence of, the CPEC will positively contribute to the development of the economy by optimizing existing and future coordination in the supply chain for e-commerce within Pakistan. It will help the flow of information, financial transactions, and physical goods and services. It will also promote and facilitate regional economic cooperation and will enable many ICT integration services between both countries.
This connectivity will spread not only from many soft projects but also to hard infrastructural projects such as paperless trade facilitation, e-commerce, e-government, as well as playing a supporting role in the construction and management of industrial parks, roads, rail, aviation and ports.
Concurrently, this digital connectivity will provide many opportunities to enhance people-to-people connectivity between China and Pakistan. The adaptation of China’s Digital Terrestrial Multimedia Broadcasting (DTMB) technology will provide many opportunities for the Pakistani media industry for revenue generation.
Such digital initiatives will also increase opportunities for startups and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), especially through the new policy of digitization and e-commerce. According to a report about Pakistan’s e-commerce policy framework, released by the Ministry of Commerce in September 2019, there are over 3.2 million SME units in Pakistan, accounting for 98 percent of all the enterprises, employing “nearly 78 percent of the non-agriculture labor force in Pakistan and [contributing] more than 30 percent” to Pakistan’s GDP.
E-commerce serves as an opportunity to bring SMEs into the mainstream and connect them with international markets through the Digital Silk Road zas well as Chinese-Pakistani online market places such as Alibaba and Daraz.
The CPEC is providing a great opportunity to Pakistan to learn and collaborate with Chinese technology giants like Tencent and Alibaba to unleash its e-commerce potential. Companies like Alibaba, Uber and Careem have conducted business-to-consumer (B2C) services in the country, and the business can be further expanded within the business-to-business (B2B) framework as well.
Implications of Digital Connectivity
However, the digital connectivity will have some adverse implications. The existing fibre optic network through which Pakistan connects to the world has been developed by a consortium that has Indian companies either as partners or shareholders.
This is viewed as a security concern e.g. when it comes to surveillance of communication. As recently as January this year, Director General Special Communications Organisation (SCO) Maj Gen Amir Azeem Bajwa informed the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology that some incoming and outbound internet traffic landed in India before being routed to its destinations, posing a security risk for Pakistan.
It appears that by routing through China, the state is planning to reduce such security risks related to India. This would however increase the same risks from China itself. The Chinese model of internet regulation could potentially also impact freedom of speech and access to information for Pakistani users.
Moreover, fibre optic cables are tapped continuously either secret or legally. Fiber optic cables use amplifiers which are considered as weak points for fibre tapping.
A significant portion of CPEC projects take place in regions facing high levels of political unrest, terrorism, and economic volatility.
Security is a primary concern for both China and Pakistan. To alleviate some of these concerns, in April 2015, the Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) announced the creation of the “Special Security Division. ” The force consists of “nine army battalions and six wings of para-military forces in Rangers and Frontier Corps.” The purpose of this Division will presumably be to provide security on and near CPEC construction zones to protect workers and property.
5G radiation digital connectivity
Moreover, 5G will require more mini cell towers to function properly- this will give you endless capabilities, however, some health experts believe this could also be a recipe for a health disaster. While there have yet to be any specific tests linking 5G exposure to health ailments, we already know 4G and 3G may be to blame for health issues in children and adults around the world.
The microwaves from cell phone towers can cause memory loss, headaches, cancer, birth defects and heart disease. Some believe the closer you live or work near a cell phone tower, the greater risk to your health.
Cell phone towers create electromagnetic radiation. That radiation is considered a possible carcinogen by the World Health Organization. And it doesn’t stop there, thousands of well documented studied indicate there is a link to cell phone towers and an increase in serious illnesses. Again, this is based on 3G and 4G signal strength and radiation- not for the more powerful 5G network. I can only imagine what 5G will mean for our bodies, minds, and environments.
Proper health and safety standards need to be complied with in order to deploy these initiatives. Most of the cables are underground dig-ups that are susceptible for life-threatening accidents . Moreover, given that the location of most of these initiatives is in the north, earthquakes, avalanches, landsliding and other natural disasters can put the workers’ lives at risk.
Pollution (land, noise and sea) can lead to contaminations and long-term health risks. Moreover, greenhouse emissions and waste management issues will lead to the deterioration of the environment.
Concluding thoughts digital connectivity
The future of commerce and trade, unequivocally, involves a transition into the digital space. During, and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has realized the significance of the digital space and the benefits that may be reaped through its proper integration and regulation.
The BRI, through the Digital Silk Road, serves as the ideal platform for the proliferation of a regional digital economy that finds its roots in the transformation of the economy of each country part of the BRI and their interconnectivity through digital and physical trade, investments, and the sharing of knowledge, digital infrastructure, and such resources.
Through the legal cover and guarantee of protection against cybercrime and the implementation of adequate compliance and dispute resolution mechanisms, the BRI is uniquely situated to boost the region into the new digital era, serving also to assist countries in the recovery of their economy in light of the impact of the current pandemic.
The author is a graduate of the Lahore University of Management Sciences. She is currently a case lawyer at Justice Project Pakistan and a member of the editorial board of GVS. The views expressed in this article are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.