Earlier this month, US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman announced during a tour of the Pacific Islands that US President Joe Biden “looks forward to welcoming” Pacific leaders in September 2022. While the exact date for this unofficial Pacific Islands summit has not been announced, the summit appears to be part of the larger US response to an April 2022 Framework Agreement on Environmental Cooperation. security between China and the Solomon Islands.
The vaguely worded draft agreementleaked on social media in March – the final text has not been made public – hinted at a deepening of relations between China and the Solomon Islands to include the deployment of “police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement and armed forces” at the request of the Government of the Solomon Islands. The security agreement was met with surprise and concern by officials across the Indo-Pacific, particularly in Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
China’s security ambitions, not only in the traditional military but also in the digital world, are growing in the Global South. Recently, China has attempted to deepen security ties, including network governance and cybersecurity, through a failed attempt to get Pacific island states to sign its common development vision between China and Pacific Island countries.
To prevent the Chinese party-state from deepening its grip on the digital information ecosystems of the South, the United States and like-minded democracies must come up with viable digital democratic alternatives. Recent developments in Pacific island countries illustrate both China’s vision of governance across the digital stack and how the party-state is cultivating critical leverage points through the development of the digital stack. digital infrastructure.
The German Marshall Fund of the US Alliance for Securing Democracy, in conjunction with the International Republican Institute, released a report titled “China and the Digital Information Pile in the South”. Through five country case studies – Thailand, Myanmar, Uganda, Nigeria and Jamaica – this report defines the digital information “stack” and explores how the Chinese state party is exporting the digital information stack globally. . Through our research, we found that the Chinese State Party is working with industry to advance digital information operations related to geostrategic objectives well beyond China’s shores.
Countries in the Global South need to be more aware of the trade-offs of China’s involvement in their digital information stacks. This involvement ranges from Chinese tech companies in undersea internet cables and Thailand and Myanmar’s 4G and 5G mobile networks, to Beijing helping to shape ideas about data and cyber-sovereignty in Nigeria. Equipment from Chinese tech companies is being used to spy on the domestic political opposition in Uganda. And, finally, an even more resilient Jamaica has seen its leaders express openness to using Chinese tech companies to improve government efficiency and maintain public safety.
We found that even among these diverse countries, facing disparate forms of Chinese involvement, the level of awareness and caution about China’s future influence is too low. Whether a country is a strong democracy like Jamaica or ruled by a repressive military junta like Myanmar, a closer examination of China’s involvement in the digital information pile is warranted.
The digital information stack consists of five layers – network infrastructure, devices, applications, content and governance – and each layer of the stack comprises several components. The network infrastructure layer includes physical infrastructure components such as undersea and land cables, telecommunications equipment, and initiatives such as the digital silk road. The device layer includes mobile electronic devices such as phones, laptops, and others, as well as Internet of Things devices. The applications layer includes software, cloud services, social media and digital payment services. The components of the content layer are the messages and narratives of the Chinese party-state, particularly Chinese news broadcasts on television and online “wolf warrior diplomacy”. Finally, and most relevant to Pacific Island countries, the governance layer includes the proliferation of rules, regulations, policies and norms intended to govern digital spaces and tools.
China’s efforts to influence the governance layer in the Global South are of particular concern because they often involve shaping political and elite opinion in favor of a state-centric model of cyber-governance, in which regimes have wide 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 the information space of 1 .4 billion people based on his political preferences. The two Southeast Asian states have deliberately passed comprehensive cybersecurity laws that mimic the nature and scope of China’s 2017 cybersecurity law. And while the Thai government appears to have given up on its plan 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 to shape the governance layer have focused on human capital development, with China rolling out extensive training programs at the grassroots and elite levels aimed at fostering brand dependence and loyalty on corporate governance. Chinese telecommunications like Huawei and ZTE. The programs target not only the technology sector, but also law enforcement, intelligence, military and other spheres with a profound influence on the future of Ugandan technology policies, surveillance and of censorship. Nigeria has established the Nigerian Data Protection Regulations, the name of which evokes the EU GDPR, but the substance of which approximates to China’s data policy regulations which emphasize data sovereignty. State about personal data, even when phrased in privacy language.
Jamaica remains an exception in many respects compared to the other countries studied. Jamaican government officials are hesitant to allow Chinese tech companies due to their proximity to the United States and fear that Jamaican companies could violate US sanctions and blacklisting laws that target companies like Huawei. Additionally, Jamaica reformed its slander, slander and libel laws, granting it the greatest freedom of speech and expression among the five countries examined in this report. However, Jamaica shows that China can continue to make inroads with countries with strong democratic institutions. Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness said during a 2019 trip to China that learning to develop Jamaica’s ICT infrastructure is a priority for the Jamaican government, and equipping Chinese tech companies like Huawei could play a role. role in maintaining public order, fighting crime, and improving the effectiveness of government.
Looking at these five countries, we found several ways the United States and like-minded democracies could help countries in the Global South like those in the Pacific Islands when China offers deals like the China-Country Joint Development Vision Pacific Islanders and bilateral agreements such as the one with the Solomon Islands. The United States and its partners should strengthen Southern efforts to monitor China’s influence, especially agreements and agreements related to ICT companies. Likewise, these efforts could be used to improve legislative oversight of Chinese ICT companies and other entities seeking to engage in a host country’s digital information stack. And finally, the United States and like-minded partners should offer support to develop and maintain secure communication channels through initiatives such as the Open Technology Fund.
In conclusion, to be viable alternatives to countries in the Global South seeking to improve their digital information stacks, the United States and like-minded democracies must use the full range of tools available to seek more transparency from ICT companies linked to the Chinese party. State. This way, these countries appreciate the full scope of the agreements they make and can avoid the privacy, public safety, and data security pitfalls they often entail.