Carl Michael inspects the impact of technology on Belt and Road Initiative in his fifth blog post for our Emerging Fellows program.The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
The term technology covers the development and utilization of technical capabilities in relation to people and the environment. Technologies are material and non-material or digital inventions that have enabled human beings to survive, thrive and advance. They ought not to be considered in isolation from the era or the societies in which they exist. For instance, some experts consider that were it not for the development of the chariot, China itself as a unified entity would not exist. Such is the impact of technology on society. Continuing on this note, if one considers the very concept of the state as a ‘technology’ in its own right, one can define a state as the sum of human endeavour in the production of economic, military, social or artistic outcomes. Extending this train of thought, one can consider the state or the BRI to be a ‘network’, and one which acts within a global network.
The evolution of the BRI must be considered in the context of political technologies such as states and intrastate activities. It should be acknowledged how these technologies interact with other cutting-edge technologies and the resulting evolution of governance. In this macro-context, national or civilizational interactions are part of a complex technological network. When insights from complexity theory and network theory are incorporated into one’s perspective, the evolution of the BRI and its vision can be viewed in a new light. This provides a viewpoint which could be useful when considering how technology impacts the intentions driving an initiative such as the BRI. The economic future of China is technology dependent and effective utilization and transfer of technology will be at the heart of the BRI. Further to this, as BRI members develop, there will be greater demand for advanced technologies, wherever they come from.
For China, technology and success are almost synonymous and the ‘Made in China 2025’ strategic plan is the blueprint for China’s intent for seizing leadership in advanced technology. It is a world leader in digital payment systems and the intent is to surge forward in ICT, artificial intelligence, robotics, high-speed railways, biotech and medical technology, pharmaceuticals, space technology, renewables, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, nuclear energy and military technology. To fuel this surge China needs access, one way or another, to commodities from developing countries or cutting-edge technology from developed countries. The BRI presents China with opportunities to use its accumulated capital to increase its ability to control and optimise global value chains on favourable terms for developing and exporting its technology.
The danger from the current global crisis has showcased China’s strategic biotech capabilities. Chinese leadership in other key technology sectors can be noted from its young, large and ambitious technology workforce, its recent accounting for a third of a space-launches, its pushing ahead with ambitious plans for cleaner and safer next-generation nuclear power, and its acknowledged strength in 5G telecom networks and digital platforms. With this in mind, we can see that China’s ‘Technological Tianxia’ will be one of fast, technologically driven economic and social change with a centrally managed approach, including the use of technology for military and power-projection. The speed of this change is considerable. China took just over a decade for over a billion people to double industrial output per person. In comparison, the UK took well over a century and the US took about half a century. The technology driven vision of the future will be a distinctive factor for an imagined community such as the BRI and this vision will be driven by Chinese technology prophets, entrepreneurs, influencers and venture capitalists.