The Digital Silk Road and the US-China Race for AI

Dr Alessandro Arduino
Author of this article
Principal research fellow at the MEI, National University of Singapore.
Prof. Mario Rasetti
Author of this article
Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics, is the founder and president of the ISI Foundation.

In 2015 Beijing launched the Digital Silk Road (DSR) [1] as a strategic component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The ongoing competition between Beijing and Washington for digital hegemony reached the state of open confrontation during the Trump administration. However, US anxiety over the DSR is not changed during the Biden administration. While the preceding US "Clean Network Initiative" [2], led by former Secretary of State Pompeo to purge Chinese technology from all the allied countries' military and civilian networks, seems moving on under the "Rip and Replace" program, most of the world countries are waiting to figure out which way the wind is blowing.

While the alleged winds of war between China and the United States blow only from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean, what happens in cyberspace will have the most severe repercussions. From a business point of view, in case of a decoupling of digital ecosystems, companies will have to operate in a world deeply divided by incompatible and mutually exclusive communication systems. Countries and companies will have to choose between technologies made in China or in the West, and what in the previous year could have been a decision based on technology necessities and economic efficiency, is going to be linked to geopolitics.

While several African or even Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran, do not have many options outside of the Chinese digital ecosystem [3], the rest of the countries involved in the Digital Silk Road are trying to weigh the benefits of using Chinese technology, in potential disagreement with American efforts to block the adoption of such systems.

The ability to transfer data at high speed and extract value from it are at the heart of this balancing act, which in Europe and Japan have already achieved a marked political connotation in their choices. It's not a secret that Beijing's Digital Silk Road aims to place China at the centre of the fourth industrial revolution. This revolution includes digital security, e-commerce and financial services, smart city integration, undersea fibre optic cables, and the Beidou satellite navigation system.

Certainly, however, it is not implied that the Chinese advantage will automatically translate into a benefit in global leadership in innovation. This is because on the one hand the leadership in AI research is not necessarily durable, on the contrary we must not forget that it is rather fragile: AI does not yet have rock-solid foundations (it does not have a real theory that supports it) and therefore the forward thrust of academic research is subject to sudden and abrupt changes when a newcomer is unexpectedly successful. But, on the other hand, for China, aiming at a solid progress in these sectors will put the country in front of crucial choices concerning its development model.

Today the competition is linked above all to the great challenge of the so-called 'quantum supremacy'. The latter has come to the fore-stage because a recent result obtained at the Almadeen IBM Labs has proven that no classical bit can be encoded in a cluster of fewer than six atoms. This apparently cryptic statement means that the process of progressive miniaturization on which the entire ICT technology industry relies starts facing the risk of reaching its natural limit, after which it cannot but 'go quantum'. The United States, joined by Europe with its 'Quantum Flagship' project, have embarked for their quantum computer –destined to revolutionize in a profound and total manner our way of computing and its scope– the road of super-conductor technologies at very low temperatures; China, instead, has chosen the quantum optics approach. [4]

It will be a titanic clash, a battle played out on the almost intangible field of the mysterious and elusive laws of quantum physics. The most complex, subtle and counterintuitive physics will be the ring for a confrontation in which the greatest economic and commercial, but also cultural and political games of the new millennium will be played. Only in the most advanced labs in the world a possible way out of the dilemma, spintronics, starts to peep out: here there is room also for countries such as Japan with a scientific culture so advanced as to challenge the two superpowers; no one has so far picked up the gauntlet.

One area that will be crucial to settle will be the need to conform to clear and shareable policies in terms of ethics and regulations, an issue on which both of these two great powers are genuinely defective. This issue will in fact, require China to adjust its political model, shifting at least in part that centre of gravity generated by the fact that almost all patents and discoveries come from a university totally financed by the state; the United States to educate its users and investors to a vision less of "lots of money and now" but of a deeper commitment to fundamental research –open even though developed in the private sector– with a higher rate of attention to collective values.


  1. Zhao Huanxin, Digital Silk Road linked to ‘Net Plus’, China Daily Sep 8,2015
  2. US Department of State, Clean Network Initiative, 2017- 2021 Archived Content
  3. Reuter, Iran and China sign 25-year cooperation agreement , March 27, 2021
  4. Stephen Chen, China launches world’s fastest programmable quantum computers, SCMP October 26, 2021