1st Edition

The Digital Silk Road China’s Technological Rise and the Geopolitics of Cyberspace

Edited By David Gordon, Meia Nouwens Copyright 2023

    Concerns about China’s ambitions to return to global centre stage as a great power have recently begun to focus on the Digital Silk Road (DSR), an umbrella term for various activities – commercial and diplomatic – of interest to the Chinese government in the cyber realm. Part of (or a spin-off from) the 2013 Belt and Road Initiative, by 2020 the DSR had become a focal point of China’s foreign policy. But the DSR remains ill-defined and poorly understood.

    At the heart of such concerns is not that Chinese technology companies are becoming globally competitive, but rather that Beijing could use them to ‘rewire’ the global digital architecture, from physical cables to code. Dominance by Chinese technology could shift global norms from a free cyber commons to competing systems of cyber sovereignty or cyber freedom. This Adelphi book brings together eight experts to examine the development of the DSR, explore its impact on economics, security and governance in recipient countries, and assess the broader impact on patterns of economic and technological dependence, on the emerging rules and norms of tech globalisation, and on global geopolitics and great-power relations.

    Beijing has grasped the opportunity to leverage the entrepreneurial strengths of its private tech sector to gain prominence in the world’s digital ecosystem. But the more interventionist Beijing becomes, the more Chinese firms will be seen as instruments of the state, and the greater the pushback against Chinese technology and the DSR may be. To achieve great-power status and global centrality, Beijing might ultimately need to change tack. How it innovates in further rolling out Chinese tech across the world, and what the DSR will then look like, will have far-reaching impacts on global economics, politics and security.


    David Gordon and Meia Nouwens

    Chapter One - China’s investment in digital technologies and the Digital Great Game

    Marcus Willett

    Chapter Two - Locating the Digital Silk Road in the Belt and Road Initiative

    Robert Koepp

    Chapter Three - Identifying the Digital Silk Road

    Meia Nouwens

    Chapter Four - The Digital Silk Road and the evolving role of Chinese technology companies

    Paul Triolo

    Chapter Five - The Digital Silk Road and China’s grand strategic ambition

    Damien Ma

    Chapter Six - The Digital Silk Road and normative values

    Adrian Shahbaz

    Chapter Seven - Balancing prosperity and security along the Digital Silk Road

    Scott Malcomson


    David Gordon and Meia Nouwens





    Dr David Gordon is Senior Adviser for Geo-economics and Strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He is a former US diplomat and intelligence official, and served as director of policy planning at the US State Department under then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. His work focuses on the intersection of security, economics and strategy.

    Meia Nouwens is Senior Fellow for Chinese Defence Policy and Military Modernisation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Her expertise lies in Chinese cross-service defence analysis, China’s defence industry and innovation, as well as China’s regional strategic affairs and international relations. She leads IISS research on China’s Digital Silk Road and the institute’s wider China portfolio.

    ‘This groundbreaking work combines the best available expertise with detailed datasets to illuminate the complex phenomenon that is China’s Digital Silk Road. The understanding it offers is critically important at a time of growing East–West geopolitical and technological competition.’

    Nigel Inkster, IISS Senior Adviser for Cyber Security and China; former Assistant Chief, Secret Intelligence Service (UK)