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Digital Silk Road hope

《中国日报》 2023-06-13

Despite the US trying to drive a wedge between ASEAN and China, opportunities exist for building a digital community with a shared future

Since the United States-proposed "Indo-Pacific" strategy was implemented, it has been expanding its coverage and fields. Because of its strategic geopolitical significance and the potential of its digital economy, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has become one of the key battlefields in the digital competition between China and the US.

The Joe Biden administration is trying to wheedle the Southeast Asia region at both the alliance and member states levels, involving political, economic, cultural, and military fields, to contain China. Given ASEAN's huge population and policy support, it has achieved rapid development in recent years and is an important partner for China in building the Digital Silk Road. Their cooperation over the years has yielded fruits.

In the field of digital industrialization, China and ASEAN have launched a group of digital connectivity projects. In terms of telecommunications cooperation, several Chinese companies have integrated into the local markets of ASEAN countries to varying degrees. In terms of infrastructure cooperation, both the Chinese government and enterprises attach great importance to building digital infrastructure in Southeast Asia. As for scientific research cooperation, both sci-tech innovation enterprises and research institutions are making joint efforts to advance digital technological progress. In the field of industrial digitization, China's e-commerce cooperation policies with ASEAN are improving, and its major digital platforms have also entered ASEAN markets on a large scale.

China and ASEAN share a common demand for digital economy cooperation, which is fundamentally in line with the interests of both sides. For ASEAN, China's digital public goods are promoting its industrial upgrading and regional growth. For China, strengthening cooperation with ASEAN is in line with both political and economic interests. On the one hand, ASEAN has significant strategic value in creating a surrounding environment conducive to regional peace and stability; on the other hand, China's digital economic cooperation with ASEAN can help ensure the continued high-quality growth of the Chinese economy in the new situation.

However, since Donald Trump took office, the US has sharply adjusted its strategy toward China in the competition between the great powers, significantly increased the checks and balances on China-initiated international cooperation such as the Belt and Road Initiative, and the coverage and fields of its so-called free and open "Indo-Pacific" strategy have been expanding and become increasingly specific and refined under the Biden administration.

In the field of security, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue has become an important shaping mechanism for the US to unite its regional allies to contain China under the "Indo-Pacific" strategy. The boundaries of this mechanism are constantly expanding, and a diversified and expanded "Quad+"model has been formed, covering non-traditional security content such as digital governance, technology protection, and "three chains" (industrial chain, supply chain, and value chain) security. In terms of development, the "Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity" attaches great importance to the digital economy, and the content related to the digital economy mainly includes the most important part in the trade pillar. At the same time, some are scattered in the supply chain pillar.

As the competition between China and the US is becoming increasingly fierce in the digital realm, and the ASEAN digital economy market is rising to become the fourth largest market in the world after China, the US, and Europe, Southeast Asia is coming to the forefront of global technology competition. At present, the challenges posed by the US to China-ASEAN digital economy cooperation are mainly reflected in three aspects.

First, there are challenges from the industry itself. Due to the greater homogeneity and exclusiveness of the digital industry, the game and competition between digital powers in a similar ecological niche in the industrial chain can be called a "zero-sum game". Both China and the US rely heavily on the digital industry, and the US' competition policies may harm China's interests in developing the digital industry in Southeast Asia.

Second, there are institutional challenges. On the one hand, the US is accelerating the building of a digital economy governance mechanism with ASEAN, attempting to promote its model by launching a cooperation mechanism; on the other hand, it is also trying to embed its digital economy rules and standards, especially data protection rules, in Southeast Asia.

Third, there are power challenges. In terms of geopolitics, the US continues to launch diplomatic offensives, seeking to alienate China-ASEAN relations and thereby hindering China's digital economic cooperation with ASEAN. In terms of ideology, the US continuously utilizes its advantage of discourse power to create a political atmosphere featuring China-phobia, anti-China sentiment and suspicion toward China in the region.

These challenges will impact the China-ASEAN digital economic cooperation in the following four aspects: at the corporate level, they will intensify the competition between Chinese and US enterprises in the ASEAN market; at the national level, the overall situation of China-ASEAN cooperation may be undermined; at the regional level, they will cause overall instability in the "Indo-Pacific" region; at the global level, the confidence and economic development of global digital cooperation will be hurt.

In this regard, China needs to adopt appropriate response strategies and prudently hedge risks from the US. Specific measures include: valuing multilateral cooperation mechanisms; utilizing the comparative advantages of the digital economy and deepening cooperation in existing digital economies; increasing support for domestic enterprises and bridging the digital gap within the region; identifying strategic weaknesses and targeting them one by one; seeking ways to break the US digital hegemony and promoting the establishment of a fair digital order.

Against this backdrop, opportunities and challenges coexist in the digital economy cooperation between China and ASEAN. Both sides should adhere to the global digital governance principle of consultation, construction, and sharing, continue to promote the Digital Silk Road that benefits multiple parties, and further expand digital economic cooperation to wider and deeper levels to jointly build a digital community with a shared future.

Cai Cuihong is a professor at the Center for American Studies at Fudan University. Yu Dahao is a doctoral candidate at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University. The authors contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.