Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the centrality and significance of digital infrastructure and connectivity have been brought to light. Many businesses were rendered helpless due to their dependence on traditional means of connectivity. The Digital Silk Road, which was announced in 2015, was re-boosted in 2022.

The central agenda of DSR was to enhance digital connectivity and infrastructure by exporting 5G technologies and artificial intelligence, localizing e-commerce, and reducing exposure to cyberattacks.

The pandemic brought to light the disparity brought about by the digital divide, which resulted in substandard health infrastructure, lack of access to online education and fewer e-commerce business opportunities. The DSR served as an opportunity to lessen the reliance on traditional means of connectivity and integrate the whole system digitally.

The DSR envisioned President Xi’s goal of making China “the global innovation and technology hub”. The central purpose of DSR was to revolutionize China’s information and communication technology industry. Still, it subsequently led to the strengthening of internet connectivity in South Asia, Africa, and some European countries. Nonetheless, the development of the Digital Silk Road certainly provides an opportunity for developing countries like Pakistan to close the digital divide.

Under this program, China has launched 2 flagship projects: the PEACE (Pakistan East Africa Connecting Europe) and CPFOP (China Pakistan Fiber Optic Project). The PEACE cable will ensure Pakistan’s maritime connectivity to countries of East Africa and Europe, and land connectivity will be enabled by CPFOP. The CPFOP is an 820km long cable with a cost of 46 million, which is projected to lead to the provision of 3G and 4G in Gilgit-Baltistan, Kashmir, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. These two projects alone have the potential to create job opportunities in the digital services sector, such as online education, freelancing, health services, and advice through medical apps. However, these projects necessitate the preference of local businessmen over foreign entrepreneurs.

Pakistan, which was previously reliant on India for its internet cable, will now have a direct connection from China. This will presumably protect Pakistan from the surveillance and espionage risks it faced from India. Since sensitive data was transferred through these cables, Pakistan was vulnerable to interception from India, which is now reduced. However, while assessing the benefits of DSR, it should not be forgotten that the risk of surveillance and exploitation of personal data still prevails in China.

In the ongoing tech war between the US and China, China has been desperate to gather large amounts of data for the operation of their AI-based technology, which they might obtain from the countries which are included in the PEACE cable and from projects like the Bei Dou navigation system, which is used for geographic surveying or mapping. It is due to these reasons that the US and other European countries have labelled it as tech-enabled authoritarianism.

China’s broad expertise in AI and cyber warfare can have a spillover effect. They can help the Pakistani people to develop their systems of cyber security and protect their critical infrastructure.

What do these technologies and infrastructure mean for Pakistan? Moreover, what practical changes will be envisioned through DSR? This might include the development of smart cities, where everything from agriculture to health facilities is managed through applications on your phone, or the condition of crops is monitored through the application of technology.

Another important feature of smart cities might be the adoption and rapid progression of 5G, not only across the urban areas but in the chronically underdeveloped areas of Baluchistan like Gwadar port and north Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. The seamlessness of business will also be made possible by the expansion of DSR, which will enable e-commerce facilities to reach diverse areas and make businesses operate swiftly. The digitalization of rural areas through DSR will allow the population of those areas to be more connected with the digital world and use it to transform the information and communication infrastructure of these areas.

This digital connectivity is important in the economic aspect as a well-connected region increases efficiency and productivity and has a positive impact on the economic growth of the region as well. The expansion of DSR will ensure smooth trade operations, which will reduce trade and cultural barriers.

Moreover, it will open opportunities for the inclusion of women in businesses, who can participate in businesses built on e-commerce from the comfort of their homes. In addition to that, digital infrastructure will allow the government of Pakistan to be aware of the development and progress happening in the provincial areas through e-government portals while simultaneously managing the federal territory.

These developments will, in turn, contribute to enhancing the country’s investment climate and make the regions associated with DSR feasible for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).

In case of terrorism and other insurgency threats which are more persistent in the Baluchistan region, the DSR will contribute to increasing the surveillance and tracking capabilities of the region to track terrorist activity.

Another aspect of DSR is the provision of digital terrestrial multimedia broadcasting (DTMB), which will lead to high-definition (HD) broadcasting even in remote areas. This can contribute to the forging of cultural bonds and inculcating a sense of homogeneity by capitalizing on the power of electronic media.

However, even though digital connectivity could prove to be the missing link in solving the problem of terrorism in Pakistan, the persistence of terrorism and cultural barriers pose the biggest threat to the advent of digital connectivity. If Pakistan is unable to overcome these challenges, they could impede the expansion of DSR, as MNCs would hesitate to invest in a country which is prone to terrorism and consequently has unstable conditions to keep the environment favourable for foreign investors. Moreover, the aversion of the rural people to technology and their lack of adaptability might pose a challenge for the budding local e-commerce businesses.

The downside of DSR is that countries like Pakistan and other East African countries can get caught in the crossfire of the breeding tech war between China and the US. Nonetheless, it provides an opportunity for Pakistan to boost its digital infrastructure and harness it to create integration.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email