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Digital Silk Road (DSR) – The Modern Chinese Way of Expanding Its Technological and Geopolitical Influence, besides its AI Independence

Posted: May 26th, 2024 | Author: | Filed under: Artificial Intelligence, Geopolitics | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Digital Silk Road (DSR) – The Modern Chinese Way of Expanding Its Technological and Geopolitical Influence, besides its AI Independence

As mentioned in our post “China: Techno-socialism Seasoned with Artificial Intelligence“, in its aim of gaining a global leadership role, China launched the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013: a global infrastructure development strategy to invest in more than 150 countries and international organizations. The BRI was composed of six urban development land corridors linked by road, rail, energy, and digital infrastructure and the Maritime Silk Road, linked by the development of ports.

In 2015, the Chinese government published the “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, introducing the concept of “Information Silk Road” as a component of BRI -later to be rebranded as “digital’ to encompass its broader aspirations. In 2017, during the BRI Forum in Beijing, Xi Jinping stated the use of AI and big data would be incorporated in the future of BRI as well, further illustrating its broad and ever-evolving nature. The DSR is an important component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); it covers a wide array of areas, ranging from telecommunications networks, to ‘Smart City’ projects, to e-commerce, to Chinese satellite navigation systems, and of course AI.

The DSR aims at the global expansion of Chinese technologies to markets in which western players have previously dominated, or in developing countries that are only now undergoing a technological revolution. The implementation of China’s DSR has mainly covered the developing countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. China presents the DSR as a tool for development, innovation, and technological evolution. However, in its ambitions and impact, the DSR is also a question of geopolitics, as it facilitates China’s attempt to establish itself as a major global power across a growing number of technical and research fields, and regions.

With the growing prominence of the DSR, some Western countries have voiced their concerns about the potential risks related to Chinese technology and involvement in sensitive sectors. Both the US and EU have taken steps to counter the rising influence of the DSR. As a tool to contest the Chinese initiative, the US launched the ‘Clean Network’ initiative. Said that, the EU does not have a unified stance on cooperation with China on the DSR. Among 27 members, there are ‘champions’ of the pushback against China, especially among Central and Eastern European countries like Czechia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Romania, that have aligned with the US’ initiative. Others, like France, have not introduced outright bans but have de facto decided to exclude “untrusted vendors”, and to focus on the European companies and equipment due to security concerns. Germany, on the contrary, is still considering the inclusion of the Chinese companies in the construction of its 5G infrastructure, for instance.

Western Balkans is a region that has been often seen as a springboard by China regarding its presence in Europe. Chinese efforts to include Serbia in the DSR have been more than welcomed and hence Serbia has become a main stop for the Chinese initiative in the region.

Serbia has developed extensive and strategic relations with China over the past decade. The partnership has also included cooperation within the framework of the DSR. Serbia and China signed the Strategic Agreement on Economic, Technological, and Infrastructural cooperation in 2009. That agreement was a starting point for the development of the contemporary relations between two countries and a cornerstone for future joint projects. During the visit of Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Belgrade in 2016, the two countries established a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

DSR has reached Serbia and made it the focal point in the Western Balkans. However, cooperation could come with a price. If Serbia relies too much on China in its technological development and does not differentiate partner companies and suppliers, it may become too dependent on its Chinese partners. The absence of diversification can jeopardize the sustainability of the system and the possibility of further improvements of the system in the future. The need of not being dependent on foreign technology is a lesson perfectly learned and practiced by the Chinese authorities concerning AI.

Chinese Non-dependency Policy Regarding GenAI / LLMs 

For China and Chinese companies, developing indigenous LLMs is a matter of independence from foreign technologies and also a matter of national pride. Since August 2023, when China’s rules on generative AI came into effect, 46 different LLMs developed by 44 different companies were approved by the authorities. The legislation requires companies to ensure that the models’ responses align with the communist values and also undergo a security self-assessment, which has, however, not been defined until recently. Besides the afore-mentioned approved models, it is estimated that there are more than 200 different LLMs currently functioning in China.

The first wave of models approved in August 2023 was predominantly general LLM models developed by the biggest players in China’s technological market – Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba, Huawei, iFlytek, SenseTime, and ByteDance. Besides these companies, Chinese research institutions, namely the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Shanghai Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, received approvals for their models. In the following batches, models with specific applications started to appear: models designed for recruitment purposes -ranging from CV formatting to providing recommendations; models designed to help companies with cyber security assessments and risk prevention; models designed for readers to interact with their favorite literary characters; models aimed at video content generation based on an article or an idea description; and models providing recommendations to customers and serve as AI assistants.

In March 2024, China’s National Information Security Standardization Technical Committee (TC260) published its basic security requirements for generative AI, which qualifies as a technical document providing detailed guidance for authorities and providers of AI services. This text sets measures regarding the security of training data. Providers must randomly choose 4,000 data points from each training corpus and the number of ‘illegal’ or ‘harmful’ information should not exceed five percent. Otherwise, the corpus may not be used for training. Developers are also required to maintain information about the sources of the training data and the collection processes, and acquire agreement or other authorization to use data for training when using open-source data. This document also provides detailed guidance regarding the evaluation of the model’s responses. Providers are required to create a 2,000-question bank designed to control the model’s outputs in the case of areas defined as “security risks.” -everything which might mean a violation or threat to the communist values. 

Importantly and as final note concerning the willingness of being independent from foreign technical developments, the newest AI rules stipulate that Chinese companies are not allowed to use unregistered third-party foundation models to provide public services. This means that access to LLMs developed outside China becomes even more limited and some of the Chinese AI companies who have built their applications based on ChatGPT or LlaMa, for instance, will need to find other solutions.

More than ever the geopolitical battlefield is played mainly on the technological / AI realm. 

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