Challenges for Sino-Pak Cooperation on Digital Silk Road
Five years after China announced it, the ambitious Digital Silk Road (DSR) project is still struggling to gain traction in Pakistan.
China: Five years after China announced it, the ambitious Digital Silk Road (DSR) project is still struggling to gain traction in Pakistan.
During the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) international cooperation summit forum in 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed expanding cooperation with Pakistan in a wide range of areas including the digital economy, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and quantum computing.
One of the first takeaways for Pakistan was the construction of a cross-border fibre optic cable that would connect to a submarine cable in the Arabian Sea to provide service to BRI countries and Europe.
Pakistan sees this as a strategic move to avoid telecommunications infrastructure involving Indian companies.
Building a quick and secure route for internet traffic to Europe via a dedicated line managed by the Chinese is critical for China.
DSR also promises assistance to Chinese technology exporters who are currently facing pressure from governments around the world in the form of sanctions or exclusion from network construction projects.
As a result, the project represents a business opportunity for many well-known Chinese technology firms, which will gain guaranteed access to build telecommunications networks in BRI participant countries.
Nonetheless, with all the hype surrounding DSR, several roadblocks in Pakistan's economy and digital society are bound to prevent the country's early implementation of DSR's components.
Impediments include Pakistan's digital economy's low base, a lack of digital talent, and a lack of matching economic activities.
Furthermore, there is a significant gap in Pakistan's digital progress in terms of gender, region, urban and rural areas, cultural barriers, and terrorism, among other factors.
Against the DSR dreams sold to Pakistan, some hard facts show that the plan is unrealistic, if not impossible.
Pakistan's economic base is relatively low, with an overall GDP of $280 billion and a per capita GDP of less than $1,400 (World Bank: 2021).
Furthermore, in terms of economic development, digital infrastructure, internet penetration, and the size of online commerce, Pakistan differs significantly from China.
The digital gender gap in Pakistani society is especially noticeable. It is primarily due to low female literacy, insufficient ICT skills, and low affordability.
Pakistan had more than 100 million mobile broadband subscribers in 2021, with only 21 million females.
Households do not approve of female internet use for a variety of reasons, including perceived safety and security, making female participation in digital activities quite limited.
There are approximately 46 million social media users in the country, with male Facebook users outnumbering females by five times, indicating a 70% gender gap.
Females also lag behind in terms of financial inclusion. According to data from the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), only 29% of adult women have a bank account, while 25% own a cell phone.
Only 18% of women have a corresponding digital bank account, with a 64% gender gap in digital finance.
official efforts to advance the digital economy, cash remains the primary mode of payment in Pakistan, dominating economic activity and perceived as safe by virtually all retailers and suppliers.
The majority of wages and salaries are still paid in cash, posing significant challenges to growing the digital economy.
The current lack of digital talent is expected to further impede Pakistan's digital growth, and cooperation with China offers no immediate solution.
The problem can only be solved by large-scale professional training, which would take years. Cyber attacks on various institutions and citizens alike are common, revealing Pakistan's IT system robustness.
In recent years, there have been reports of government websites being hacked and sensitive data being stolen by foreign actors.
Recently, Pakistan has placed a strong emphasis on the use of digital technology to promote health, education, and economic development.
However, the transition from physical to digital processes would necessitate long-term investments and active interventions from various institutions.
Relying on Chinese aid as a short-term solution will only delay the process.
, there are fears that China will use DSR to impose its model of technology-enabled authoritarianism on its unequal BRI partners.
Only the little Iron brother can hope to be an exception in this! islamkhabar.