While many see such a development in a positive light, others look though the glass darkly and stress the dangers. One such man works on North African affairs in which he sees a clear and present danger.
According to this analyst at a mayor London research house, such a capability puts Belt and Road managers in a position to more readily sell, if not compel the use and sale of China's Huawei and ZTE hardware and software systems.
This in turns tends to link optimally with Chinese technology either exclusively or nearly exclusively, freezing out rivals or domestic producers and home-grown service providers.
North Africa is expected to become home to some massive infrastructural projects, including Morocco’s Tangier Med Port and Egypt’s new administrative capital, after all of the countries in the region signed up to China’s Belt and Road initiative, says a report from the think tank Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs.
China’s ambition, says the report, to extend its digital footprint in North Africa has received little attention despite its economic, political and strategic implications.
The Digital Silk Road, also called the Information Silk Road, brings advanced IT infrastructure to Belt and Road countries, such as broadband networks, e-commerce hubs and smart cities. Driven by China’s tech giants who can deliver high-quality fibre optic cable at much lower costs than European and US rivals.
A big problem, says the author, Tin Hinane El Kadi, a Chatham House analyst from its Middle East and North Africa section, is the success of China’s move to dominate the global communication market through its ability to "shape the future of cyberspace governance in ways that normalise censorship and restrict freedoms".
For authoritarian states, a significant number of which are involved in Belt and Road, the Chinese use of the Internet as a tool for population control is quite appealing, said the report.
Last year, China hosted sessions on its system of censorship and surveillance for media officials from Morocco, Egypt and Libya. These meetings have usually been followed by the adoption of cybersecurity laws that resemble China's, said Mr El Kadi.
North Africa is expected to become home to some massive infrastructural projects, including Morocco’s Tangier Med Port and Egypt’s new administrative capital, after all of the countries in the region signed up to China’s Belt and Road.
While much has been written about the physical infrastructure under Belt and Road, China’s ambition to extend its digital footprint in North Africa has received far less attention despite its significant economic, political and strategic implications, said Mr El Kadi.
Many aspects of China’s "going out" policies pursued by Chinese tech companies fill unmet needs for digital connectivity in developing countries. However, the upgraded digital infrastructure provided by Chinese firms comes with control over data flows. This means that the decisions North African governments take regarding the expansion of their digital networks will have considerable economic, political and geostrategic implications, he said.
First, if Chinese companies come to dominate the North African digital landscape, it will hinder local players’ ability to capture domestic markets and compete. Control over digital data holds significant economic value. It may soon become one of the critical productive forces for countries to maintain competitive positions within global value chains.
Mr El Kadi said that by controlling data flows, Chinese tech giants can understand markets better, identify and eliminate local competitors and carry out commercial research and development, limiting the capacity of homegrown players to reap the economic benefits of data produced in the region.
In the mobile device segment, local manufacturers such as Algeria’s Condor and Tunisia’s Evertek are already facing fierce competition from low and middle range Chinese mobile producers such as Oppo and Vivo. China's own path to becoming a technological powerhouse through its state support of domestic firms provides valuable lessons that North African governments can use to make sure potential tech champions are adequately funded and protected.
"An investigation published last year showed that confidential data on the IT network of the Chinese-built African Union (AU) headquarters was diverted to Shanghai every night between 2012 and 2017," said the report," said Mr El Kadi.
"The AU has since then acquired its own servers and declined China’s offer to configure them. Of course, China is far from being the only country that spies using the internet. As shown by Edward Snowden, US intelligence services have accessed the data of millions of people in the US and abroad that was held and transmitted by US tech giants," he said.
n recent years, China’s tech giants have become key players in North Africa's digital scene. Huawei opened its first cloud data centre in the region in Egypt in February 2019, and has signed a contract to build a data centre for the Algerian customs agency.
Tangier Tech, Morocco's much-publicised Chinese-built smart city, is expected to host 200 Chinese companies, many of which operate in high-tech activities. In Tunisia, Chinese tech firms are actively participating in fulfilling the goals of the Digital Tunisia 2020 national strategy.
While the growing enthusiasm of some of the world's largest technology companies for the North African market can be exciting news, several downsides need to be considered.
It seems such a shame that what seems like such a good idea, that of patching up the world's patchy infrastructure, runs afoul or such dark suspicions, aroused by the high and mighty in Beijing, from land grabs in the South China Seas to meddling in Hong Kong affairs some 30 years before they were expected to do so. One can only hope that good sense and good will once again prevail in the "opening up" of earlier times.