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Since the early 1990s both the USA and China have specialised in building infrastructure; ‘digital’ infrastructure in the US case, mainly ‘physical’ in China’s. Infrastructures are not only a technical and economic reality; they also have a political meaning, which is often overlooked. What do we know about it?

 

We now recognise that the origins of the internet and the ‘digital’ world are to be found in the Cold War and the ARPANET project. Little is said, however, on the role of the web and the social media in promoting Western and, more specifically, US power in the world. It is a fact though that in the 1990s the US Department of Defense promoted the doctrine of ‘network-centric warfare’, which emphasised the role of computers and Information Technology in military operations (see http://dodccrp.org/files/Alberts_NCW.pdf) and paved the way for co-operation between the internet, the developing social media, and ‘mixed’ or ‘hybrid’ forms of warfare.  The role played by the Silicon Valley technologies and innovations in ‘coloured revolutions’, the ‘Arab Spring’ and other (US-supported) protests and ‘revolutions’ around the world has never been clarified and remains open to investigation. Certainly, both Bill Clinton and Obama have been supported by what has been called the ‘military-internet complex’ (see http://shaneharris.com/atwar/) and have massively used traditional and new media to promote US goals in the world – and surveillance at home. Hillary Clinton was then Secretary of State at the time of the ‘Arab Spring’, when Western media often promoted a biased view of what was happening on the ground.

 

In March 2016 the Pentagon has then established the Defense Innovation Advisory Board (DIAB), which formalises the links between Silicon Valley and US Armed Forces; its first Chairman is Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO and guru.  Interestingly, the IT industry has so far remained uncharacteristically aloof in the heated presidential race; in the Democratic camp, Bernie Sanders has surprisingly received 2.4 billion $, far more than Hillary’s 1.3 billion. This is a strong signal: the Silicon Valley seems to think that something (how much?) is wrong with Hillary. Is she politically too old? Or unreliable? Or associated with the mistakes of the ‘Arab Spring’? Are Gates &C. waiting for the results of the FBI investigation into Hillary’s much-debated use of her private email?

 

While the USA has focused on ‘invisible’ infrastructures, China has consistently and massively invested in ‘visible’, giant projects; that said, Beijing’s presence is always discreet and its choices, subtle. China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ is a megaproject economically 12 times bigger than the Marshall Plan. It would connect China’s Pacific coast with Western Europe through a continental ‘road’ (in fact a ‘New Silk Road’) and a maritime ‘belt’. They include any type of infrastructure, following a logic China early pioneered in Africa and South America. New railways will link Central Asian states with Europe and China’s Western provinces; a new city (Saihoon) will be built from scratch in so far isolated Tajikistan and will host 250,000 people; ports (Gwadar in Pakistan is one example), airports, and pipelines will dot both Belt and Road. There are doubts on the building of a giant canal in Nicaragua, but one will certainly be built in Thailand and weaken the role of US-controlled Malacca Straits. In Yinchuan, China is even building a Muslim Theme Park, an astute and subtle way of dealing with both Islamic radicalism at home (especially in restive Xinjiang) and Muslim powers abroad (Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and other wealthy providers of energy and construction opportunities). After all, it is a better way of dealing with fundamentalism that both repression and lack of action.

 

What are China’s objectives? Very often mega projects fail because of high costs, obstacles to investment, red tape, and so on. However, China has invested so much that in broad portfolio the potential failure of some deals has already been discounted. Profits and trade, which certainly matter, are then only a part of the story. By providing useful infrastructure (on which it has millennia of expertise; let us just think about the Great Wall!), China can establish good relations with a large number of countries and obtains in return concessions on resources and energy in particular. Moreover, China leaves a footprint, a symbol; it becomes visible and known, and at the same time easily collects information on many world regions. Infrastructure diplomacy has visible means (big projects) but rather invisible results, which are though very important for Beijing, in political and economic terms; and yet they remain largely clouded with fog to external observers, also because of – let us be honest – some lack of transparency.

 

Sadly, and despite its rhetoric (and some time ago, reality) about ‘building bridges’, Europe seems now busy only in building walls. Austria’s relief after the recent defeat of the far-right presidential candidate (and proponent of new walls), Norbert Hofer, is rather misplaced. Far-right forces can still win in several EU countries, including in Austria’s more important parliament elections. Meanwhile, Europe keeps experiencing the violence of terrorism, which is itself a criminal degeneration of the idea of network and infrastructure. Radicals use the media to destroy and annihilate, not to build. It must be noticed that, after Russia’s intervention in Syria, ISIS’ horrific and perverse use of the media strongly diminished. Shocking videos and messages of fear have become much less frequent. And yet Europe has had no reaction other than proposing walls and tearing apart the Schengen Treaty.

 

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