FinTech Policy on the Digital Silk Road: China’s Belt & Road Initiative and Infrastructural Diplomacy in Southeast Asia


Digital technology is a key thread of how many nations imagine themselves today. None more so, it could be suggested, than China with its substantial high profile investment across a wide range of ‘frontier technologies’ – from AI, machine learning, and automation, through 5G, Internet of Things, robotics, sensors, and facial recognition, to smart cities, ‘city brain’ projects, and cultural heritage apps. Underpinning China’s international approach is its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), often imagined as a ‘digital silk road’.

In this paper, we examine how FinTech (financial technology) and associated policy is being imagined, assembled, and implemented. Central to our approach is the theoretical framework of ‘infrastructural diplomacy’, as a way to analyze and interrogate China’s ‘techno-nationalism’ as it plays out internationally and regionally. Accordingly, we open the paper with an analysis of China’s outward digital strategy in the BRI.

We then discuss the implementation and reworking on this strategy in an important regional context – Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is a vital proving ground for China’s digital imaginaries and prospects. 

A number of countries in the region have significant investment, institutional, and people-to-people relationships. Prominent among these actors is Singapore. Singapore positions itself as a vital crossroads for trade and investment, especially in the emerging ICTs industries. Singapore has a longstanding, very close relationship with China. The relationship has moved from one of suspicion and tension as Singapore established itself as a sovereign state in the 1960s and 1970s, to a situation where both countries are among the top investors in each other’s economy, and where there is extensive intergovernmental, commercial and industrial, and people-to-people collaboration, especially on digital technology. 

Singapore’s technocratic style of governance operationalized by the world’s most highly paid government continues to fascinate and intrigue successive Chinese governments. The role of Singapore becomes even more important with the flight of investment capital from Hong Kong SAR in the wake of anti-PRC protests; declining Chinese investments in Australia after China’s implementation of rules governing capital flight and the emerging situation with the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) further underscores the intertwined stakes of China and Singapore’s technology futures.

FinTech is integral to ‘Singapore’s ambition to be a smart nation’ (Monetary Authority of Singapore), and how it positions itself as a leading international hub for innovation in this area. Partnerships, collaborations, and joint investments between China and Singapore, especially leveraging the BRI framework, are pivotal to how both countries seek to develop their FinTech products, services, and also to burnish their reputations as technology leaders. Drawing on political economy, analysis of policy documents and discourses, as well as interviews with technology developers and policy actors, we provide an account of this area of FinTech policy development as it emerges on the ‘digital silk road’ – considering its implications for global media policy.