The questions of what benefits China’s Digital Silk Road architecture will bring to Cambodia and what Cambodia needs to do to take full advantages of it are central to the understanding of the management and governance of a digital economy.
For the Cambodian economy, the question of whether it is too late or too early for Cambodia to embrace digital Cambodia is irrelevant. A central question is to what extent linking the Chinese Digital Silk Road would mean to Cambodia’s growth and development. But what does it take to build a robust digital nation and what does it mean to society, government and economy?
When China launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, the world soon recognised that China has envisioned a leadership in the global economy. China’s Digital Silk Road built along the BRI encompasses 5G mobile technology and installation of fibre optic cables, international trunk passageways, mobile structures, e-commerce links, and use of artificial intelligence (AI) in which China’s national tech giants Huawei, Alibaba, ZTE, and Tencent could lead in delivering high-quality internet products at a comparatively lower cost.
The speedy and bulky advancement in technological innovation and digital technology in China has become the potent source of China’s global power projection. Crucially, it has been lubricating global digital connectivity in the BRI geography that stretches from Southeast Asia to South and Central Asia to the Middle East and to Eastern and Central Europe.
Cambodia is in no better position than to embrace this trend and advance its core economic interest to catch up with the regional and global digital economy revolution by adopting a full set of technologies, namely e-payment and e-commerce platforms, big data, machine learning, the Internet of Things (IoT), and artificial intelligence (AI) in commerce and trade and social connectivity. The state’s pivotal role is to embrace the Digital Silk Road and digital economy by paying utmost attention to ensuring a digital critical infrastructure and cybersecurity.
When Prime Minister Hun Sen envisioned the digital transformation towards Industrial Revolution 4.0 (IR4.0) in late March 2019, he envisioned a deepening of investment in digital infrastructure, including fiber optics and public utilities that connect households, businesses and data centers through faster, affordable and accessible nation-wide internet connections.
To benefit from the regional digital architecture under the Digital Silk Road requires not only a political will and but also a prudential governance system to get rid of a fragmented policy agenda. The priority is for the Cambodian government to take bold actions and innovative initiatives that include heavy investment in accumulation of digital capital and technologies. The government needs to devise a ‘quantitative’ roadmap for having a full-fledged digital Cambodia to invigorate and widen the foundation of the national economy and to diversify the sources of economic growth. In addition, multiple coordinated frameworks must be built and comprehensive digitalisation strategies and concrete action plans aided by targets and a timeframe must be formulated to actualise the goals of pioneering a development agenda as laid out in the Cambodia 2015-2025 Industrial Development Policy.
Developing a digital Cambodia must contain four spectrums: (i) digital economy, (ii) digital government, (iii) digital society, and (iv) digital ecosystem. The economic digitalisation requires a broader application of information and communication technology (ICT), new digital technologies, and digital functions, including AI. Cambodia needs to muster a critical mass of digital technologies and capital to drive further innovations in industrial and service value creations.
Promoting physical digital capital, such as e-business platforms, servers, routers, and internet functions, and intangible digital capital, such as digital designs that engage and improve users’ digital experiences and AI capabilities, for instance, could drive business growth through deeper digital engagement. Expanding access to digital technologies could leverage its growth prospects and modernise the Cambodian economy, while innovating the governance system of state institutions to address social needs and challenges.
The government must take precautions as rapid adoption of a digital economy can usher in risks and consequences of digital disruptions. The 2016 World Bank Report shows that although digital technologies have boosted growth, expanded social and economic opportunities, and improved service delivery, they have also generated uneven digital dividends. To close the digital gap, Cambodia needs to invest heavily in soft and hard digital infrastructure by expanding the coverage, speed, quality and capacity nationwide in a short timeframe.
In sum, the government needs to build the physical and intangible infrastructure to support the digital sector, promote digital urban governance, entrepreneurship, and open-access data, and strengthen education in science and technology, ICT skills, and research and development (R&D). The government needs to link national and international digital connectivity and integrate domestic economic and social activities with those of global communities to induce domestic production, employment, income, and trade. Moreover, it needs to build digital space and enhance digital literacy that allow big digital data capabilities for economic and social purposes to improve efficiency in production and service delivery to build the country’s competitive edge.
The state leadership in spearheading the digital transformation with support and active contribution of the private sector is crucial to maximise the gains from the Digital Silk Road programs and to advance its strong aspiration for driving a robust digital economy in the next two to three decades.
Dr Kimlong Chheng is director of the Centre for Governance Innovation and Democracy at the Phnom Penh-based Asian Vision Institute.