Julia Carver is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford and Nuffield College. Her work explores cyber-foreign policymaking and strategic thinking in the current era of great power competition, particularly the relationship between digital infrastructure, capacity building, and strategic advantage. In 2021, she founded the Changing Character of War Centre’s Cyber Strategy and Information Operations Working Group, and she currently holds a stipendiary lectureship in Politics at Magdalen College (Oxford). Her research is jointly funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and Nuffield College.
Developing Digital 'Peripheries' for Strategic Advantage: American, EU, and Chinese CCB Projects in Africa
Weaponized interdependence (WI), or the exploitation of networked asymmetries for strategic advantage, has come to dominate the strategic thinking of China, the European Union (EU), and the United States (US). Declaring the strategic importance of cyber capacity building (CCB) as a foreign policy tool, they have each invested heavily in the development of digital network ‘peripheries’—including in African states. Conventional wisdom primarily holds that CCB projects develop the recipient’s resilience against WI risks. Given that the EU, US, and China stand accused of benefitting from weaponizing interdependence in the digital domain, it seems disadvantageous for them to fund programmes aimed at reducing opportunities for WI gains. How, then, do these donors perceive CCB investments as shaping their strategic advantage? This paper explores the strategic trade-offs for deciding to invest in another state’s CCB. Focusing upon supply-side competitive pressures, the paper argues that CCB processes are seen as strategically useful for reconfiguring networked asymmetries in the donor’s favour. Its empirical analysis finds that this logic is reflected in the current rollout of American, Chinese, and EU CCB initiatives for African states. As exemplified by China’s effective monopoly over Africa’s telecommunications infrastructure, CCB projects afford donors the opportunity to secure first mover advantages and establish long term lock-in effects in growing (and contested) parts of the global network. In turn, the EU and US have each relied on CCB partnerships to hedge against China’s growing influence, leveraging CCB conditionality policies and skills transfers to enhance their own network positions. Crucially, scholarship has underestimated how ‘networked peripheries’ have emerged as central sites of global geopolitical competition, with CCB programmes serving as tools for shaping the normative and structural conditions for strategic advantage.