China's mega Belt and Road Initiative across continents is not just about roads, ports or power plants but also 'Digital Silk Road' that aims to construct communications networks that many fear could be used for electronic surveillance.

China wants to build fibre optic cables, international trunk passageways, mobile structures and e-commerce links in countries that are part of BRI, ET has learnt. These infrastructure supplement BRI's physical infrastructure. Some of BRI signatory countries do not posses adequate digital infrastructure and would therefore get dependent on China.

Improving connectivity will allow information exchanges, bringing about "mutual benefit and win-win cooperation" according to a white paper of the Chinese government. But there are fears that China could insert "backdoor mechanisms that could increase Beijing's intelligence and propaganda operations in BRI partner countries," eminent think tank Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) said in a paper last week.

State-owned China Mobile is currently building optical fibre cable projects linking Beijing to Myanmar, Nepal and Kyrgyzstan. Huawei signed a pact last year to build a cable system linking Pakistan to Kenya via Djibouti. State-owned China Telecom could build fibre-optic links even in the Arctic Circle.

Beijing can gather information through these cables, according to the CFR note. "Technicians can bend or clamp the fibers to allow data to leak out or bypass encryption, the note alleged. "Prior actions taken by the Chinese government, such as installing back doors in encryption technology, suggest that it will take similar actions when laying down fibre optic cables in other countries."

While these projects may benefit developing economies, "they have raised concerns that Beijing could use these networks to exert pressure on other states or engage in electronic surveillance," The Economist Intelligence Unit said in a recent report. "BRI countries will need to enhance regulatory frameworks and oversight of projects to mitigate financial risks and political dependence," it added.

Huawei is also involved in deploying 5G mobile technology under the Digital Silk Road. In 2012 sections of the American government alleged that Huawei and ZTE products might impact national security through their collaboration with the Chinese government.