Will China and America Clash in Cyberspace?

"The worries over cybersecurity should not risk the mutual value both countries derive from an open and innovative cyberspace."

Cyber exploitation of ethnic minorities and Internet censorship by the Chinese state stand in stark contrast to cosmopolitan visions of an open Internet with strong normative protections for human rights. The U.S. Department of State’s “Internet freedom” agenda “works to advance Internet freedom as an aspect of the universal rights of freedom of expression and the free flow of information.” As part of this initiative, the U.S. government and activists from nongovernmental organizations develop and deploy technologies that dissidents can use to subvert controls on Internet content. With regards to China, this essentially means hacking the “Great Firewall.”

China, together with Russia, would prefer to shift governance of the Internet to the United Nations with stronger norms of Internet sovereignty and noninterference. Europe and the United States prefer to maintain the current “multistakeholder” arrangement while strengthening norms of openness and human rights. The Obama administration’s decision to transfer the Internet Assigned Name Authority (IANA) function from the Department of Commerce to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a sign that the United States recognizes it must internationalize cyber policy, but even this step is unlikely to mollify Chinese critics.

The challenge of international policy coordination is exacerbated by intrastate disorganization and disconnects between public and private actors in both countries. National cyber policy in any country must balance the competing goals of national security, law enforcement, and industrial regulation in an international market context of rapid technological change.

Yet innovation in the commercial information technology sector moves far more rapidly than the pace of policymaking in any state. The opportunities for making mischief online emerge faster than government regulators can adjust to counter them, even if they were somehow able to achieve normative agreement on the desirability of doing so.

To date, both states have attempted to find common ground against transnational criminal organizations and have made modest progress on reconciling views on intellectual property. However, as cyber capabilities develop and deepen inside the national security establishments of both countries, it is difficult to ignore tensions created through the cyber activities of all parties.

Likewise, it is futile to hope to eliminate cyber exploitation across national boundaries. It is simply too essential a tool for China’s economic development and political stability strategy and for the national security strategy of the United States, although neither state likes to admit it publicly.

Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Cyber Bomb

Understanding cyber threats to and from China requires more attention to domestic and international institutions and the incentives they create. Paradigms matter, and the political economy of trade and industrial regulation might be as or more important than deterrence or warfighting for analyzing cybersecurity.

Cyberspace is ultimately a human creation and its potential for abuse will be shaped through a long and complex process of institutional bargaining in the context of ongoing architectural redesign. Misunderstanding not only leads to oversimplification in analysis but also to potential miscalculation in strategic interaction.

While it might not be possible to completely eliminate cyberthreats through norms or formal agreements, we should be able to avoid making them worse through ignorance. Both the U.S. military and the Chinese PLA assume that cyberspace is a highly offensive, asymmetric, and unstable domain of conflict, yet the history of minor irritants and tolerable abuses experienced thus far suggest that restraint and limited effectiveness is the norm.

Bad assumptions are dangerous in international relations, so both states should work to dispel illusions about catastrophic cyber attacks.  “More transparency will strengthen China-U.S. relations,” former U.S. Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel observed, adding: “Greater openness about cyber reduces the risk that misunderstanding and misperception could lead to miscalculation.”

The worries over cybersecurity should not risk the mutual value both countries derive from an open and innovative cyberspace.