Thus, China has undertaken a sustained effort to establish sovereignty in cyberspace, as it has sought to shift Internet governance to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), where only nation-states are represented. Chinese officials claim that censorship of the Internet is perfectly justified, since it is up to each state to administer the Internet within its borders. Along similar lines, Chinese leaders such as Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping have both sounded the tocsin about the need to defend Chinese “cultural security” from foreign encroachment. This position was codified in the new PRC National Security Law, where it is noted that the state has a responsibility for cultural security.
In short, China is intent upon defining its sovereignty in extraordinarily expansive terms, not only in the area of the South China Sea, but across a variety of domains, both physical and virtual. These definitions contradict much of the current Western, and even global, understandings underpinning international commerce, whether it is freedom of the seas or the free flow of information. In essence, China is challenging the international order, not by seeking “a place in the sun” or lebensraum, but by redefining and extending the reach of the state.
The American response to this revisionism, both in the South China Sea and elsewhere, will therefore have far larger repercussions than just the immediate disputes. Beijing is waiting to see whether its efforts will be accepted or rebuffed. Just as importantly, it will mark the first step in determining whether Chinese or American principles will define the governance of global common spaces in the coming decades.
Dean Cheng is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.