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Prism: Test for China-US Relationship

Su Xiaohui, Deputy Director of Inernational & Strategic Studies, CIIS
July 5, 2013
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While the US government uses its anti-terrorism card to block domestic questioning on the PRISM program, China has become a target for the US to release its anger aroused by Edward Snowden.

After the US pressured Hong Kong to extradite Snowden for espionage charges and Snowden left for his next destination, the White House called his release “a deliberate choice by the (Chinese) government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant,” and warned that China’s decision would “unquestionably” have a negative impact on the the US-China relationship.

It is difficult for the US to understand why China refused to cooperate with the US on such an important issue shortly after the President Obama met with President Xi in California. Seeing as the two sides have agreed to build a new type of relationship, China should have responded in a more constructive way.

Consideration behind China’s Final Choice

China did have several choices in dealing with the Prism incident, especially before Edward Snowden left Hong Kong.

The first choice was to seriously investigate the program’s impact on China’s national interests. It was reasonable for China to react in this way since Edward Snowden, the former CIA and NSA employee claimed that the US authorities hacked into China’s Tsinghua University in Beijing and Chinese mobile phone companies to access millions of private text messages. The information released by Snowden was sufficient to draw China’s attention to the Prism program, especially because the US has pressured on China to address the cyber security issue. China had the right to ask the US for an explanation.

Snowden would have gained asylum from China. However, a tense diplomatic and legal combat would have taken place between China and the US. The atmosphere that the two countries are seeking in order to build mutual trust and achieve positive interaction would evaporate.

The second choice was to hand over Snowden. According to the US, the central government of China had the leverage to ensure that Hong Kong carried out the extradition. It is definitely possible. However, the consequences of this choice were acceptable to none of the related parties.

In light of all of this, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) faced great pressure. According to Snowden, the US hacked the Hong Kong-based fiber-optic network operator Pacnet, which drew Hong Kong directly into the Prism program. Hundreds of demonstrators marched through the region to demand protection for Snowden.

While Hong Kong and the US signed an extradition treaty in 1998, it only applies in criminal cases rather than political ones. The Snowden case obviously had more of a political implication. The Hong Kong government dealt with the issue with caution. Snowden’s departure was a relief to the authorities. 

His departure is also a blessing for the Chinese government. To protect Snowden would have lead to trouble for the China-US relationship but, at the same time, to hand him over would have caused damage for bilateral ties as well. It is almost impossible for Chinese civilians to accept the government submitting to US pressure and sending back the person who revealed that the US was spying on China. Quite a few in China believe that the US government’s accusations against China were aimed at distracting the American people’s questioning of the program. If the Chinese government failed to deal with the issue in an appropriate way, the public would doubt whether current the China-US relationship is in China’s interests, and would accordingly make a drastic response that could hurt US interests.  

In this regard, the Chinese government’s chosen actions revealed China’s great restraint. China expects approval rather than accusations from the US side.

How to Transform “Crisis” into “Opportunity”

Both China and the US should understand that “a new type of relationship between major powers” does not mean the absence of disputes. What matters is how the two sides deal can manage the problems and minimize the damage.

The Prism incident is a challenge for China and the US while they establish mutual trust. However, at the same time, it is an opportunity for the two countries to fully address the cyber security issue and remove a potential risk in the bilateral relationship. Two things on the agenda are to define “cyber security” in a comprehensive and unbiased way, and establish related international norms.

The US has emphasized the commercial espionage and understated the intelligence activity. Obviously, it is partly because the US has a dominant advantage in technology. It tries to avoid having its arm twisted.

The problem is that sidestepping the core of the issue will cause more uncertainties in cyber space. This has become a new focus of international security, and will inevitably undermine US interests. Therefore, it is the time for the US to take a practical attitude towards China and work in a constructive manner with China and other countries.

Su Xiaohui, Deputy Director, Department of International and Strategic Studies, China Institute of International Studies.

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