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Probe Deep Differences to Make Real Progress on Cybersecurity

Graham Webster, Fellow, Yale Law School China Center
August 31, 2013
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In a U.S.–China relationship confronting numerous challenges, perhaps no topic is as hard to discuss as cybersecurity. Unlike other strategic challenges, such as minimizing the potential for inadvertent clashes at sea or in the air, smoothing bilateral economic investment regulations, or even reducing the severity and effects of climate change, cybersecurity cuts across policy areas with a blade of uncertainty and mutual suspicion. Some observers have suggested U.S.–China differences are so deep that dialogue is futile, but even if it doesn’t produce a swift resolution, a recent increase in public and private discussions on the topic can build a foundation of understanding. 

Graham Webster

Graham Webster

Cybersecurity is a unique challenge because it is defined not by a policy domain such as the military, the economy, or energy, but by tools—computers and the Internet—that pervade everyday life in the 21st century. Any comprehensive examination of cybersecurity would need to address: conventional government-on-government spying; commercial spying, whether state-sponsored or not; the security and resilience of military systems; the security and resilience of civilian critical infrastructure including utilities, air traffic control, financial markets, etc.; the challenge of assigning responsibility for online actions; the challenge of detecting violations and enforcing laws online; and ultimately views and values of the Internet overall. 

Those in the field broadly understand this multi-faceted nature of cybersecurity, but the question of how we should value the Internet is far less discussed. Predictably, there are differing views in the United States and China. 

Mainstream U.S. values regarding the Internet are well captured by a recent task force report that called for efforts to maintain an “open, global, secure and resilient” Internet. The report names China as one of several governments that, contrary to an ideal of an international Internet, seek to “extend national sovereignty into cyberspace.” U.S. officials including Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State have also made freedom-promotion an explicit element of U.S. foreign policy regarding the Internet. 

China’s government has embraced the Internet as an essential element of an advancing 21st century society and has facilitated a broadening of the public sphere unprecedented in Chinese history. Valuing the Internet as a part of a growing economy and developing culture, China’s Internet is nonetheless subject to significant content controls, and officials argue that Chinese law applies online in China. 

U.S. representatives can and should strongly advocate their view of the Internet’s value, but the claims of sovereignty cannot be shrugged off. Similarly, Chinese representatives should take this global view of the free Internet as a deeply held value, not simply a negotiating tactic or an effort to undermine China. 

A better understanding of each side’s underlying priorities is achievable and essential. In recent months, both governments have embraced versions of an initiative to create a new model of great power relations and avoid the historical pattern of conflict between an established power and a rising one. Embedded in the notion of this new model is the need to recognize that, even as accommodations are reached, not all differences will be eliminated. The United States and China have different economic needs, but they can work to enlarge areas of converging interests. The two countries have different national security goals, but strategists work to minimize the possibility of direct conflict and collaborate on common concerns such as protecting shipping lanes from piracy. Similarly, the United States government is unlikely to abandon freedom-promotion as a foreign policy goal, and the Chinese government is unlikely to abandon sovereign autonomy. 

The existing dialogues that touch on cybersecurity—at the presidential level, among the bureaucracies, and in so-called “Track II” non-governmental meetings—have the opportunity to identify common interests while increasing mutual understanding. Dialogue in which the two sides come with open minds may even reveal that seemingly conflicting priorities can be largely compatible. There are specific commonalities in cybersecurity. 

First, the Chinese and U.S. governments are not the only actors on the Internet. Both countries’ military and civilian infrastructure is potentially vulnerable to attacks by third parties, whether governments or other groups, that could potentially result in significant loss of life. There is a strong, shared interest in establishing global norms and mechanisms to fight “cyber terrorism” or “cyber crime.” Moreover, unlike many areas of international norms and law that have been established largely without Chinese participation, cybersecurity presents an opportunity for Chinese negotiators to influence new global patterns. 

Another common interest is in reducing cybersecurity’s role as an irritant in the broader bilateral relationship. The U.S. government this year has strongly and publicly emphasized that Chinese commercial espionage targeting U.S. firms is a major problem. These alleged actions also significantly undermine the U.S. business community’s advocacy for positive U.S.–China relations. Meanwhile, Congressional voices discouraging U.S. entities from using Chinese network equipment increase Chinese suspicions about U.S. protectionism in the name of national security. 

A more conventional common interest is in developing military-to-military contact to help prevent misattribution, miscalculation, or dangerous escalation in the case of a military confrontation involving electronic and online weapons. 

These are merely starting points, and each will require hard work. That work will be less fraught, however, if people from both countries come to the broadening array of discussions with both a willingness to understand basic differences of viewpoint, and a commitment to move forward where there is commonality. People on each side can start by probing their own values regarding the Internet and acknowledging they may not be universally held. 

Graham Webster is a U.S.–China relations fellow at the Yale Law School China Center and an adjunct instructor at the New York University Center for Global Affairs. He blogs at Transpacifica.net.

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