Since the release of Mandiant’s report blaming the PLA for involvement in cyber espionage, the relationship between China and the US in cyberspace has deteriorated. Several senior US officials called on China to stop and investigate such activities and abide by international rules, while China refuted these allegations and claimed herself a victim of cyber attacks. Although competition seems to be the feature of their bilateral cyber relations, cooperation in cyberspace is more important as it is undoubtedly beneficial to both China and the US.
First, as both countries become more dependent on the Internet, it is in their interests to work together to fend off malicious cyber activities. In this asymmetric domain, it is easy to launch attacks from a remote place and an unidentifiable IP address, with near-zero likelihood of being caught. With low cost and risks from such attacks, the damages could be huge. To protect their infrastructure, administration, enterprises and other widely used networks, China and the US need to support each other in maintaining law and order in cyberspace.
Second, as leadership in both countries have recognized the importance of building a new type of great power relations, it is imperative to enhance engagement and dispel mutual-distrust, including cyberspace. Since cyber technology is widely used in various fields, both sides need to do their best to reduce the chances of misinterpretation and miscalculation so as to avoid a real-world confrontation.
Third, as the absence of internationally accepted rules is a fundamental cause of chaos in cyberspace, it is the responsibility of the two major powers to establish rules together and construct a fair and healthy order for cyberspace, built upon the foundation of cooperation.
Now, in what areas is cooperation feasible?
The first area for cooperation is to investigate and crack down on illegal cyber activities. China and the US can work together to destroy porn websites, punish the criminals who illegally break into public systems and the hackers who are developing and using viruses and other malware to attack others. In fact, China and the US have already started to cooperate in this area. What needs to be done now is to do more substantial work for better results.
Another field for cooperation is countering cyber terrorism. Today, terrorist groups are using cyber technology to accomplish tasks like recruiting new members, collecting funds, propagating messages and even teaching war skills. It can be predicted that some terrorist groups will launch operations in cyberspace, as they can easily strike at the key sectors of a country and cause a panic. China and the US can work together to curb such activities.
An urgent task for China and the US is to establish universal rules in cyberspace. To start, some basic terms should be defined such as cyberspace, cyber attacks, cyber weapons, etc. so as to reach a consensus and build a framework for cyber cooperation. China and the US can also have dialogues on a possible code of cyber conduct, which will define the ‘red lines’ for what can and cannot be done in cyberspace.
While discussing cooperation, both sides need to seek common ground while respecting differences. For example, many Americans would tend to regard total cyber freedom as the priority, while in China, many people believe, while ensuring people’s access to Internet, cyber-traffic, like vehicular traffic on roads, needs some regulations to ensure its healthy development and social stability. However, such differences should not stand in the way of cooperation.
Since cyber security is a global issue, it also needs global attention and cooperation. Some established international institutions, such as the United Nations and the International Telecommunication Union should be good platforms for countries all over the world to exchange views and solve disputes in cyberspace.
Finally, it is also necessary for the US to assess China’s cyber capabilities more objectively. With a large number of netizens and IP addresses, China is a big power in cyberspace. But, due to lack of ability in researching and developing key information technologies, China is absolutely not a strong cyber power. According to the Cyber Power Index, developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit and sponsored by Booz Allen Hamilton, China ranks 13th among G20 countries, in regard to the ability to withstand cyber attacks and harness digital environment. If the US side overestimates and exaggerates China’s ability in cyberspace, it will lead to miscalculation.
In a word, cooperation is a win-win approach for both China and the US to achieve security in cyberspace. It is high time that the two countries stop pointing fingers and join hands to maintain a peaceful, secure and prosperous cyberspace.
Dr. Lu Jinghua is a Research Fellow, Center on China-America Defense Relations (CCADR), PLA Academy of Military Science (AMS), China.