China and the United States reached an important consensus on cyber security during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s US visit from September 22-25, agreeing to deepen cooperation on information sharing, fighting cyber crime, and some basic rules and norms for state behavior in cyberspace. The two cyber powers also agreed on a set of confidence-building mechanisms such as creating senior experts’ groups, setting up a high-level dialogue and a hotline on combating cyber crimes. These are all important measures demonstrating the willingness to ease tensions and promote cyber cooperation. At the same time, it’s worth noting that the protracted and mixed pattern of competition and cooperation between the United States and China in the cyber domain will not change and in some cases, discord and disagreement will be difficult to overcome. What is most challenging in terms of cyber security for the US-China relationship is how to promote bilateral cooperation, contain disputes, and manage crisis through confidence-building measures.
Outcomes of US-China cyber cooperation
Ensuring cyber security is a spotlight on the outcome list of US-China cooperation. The two sides have reached a consensus on six important areas for enhanced collaboration with respect to cyber security, namely, tackling malicious cyber-attacks, opposing commercial cyber espionage, cyber rule-making, combating cyber crimes, information technology trade, and security reviews of foreign investment. For the first time, the United States and China have reached a broad-based consensus on cyber issues with a view to managing discords and promoting cooperation. Its significance is manifold.
To begin with, the summit meeting between President Xi and President Obama has created a cordial context for consensus building. For quite some time, the efforts by both sides to build a major power relationship have been hampered by such issues as disagreement over cyber issues and the escalating tensions in the South China Sea. Even so, the agreement reached between the two sides has sent a strong signal that both side will make every effort to overcome the Thucydides trap by forging a new pattern of US-China relations premised on no confrontation and no conflict, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.
Second, confidence-building measures with regard to cyber issues also convey symbolic meanings. After the Snowden revelations, cyber cooperation between major powers has become increasingly difficult. In particular, cyber cooperation between the United States and Russia was soon called off. The Sino-American consensus on cyber cooperation has serves as a demonstration of the global push for cyberspace governance. Soon after the two cyber powers publicized the outcome list, cooperation agreements between the United States and South Korea and between China and the United Kingdom were signed. Comparing these agreement texts, one can easily conclude that the Sino-American agreement has become the prototype agreement on cyber cooperation.
Third, the Sino-American consensus could help to improve global governance in cyberspace. A UN report released in July on the code of conduct in cyberspace has laid out a general agreement on cyber infrastructure protection, confidence-building measures and international cooperation. China-US cooperation in cyberspace is a joint effort to implement the recommendations of the UN report.
US-China cooperation and competition in cyberspace
Against the backdrop of global cyber governance, a militarized and politicized pattern of competition between the United States and China seems inevitable. Major powers have been devoting national resources to get ahead of others in a new, global race of military reforms by increasing their respective cyber military power. Cyberspace has become an increasingly important theater for intelligence collection and information surveillance. What flows in cyberspace is not only information but also power and wealth. The capabilities in generating, collecting and processing data constitutes essential elements of national competitiveness. Facing mounting international pressure after the Snowden revelations, President Obama instructed a security review of National Security Agency’s PRISM program and launched NSA reforms. However, the administration has no intention to separate the NSA from the Cyber Command and replace the NSA director with civilian officials. This shows that information collection is regarded as an important component of US national security.
The politicized pattern of cyber issues will also persist. What divides the US and China with respect to cyber security is not only disparate understandings of national security, cyber policies, and rules and regulations, but, more importantly and fundamentally, ideological and value-based issues. The growing strategic significance and complexity of cyber issues will certainly have a direct bearing on the bilateral relationship.
Cyber cooperation as a strong case for major-power relations
Cyber issues have increasingly acquired strategic importance for the US-China relationship. But if handled properly, cyber cooperation makes a strong case and a template for major power relations in the 21st century. If handled roughly or even left unattended, its negative effects may spill over into other areas in the bilateral relationship, such as economic and political security. Therefore, the two sides have no other choice but to broaden and deepen cyber cooperation.
To deepen cyber cooperation means that both have to adopt a pragmatic approach and concrete measures to address cyber issues. For instance, the two sides could build upon the six-point consensus to conduct high-standard collaboration on the protection of key global cyber infrastructure, crackdown on cyber crimes, and making code of conduct for cyberspace. Both China and the United State should promise not to carry out attacks on financial institutions and entities that underpin the global economy, share information on third-party threats to the financial sector, encourage and incentivize the banking industry to make the strictest rules for ensuring information safety, and strengthen resilience against various forms of cyber attacks.
The two side should also enhance cooperation on cyber counterterrorism. Radical terrorist groups such as the Islamic State have shown special skill in recruiting would-be terrorists through social media. Cyberspace provides an ideal theater for potential terrorists to damage high-value assets. When they acquired the ability to wage a cyber war, the potential costs to the international community will be terribly huge. The United States and China, therefore, must collaborate and coordinate with the rest of the world to prevent and forestall such attacks.