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New Challenges for China and the U.S. in a Networked World: Governing Global Cyberspace

Jun 28 , 2011
  • Shen Yi

    Associate professor, Department of International Politics, Fudan University

China’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, introduced the development of IT in Chinese mainland in his keynote speech to the second Worldwide Cybersecurity Summit in London in early June.

He said the general attitude of Beijing in dealing with threats from cyberspace was governed by stopping its negative effects on children in today’s China.

At nearly the same time, the New York Times revealed that the U.S. State Department had helped develop a kind of “Internet suitcase” which could build a shadow network in certain countries, giving users direct access to the Internet without using local communication infrastructure.

It is believed the product is aimed at helping dissidents in countries where governments have strong control over cyberspace.

These two events are just the latest examples of the complexity of today’s cyberspace. On one hand, nearly all countries have agreed that it’s time to increase cooperation to regulate global cyberspace. On the other hand, some countries want strongly to take advantage of their cyberspace capabilities to expand power over others. That’s evident after Washington released in May its first international global cyberspace strategy.

The strategy shows the U.S. tries to combine separate principles, strategies, and polices to deal with a range of problems. These include the security of key information systems, the information-based economy and IT-sponsored diplomacy which are linked into a single united strategic framework. In June, the Department of Defense will release the non-classified part of its cyberspace operations strategy which is certain to consider cyber attacks as a kind of war with a response against hacking likely to include a missile launched from a predator.

These two new strategy documents, plus two speeches on Internet Freedom by Foreign Secretary Hillary Clinton, and specific remarks, interviews, and responses to developments in North Africa and the Middle East since  December, raise a serious challenge not only for the Sino-U.S. strategic relationship, but also toward the global community as a whole. The point is that it’s time to think systematically about how to govern global cyberspace to ensure its development, giving countries and international relationships as much benefit as possible. China and the United States, as two of the biggest countries both in the real world and virtual cyberspace, have a special responsibility to cooperatively promote the building of a proper international regime to govern cyberspace.

Changing the perception of cyber security, developing a code of conduct, and putting a collaborative structure in place to deal with its different kinds of challenges are three main tasks for decision makers both in Beijing and Washington in the near future.

Firstly, changing the perception of cyber security would help to limit the possible negative effects which could disrupt the strategic relationship among great powers, especially China and United States. As Professor Robert Jervis outlines in his book on the role of perception and misperception in international relations, decision makers tend to learn from experience gained from dealing with challenges not encountered before. In the United States’ new international strategy on global cyberspace, the experience being used is quite obviously rooted in the legacy of the Cold War: that is, great powers should do their best to expand their influence and try to control as much as possible the new areas that have strategic advantages. The U.S. makes a call in its paper for “international cooperation,” but it is important to remember before the Iraq War broke out in 2003, that the Bush administration was quite famous for its unilateralism. Real international cooperation should mean that all involved have equal positions and influence in the shaping of a strategy.

Secondly, it’s time to explore the possibility and methods needed to build a code of conduct among great powers like China and the U.S. so in a worst case scenario that, as Dominic Basulto mentioned in his latest blog, “the Internet gets shut down due to a completely random mishap, and we (the States) start launching missiles at China in retaliatory response”, can not happen. It is important to remember that in history all governments tend to enhance their military capacity by taking advantage of the latest technology developments, including information technology. All powers, including China and the U.S., have the right to do so. At the same time it’s also important to note that, compared with old technology, i.e., nuclear, the difference between military and non-military use has been deeply blurred in the information age. As countries have been depending increasingly more on their key information infrastructure, it would be difficult to find out the real source and intent of those who launch a cyber-attack. It therefore is important to build a code of conduct which could limit the negative effects of a traditional cat-and-mouse game among different powers over cyberspace. Neither China nor the United State could get any real benefit from launching a first strike that paralyzed another’s key information infrastructure because we live in a world in which almost all countries are already networked with each other. Keep all those military actions away from key infrastructure so that global cyberspace remains safe and stable to benefit all,

An ideal code of conduct would include building information exchanges and communication regimes so that both China and the U.S. could get vital information when they faced a cyber-attack or a serious cyberspace incident. The joint action in dealing with a common threat like sending spawn email or spreading a virus would be to unite in fighting the threat.

Last but not least, governing global cyberspace means both an opportunity to enhance the strategic relationship between China and the U.S. and dealing with the challenges that have been mentioned. Courtesy of the Cold War, China and the U.S. are heavily suspicious of each other, thus making it difficult to deepen any bilateral strategic cooperation, especially involving the military. But cooperating on governing global cyberspace provides an opportunity for both sides to make their strategic intentions clear to each other, and helping, therefore, to change their mutual perceptions. Such a change would be extremely important when they have to deal with a sudden cyber threat in which the source IP address could be tracked to inside the border of the other. The scenario is similar to the ballistic missile measures of the Cold War which helped deter a worst-case scenario in which an unauthorized or accidental launching or early warning system error could trigger a complete nuclear exchange between the U.S. and USSR.

As President George W. Bush observed, the Sino-U.S. relationship is complex, but that between Washington and Beijing in cyberspace could become a most complex part of the bilateral relationship in the future. Both countries would benefit from a well governed global cyberspace as they are already heavily dependent on it. As Ambassador Liu mentioned in his keynote speech, cooperating to build an effective legal system to fight cybercrime would be the first priority to sustain a healthy global cyberspace and produce a new strategic foundation for the bilateral relationship between China and the U.S.

As no one can change the fact that the world has already been networked, it’s time for both China and the U.S. to think how to co-exist in the new world. Learning to collaboratively govern global cyberspace could be an important first step to ensure a better and safer world in the future.

Shen Yi is Assistant Professor of School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University.

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