The International Cyberspace Cooperation Strategy, which China published last month, contained few surprises. For anyone who has ever taken a more than casual look at Beijing’s approach to cyber diplomacy, the phraseology about mutual benefit, cyber-sovereignty, and positive collaboration is quite well-known. China wants to support the development of the digital economy, prevent the use of cyber tools for intergovernmental aggression, crime and terrorism, and reform the current system of global Internet governance towards something more amenable to its predilections: more intergovernmental, less multi-stakeholder.
But if the language has remained largely the same, the domestic and international context in which the language is produced has transformed quite profoundly over the past few years. After a thorough reorganization and centralization of its domestic ICT governance structure, China has started implementing a “strong cyber power” strategy with the aim of drastically increasing its ability to influence facts on the cyber ground. Some previous elements of debate in global Internet governance, such as the reform of ICANN and the continuation of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) mandate, are now settled, meaning less change is likely there in the future. Conversely, the question how to address the glaring security vulnerabilities in Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets has emerged rapidly and will only become more pressing in the future, as these gadgets increasingly find their way into consumers’ homes.
Yet perhaps the biggest change is that of the geopolitical narrative surrounding cyberspace and its attendant risks. Not that long ago, the dominant strand of English-language debates concerning the influence of the Internet reflected the core elements of the post-Cold War order: global harmonization of norms and integration of economic flows, combined with an ardent belief in the progressive direction of history. The past years have seen those visions shattered, as it turns out that the Internet not only fueled liberal social movements, but also deeply unpalatable ones, such as ISIS. Breitbart would likely not have come to prominence without the Internet, nor would the torrent of fake news that is now engrossing the commentariat. Most of all, many are blaming the election of Donald Trump, at least partly, on the selective release of damaging materials obtained through hacking the Democratic National Committee.
These changes have important ramifications for China’s position in the global cyber order – both on how others will deal with it, and for the space for action on its own. Hitherto, China has not played a part of great importance in many parts of the cyber governance landscape. As a relative latecomer to the digital space, it did not have a strong presence in ICANN, the Internet Engineering Task Force, and other technical and substantive governance arrangements. Moreover, China’s staunch insistence on its own Internet governance model and its rejection of the open Internet agenda meant it was largely ostracized from international initiatives; its own Wuzhen World Internet Conference did not attract high-level visitors from the West. While this was not always to China’s advantage, and explains its frustration with its lack of “discursive power,” it did mean that China could make statements at the international level that could remain largely inconsequential.
Today, it bears consideration whether China’s separation from global cyberspace discussions remains desirable, or even possible. In contrast to even a few years ago, China is now a player of considerable clout, and it is difficult to see how it could not come to take up a role of greater significance. And if that is the case, the question for Western diplomats must then become how to effectively engage China so as to maintain peace, security and stability in cyberspace – goals to which China’s cooperation strategy commits explicitly. Conversely, further cold-shouldering China might empower those voices in Beijing advocating a more hawkish approach. In short, ten years from now, will Western no-shows at Wuzhen be seen as a valiant effort to stop an ideological competitor, or a last blown opportunity to develop a constructive relationship?
In the process of engagement, one positive development is that China disposes of a rapidly growing community of technology and policy professionals, demonstrating the increasing maturity of its participation in global cyberspace governance. Also, it bears remembering that meeting China halfway on some of its desiderata, for instance a more high-profile presence at flagship Chinese events, might not only lead to a broader basis for engagement and trust, it also enables support for those voices within the Chinese system whose objectives overlap more with that of outside countries. Moreover, there are a number of governance challenges, such as IoT security, that are of a technical nature, bring considerable risk, and do not immediately affect questions of high politics. At the very least, it seems inevitable, and prudent, that engagement commences in these spaces.