Recent events, including cyber-intrusions of U.S. government and corporate networks suspected of originating in China and developments in U.S. cyber strategies, have revealed how central cyberspace has become to the U.S.-China relationship. When hacking Google–an icon of the cyber age–links with cybersecurity pronouncements from Henry Kissinger–an icon of Cold War realpolitik–we are into something interesting and potentially dangerous. Although Sino-American relations are complex, the pursuit of security in cyberspace is becoming the defining issue of this relationship and its global significance.
From a historical perspective, the emergence of cybersecurity in U.S.-Chinese relations should come as no surprise. We have past examples of security problems arising between great powers concerning global common spaces, such as the high seas and outer space. British naval supremacy and defense of freedom of the high seas shaped the balance of power and facilitated the spread of European imperialism. Competition in space played a significant and symbolic role in the U.S.-Soviet rivalry from Sputnik to Star Wars. Although the high seas and outer space fell under no country’s sovereignty, these spaces became strategic for the great powers’ competition for security and influence.
The rise of cyberspace to strategic significance between China and the United States reflects convergence of two trends–China’s emergence as a great power and the Internet’s transformation into a critical political, economic, and military resource. As with the high seas and outer space, cyberspace has become a high-profile location for geo-political rivalry over power and ideas, especially between the G2. The Chinese-American cybersecurity relationship is, thus, playing a larger and larger role in what the future of the Internet and the international system will be.
Although weighty for both countries, geo-cyberpolitics affect them differently. China is the rising power, and is perceived in the United States as a challenger. The dominant role the United States has played in creating, developing, and expanding the Internet deepens the perception that China is challenging the political and cyber status quo. Part of the problem with Sino-American relations is that neither side seems sure what the “Chinese challenge” means. However, in the cyber realm, the differences between the United States and China are becoming more stark, making cyberspace a contentious center of gravity for U.S-China relations.
As such, both countries are increasingly concerned about their security capabilities in cyberspace, particularly their abilities to engage in intelligence, covert, and military cyber-operations. U.S. concerns about “cyber attacks” originating in China and Chinese worries about the creation of U.S. Cyber Command reflect this cybersecurity dilemma. The nature of cyberspace exacerbates this dilemma because characterizing cyber incidents (was it an “attack” or merely espionage?) gets politicized and identifying perpetrators is difficult (plausible deniability in cyberspace is undeniably plausible).
Both countries realize that they have to explain their behavior in political and global terms, which gives cybersecurity ideological importance. Here, the Obama administration has embraced “Internet freedom” as a universal value and launched programs to help dissidents censored by authoritarian governments to network for democracy. China has stressed respect for sovereignty, non-intervention, and equality between states, which extends its preference for the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence into cyberspace. These visions for cyberspace are not compatible, which fuels the mistrust brewing in the cybersecurity realm.
Thus, concerning both security capabilities and normative concepts, cyberspace reflects with more clarity than other policy contexts the rivalry between the United States and China. What makes people, such as Henry Kissinger, nervous is that, on its current trajectory, the cybersecurity rivalry is becoming, if you will, binary because Chinese and American cyber power and principles are diverging and their positions are hardening.
Supporting this trajectory is the sense in both countries that this contest is strategically pivotal in the overall relationship and in how G2 relations affect world politics. For the United States, ceding leadership in cyberspace to China would confirm perceptions of its decline. For China, cyberspace is a proving ground for it as an emerging power given how critical the Internet is in global affairs and how politically symbolic cyberspace’s future has become.
The Internet poses, however, problems for communist rule in China and the conservatism of China’s emphasis on sovereignty and non-intervention that the United States, as an open society with universalizing tendencies, does not confront. Although China has developed formidable cyber capabilities for censorship, espionage, and war fighting, its political narrative for cyberspace has problems. China professes allegiance to non-intervention, yet it engages in, tolerates, and fails to control cyber activities conducted from its territory that very much interfere with the affairs of many countries.
Given China’s lack of expansive ideological objectives, this contradiction between words and deeds can only have as its aims survival of Communist Party rule at home and aggregation of Chinese power vis-a-vis rival countries–a form of communistic nationalism that, in the cyber age, might not compete well against the “Internet freedom” agenda. This observation suggests that China will likely be on the defensive more than the United States in defining the terms of the competition over the future of cyberspace. We see this defensiveness in repeated Chinese assertions that it, too, is a victim of cyber attacks, spying, and crime and in efforts to re-frame cooperation on cybersecurity around the safety of children.
American and Chinese competition over cybersecurity has only just started in earnest, so predicting where we end up in a decade’s time is foolhardy. After a certain point, analogies to past rivalries in global common spaces will not tell us much about cyberspace, which is different from anything we have seen before. But, make no mistake, the era of geo-cyberpolitics between the United States and China has begun, and the political stakes of cybersecurity are very high indeed.
David P. Fidler is the James Louis Calamaras Professor of Law at the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University and a fellow at the IU Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research.