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Understanding Tensions with China in cyberspace

Since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the US – China relationship has been characterized by substantial areas of conflict, confrontation, and strategic mistrust.

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Since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the US – China relationship has been characterized by substantial areas of conflict, confrontation, and strategic mistrust.

By mid-2015, many leading US specialists on China described a rapid deterioration in bilateral ties, which could be described as an across-the-board contest; US analysts now call for a new grand strategy toward China to balance its rising power.

A growing number of Chinese observers similarly appear to see relations as reflecting a “silent contest” between the world’s two most powerful countries, argues Getting to Yes with China in Cyberspace.

Unfortunately, this pattern of growing tensions applies just as much to cyberspace; indeed, cyberspace has become one of the most contentious arenas.

Tensions

By some accounts, tension in this area is one of the main sources of a broader deterioration in ties.

However, while US dissatisfaction with Chinese behaviour in cyberspace plays a large role in how the United States views China overall, China’s concerns about US behaviour in cyberspace play a substantially more modest role in shaping how China views the United States overall, which may help explain why the two sides have had limited success in sustaining dialogue over the issue to date.

The United States and China initiated a formal bilateral dialogue on cyberspace in 2013, but the Chinese cut off this dialogue in 2014, after the United States indicted five People’s Liberation Army officers for conducting cyber espionage against US targets.

While the bilateral Cyber Working Group appears to have been abandoned as an approach, discussions on cyberspace issues did occur at the bilateral Strategic and Economic Dialogue in the summer of 2015, and an initial agreement to move forward on the issue took centre stage on the outcomes list of the Xi-Obama summit held in Washington in September 2015.

Questions persist

Still, substantial questions persist about the two nations’ relationship in cyberspace.

In the absence of a set of fully fleshed-out norms and procedures to modulate troublesome activity and set rules for cyberspace, the issue will continue to represent a substantial risk to the bilateral relationship, regional peace and stability, and global order.

US perspective

From the US perspective, three issues dominate.

The primary complaint has been with China’s multiple and repeated intrusions into corporate networks to steal intellectual property and proprietary business information.

A second concern has been the growing penetration of US systems through cyberspace for traditional espionage purposes related to national security (e.g., the penetration of the Office of Personnel Management revealed in mid-2015, possibly for the purpose of compiling enormous databases on US citizens – and also, potentially, their Chinese contacts – for potential recruitment or blackmail).

A third US concern is over the prospect that China might be prepared to use a cyberattack to take down US critical infrastructure during a crisis.

A fourth concern is the lack of clarity over each side’s use of cyberattack in warfare and the risk in escalation.

China’s perspective

For its part, China decries US accusations of hacking and proclaims that it is itself a victim of cyberattacks coming from the United States. Chinese officials and commentators complain about US restrictions on market access for Chinese telecommunications firms such as Huawei and ZTE Corporation.

Chinese commentaries also bemoan US funding of internet censorship–circumvention technology and argue for the right of states to control the information that individuals can access within their boundaries (a notion known as cyber sovereignty).

China observers also decry US internet “hegemony,” noting that many of the routers and servers, as well as the software used to support the backbone of the internet in China, are produced by and/or controlled by US firms.

Policy questions

Given these divergent views, and in the aftermath of China’s abandonment of formal talks on cybersecurity with the United States, we were drawn to and motivated by several urgent policy questions in writing…

This article is part of the World Economic Forum’s Geostrategy platform

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