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China, Cyber Conflict, and Openness

by Adam Segal
February 10, 2010

James Fallows has a new article in the Atlantic on China’s Cyber Warriors.  He makes some good points about the organization and purpose of cyber attacks; it’s his policy conclusions that I am having more difficulty with.

I’ll leave it to you to go read the whole thing, but I especially liked his characterization of the Internet in China as a space where “tight control and near chaos often coexist.” Cyber would likely play a prominent role in any conflict in the Taiwan Strait–the PLA would want to denigrate the United States’ superior capabilities in C4ISR [Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance]–but the main goal for right now seems to be espionage and the theft of corporate secrets and intellectual property.  As the December 2008 CSIS report Securing the Cyberspace for the 44th Presidency puts it, “The immediate risk lies with the economy. . . . In the new global competition, where economic strength and technological leadership are as important to national power as military force, failing to secure cyberspace puts us at a disadvantage.”

What to do about all of this? Fallows’s slightly qualified answer is the one that has guided United States’ China policy for at least the last thirty years: “cooperation” and “greater openness.” Underlying this argument is the assumption that once the Chinese have more of a stake in an open system, the more likely they are to uphold and perhaps even build the norms of that system.  This is the logic that has guided the United States’ interaction with China across a whole range of issues, most prominently trade, and so it seems to make sense that it will apply to global data networks as well.

Given the emergence of a “more assertive China” over the last several months, one could call into question whether this strategy is working.  More specifically, as I argued in The Chinese Internet Century, China’s approach to the Internet is rooted in a political and economic logic that I do not see changing anytime soon.  Worried about social instability and regime survival, Beijing is unlikely to relax control over the web. Wanting to free itself from dependence on technology from the United States and other advanced economies, China is developing competing technology standards. Combine the two and you get a vision of the web that is inherently more controlled than the one that has developed in the United States.  It would also seem to result in the United States being fundamentally more vulnerable to cyber attacks than China as it constantly scrambles to patch a system that was designed with openness and flexibility, but not security in mind. (The United States is, of course, already more vulnerable given how dependent the U.S. economy is on the Internet, but might it become even worse?) And while I think China should be engaged in discussions about the rules of the road of the Internet and cyber conflict, I am growing increasingly skeptical that these discussions will shape Chinese interests and behavior.  And if that is the case, then what replaces openness and more cooperation?

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