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Collision in Cyberspace Is Unavoidable: The View from Chinese Analysts

by Adam Segal
September 28, 2011

A Chinese news vendor waits for customers in front of newspapers. (Claro Cortes/Courtesy Reuters)

People’s Tribune Magazine (人民论坛杂志) has a collection of twelve articles on cyberspace and cyber conflict by Chinese analysts at think tanks and academic institutes. All of the articles are worth glancing at, but four—”A Sovereign Country Must Have Strong Defense” by Min Dahong, director of the Network and Digital Media Research Office at the China Academy of Social Sciences; “America’s ‘Pandora’s Box’ Cyber Strategy Confuses the World” by Shen Yi from Fudan University’s Department of International Politics; “Cyber Power ‘Shuffles the Cards’: How China Can Overtake the Competition” by Tang Lan, assistant director of the Institute of Information and Social Development Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations; and “How to Construct China’s Cyber Defenses” by Liu Zengliang, from the PLA National Defense University—do a particularly good job of illustrating what some Chinese analysts are saying about U.S.-China relations in cyberspace.  The picture is not pretty. All see cyberspace as an emerging, critical area of competition and are notably pessimistic about the future. Conflict seems almost inevitable.

Reading the essays, it is clear that Chinese analysts believe the United States is ahead in the competition.  U.S. strengths include “core technology, experts, high military expenditures, and an integrated command system.”  In contrast to the perception in the West that China possesses a comprehensive strategy uniting the diplomatic, military, and technological components of cyber, these analysts are not impressed. Beijing is said to lack a coherent vision of what it wants to accomplish.

The analysts tend to point to China as a victim—victim of cyberattacks and of pernicious claims from other countries that China could be behind any of the widely reported attacks on embassies, international organizations, government agencies, or companies. Blaming the attacks on Mitsubishi Heavy on Chinese hackers? Clearly evidence of Cold War thinking and of Western countries’ concern over and distrust of China’s rise.

On the positive side, all of the analysts point to cybersecurity as requiring international cooperation.  This of course has a positive spin, but there is an undercurrent that suggests international cooperation actually means the use of various international fora to promote Chinese views.  “We must create and utilize various types of occasions for interaction, set topics of discussion, fight for the right to express and disseminate China’s views, begin to develop public cyber diplomacy, and establish a favorable international image,” writes Tang Lan.

These articles are not official statements. But taken together with China’s proposed International Code of Conduct for Information Security, they suggest that some observers in China feel that the United States has gained momentum in cyberspace with the introduction of the International Strategy for Cyberspace and the DoD Strategy for Operating in Cyberspace.  As we get closer to the International Cyber Conference, London, in November and beyond, we can expect China to push back and try and shape the discussions about cyberspace to fit its own interests.

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  • Posted by Bill Hagestad

    Rather than criticize and sound alarms of Chinese cyber hordes coming across the network, why don’t we read these Chinese views of how they perceive the Western World’s cyber preparations? From this vantage point we may start to understand their true intentions and motives rather than loosely creating another boogeyman thus labeling the whole country of China as the next convenient enemy…..oh I forgot no one wants to bother with learning Mandarin or studying the culture….

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