Can the United States and China De-Conflict in Cyberspace?


Editor’s Note: This piece is adapted from a new report published by the National Bureau of Asian Research. The full report, entitled “U.S.-China Relations in Strategic Domains,” is available online.

In spite of significant differences in views, Beijing and Washington appear committed to not letting cyber issues derail the U.S.-China relationship or interfere with cooperation on other high-profile issues. Among the wide range of issues raised at their recent meeting on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit, Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping reiterated their commitment to last September’s breakthrough cybersecurity agreement. The agreement included important cybersecurity measures, including a pledge to refrain from stealing intellectual property or trade secrets to give domestic companies a competitive advantage. Both sides also agreed to identify and endorse norms of behavior in cyberspace and to establish two high-level working groups and a hotline for crisis response. The success and ultimate implications of which have yet to be determined and the two sides work cautiously to build greater collaboration in cyberspace.

While these are solid first steps, the two sides have very distinct views about cyberspace.  The United States has interest in the flow of information across borders, calling for countries to respect intellectual property rights and the privacy of individuals. On the diplomatic front, Washington aims to ensure freedom of expression and the free flow of data across national borders. The United States has also argued that international law, including the laws of armed conflict, applies to state behavior in cyberspace

For Beijing, it is critical to balance security, domestic stability, and development. China wants to prevent various illegal online actions that it views as harming the rapid growth of the digital ecomony, public security, and social stability. American calls for Internet freedom and cyber deterrence are viewed as targeting China. Beijing also seeks to use legal and administrative measures to reduce dependence on foreign technology, and improve its defenses. Internationally, Beijing has promoted the norm of cyber sovereignty.

It is not hard to imagine cyber issues becoming intertwined with a crisis that spirals out of control. For example, U.S. and People’s Republic of China (PRC) forces are in close contact in the South China Sea, and cyberattacks could cause an incident to escalate rapidly. Hackers could target communication, computer, and transportation networks, degrading not only Beijing’s and Washington’s ability to control their forces in the field, but also their ability to signal to the other side their intentions to escalate or de-escalate the conflict. Non state actors, often known as patriotic hackers, could further confuse the situation as policy makers would have a difficult time differentiating between official and independent attacks.   Additionally, a cyberattack that causes physical damage or widespread economic disruption could create domestic pressure for action that leaders in Washington and Beijing would have a hard time ignoring.

There are, however, shared interests on which to develop cooperative projects and reduce tensions in cyberspace. Both sides rely on digital infrastructure for economic and national security and share a number of concerns. The Chinese and U.S. markets are tightly linked, and both economies rely on the security and availability of global supply chains. Globally, cyberattacks are growing in frequency and becoming more sophisticated. As non-state actors that are not easily deterred gain better cyberattack capabilities, it puts critical infrastructure in both China and the United States at risk,

The growth of the Internet has brought immense economic, political, social, and cultural benefits to both sides. Strategic cooperation in cyberspace could result in further gains for China, the United States, and the rest of the world In order to manage conflict in cyberspace, China and the United States should pursue the following actions: follow up on the September 2015 agreement on fighting cybercrime and cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property with concrete cooperation; ensure that discussions on norms of behavior in cyberspace continue at the highest level and are not suspended during times of tension; discuss joint measures to prevent the spread of cyber capabilities to non-state actors; and build cybersecurity capacity and expand cooperative research in universities and civil society

The 2015 agreement on cybersecurity was a significant symbolic step forward for China and the United States, but trust will be built and sustained through implementation. Both countries will test whether the high-level dialogue mechanism will successfully assist in cooperation and better incident response. While it is good that Washington and Beijing have agreed to further the discussion on the norms of cyberspace, the dialogue must be formalized, routinized, and insulated from political point scoring. Without practical progress, cybersecurity could quickly rise to the top of the bilateral agenda and threaten to undermine the U.S.-China relationship again.


Adam Segal is the Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies and Director of the Program on Digital and Cyberspace Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Tang Lan is Deputy Director at the Institute of Information and Social Development, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.


Image: Remko Van Dokkum