Prior to last week’s summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama, much speculation centered on the possibility of American sanctions against China for state-sponsored, as well as unmanaged private, criminal activity in cyberspace. China has been accused of engaging in state-sponsored hacking, as well as corporate and political espionage. In many political and academic circles, there is a strong belief that the United States needs to punish China for espionage and cyber attacks against government agencies and American companies.
During the meeting between Xi and Obama last week, the two leaders agreed to work together to establish “international rules for the road in cyberspace” and to avoid engaging in state-sponsored criminal activities in cyberspace. Many wonder whether or not China will uphold its commitments; even Obama said, “We will be watching carefully to make an assessment as to whether progress has been made in this area.” He suggested that if China fails to make good on its word, the U.S. may choose to use sanctions to punish China. Many others believe that the time for talk has come and gone, and that disciplinary action is required now. Fair enough, but how will this play out in the long run?
First, calling China out for cybercrime is essentially the pot calling the kettle black. While it is true that China leads the world in cybercrime, the United States is right behind it. Chinese cyber attacks against government agencies and American companies have had seriously devastating effects and warrant a response, but after the leak concerning NSA activities abroad by Edward Snowden and reports of American espionage in other countries, including several allies and long-time strategic partners, the U.S. hardly has the moral high ground, which means that calling out China for its activities in cyberspace is unlikely to generate significant international support or encourage other states in the international system to rally around the banner.
Moreover, with Europe overwhelmed by economic opportunities linked to cooperation with China and Asia’s fear of China’s newfound military power and potential exclusion from Chinese economic activities, America’s geopolitical influence is not what it once was. The unipolar moment has ended, and the U.S. is required to change the way it interacts with other great powers, particularly assertive powers like China and Russia.
Second, because the United States does not have evidence that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that China committed the crimes of which it has been accused, sanctions are likely to be perceived not as a punishment, but as the desperate act of a critically wounded superpower in decline. Realist theory argues that conflict between an established power and a rising challenger is inevitable, for if the hegemon, feeling a need to protect its power, does not preemptively attack or move to contain the power of the rising challenger, then the rising challenger, motivated by a need to become the dominant power, will, assuming the benefits outweigh the costs, move to cripple or weaken the established power. China regularly claims that it is a rising state, but one that is rising peacefully and poses no threat to other states, including the United States. Chinese officials have been promoting the “peaceful rise” rhetoric for a little over a decade now. If the U.S. chooses to sanction China, China is guaranteed to claim that the U.S., caught up in its outdated “Cold War mentality” and motivated by numerous insecurities and feelings of increasing vulnerability, is trying to cripple China and contain its rise. Considering the budding Sino-Russian friendship, Russia’s strong desire to bring about the emergence of a multipolar world order, and current tensions between Russia and the U.S., Russia will surely offer its support to China and criticize American sanctions. Additionally, it is likely that China will increase reports, both at home and abroad, of American cyber attacks against China. Regardless of whether or not these reports are true, there will be countries that believe the rhetoric, and this will definitely affect America’s image abroad
Third, in mainland China, American sanctions will likely go a long way towards bolstering support for Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Chinese nationalism is based on feelings of humiliation, fear, and pride. China is proud of its long history, for much of which China was the dominant power in Asia, and is very aware of its fall from glory in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. China is primarily motivated by the “Century of Humiliation” national narrative, a tale of victimization at the hands of imperial powers that simultaneously promotes a fear and a distrust of the international system, the liberal world order, and the United States, which is seen as the last of the imperialist powers. This story encourages the widely held belief that China should take steps to correct past mistakes and reclaim its position atop of the Asian hierarchy. The government often uses external enemies to bolster support for the party. Chinese government officials have convinced the people that China has never done anything to harm another state and that all actions that negatively affect China are nothing more than attempts to once again humiliate China; this increases domestic support for party leadership and presents the party as the savior and protector of the Chinese nation. As a result of domestic censorship, patriotic education initiatives, and state control over the media, the Chinese people view the world and the actions of other states through this lens. China always plays the victim, and it will be no different this time around. If the United States imposes sanctions against China, it will be presented domestically as an attempt by the United States to humiliate China and prevent it from rising to great power status. Rather than make political reform in China, which has long been an American aspiration, more likely, it will actually strengthen party leadership and make reform, already unlikely, an impossible dream.
Four, “punishment diplomacy,” a dangerous yet popular expression that is already quite prominent in China and appears every time the United States sells weapons to Taiwan, meets with the Dalai Lama, flies spy planes through what is perceived as Chinese air space, and sails naval vessels through Chinese waters, is likely to become even more popular, which will increase domestic support for assertive and aggressive Chinese actions abroad. Since Xi Jinping stepped up in 2013, China has become increasingly assertive; however, public opinion in China, which encourages peace and restraint in most state-to-state interactions, excluding those with China’s long-time enemy Japan, has actually helped to keep Chinese assertiveness in check. Since the decentralization of Chinese foreign policy, public opinion, especially online, has had a greater effect on Chinese foreign policies. If Chinese citizens feel that the United States is threatening China, which is, considering China’s culture and history, exactly how Chinese citizens will feel, public opinion will shift, and the public will start to encourage government officials to take a tougher stance against the United States. Without public support for restraint, the world may see the emergence of a China that is significantly more assertive than anything seen previously.
Five, the United States must never overlook the fact that China is a master of moves and countermoves. Just as is true in physics, in international politics, for every action, there is an opposite reaction; however, it may not be equal. In response to the U.S. rebalance, China launched the Asia-Pacific Dream, which proposed that Asian affairs be handled by Asian states. When Obama promised to strengthen alliances in the Asia-Pacific, China nearly started a war over territorial issues with Vietnam. In response to America’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, China launched its massive “One Road, One Belt” initiative. When the United States and Japan failed to respect China within the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, China started the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. All previous actions were simple moves and countermoves in a geopolitical power struggle; sanctioning will, however, be perceived as a direct attack, and China will not respond well to being publicly shamed. It is difficult to say how China will respond to sanctions against it, but it will respond, and the result may very well be more than the United States can handle.
Is it necessary for the United States to find a way to deal with Chinese criminal activity in cyberspace? Absolutely. But, this is a very dangerous game. It is important that the United States have no illusions about what it is getting itself into. Some have suggested that punishing China for its unwillingness to adhere to international norms will encourage China to get in line and follow the rules. Considering Chinese culture and past Chinese reactions, this is highly unlikely. Sanctions may very well lead to a serious deterioration of Sino-American relations and increased confrontation and, possibly, conflict between China and the United States. American officials need to approach this situation with the understanding that the end result may be very problematic. For nearly two decades now, China and the United States have maintained a superficial friendship; that era is likely to end if the United States puts sanctions on China. Anyone who thinks that sanctions will bring about a stronger relationship between these two countries and further integrate China into the international system needs to abandon idealism and look at this situation for what it is, a major spark which could start a very serious fire.