In 2015, there was a sharp turn in China’s policy on international aspects of cyber behavior. This had two concurrent dimensions, one competitive and the other collaborative.
The turn toward more competitive positions included publication of the new defense strategy in May emphasizing the centrality of cyberspace, alongside outer space, as the “commanding heights” of international strategic competition. There were changes to domestic laws and regulations giving new priority to China’s sovereign control over cyber technologies and to the importance of such stepped-up control in order to protect national security.
There was also evidence of new determination to build up China’s civil ICT sector to better compete with global technology leaders (among which China does not yet sit). And China, like the United States, continued its aggressive reliance on economic espionage (to be distinguished from commercial espionage). China continues to pursue the perfection of the most intrusive and punitive system of cyber-enabled political surveillance ever seen in human history. China also was called out, somewhat naively, for having the temerity to conduct cyber espionage on South China Sea issues against its smaller neighbors
None of this should, however, blind us to the amazing turns for the better in China’s collaborative efforts in cyberspace issues in 2015 and what this says about leadership values on such collaboration. China’s new cooperative actions were predictable and stem from two sources: pragmatism (necessity) and normative engagement. On the one hand, China’s leaders demonstrated throughout 2015 that the country cannot achieve its own ambitions in cyberspace, including for economic development, without the help of the United States and its allies. On the other hand, China’s leaders actually do believe that there can be no security for China in cyber space without a stronger commitment by it (and other states) to stronger collaboration.
Yet, in 2015, China moved more quickly on collaboration than even the predictors of such change, such as this author, expected. In May, it concluded a formal agreement with Russia not to interfere unlawfully in each other’s information resources and networks. In June, China and the United States agreed to negotiate a “code of conduct” of some kind in cyberspace. Also in June, China’s representative in the UN-sponsored Group of Governmental Experts on security aspects of ICT joined the group in a consensus report with important breakthroughs on voluntary norms. In January, China had participated in tabling a slightly revised draft of the proposed code of conduct for cyberspace initially submitted to the United Nations in 2011.
The biggest China cyber surprise of 2015 was the breakthrough in discussions with the United States in connection with the visit of President Xi Jinping to Washington DC in September.
China’s top spy and Politburo member, Meng Jianzhu, made a highly unusual four-day visit to the United States in early September, where he forged an agreement between his country and the United States to cooperate more deeply on cybersecurity issues. The Meng visit was made to smooth the way for Xi and to allow him and President Barack Obama to announce new progress by senior officials in this area on September 25.
The two countries agreed to investigate each other’s complaints about malicious cyber activity, to cooperate more on resolving criminal investigations, and not to undertake commercial espionage. On this last issue, they agreed not to “conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information, with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors”.
There is clear distinction, as the two countries agree, between economic espionage for national purposes and commercial espionage intended only to benefit a firm in the civil economy. It is declared U.S. policy to conduct economic espionage in order to maintain its technological edge over other countries; China does it to catch up.
New disputes about the September 2015 cyber agreement will inevitably arise, and sooner rather than later. The saving grace, and the most solid diplomatic achievement on this front, was the agreement to set up a Cabinet-level working group to resolve disputes. On the U.S. side, the secretary of homeland security and the attorney general announced on September 25 that they would be the leads and that their counterparts on the Chinese side would also participate.
On December 1-2, the two countries held the first “ministerial” on cyber policy as foreshadowed by the September agreement and reached remarkable agreements, including a plan for training 15 U.S. law enforcement personnel in China, to be reciprocated later. Even more remarkably, China admitted in this meeting that a hack of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (compromising data on more than 20 million people) did originate in China, though it also said that the hack was not state-sponsored.
Thus, it is not unreasonable to conclude that 2015 saw far more signs of a turn toward collaboration on cyberspace issues rather than away from it. The challenge for us all is to recognize such change when we see it and call it out.
Moreover, recognition of China’s changes in cyber policy on the collaborative side have not been given the same prominence as signs of stepped up competition. The net effect of this has been to leave undisturbed a dominating narrative that China is close to being an enemy of the United States in cyberspace.
There is no reason to see China’s persistence in pursuing both tracks as evidence of an unrevealed master plan for aggression or beating the United States into second place on the world stage. China is not an enemy of the United States, but does actively compete with it in broad-based contest for international influence and prestige. There are security tensions between the two countries that might lead to military confrontation, but on all issues — including the political status of Taiwan Strait, maritime disputes, and cyberspace — the longer term interests of both countries dictate an unambiguous policy of war avoidance.
If the war avoidance goal is intact and dominating, that constitutes peace as best we know it and it needs to be called out as peace.