The news on Saturday that Indonesia and China will cooperate in cyber war exercises is big enough in itself for strategic relationships in the region. At the same time, it shows that the two countries have an advanced understanding of what cyber war will look like and it sets a new diplomatic precedent in how states must work together in preparing for the most likely impacts of cyber war.
The magazine Tempo reported that the two countries will develop a cooperation program that includes “cyber-war simulations, cyber-war responses and mitigations, cyber monitoring, cyber-crisis management, and data center restoration planning.” The intent of this program does not appear to be oriented to joint military cooperation but rather focuses on government responses to the inevitable impacts of cyber war on civil infrastructure.
The deepening collaboration in the defense relationship between Indonesia and China is a useful counter to the exaggerated sense of regional polarization over maritime security between China and other South China Sea littoral states, backed by the United States, Japan, and Australia. The relationship between Indonesia and China had been something of a roller-coaster ride between cooperation and enmity in the first half century after 1949, but it has now stabilized on all fronts. As just one example, in October 2015, the two defense ministers met and declared their intention to help maintain regional peace. Sydney University published an excellent study of the strategic relationship in November 2015.
The proposed cyber collaboration revealed this week covers four areas:
- information and communication technology strategy (cybersecurity awareness for decision-making purposes and cybersecurity in national infrastructure development);
- capacity building in operations and technology (in digital forensics, information security, network security, cyber risk management, big data analysis, and the digital economy)
- joint research in cybersecurity (cryptography operating systems, cyber law, cyber terrorism, and counter cyber intelligence)
- joint operations (cyber war simulation, response and mitigation in cyber war, cyber monitoring, cyber crisis management, and resilience).
The breadth of the proposed cyber relationship goes well beyond that between China and other developing countries, but does not approach the quite close cyber relationship China has with Russia. The unique aspect of this agreement is that it implies quite clearly an advanced understanding in both countries of the civil sector impacts of future cyber war. As outlined in my recent research paper, with an eye to the future threat horizon, all countries “need to develop complex responsive systems of decision-making for medium intensity war that address multi-vector, multi-front and multi-theater attacks in cyber space, including against civilian infrastructure and civilians involved in the war effort”.
The Indonesian official revealing the proposed cyber cooperation with China to the Indonesian News Agency was a specialist from the National Cyber Information Defense Security and Resilient Agency (DKKICN), Muchlis Ahmady. He shares my assessment, which is both self-evident and widely shared internationally, that most middle powers cannot provide national cyber security on their own. He observed that “the key to a successful cyberspace crisis management is coordination and sharing.”
Indonesia does not see China as its enemy in cyberspace but as a necessary partner. The two countries have set a diplomatic precedent for cyberspace cooperation outside of existing alliances or strategic partnerships by being prepared to consider joint cyber war simulations on a direct bilateral and official level. Other Asia-Pacific states could learn from this.