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Evaluating China’s Cyber Power

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China Power

Evaluating China’s Cyber Power

China’s approach to a nationally framed cyber power is self-defeating.

Evaluating China’s Cyber Power
Credit: Flickr/ Anderson Riedel

In September 2016, the Lau China Institute at King’s College London published a working paper by this author on “Mapping and Evaluating China’s Cyber Power.” It concluded that China is more likely to be a spoiler in cyberspace rather than a dominating or dominant power. But even so, the paper saw the collaborative aspects of China’s exercise of cyber power as likely to outweigh its spoiler effects. It also assessed that the country’s approach to a nationally framed cyber power is self-defeating.

In February 2014, President Xi Jinping declared his intent to do everything necessary for China to become a cyber power. The new ambition has seen many implementing measures since then, demonstrated most vividly by the creation of the Cyberspace Administration of China. In September 2014, Xi told the country it needed a new cyber military strategy. In December of that year, the government introduced new regulations for cybersecurity intended to help promote the rapid growth of China’s domestic cybersecurity industry. In May 2015, the country issued a new Military Strategy in which the government declared for the first time the idea that cyberspace, along with outer space, have “become new commanding heights in strategic competition among all parties.”

The same month, the National People’s Congress released a draft bill on National Security (passed in July 2016) that gave a special place to cybersecurity in its provisions for strengthening government control over foreign technologies and related investment in China. In July 2015, China released a draft law on network security with sweeping new provisions on control of foreign technologies and data management. The same year, the Chinese armed forces set up a new Strategic Support Force to begin to maximize its advance in practical applications of military cyber capability

By September 2016, with almost three years gone since Xi and his fellow leaders agreed on the new cyber ambition, they are still not satisfied. They announced a detailed new plan in line with their five-year plan process, and set a seemingly more robust ambition of becoming a “stronghold” of cyber power, in language that the South China Morning Post interpreted as the ambition to become a “cyber superpower.”

However, Chinese leaders are not always clear on what the term “cyber power” might mean. At times, they emphasize the foundational aspects: the economic, scientific, technical, or military resources they command in cyberspace. At other times, they focus on the dynamic aspects: how well does China perform in its effort to persuade or force other actors to do its bidding in cyberspace or on cyberspace policy issues? The balance between the two perspectives (resources of power versus the exercise of power) in leadership statements reveals a preference for concentrating on resources to the neglect of power dynamics on most cyberspace issues. Scholarly attention to this subject has, for the most part, followed that preference: privileging the foundations of power to the relative neglect of the dynamics of China’s exercise of cyber power.

In June 2016, Xi characterized China’s current status in science and technology (S&T) (not just information-related fields) as severely lacking: “The situation that our country is under others’ control in core technologies of key fields has not changed fundamentally, and the country’s S&T foundation remains weak.” In May, he declared that S&T is the bedrock of the country’s power, and that “great scientific and technological capacity is a must for China to be strong.” In the summer, Xi publicly endorsed a formula for what the country’s transition by 2050 will look like – becoming a world-leading S&T power by the centenary anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Xi made more general invocations in connection with the meeting in April 2016 of the Leading Group on Informatization and Cybersecurity.

The goals for 2025 are definitely worthy of note by anyone with an interest in China: to “establish an internationally advanced mobile communication network… and rid the country of its dependence on foreign key technologies” and aim for “well-developed advanced technologies industries, leading applications and infallible cybersecurity; with major transnational internet information enterprises and competitiveness taking shape.”

For the current leaders, one of the primary goals of this policy is to rid China of foreign control over core technologies. They see the major pathway to this goal as the rapid consolidation of the domestic ICT sector and its projection on the global stage. They are also very anxious to overcome their technological inferiority through greater indigenization of cyber-related industries, even if this strategy runs up against world trade norms as many governments and corporate leaders have argued.

At the same time, the vision is not simply a technocratic one. Chinese leaders have become more fearful of what they call “hostile Western influences” and they have become more aggressive since Xi came to office in acting against such influences. In fact, as one scholar observed, we can see the cyber power announcement as likely to be most important to Chinese leaders in terms of their intent to tighten their grip on internal security.

On the evidence to date, except perhaps for the internal security domain, China’s ability to exercise cyber power is either so contested or shared with so many powerful actors, that on the few occasions when its leaders have taken a major initiative to flex their muscles in cyberspace affairs, they have not made decisive breakthroughs. They have been far more successful at reaping the benefits of cooperation and acquiescence. This is evident in the massive China ICT exports to the world, most produced in foreign-invested factories. There is, in fact, a deep and largely unstudied integration of the ICT sectors of China and the rest of the world. The success of cooperation is also evident in the country’s deepening participation in international organizations, such as the International Telecommunications Union, where a Chinese citizen is now secretary general. It also remains powerfully evident in China’s growing importance in globalized knowledge exchange.

The country remains a compliant party, for the most part, to the constitutional treaties of a global economic order, including its membership of the World Trade Organization. China’s entanglement in a global cyberspace is as deep as most G20 countries.

Chinese leaders will not want to reverse this any time soon, even if they could.

This article has previously been published on the EastWest Institute Policy Innovation Blog