Media Coverage | April 30, 2014

Gady Writes for New Europe on China's Cyber Realpolitik

EWI Senior Fellow Franz-Stefan Gady describes the Chinese government's push for cooperation with the EU to fight cyber crime as an attempt to balance against the U.S.

Realpolitik: China’s Push on EU Cyber Ties

A paper issued by the Chinese government to coincide with President Xi Jinping’s visit to Europe in April emphasises the need for increased cooperation with the EU on combating cybercrime.

This raises a dilemma: how can the two sides cooperate against illicit acts in cyberspace when each is also engaged in active dissuasion of the other, quite adversarial in style and tone, from malicious cyber activities.

China consistently claims to be the biggest victim of cybercrime in the world. The Cybersecurity Strategy of the EU lists “drastically reducing cybercrime” as number two in a list of five strategic priorities. There appears to be a clear convergence of interests in this field between Beijing and Brussels. Yet one of the biggest concerns for many EU member states—especially Germany and Great Britain—is online intellectual property theft originating from China. In January 2013, the European Commission decided to establish a European Cybercrime Centre within Europol, which among other issues, is actively combating IP theft. It is an open secret that China is a top concern for Europol.

Nonetheless, at the same time, the paper by the Chinese government says that China intends “to raise the level of China-EU cooperation on intellectual property rights” (IPR). Notwithstanding the near schizophrenic approach to cybersecurity both with and from China, this measure on IPR would be a step in the right direction.

The Chinese leadership also is following another more geopolitical rationale by warmly embracing the European Union on cybersecurity issues. China is actively exploiting the transatlantic rift that occurred as a result of Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding the US National Security Agency. China does not appear to have issued a policy paper like the EU one, with such attention to cybercrime, for its other key trading partners, such as the United States, Russia or Japan—all of which are countries China sees as posing genuine and more immediate threats to the People’s Republic than the EU.

One can deduce from this that China probably believes it can cosy up the EU – first and foremost a civilian power - because it does not constitute a threat to Chinese influence, Chinese territorial integrity or Chinese interests in cyberspace. One can further deduce a clear calculus behind China’s engagement with the EU. China attempts to exploit the current rift in transatlantic relations similarly to its attempt to exploit the EU-US disagreement over the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, where China worked especially close with France to oppose unilateral intervention in the Middle East.

Yet, while the disagreement over Iraq was severe, the transatlantic partnership was never really in danger of falling apart. Today, the after-effects of the economic crisis of 2008 paired with new, more assertive European governments, particularly in the case of Germany, make a repetition of fallout as severe as in 2003 highly unlikely. 

China’s push towards closer ties with the EU, based on Chinese realpolitik, is decidedly opportunistic. A transnational institution such as the EU is also by its mere existence inherently an anomaly in modern Chinese political thought, which emphasises state sovereignty and territorial integrity after enduring a “century of humiliation”, yet the transnational need for increased EU-China cooperation on cybercrime is more pressing than ever.

Despite the fact that the EU often has been seen opportunistically by China as a useful entity to balance the United States when it suited Chinese interests, the growing threat from cyberspace may require even more schizophrenic, two-layered cyber-realpolitik in the future between Brussels and Beijing.

Gady also wrote on China-EU cooperation to combat cyber crime for The Huffington Post

Photo Credit: European External Action Service.