U.S./China Cyber Detente: Dependence and Perception are Under-Studied

Blog | April 13, 2016

Interdependence in cyberspace is seriously undocumented and understudied, writes EWI Professorial Fellow Greg Austin for this blog. Austin says joint research by leading Chinese and American scholars on this matter would have very useful and possibly profound political impacts.

In March 2016, with the noble objective of Getting to Yes with China in Cyber Space, the Rand Corporation published this report suggesting there was a stronger mutual interest in avoiding malicious behavior in cyberspace than most people had been prepared to credit. Coming from such a respected research organization, this represents a welcome change in tone in public analysis of the China cyber problem in the United States.

A similar presumption has underpinned earlier Track 1.5 work by the EastWest Institute (EWI) beginning in April 2009, working with senior U.S. and Chinese officials. This informal bilateral work saw a number of publications over several years by the institute's working groups or by individual staff. These included Cyber D\u00e9tente between the United States and China (2012), the book Cyber Policy in China (2014), and most recently, International Legal Norms in Cyberspace: Evolution of China's National Security Motivations (2016).

The last of these articles, written by the author of this comment and published by NATO's Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in an edited volume, was informed by the preceding seven year of work by EWI and by the individual author's own independent research. This 2016 assessment argues that there are increasing signs that China feels obliged to cooperate in cyberspace rather than risk the fabric of its economic ties with the United States and other leading economic powers. This is a judgement about perceptions, about what Chinese leaders actually think.

Of equal importance though is the question of whether that perception is being driven by some compelling external reality. The simple answer is yes. The article assessed that China's economy is almost certainly not immune from serious damage that could be brought on by a U.S. cyber attack. This is a problem of mutual interdependence: In both countries, elements of the civil infrastructure dependent on the cyber domain (mobile communications, Internet, electricity grids, land lines, undersea cables, banking) are inter-mingled with military assets.

The 2016 Rand report recounts discussions between Chinese and Americans on the issue of China's dependence on the United States in the Track 2 talks sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies beginning in December 2009. The Rand report also concludes that China may have more to lose in economic terms than the United States if cyber disputes are allowed to escalate.

Unfortunately, to date, the question of interdependence in cyberspace is seriously undocumented and understudied. The EastWest paper of 2012 on cyber d\u00e9tente called for further study on this subject. Four years later, this author continues to argue that the interdependence, the mingling of interests and activities is so profound that it is called -8entanglement' and that in broad terms, this characteristic is shared with all countries. Exactly how this entanglement, and its impact on China's normative behavior looks from Beijing's perspective, is worthy of much deeper assessment and study.

Of practical diplomatic significance, as EWI advocated in 2012, if such research on cyber interdependence were to be conducted jointly by leading Chinese and American scholars, it would have very useful and possibly profound political impacts. Dialogue supported by detailed research (and knowledge of the degree and nature of entanglement) could significantly improve mutual understanding.