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China-EU Cooperation on Combatting Cybercrime: A Model for China-US Relations?

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A new policy paper by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs entitled "China's Policy Paper on the EU: Deepen the China-EU Comprehensive Strategic Partnership for Mutual Benefit and Win-win Cooperation," released simultaneously with President Xi Jinping's visit to Europe in April 2014, particularly emphasizes the need for increased cooperation on cybersecurity between the European Union and the People's Republic of China. The paper calls to:

Strengthen cybersecurity dialogue and cooperation and promote the building of a peaceful, secure, open and cooperative cyberspace. Facilitate practical cooperation between China and the EU in fighting cyber-crimes, emergency response to cybersecurity incidents and cyber capacity building through platforms such as the China-EU Cyber Taskforce and work together for the formulation of a code of conduct in cyberspace within the UN framework.

While the first sentence with its flowery phrase on promoting "the building of a peaceful, secure, open and cooperative cyberspace" is the usual preamble in most public Chinese documents related to information security, the emphasis on cybercrime highlights a hard fact: Cybercrime can only be combatted effectively through international collaboration, which essentially implies an almost schizophrenic, two-layered approach of simultaneously cooperating with a country/entity on one level of cybersecurity, while dissuading the country/entity from excessively engaging in malicious cyber activities at another level. This strategic doublethink dichotomy holds true for all nations in cyberspace.

China consistently claims to be the biggest victim of cybercrime in the world. The Cybersecurity Strategy of the European Union lists "drastically reducing cybercrime" as number two in a list of five strategic priorities. There appears to be a clear convergent of interests in this field between Beijing and Brussels; however, one of the biggest concerns for the EU member states -- especially Germany and Great Britain -- within cybercrime is digital and 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 combatting IP theft in EU member states. It is an open secret that China is a top concern for Europol.

Nonetheless, the paper by the Chinese Foreign Ministry states that China intends "to raise the level of China-EU cooperation on intellectual property rights." In the schizophrenic, two-layered method of bilateral cooperation on cybersecurity, this is a step in the right direction. The China-EU Taskforce, founded in 2012 after the 14th EU-China Summit and referenced in the new policy paper, is a case in point. While its actual effectiveness in reducing cybercrime (and cyber-espionage) is almost nil, it still serves a useful purpose in reducing mistrust and a further deterioration of relations. One U.S. commentator even suggested that China's cybersecurity strategy with the EU is ultimately an opportunity for the United States to rethink its approach on cybercrime traced back to China.

The Chinese leadership is also 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 U.S. National Security Agency. Scanning Chinese newspapers, one can quickly find references that China has not issued specific policy papers 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 European Union. One can deduct from this that the Chinese press univocally can caress the European Union -- first and foremost a civilian power -- because it does not constitute a threat to Chinese influence or Chinese territorial integrity.

One can further deduct 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-U.S. disagreement over the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, where China worked especially close with France to oppose unilateral intervention in the Middle East. The Chinese scholar Shi Zhiqin stated, "the period from 2003 to 2005 was a golden age for China-EU relations" when "China's hope was to support the EU to balance American power." This was, of course, Chinese wishful thinking. While the disagreement over Iraq was severe, the transatlantic partnership was never really at risk of falling apart. Today, the aftereffects 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 European Union, based on Chinese Realpolitik, is decidedly opportunistic. In fact, the People's Republic often has been rather critical of the European Union as an institution in the past.

Shi Zhiqin summarizes the general Chinese perception of the EU:

China is forced to deal with each European country individually. This makes it slower and more complicated to reach fair agreements. China would like to have more streamlined relations at the EU-level, but the slow pace of decision-making is disappointing.

A transnational institution such as the European Union is also by its mere existence inherently an anomaly in modern Chinese political thought, which emphasizes 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 that the European Union 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.

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Franz-Stefan Gady is a Senior Fellow at the EastWest Institute. A version of this post can be found on Chinausfocus.com.