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China Wants to Draw Borders in Cyberspace -- But So Does Every Other Sovereign Nation

lu wei wuzhen

Washington foreign policy elites often worry about the rise of China, that is, when they are not parsing President Obama's strategy to combat the self-proclaimed Islamic State or lamenting Russian President Vladimir Putin's intervention in Syria. Lately they seem to worry most about how to stop China's push into the South China Sea. The more strategically minded wonder when, not if, China will supplant the United States as the world's dominant economy. More rarely, sophisticated observers track China's challenges to the U.S- led system of global governance.

With the new Chinese-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the expanded Shanghai Cooperation Council, and the ongoing lawfare related to maritime claims, China is slowly but surely promoting its own political and social values as alternatives to existing U.S. dominated international institutions.

Yet, as the Second World Internet Conference opened in Wuzhen, China this week relatively few foreign policy experts have focused on the significance of China's emerging campaign against the open global Internet and link it to China's wider challenge to America's global leadership. For the second straight year China's Internet czar, Lu Wei, is offering a vision of cyberspace governance based on the concept of "Internet sovereignty." Rather than participating fully in an interconnected world in which information flows free irrespective of national borders or the ownership of the Internet's overarching infrastructure, China asserts its intention to regulate the Internet within its own borders according to its own values that place a premium on maintaining the power and legitimacy of the Party-state against internal opponents and foreign influences.

To Western ears, the substantive arguments may seem plausible. As Lu Wei wrote in The WorldPost last year:

Disagreements on certain issues understandably arise. For example, with regard to cyberspace governance, the U.S. advocates "multi-stakeholders" while China believes in "multilateral." ["Multi-stakeholder" refers to all Internet participants on an equal footing making the rules and is considered more "people-centered" while "multilateral" refers to the state making the rules based on the idea of the sovereignty of the nation-state representing its citizens.]

These two alternatives are not intrinsically contradictory. Without "multilateral," there would be no "multi-stakeholders." Exaggerating our disagreements due to differences in concepts is neither helpful to the China-U.S. Internet relations nor beneficial to global governance and the development of the Internet.

There is, of course, a catch: It is unclear that the Chinese people have chosen or would chose the Chinese Communist Party's approach to governing cyberspace internally much less its emerging global stance. In an interview leading up to this week's conference, Lu was more blunt about what his approach means:

'I've got no way to change anybody, but I do have the right to choose my friends. We really must decide who we allow into our home; we must make sure that only friends come in. We do not welcome those people who earn money from the Chinese, occupy a share of the Chinese market, and then slander China. Just like any other family, we don't welcome unfriendly people to come and be our guests.'

If China's alternative perspective gains wider traction with other governments, the global Internet as we know it will soon be history.

Declaratory policies aside, how does China treat the Internet? Internet censorship is rampant. Attacks on U.S. corporations and government agencies by hackers affiliated with the Chinese government, whether officially sanctioned or not, have been proven to the satisfaction of outside experts. Some Chinese technology firms are either clearly state-owned or suspected of being state controlled, leading to fears of both industrial espionage and state-on-state spying. Some firms are reportedly complicit in propaganda campaigns to promote the Chinese government's views or versions of international and domestic events. And Chinese officials often dissemble when confronted with evidence of such behaviors.

If China's alternative perspective gains wider traction with other governments, the global Internet as we know it will soon be history.

Close observers are not surprised by China's initiatives to control the Internet within its borders and assert its own vision for Internet governance. Indeed, China simply represents an extreme example of a much wider phenomena. Professor Chris Demchak and I have analyzed an accelerating "cyber - Westphalian process"over the past decade as most sovereign states have been asserting their authority, establishing virtual borders, and increasing the offensive and defensive cyber tools believed necessary to protect society, deter misbehavior, and punish 'bad" actors. ("Westphalian" refers to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 heralded as the birth of the nation state. It ended the 30 Years War by according sovereign rulers control over their own society within agreed borders)

Over the past decade, most sovereign states have been asserting their authority, establishing virtual borders, and increasing the offensive and defensive cyber tools believed necessary to protect society, deter misbehavior, and punish 'bad' actors.

This trend toward a cyber -Westphalian world is driven, in part, by the changing nature of modern warfare; information age technologies have altered the effective scale of potential attackers, the requirement that adversaries fight in close proximity and increased the precision of all weapons.

Our position is evidence-based and descriptive. We do not advocate constricting flows of information across national borders (if such a thing was even possible short of disconnecting entirely), overt militarization, censorship or overregulation. But we recognize that states, especially democratic states, remain mankind's single most powerful, widely legitimate, and resilient social institutions. With political pressures, national security concerns and economic actors pushing officials toward greater control and more accountability, states have imposed more regulation and more supervision, while increasing the scope of domestic laws and improving the capabilities of military commands dedicated to cyber operations.

Publicly accountable politicians face tremendous pressure to "control" and "shape" the Internet. Citizens demand protection from hackers. Corporations want governments to help guard their intellectual property. The political left and the right advocate "censoring" web content -- for example, pornography and hate speech. Some view the Internet as yet another source of inequality; they point to the digital divide -- over Internet access -- between and within regions, countries and social classes and then demand government redress.

China may be more explicit about "Internet sovereignty" but the U.S. and other Western nations themselves have encouraged the emergence of virtual borders as both a prudent response to the demands of civil society and as a means to promote their preferred modes of governance.

If you are known by the company you keep, China's recent efforts to shape the rules and norms about how the Internet should be governed have yet not gained traction. Eight foreign leaders are attending this year's Wuzhen conference: Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Temir Sariyev and Tajik Prime Minister Kokhir Rasulzoda. To say the least, this isn't the most broadly influential group of world leaders.

On the other hand, China's growing economic power and increasing diplomatic assertiveness grant legitimacy to ideas once discounted in national capitols. As noted, China has already succeeded in advancing its interests through alternative regional forums and maritime claims on the economic and geopolitical front.

Sovereignty is what states make of it.

Yet, to paraphrase a famous international relations scholar, sovereignty is what states make of it. Regardless of China's current campaign for "Internet sovereignty," other national governments and transnational organizations will weigh in through existing institutions, including the U.N. system, the European Union, and specialized multilateral negotiation forums. As for the United States, even as it contributes to the neo-Westphalian process of re-bordering cyberspace, it will continue to defend the political and economic values embedded in the existing patchwork system. But to be effective it must continue to engage China as well as set a better example with it's own behavior in cyberspace. We ignore the significance of China's Internet challenge at our own peril.

The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the position of the U.S. Navy or any other government agency.