Foreign Relations & International Law

Observations on China’s New International Cyberspace Cooperation Strategy

Graham Webster
Tuesday, March 7, 2017, 1:38 PM

The Chinese government last week released a new, wide-ranging strategy document (in English and Chinese) for international cooperation on cyberspace issues.

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The Chinese government last week released a new, wide-ranging strategy document (in English and Chinese) for international cooperation on cyberspace issues.

The strategy unsurprisingly emphasizes internet sovereignty, an idea whose first big splash came in connection with the Chinese government–sponsored World Internet Conference (WIC) in 2014 (specifically in a failed consensus document and an introductory message from President Xi Jinping). In this new document, officially titled “International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace” in English, sovereignty appears as one of four “basic principles” (along with peace, shared governance, and shared benefit).

A document like this one, covering numerous diverse policy areas and repeating countless terms of art, defies summary. People interested in internet governance, international cybersecurity efforts, high-tech industries, and Chinese domestic and international development policy will find it worth reading. Here are a few of the elements worth noting:

Militarization and deterrence decried, but forces in development

“The tendency of militarization and deterrence buildup in cyberspace is not conducive to international security and strategic mutual trust.”

This statement is one of a few that seem squarely aimed at the United States, despite the fact that no country other than China is mentioned by name. Deterrence against malicious activity in cyberspace was strongly emphasized in a major U.S. Defense Department strategy in April 2015, and that document did mention China by name (along with Russia, Iran, and North Korea.) Other likely veiled references to the United States include the document’s identification of “interference in other countries’ internal affairs by abusing ICT and massive cyber surveillance activities” as policy challenges, and the statement that “no country should pursue cyber hegemony.”

China’s strategists appear to be of two minds about military activities in cyberspace, however. A paragraph after discouraging militarization and deterrence, the strategy says that China will “expedite the development of a cyber force and enhance capabilities … to prevent major cyber crisis, safeguard cyberspace security and maintain national security and social stability.”

‘Multi-party participation,’ but not multistakeholder governance

“[I]nternational cyberspace governance should feature multi-party participation. All parties, including governments, international organizations, Internet companies, technology communities, non-governmental institutions and individual citizens, should play their respective roles. Countries should … jointly develop cyber rules. The United Nations, an important channel, should play a leading role in coordinating positions of various parties and building international consensus.”

The Chinese government has long been a prominent advocate for a move away from the current multistakeholder model of internet governance (in which companies, civil society, and others forge policy alongside governments) toward multilateral decision-making among governments, preferably under the United Nations.

In a later section on “fair internet governance,” the strategy echoes the above, calling for “broad participation, sound management and democratic decision-making, with all stakeholders contributing in their share based on their capacity and governments taking [the lead] in Internet governance particularly public policies and security.”

The friendly-sounding phrase “multi-party governance” and the reference to “all stakeholders contributing” will not fool internet governance watchers, but it may help China’s diplomats persuade counterparts to see things their way. (This persuasion may be easier at a time when a new U.S. administration has said precious little on the issue and has undermined its own diplomats’ credibility.)

Emphasis on proactive initiatives in digital economy, global development

Throughout, the document paints China and its government as leaders, both domestically and globally. It promises implementation of existing “national strategies for cyber development, IT application and big data and the ‘Internet Plus’ action plan.” These largely domestic initiatives are often overlapping and their effects are often uncertain, but the overall Chinese government commitment to fostering a strong domestic high-tech industry is clear. The present document explicitly calls for China’s tech companies to go global, especially in the countries targeted for the expansive but vague Belt and Road Initiative:

China will encourage and support Chinese Internet companies, together with those in the manufacturing, financial and ICT sectors, to take the lead in going global [and] participate in international competition in line with the principle of fairness … Chinese companies will be encouraged to actively engage in capacity building of other countries and help developing countries with distance learning, remote health care and e-business among others to contribute to their social development.

The value of openness—to a point

In connection with the digital economy, the strategy says China “supports fair and open international trade, opposes trade barriers and trade protectionism and pursues an open and secure environment for the digital economy,” but it also says the “excuse of free market and free trade” should not override national security regulation.

The document states: “China supports a free and open Internet. … Cyberspace, in the meantime, is not a place beyond the rule of law. Like the real world, freedom and order are both necessary in cyberspace. China pursues effective governance in cyberspace to promote free flow of information while ensuring national security and public interests.” This line on the link between freedom and order has been a prominent part of Chinese cyberspace policy rhetoric since at least 2014. The core assertion is that China’s government has the legitimate sovereign right and responsibility to decide how to balance “free flow of information” and “national security and public interests.” Obviously opinions differ on the legitimacy of some measures under international law and norms.

What the present document suggests but does not really address is another balancing act: between the idea that governments can decide whether to restrict internet market access for national security reasons, and the desire to promote Chinese tech exports abroad. If some of the countries targeted for Chinese development assistance start to face security concerns, this new strategy’s relatively graceful expression of China’s accumulated official lines on cyberspace issues might begin to show new cracks.

Graham Webster is editor in chief of the Stanford-New America DigiChina project and a China digital economy fellow with New America. A joint effort of the Stanford Cyber Policy Center and New America's Cybersecurity Initiative, DigiChina is a collaborative project to translate, contextualize, and analyze Chinese digital policy documents and discourse. Webster also writes the independent Transpacifica e-mail newsletter. He was previously a senior fellow and lecturer at Yale Law School, where he was responsible for the Paul Tsai China Center's U.S.–China Track 2 dialogues for five years before leading programming on cyberspace and high-tech issues. In the past, he wrote a CNET News blog on technology and society from Beijing, worked at the Center for American Progress, and taught East Asian politics at NYU's Center for Global Affairs. Graham holds a master's degree in East Asian studies from Harvard University and a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University. He is based in Oakland, California.

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