The uncertainties of cyberspace

By Shen Yi (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-07-02 07:53
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Since US Internet policy is provocative, it ought to work with nations like China to make the virtual world safe and stable

The New York Times reported last month that the US State Department had helped develop an "Internet suitcase", which could build a shadow network in certain countries giving users direct access to the virtual world without using local communication infrastructure. It is feared that the product will be used to help dissidents in countries where governments have strong control over cyberspace.

This shows the complexity of cyberspace. On one hand, nearly all countries agree that global cooperation should be deepened to regulate global cyberspace. On the other, some countries want to take advantage of their expertise in information technology (IT) to impose their authority over others. This became even more evident after the United States issued its first international cyberspace strategy in May.

The US is trying to combine different principles, strategies and polices to deal with a range of problems, including the security of key information systems, information-based economy and IT-sponsored diplomacy, which are linked to a united strategic framework.

The unclassified sections of the US Defense Department's new cyber strategy - published in June - is designed to make it clear to other countries that they can be held responsible for cyber attacks launched from within their borders.

These two new strategies and the speeches on Internet freedom by US State Secretary Hillary Clinton - together with specific remarks, interviews and responses to developments in North Africa and the Middle East since December - have created a serious challenge not only for Sino-US strategic ties, but also international relations as a whole.

It's time to think systematically how to govern cyberspace to ensure its development and create as much benefits as possible for countries and international relations. As two of the largest countries both in the real and virtual worlds, China and the US have a special responsibility to cooperate in building a proper global regime to govern cyberspace.

Changing the perception of cyber security, developing a code of conduct, and building a collaborative structure to deal with different kinds of challenges are the three main tasks that decision-makers in Beijing and Washington face.

First, changing the perception of cyber security would help limit the negative effects that could disrupt strategic relations among big powers, especially China and the US. As Robert Jervis, professor of International Affairs at Columbia University, says in his Perception and Misperception in International Politics, decision-makers tend to learn from the experience of dealing with challenges not encountered before.

The US' new cyber strategy is obviously rooted in the legacy of the Cold War, according to which big powers should do everything possible to expand their influence and control as much as possible the new areas of strategic advantage.

Second, it's time to explore the possibility and methods needed to develop a code of conduct for big powers like China and the US to avoid the worst case scenario in which, according to digital strategist Dominic Basulto's blog, "the Internet gets shut down due to a completely random mishap, and we (the US) start launching missiles at China in retaliatory response".

All countries, including China and the US, have the right to use the latest technology, including IT, to strengthen their military. But, at the same time, they should realize that, compared with nuclear technology, IT has blurred the difference between matters military and non-military. IT has become so advanced and hackers are so adept that it is extremely difficult to determine the intent of a cyber attack and the place it is launched from. It is, therefore, important to build a code of conduct to limit the negative effects of a traditional cat-and-mouse game among countries in cyberspace.

Neither China nor the US will benefit by launching an attack that paralyzes the other's key information infrastructure, simply because we live in a world where all countries are part of one big network. Instead, we should work out a code of conduct that would make cyberspace safe and stable for all countries.

An ideal code of conduct would include setting up information exchange and communications regimes so that China and the US both could get vital information when they face a cyber-attack or suffer a setback.

And third, by building a collaborative infrastructure to govern cyberspace, China and the US can enhance their strategic relationship and better deal with the challenges mentioned above.

Thanks to the Cold War, the US and China are suspicious of each other, making it difficult for them to deepen bilateral strategic cooperation, especially military cooperation. But by cooperating on cyberspace governance they will get an opportunity to make their strategic intentions clear to each other and change their mutual perception. This will be of utmost importance when the origin of a cyber-attack on one is traced to the other country.

As former US president George W. Bush said, Sino-US relationship is complex, but it could become more complex in the future because of a misunderstanding over cyberspace. Hence, both countries will benefit from a well-governed global cyberspace, because they are already heavily dependent on it.

Cooperating to build an effective legal system to fight cyber-crime should be given priority to maintain a healthy cyberspace and build a new strategic foundation for Sino-US ties. Since no one can change the fact that all countries today are part of one big network, China and the US should find the best way to co-exist peacefully. Learning to collaborate on cyberspace governance will be an important first step to ensure a better and safer world.

The author is assistant professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University, Shanghai.

(China Daily 07/02/2011 page5)