Home / Opinion

Good neighbors don't rim fences with glass shards

By Philip J. Cunningham (China Daily)

Updated: 2015-06-24 07:42:34


In a perfect world, countries wouldn't spy on one another, but until that utopian day dawns on us, it is reasonable to expect intelligence collecting to continue as it has since the days of Sun Tzu and Julius Caesar. Knowledge is power, and wanting to know more about rivals, opponents and even friends is common across cultures.

In the case of the United States and China, arguably the two countries with the greatest intelligence collecting ability, there is more espionage equivalence than high moral ground.

The Wire, a decade-old American TV drama series about inner city Baltimore, Maryland, continues to fascinate because it realistically portrays the cat and mouse shenanigans of cops and crooks in a world where constant surveillance and threat of arrest, and the means taken to avoid it, are a way of life. The way two parties seemingly at odds with one another come up with a code to live and let live, despite the fear and mistrust, is not without application to international relations.

The US security apparatus, like policing at home, has a long history of acting righteous, even when it engages in behavior of the sort that it would not tolerate coming from rivals or opponents. One need look no farther than the drone assassination program approved by the White House to see toxic traces of US exceptionalism, but the idea that the US is "different" and "above the rules" is gradually changing.

The shift from a unipolar moment to a multipolar world is underway, and that's probably a good thing.

During the Sunnylands summit in June 2013, US President Barack Obama still had one foot in the old paradigm when he met with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. The US leader was prepped and ready to exploit the talking points of a script designed to chastise China for alleged violation of intelligence collecting norms, but then had to do some fancy footwork and last-minute "pivoting" - essentially ripping up the playbook - when a then unknown "hacker" named Edward Snowden released a goldmine of data on the National Security Agency's improprieties that dwarfed anything China could be accused of.

The US continues to express disapproval of hacks it believes to emanate from China - real, alleged and imagined - but it cannot whine without sounding weirdly hypocritical.

For some Americans, it shouldn't be a free-for-all. Self-restraint and protocol can be, and should be, observed because it is to the long-term benefit of both sides that the exchange of electrons, and the vital economic juice that digitized information has come to represent, not get short-circuited.

As in any neighborly dispute, boundaries have to be established, but as the grandeur of the Great Wall attests to, maintaining big boundaries exacts a price in resource allocation.

Many an early cyber enthusiast envisioned a splendor-in-the-grass world where the electron flow would be open and unguarded, but today the known vulnerabilities of an inter-wired world call for a certain amount of fencing.

Weak links notwithstanding, there is a danger in an overzealous response. A "get-off-my-lawn!" attitude pushes both sides to put up impassable walls.

Good fences may make good neighbors, but good neighbors don't rim their fences with glass shards and barbed wire.

Bolstered by a recognition that there is no stakeholder above the law, or exempt from the norms that guide the commons, China and the US can cooperate to promote their own best interests by keeping fencing to a bare minimum, aware of how such things can escalate, while endeavoring to maintain a mutually beneficial free flow of people, goods and information.

The author is a media researcher covering Asian politics.