Overcoming the US-China digital cold war

10 Nov 2020 15:10h - 16:40h

Event report

The relationship between the USA and China has intensified over the last few years, as both countries recognise that the dominance in cyberspace and digital economy has a ripple effect on national security and military might. This session fostered a dialogue between officials from the USA and China, and stakeholders anywhere in between these two most powerful countries in the world. 
The panellists discussed three important topics: (a) the impact of China’s rise on Internet governance; (b) the impact of the USA-China conflict on the global tech and economic infrastructures; and (c) the impact the so-called ‘digital cold war’ has on the rest of the world.

Internet governance has been championing multistakeholderism. As China rises to global power in digital economy, fears regarding potential erosions of the traditional Internet governance model have stirred among countries. Mr Stephen Anderson (Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary, International Communications and Information Policy, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, US Department of State) concurred that multistakeholderism is increasingly under pressure as China’s authoritarian regime has been strengthening its influence over Internet governance. However, he noted that the USA does not portray the tension between the USA and China as a conflict, but rather as an attempt by the USA and like-minded nations to preserve an open, safe, and secure Internet. In response to Anderson’s comments, Mr Guo Feng (Chief Engineer, Ministry of Information Industry and Technology (MIIT)) emphasised that China is not posing a threat to the existing ecosystem of Internet governance, and added that China is committed to the conventional values of Internet governance. For instance, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has launched the Global Initiative on Data Security (GIDS) in September 2020, which outlined its opposition to the illegal and illegitimate gathering of citizen’s data, and to surveillance enabled by backdoor systems.

The concept of cyber sovereignty was contested by the panellists from both the USA and China. Anderson highlighted that cyber sovereignty is against multistakeholder Internet governance, calling it an existential threat to the current governance model. However, Feng argued that cyber sovereignty rightfully exists, just like every nation state is entitled to its sovereignty in the offline world. Furthermore, he explained that the actions taken by the USA, such as the Clean Network Initiative, have proven that the USA is exercising its cyber sovereignty by excluding Chinese vendors from its telecoms networks. Mr Peixi Xu (Associate Professor, Communication University of China) agreed that the USA enforces its cyber sovereignty by extending military power into cyberspace.

How does the rest of the world respond to the tensions between the USA and China? Ms Joanna Kulesza (Assistant Professor, International Law, Faculty of Law and Administration, University of Lodz) illustrated where Europe stands with the old Polish proverb: ‘When two actors are fighting, the third one takes the cake’. Europe is attempting to offer an alternative that is centred around principles of human rights and an open market. Moreover, she explained that Europe seeks strategic autonomy rather than cyber sovereignty. Mr Iginio Gagliardone (Associate Professor, Media Studies Department, WITS University) provided his insights on African countries and China’s growing presence on the continent. He pointed out that China’s large investment does not necessarily translate into the rise of authoritarianism on the continent. For instance, China invested in smart city and safe city projects in Uganda and Kenya, convincing African leaders with success stories from China on controlling public safety. However, the projects did not contribute to lowering crime rates in cities, indicating that who controls the technology matters more than the technology itself. Meanwhile, India is swinging from one side to the other. Ms Jyoti Panday (Researcher, Internet Governance Project (IGP), India) said that India has been leaning towards securitisation of the Internet and Internet governance due to the confrontation between the USA and China. India is in a tough position because it shares the border with China with which it had occasional disputes, but that China has been an important investor in the India’s start-up sector.

While the divide between the USA and China continues to widen, it is inevitable for stakeholders to wonder whether the world is headed toward fragmented tech and economic infrastructures. Mr Charles Mok (Member, Legislative Council, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China) believes that China could further enhance its firewall to restrict the flow of information coming in and out of China. He elaborated that the USA and Western countries can also potentially install something similar to protect data sovereignty if both sides are able to see similarities in the challenges they are facing, instead of finger-pointing at each other.

The session concluded with a question on developing trust, and the actions that need to be taken. Gagliardone, Kulesza, and Mok agreed that having a dialogue that centres around users and their rights will contribute to bridging the divide. Mok proposed the use of technology, such as blockchain, to create more transparency in such dialogues. Xu called on all stakeholders to leave evil narrative and rhetoric behind, and to discuss a way forward while pressing the importance of digital interdependence.