February 11, 2019

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Adam Segal (pictured at a SIPA event in June 2018)
Adam Segal (pictured at a SIPA event in June 2018 - click to enlarge)

The United States and China have fundamentally divergent visions for cyberspace. The U.S. Department of Defense initially developed the Internet as a regional communications system but since then, the country has led the transformation of the Internet into an open, global, and interoperable platform.

China, conversely, believes in “cyber sovereignty,” in which each country governs Internet usage within its own borders with no outside interference, and the United Nations as the arbiter of international laws on cyberspace. Moreover, China has begun remaking cyberspace in its own image rather than focusing on controlling its own citizens’ access to the Internet.

Adam Segal, adjunct professor at SIPA and director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, elaborated on the unprecedented shift in his special lecture entitled “China Remakes Cyberspace,” sponsored by the Columbia-Harvard China and the World Program on January 31.

Segal described three major causes behind China’s strategy.

First, Chinese president Xi Jinping wants to restructure the Internet in a way that staves off challenges to his party’s rule. Xi personally chairs the committee on Internet security and informationization in order to drive his vision for the country as a “cyber superpower.”

Second is China’s desire to reduce dependence on Western countries for advanced technology. Keith Alexander, former head of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and Cyber Command, once called the loss of industrial information and intellectual property from China’s cyber espionage as “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.”

Lastly, Xi declared that “without cybersecurity, there is no national security.” Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA operations were a wake-up call for China.

Segal weighed in on the prospect of China’s quest. He said that as long as a small group of powerful leaders continue to drive cyber policy from the top, the chance of becoming a cyber superpower may be stalled. Chinese tech companies will need to extract themselves from their government’s tight grip in order to stay globally competitive, while Internet users in China may demand more privacy protection over time.

The United States could maintain the edge by attracting global talents and driving the next wave of innovation through its open civil society, as opposed to the top-down approach.

Segal expressed concerns about the underreported but escalating cyber competition between the United States and China. Even though cyberattacks from China had subsided briefly in 2015, they are on the rise again following the strategic overhaul of China’s military and intelligence hacking units.

Meanwhile, the United States has been placing stricter control on transfer of technology to and from China in the former’s domestic markets while pushing its allies and partners to do the same. The current administration has also endorsed more offense-oriented posture in cyber operations.

China is already home to the world’s largest number of Internet users and is outpacing other nations in research and development investment. The United States still holds the advantage as the originator of the Internet, but it could easily slip away. Worse, the tension is already disrupting the global supply chain and there is no clear end in sight.

It’s too early to determine which nation’s vision for cyberspace will prevail. What is clear is that the competition to reshape cyberspace between two powers is likely to impact the daily lives of citizens around the world for many years to come. Segal closed by emphasizing that the dialogue between the two major powers should not be delayed.

— Jeenho Hahm MPA ’19