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China Publishes Its Vision for Internet Harmony

Recently, China published a white paper entitled “Jointly Build a Community with a Shared Future in Cyberspace”presenting its vision of creating an international community with a shared future in cyberspace. The document highlighted the successes of China’s Internet development and government practices over the past several years, and focused on key issues such as Internet governance, as well as individual countries’ rights and interests to pursue Internet development, data security, and prospects for international cooperation.  The paper also underscored China’s established track record of being a responsible cyber leader due to its ability to expand its own digital economy, build a robust technology sector that provides advanced and affordable devices and services for the global benefit, and partner with some of the poorest nations in the world to deliver cost-effective broadband access. A recent ranking by the Global Internet Development Index ranked China right behind the United States in leading Internet development attesting to China’s efforts throughout the globe.

Perhaps as its biggest selling point, the paper advocates China’s credentials as a pragmatic cyber stakeholder, particularly with respect to how it respects the rights of individual countries to pursue their own path toward internal Internet adoption and policy development, to regulate the Internet within its borders, and to participate in the international Internet governance.  Indeed, these themes strengthen previous Chinese positions advocating the need for state cyber sovereignty as a necessary precursor to enabling joint responsibility and joint cooperation in cyberspace.  As with many white papers, Beijing uses the current one as a way to not only promote its own vision with respect to how it sees a shared global Internet, but also to differentiate its position from that of the United States, thereby serving as a counterpoint to its Western competitor.

Notably, the white paper’s release comes at a time when the United States is set to publish its own national cybersecurity strategy, in which its expected to advocate for the United States’ position on what international cooperation should look like.  Recently, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence and the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified China as the primary cyber threat to the United States.  Being put on the top of the United States’ cyber adversary threat list, a position the current U.S. president downplayed in 2019, has further incentivized Beijing to call out U.S. cyber malfeasance via a consistent stream of reporting identifying the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency’s cyber espionage activities against Chinese organizations. These disclosures appear to be more intended for external audiences than the United States as China tries to drum up support not only from the global community, but even traditional U.S. friendly countries who may have been spied on by the United States, as suggested by the Snowden leaks.  Their timing ahead of the release of Jointly Build a Community with a Shared Future in Cyberspace reads like Beijing presenting evidence before making the case that it presents in the white paper.

What’s more, the white paper serves as China’s counter-argument to the April 2022 U.S. and its partners joint “Declaration for the Future of the Internet,” a reaffirmation of the Western vision of how the Internet should be run and governed.  The U.S. and the Chinese papers are extensions of the ongoing debates in United Nations venues such as the Global Group of Experts and the Open-Ended Working Group.  Beijing uses its white paper to assert that the United States is attempting to impose its views of the Internet on others, thereby forcing compliance or else risk being labeled a pariah.  This is in contrast to China’s approach of encouraging partnership with other nations based on multilateral contribution, full transparent Internet governance, and above all, mutual benefit. Beijing argues that this heavy-handed approach is responsible for the current state of unbalanced Internet development, unreasonable rules, and cyber hegemony, a condition that can be only ameliorated by joint efforts from a global community committed to shared interests.  Beijing clearly is trying to mark the United States, and the European Union, which it sees as focusing on individual privacy over the security of the country as a problem, as the ones undermining a stable global Internet in favor of trying to obtain strategic geopolitical opportunity, preferring national security over global harmony and benefit.

China has made it no secret that it aspires to become the world’s foremost global leader and has vowed to be just that by no later than 2049, which would mark the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.  To achieve this goal, Beijing has the second largest economy; its socio-economic Belt & Road Initiative has expanded its influence globally, especially in underdeveloped areas like Africa and Latin America; its space ambitions are in direct competition with the United States; and its modernizing military capabilities and military presence throughout the globe are all moves designed to demonstrate to the world it is a power on par with the United States.  In many ways China has parroted the United States’ own rise to global superstar growing its geopolitical, economic, and military clout in the international community.  A natural accompaniment to these ongoing programs is for China to demonstrate its commitment and leadership on the Internet, an environment where the United States has maintained traditional control and influence that has steadily waned as more countries harness the benefits of technology and interconnectedness.

Xi has repeatedly identified the Internet as a critical space and one where China needs to be the principal player. For China to achieve its global superpower aspirations, and unseat or at least, unequivocally share that seat with the United States, Beijing must demonstrate its ability to be the primary influencer of all things Internet. And this includes leading the global cyberspace community, shaping governance, and having a dominant hand in setting the standards the world follows. Viewed from this perspective, the white paper is Beijing’s way of making its case to be the leader for all regardless of Internet philosophy or political ideology. The more it advocates for states’ fair and unbiased inclusion, the farther its voice reverberates.

Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello has nearly 20 years’ experience as a strategic cyber intelligence analyst, supporting US government civilian and military intelligence organizations, as well as the private sector. He has delivered cyber threat presentations to domestic and international audiences and has published extensively in such peer-reviewed journals as Parameters, Journal of Strategic Security, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and the Cyber Defense Review, among others. All comments and opinions expressed are solely his own.