Three pivot points of Cyber Sovereignty Principle in cyberspace governance advocated by China

Source: China Military OnlineEditor: Yao Jianing
2016-04-07 17:45

By Wen Baihua, Visiting Fellow to RSIS

BEIJING, April 7 (ChinaMil) -- After the World Internet Conference (Wuzhen Summit) on December 16, 2015, China's Cyber Sovereignty initiative as a fundamental principle of cyber governance, drew worldwide attention again. The debate is centred on three issues: (a)intention, (b)practicability, and (c)concern.

Actually, what China advocated-the sovereignty principle of cyber governance-is the outcome of long-standing international cyber diplomacy, endorsed by major cyber powers including the United States, Russia, China, Germany, Great Britain, and India.

These political commitments underscore the unique role of sovereign states in cyberspace governance. However, the media and cyber experts emerged with varying misinterpretations of cyber sovereignty. This makes it important to understand China's perspective on some basic arguments.

(a)Intention: Cyber Sovereignty is a pivot point not only for safeguarding national security but also for securing public privacy

What is China's real initial purpose of advocating cyber sovereignty?

First, for national security.

On one hand, What China can only do now through advocating cyber sovereignty is to design an international law framework at moral level to contain U.S. not harming other countries' national interests.

The United States' cyber strategy is to treat cyber as another option to implement their own national interests. They have developed massive global cyber monitoring programme, heavily invested in world-class military cyber mission teams and continuously developed tactical offensive weapons. This can only lead to a militarized cyberspace.

On the other hand, Cyber sovereignty means not only national interests but also national obligation. This makes it possible to cooperate among different countries to deal with common and emerging cyber threats. It is cyber sovereignty that under the logic of why China promised to cooperate with U.S. to fight international cybercrime in 2015.

Second, for human rights.

Majority of different voices against cyber sovereignty tend to be rooted in prejudice against China. The presumption is that cyber sovereignty will strengthen government control over cyberspace and limit public privacy.

In fact, the Chinese people have full confidence in online human rights, including cyber privacy and freedom of expression. You can make this conclusion only from Alibaba's 2015 Singles Day trade data.

Just like 51% of Americans do, who thought Apple should unlock that terrorist's iPhone for the FBI, cyber threats have fundamentally changed their mindset on public privacy. And Government can also be more cautious to policy adjustment. Both government and public can make the right decision rationally between national security and public privacy.

(b)Practicability: Cyber Sovereignty is the pivot point of cyber governance between the multi-stakeholder model and the multilateral model

Experts have long debated whether the multi-stakeholder model or the multilateral model is more practicable to cyberspace governance. The developed nations once always insisted on the former, and treated it as one of Global Commons. Developed countries thereby can reap more benefits by enlarging the role of ICT companies in cyber governance, because most ICT companies originate from them.

Although most developing nations have a pressing need for ICT, they are still not maturing enough to keep up with the rate of ICT evolution. So developing countries urge the rights for government to intervene in cyberspace to prevent government failure, economic dependence, social chaos, and even culture erosion.

During the Color Revolution, Ukraine Crisis, Syrian Civil War, and even the rise of ISIS, diffusion of Terrorism, we have witnessed the shadow of ICT negative effect prevails.

However, in these days, the Cyber Sovereignty has become more and more popular even among developed countries.

After the Occupy Wall Street movement and the England Riots in 2011, developed countries increasingly recognized the importance of internet control for sustaining social stability. Moreover, in 2016, the U.S. White House is also seeking to control information on social media to "disrupt radicalization" to safeguard national security.

At the same time, developing states remain indispensable as legal and policy partners for the following purposes: (a) to fight against global cyber threats to critical national infrastructure, (b) to implement international cybercrime cooperation, and (c) to share international anti-terrorism intelligence.

China has made great achievements in the digital economy and tasted both positive and negative social effects from ICT. From China's perspective, sovereign states still occupy the core position in cyberspace governance without reducing the role of the private sector.

Besides, China advocates (a) cyber sovereignty based on the multi-stakeholder model and (b) cyber governance via the multilateral model. China tries to combine both the multi-stakeholder model and the multilateral model, not to alternate both models.

(c) Concern: Cyber sovereignty is the pivot point between state sovereignty and global cyber governance

China's principle of cyber sovereignty has caused rising concern in developed countries for fear of absolute cyber sovereignty like state sovereignty. Although cyber sovereignty is rooted in legal aspects of state sovereignty, but any single country cannot preserve absolute cyber sovereignty alone.

The definition of cyber sovereignty is more like a kind of redistribution of interests and power among all stakeholders, including sovereignty states. Cyber sovereignty can be defined only by practical evolution. In this game process, two major issues require careful consideration:

First, the question of how to maintain a balance between various interests including securing national security, preserving human rights, sustaining innovation, and maintaining a thriving society in cyberspace.

Second, the question of how the State should exert cyber sovereignty and what the State Code of Conduct should be to safeguard state sovereignty. The answer is dependent on the kind of cyber capability available for exerting cyber sovereignty.

Both above issues should be included as core topics for any bilateral or multilateral cyber diplomat around the world in the future.

Last September, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Obama made a joint statement to welcome the July 2015 report of the UN Group of Governmental Experts. That is to say, cyber sovereignty principle which this report confirmed, is sponsored by these two major cyber powers. So a more accurate understanding of this historical concept is of great significance.

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