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The Role of Cybersecurity in U.S.-China Relations

Author: Adam Segal, Ira A. Lipman Chair in Emerging Technologies and National Security and Director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program
June 21, 2011
East Asia Forum


Less than three weeks after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and three other cabinet members announced the International Strategy for Cyberspace, another incident has occurred between the United States and China.

In this instance, Google claims that hackers based in Jinan stole the passwords of the email accounts of senior government officials in the United States and Asia, as well as Chinese political activists. The Chinese response followed the standard script: deny the claims, point out illegality of hacking in China, note that China is also a victim, and question the motivations of Google and the United States. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said, ‘Allegations that the Chinese government supports hacker attacks are completely unfounded and made with ulterior motives'.

While this flare up is likely to be short lived, the two sides involved hold fundamentally incompatible views on cyberspace, which means it is almost inevitable that there will be another incident sometime in the near future. The International Strategy states that the US will promote a digital infrastructure that is ‘open, interoperable, secure, and reliable' while supporting international commerce, strengthening security, and fostering free expression. At best, China shares interest in two of these goals—global commerce and security—and even in those cases it has a different conception of how they should be defined.

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