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September 9, 2020

Asia

CHINA/US: Building the diplomatic architecture of a tech Cold War

BY Gabriel Wildau

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced on 8 September that China will develop a new “Global Data Security Initiative” (GDSI) to promote multilateral rules on cybersecurity, internet governance, and data governance. The initiative is Beijing’s answer to Washington’s “Clean Network” initiative, which the State Department says has gained support from 30 countries and territories.

GDSI also marks Beijing’s latest efforts to fill a perceived vacuum in global leadership – created by the US’s turn towards nationalism under President Donald Trump – with multilateral initiatives. Beijing’s proposal aims to strike a contrast with Washington’s, which critics say is a “No China club” that lacks substantive principles. The Chinese initiative proposes a framework that would, at least in theory, be open to any country that accepts the relevant principles and standards. This open approach would benefit China by establishing clear standards that, if met, would enable Chinese companies’ access to international markets. To date, the lack of clear rules and standards has hindered Huawei’s ability to persuade foreign regulators to allow Huawei equipment into their 5G networks.

GDSI will be based on principles that are compatible with China’s authoritarian political system, including “cyber sovereignty,” which underlies Beijing’s policy of blocking platforms like Google and Facebook that do not submit to China’s censorship regime. The same principle also calls for rejecting cross-border jurisdiction over technology companies, thereby enabling national governments to impose data governance regulation on the local operations of multinational companies. The initiative also calls for unified opposition against various cybersecurity threats including cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure, data theft, and mass surveillance of foreign countries.

Wang did not mention the US directly but issued thinly veiled criticisms, citing espionage activities similar to those revealed by Edward Snowden and calling out unnamed countries for “politicizing data security issues or applying double standards.” Responding to concerns that Beijing could force Chinese companies to act as agents of espionage, Wang said that Chinese officials “have not and will not ask Chinese companies to transfer data overseas to the government in breach of other countries’ laws.” His call for respecting national jurisdiction was an implicit criticism of policies such as the CLOUD Act, which the US congress enacted in 2018 and which requires foreign units of US-based technology companies to share data with US law enforcement in response to a subpoena or search warrant, even if that data is physically stored outside the US.

As a diplomatic gesture, Wang’s speech echoes President Xi Jinping’s speech at Davos in 2017, which sought to position China as a champion of free trade and globalization, in contrast to Trump’s anti-globalist agenda. But given widespread concern about Beijing’s intentions and about security risks from Chinese technology, many countries will be reluctant to embrace the new initiative. GDSI may take on a geopolitical valence similar to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While the principles and goals that ostensibly motivate the BRI are uncontroversial, the perception that endorsing the BRI amounts to geopolitical alignment with Beijing has prevented most industrialized democracies from doing so. Equally, however, many countries may also decline to embrace “Clean Network,” seeking instead to steer a middle path between Washington and Beijing.