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Asia is the global locus of cyberspace competition, says Lewis

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Asia, and China in particular, has become the global locus of competition in cyberspace, says cybersecurity theorist James Andrew Lewis, in a new paper.

Were it not for the fact of malicious Chinese cyber activities--which fall below the threshold of warfare but include rampant and internationally destabilizing cyber espionage--cyber conflict as an issue "would have a much lower profile and be of much less concern both regionally and globally," Lewis asserts in a March 7 paper (.pdf).

China's expansive use of cyber espionage to steal Western intellectual property gives it the advantage in cyberspace, Lewis says. Among other factors, U.S. law precludes economic espionage by government agencies and strong intellectual property laws punish individuals who engage in it. The federal government also doesn't encourage political hacktivists as proxies. "In any event, the U.S. sees little need to steal technology that it regards as inferior to its own."

Yet an assertion of cyber competition favoring China requires a number of caveats, Lewis says. Successful intelligence collection doesn't always translate into better performance, and Chinese networks themselves aren't secure thanks to the widespread use of pirated software.

Mirror-image thinking (in which Chinese officials attribute to foreign counterparts their own motivations and capabilities) means the Chinese themselves are concerned over supply chain security, "convinced that the U.S. has built 'backdoors' into products like Windows and Intel processors." That's led them to an intensive effort to replace Western technology with Chinese products hewing to native standards--but that, in turn, could affect the country's ability to create globally competitive products.

In addition, the casual attitude toward intellectual property ownership lying behind the massive cyber espionage campaign harms indigenous innovation efforts, Lewis notes, since cyber spying makes victims of Chinese companies, as well.

An effort to reduce cyber tensions with China may not succeed if attempted through Asian multinational organizations due to their weakness, Lewis says. A bilateral approach "has some appeal," he adds--but any understanding arrived at with China would have to be implemented on a regional and global scale, meaning that it might be better for the United States to first arrive at a bilateral cyber cooperation arrangement with Australia, Japan and South Korea.

Assertive Chinese actions in cyberspace and at sea in the physical world have intensified "an implicit commonality of interests" among regional Asian powers, Lewis says--but acting on that commonality would have to be balanced against not exacerbating regional tensions through a China that feels encircled by U.S. allies.  

The most important way to restrain China "is through engagement and confidence building," Lewis says, such as through computer emergency response team-to-team arrangements, and engagement that results in clear understandings of state responsibilities in cybersecurity.

"Military exchanges would also be useful," but they would need to take place outside the U.S.-China relationship since Pentagon officials already say that the Chinese military has expressed unwillingness.

An ongoing obstacle will be the way the two countries treat access to information; China seeks to limit it, since it sees the free flow of information as a threat to its authoritarian regime. Chinese officials also believe that the United States uses information as a weapon, Lewis says, quoting one official who said in a private conversation that "Twitter is an American plot to destabilize Iran," and so by implication China.

Announcements that the federal government will fund technology to circumvent Internet restrictions only encourage this belief, he adds.

For more:
- download Lewis' paper, "Hidden Arena: Cyber Competition and Conflict in Indo-Pacific Asia" (.pdf)

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