Strategic Friendship in Asymmetric Domain



The bilateral intergovernmental Russian-Chinese agreement on cooperation in the field of international information security which was signed on May 8, 2015 during the visit to Moscow of Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the CPC and the President of China, could potentially become an important milestone in Russia’s strategy of pivoting to the East. Though in its current state the agreement rather provides a general cooperation framework, it also provides a broad range of directions for further practical cooperation steps and efforts between the two countries. It primarily focuses on systemic information exchange between special services of the two states, joint monitoring and prevention of escalation of serious incidents and especially conflicts in cyberspace, ensuring and strengthening cybersecurity of critical infrastructures, countering ICT-enabled forms and methods of terrorism, exchange of expertise and academic knowledge on cybersecurity, etc. A strong focus in made on joining efforts in countering the unlawful use of ICTs targeted at “undermining of social order, political and social stability, provoking extremism, hate and social unrest”, and even (and this is something quite new even for Russian doctrines, let alone intergovernmental agreements) “threatening to the spiritual sphere” of the two nations.

Noteworthy, the agreement for the first time for a Russian official international document operates with the notion of strategic stability with regard to cyberspace and information security. Previously, a more broad and vague notion of ICT-enabled threats to international peace and security was used. Something distinct from a mere terminological equilibristic, this conceptual update serves as an indicator of the fact that Moscow now truly regards China as a strategic partner in the dialogue on political and military dimension of cybersecurity. The discourse of strategic stability was always linked to the issues of WMD strategic balance and (in Russian view) strategic antimissile defense. Now cybersecurity has a strong presence in this “elite club” of ultimate global security factors in the Russian strategic thinking, and first intergovernmental manifestation of this paradigm is addressed to and agreed with China. Accidentally or not, this aspect reveals interesting intersections with the recently published updated DoD’s Strategy for Cyberspace, which has replaced the previous document from 2011, even having in mind  that an intergovernmental agreement and a national strategy are very different documents in terms of their scope and purposes.

The Russian-Chinese document mentions CBMs among key mechanisms of development of cooperation in cyberspace between Moscow and Beijing. In using this instrumentation on a bilateral level Moscow has a natural reason to refer to the experience of the set of CBMs in the field of cybersecurity with the USA, which was successfully negotiated, mostly implemented on the technical level and even tested in 2013-2014 before the outbreak crisis in the East of Ukraine. However, because of the following exacerbation of the conflict in Ukraine and crisis in U.S.-Russian bilateral relations the implementation of the bilateral agreements was largely frozen, which should be regarded as a big misfortune and a step back for the international cybersecurity cooperation regime.

However, for the moment both Russia and the USA, – probably under a certain impact of the agreements of 2013, – have crystallized the understanding of necessity to discuss certain cybersecurity issues in strategic stability context, and for both cyber powers the first and foremost candidate for this dialogue is no one but China.  

The question is to which extent Beijing is willing to discuss cyberspace and/or information security agenda in this particular modality. Based on something more than just a term, strategic stability discourse brings the necessity to discuss and highlight one’s approach to feasibility and applicability of strategic deterrence to cyberspace, the use of ICT for military and other strategic purposes, including offensive cyber operations, and the legal limitations of such activities. So far, Beijing’s own position on these issues was expressed in quite vague and watered down wordings, even though within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) track China has been demonstrating support to Russia’s initiatives aimed at sustaining peace and preventing conflicts in cyberspace, and opposing the use of ICTs in military purposes.

Today, even after the agreement was signed it is still difficult to foresee to what extent the outlined cooperation mechanism will be put into effect. If the sides to the agreement manage to ensure its 100% implementation, that would indeed a precedent level for cooperation between the world’s two grand cyber powers. The USA, despite emphasized prioritization of strategic dialogue with China, for the moment lack the maneuver to suggest to Beijing some equally broad and comprehensive arsenal of cooperation measures on cybersecurity issues. Besides, with all importance of strategic stability in cyberspace, the U.S. dialogue with China so far retains major focus on minimization of damage to U.S. intellectual property, private sector and national security that is believed to be inflicted by massive, purposeful and systemic activities of Chinese actors, including state-sponsored APTs and other government's proxies. As for the U.S.-Russian bilateral track, strategic dialogue on cybersecurity that successfully commenced in 2013 would probably remain frozen until better days come.  

Furthermore, implementation of the signed agreement might present a challenge for its parties, and particularly Russia, in certain important aspects. On a number of issues, Moscow seems to be more interested than its Eastern partner is. This could also be true for the paragraph on internationalization and democratization of the Internet governance mechanism, in which the official Russian approach has been embedded. Russia’s goal is to trigger transition of control over critical technical business processes (including the IANA and VeriSign functions related to management of the DNS Root Zone) under the jurisdiction of international bodies such as International Telecommunication Union.

There is no telling whether Russia has a real chance to succeed in drawing over Beijing on this issue. Similarly to the discussions on use of the ICTs for military and political purposes, China traditionally endorses Russia’s initiatives in this field, should it be the Intergovernmental agreement on ensuring international information security between the members of Shanghai cooperation Organization that was signed on September 16, 2009, or the International Code of Conduct for Information Security which was for the first time sent as a letter to the UN Secretary General in 2011. In January 2015, the updated version of the Code of Conduct was sent to the United Nations.

However, in practice China would hardly promote this idea by its own initiative because of its very pragmatic and down-to-earth considerations. China has traditionally been conducting collaboration with all parties and formats, including ICANN and global technical community, and last reveal a considerably increase of such collaboration. In 2013, ICANN held one of its Meetings in Beijing; soon after, ICANN regional office was established in the Chinese capital.

In November 2014, the river town of Wuzhen in China hosted the first World Internet Conference organized by China’s national Cyberspace Administration. This event also featured active participation of the global technical community and ICANN (its CEO Mr. Fadi Chehade was speaking at this Conference).

China’s undeniable national interest includes incentivizing further skyrocketing growth and development of its national digital economy segment, national domain name space included. For the moment, the Latin cc TLD .CN has over 11.5 mln registered and delegated domains thus being the world’s largest ccTLD, giving room for growth to countless number of Chinese online and Internet-enabled businesses. Having this in mind makes one doubt that Beijing will engage into an open conflict with the global technical community and the Internet Corporation for the aim of supporting Russia’s call to internationalize the Internet governance institutional mechanism. In this equation, proper economic interest for Beijing seems to be missing, while this kind of motivation gains importance as the current model of the Eastern giant’s economic growth based on export-oriented industrial production has been approaching its natural limits, and the Internet sector (including e-trade) steps up as one of next locomotives for the Chinese economy.

However, according to some reports, the Russian-Chinese cooperation on cyberspace and ICTs may not be limited to the issues outlined in the intergovernmental agreement and might also include development of the formats of cooperation that were mentioned in the statements by Russian officials including Russian Minister of Communications and Mass Media Mr. Nikolai Nikiforov, that were made during fall 2014. That refers to launching consultations and collaboration with the BRICS states on the ensuring robustness and resiliency of the critical infrastructure of the Internet’s national segments including the Runet in the light of possible “external destructive actions”. This agenda advanced to the forefront of Russian expert discussions and became the topic of the Russian Security Council’s closed session in October 2014, a few months after the Ministry of Communications and Mass Media conducted a large cyber training in July that year. The training was conducted with participation from Federal Security Service, Federal Protective Service, MOD, Ministry of Internal, Russia’s largest ISP Rostelekom, Coordination Center for ccTLDs .RU/.РФ, and Russia’s largest IXP – MSK-IX.

The training, according to the data disclosed by the Ministry and mass media, inter alia was focused on a scenario implying disruption of operation of the Russian segment of the Internet as a result of “external hostile actions”. In follow-up of the cyber training Aide to the President of Russia Mr. Igor Shchegolev in his interview to the media stated that the training revealed the Runet’s “insufficient resiliency”; he also noted that the USA still owns the administrative levers to the Net’s global infrastructure, including the DNS Root Zone and the Internet’s Number Resource system.

Finally, at a recent International forum on Information security in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in April this year, a high level Russian official explicitly stated that if the USA does not make steps towards internationalization of the global Internet’s infrastructure management system, Russia could engage into infrastructural collaboration with China that might ultimately result in fragmentation of the global Internet to the benefit of security and stability of the new autonomous segment that would emerge, even though it would imply massive damage to transborder Internet-enabled business processes.

The bilateral agreement that was signed on May 8, says nothing about such plans, but it’s too early to consider the issue off the table – now, after the document was signed, it makes sense to track and aggregate the information related to its implementation and development. Then, one might the exact configuration of the Russian-Chinese cooperation and figure out, is there room for a deal ensuring symmetric balance of interests in a totally asymmetric domain.


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