China’s growing global power increases the likelihood that its values will acquire greater normative effect, and that those who oppose them will be subjected to coercion.

Just as cyber policy lies at the heart of China’s domestic-reform agenda, so too has it begun to influence fundamentally the state’s approach to foreign policy and international security. For China, an awareness of the risks posed by the cyber domain has deepened an ingrained sense of insecurity – a sense that to outside observers seems at odds with the country’s economic power, growing military capacity and general aura of stability. Since the era of reform and opening up that began in the late 1970s, China has seen a peaceful international environment as essential to economic modernisation. And, now that the cyber domain has become the principal vector for the next phase of this modernisation process, the country’s leaders have seized on the importance of securing a global cyber environment that facilitates their domestic agenda and minimises external threats. International debates on global cyber governance and cyber security have become key battlegrounds for China. There, Beijing has become aware of its increasing strength and influence, while retaining a strong perception of threat, and has exchanged a largely reactive approach for one that is more proactive, focusing ever more on strategic opportunities within the cyber domain. 

China’s emerging position on global cyber governance and security forms part of a wider shift in a foreign policy that between the late 1970s and 2008 was largely conspicuous by its absence, at least in terms of its external impact. The country has always jealously guarded what it regarded as its core interests abroad, but since the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic such interests have been few, and have required little more than a border-management policy. China’s foreign policy was therefore focused almost exclusively on creating a favourable international environment for economic reform and opening up. This non-assertive approach was reinforced by the international response to the government crackdown in Tiananmen Square, which gave rise to Deng Xiaoping’s ‘24-character strategy’, referred to in the Western media as ‘hide and bide’ (see Introduction). In the ensuing period, China’s approach to foreign policy underwent a series of modifications. Building on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, the cornerstone of that policy since the time of Mao Zedong, the Chinese leadership introduced several measures. The first of these was the New Security Concept, which argued for a change from a zero-sum approach to international security to one based on greater mutuality. This was followed by President Jiang Zemin’s ‘period of strategic opportunity’, an idea that was announced in his 2002 report to the 16th Party Congress, and that identified the first two decades of the twenty-first century as a period of peace and stability during which China could concentrate on economic development. The leadership then promoted the concept of zhongguo heping jueqi (China’s peaceful rise), which was first advanced by Zheng Bijian, former vice-principal of the Central Party School, at the 2003 Boao Forum. According to this notion, China’s ascent would not undermine the established international order, in contrast to that of other major geopolitical powers over the course of history. New president Hu Jintao modified the concept to zhongguo heping fazhan (China’s peaceful development) in 2004, and introduced the idea of the harmonious world the following year, at the United Nations’ 60th Anniversary Summit. And when other countries began to express concern about its growing military power, China referred to the importance of avoiding the ‘Thucydides Trap’ – a reference to the Athenian historian’s explanation of the origin of the Peloponnesian War: ‘it was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.’

Nigel Inkster is Director of Future Conflict and Cyber Security at the IISS.

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China’s Cyber Power

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