China, Russia and the West: Will It Be Dialogue and Understanding or Cyber War?

January 26, 2012

Detail from a DigitalGlobe satellite image of Beijing during the parade marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Republic, October 1, 2009

I can't really report in too much detail from the Cyber Defence and Network Security conference I attended today, partly because I'm short of time right now, and partly because, with the proceedings taking place under the Chatham House Rule, I've got to be careful that I don't end up accidentally implying attribution of quotes and points of view to speakers whose names appear on the published agenda. But what felt like the most important theme of the day was the urgent need for purposeful dialogue between the west and east - because at present, the misunderstandings are legion and the risks of a continuing failure to meaningfully engage could prove catastrophic.

In the west, we're used to seeing and hearing China and Russia painted as the villains in matters cyber, the spawning grounds for botnets, the homes of carders and covert citizen cyber-attack squads. The phrase "advanced persistent threat" has almost become a nod-and-wink code - denoting a Red Menace ripped straight from the most paranoid pages of Cold War spy fiction. 

Yet in China, the fear is rather different. The country considers itself one of the biggest victims of cyber attacks: the China Internet Network Information Centre claim that over a million Chinese IP addresses are subject to some form of manipulation by foreign computers every year, with an annual loss to the Chinese economy estimated at over $1bn. They're under attack already, and feel their substantial investment of time, money and resources in cyber defence is a pragmatic and necessarily proactive response. In Russia, meanwhile, the villain is America: opposition activists are accused by mainstream political figures and media outlets of receiving financial aid from the US State Department. 

Talking is vital, but actual engagement is difficult - not simply for linguistic reasons (though those seem to play a more significant part than seems credible) but for fundamental differences of outlook on a subject that neither east nor west has any clear and unambiguous definitions for. American commentators have argued that there is no open-source material explaining Russian cyber policy available to read anywhere online, but that's because the wrong terms are being typed into search engines: in Russia they don't talk of cyber warfare, cyber weapons or cyber security - they, and the Chinese, deal in the much broader concept of information warfare. This is inherently problematic to governments in the west, who fundamentally reject the proposition that propaganda, controlling internal public dissent, and political spin-doctoring could fall under the banner of "cyber war"; but in Russia and China, these are fundamental parts of what is considered a much wider and more pervasive form of conflict. 

Nobody has any real answers about how to move forward, but that's the only way to go. The implication that can sometimes be drawn from certain statements by western governments is that the logical move is a withdrawal - to in effect establish a cyber curtain to replace the iron one pulled down in the last century. The alternative - to sit down and have meaningful, productive, honest conversations, and be prepared to be clear on what is and isn't negotiable - is incredibly difficult, and will require great political skill and no little courage from all involved. Yet it has to happen.

And that's about as far as I've got through thinking about it at the moment. I'll try to return to this with some more focused thoughts - and hopefully with permission to quote from some of today's provocative and perceptive presentations - before too long.


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