Cybersecurity: Biden expected to embrace tough-on-China policy, think tank says

Sarah Zheng
·4-min read

US President Joe Biden is expected to gradually resume cybersecurity talks with China, but will continue to fiercely compete against Beijing to maintain an upper hand in cyber strategy and in global cyberspace governance, a Chinese think tank report said.

The report by the government-affiliated Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS) said the Biden administration would carry on his predecessor Donald Trump’s tough cyber policy on China, with their intense strategic rivalry set to continue, but that there was some room for cooperation and dialogue.

“Competition will continue to be the defining feature of China-US cyber interaction in the Biden administration, as it had been during the Trump term,” the report, published in early February, said. “At the same time, initial signals from Beijing and Washington have indicated that there is still significant scope for cybersecurity cooperation in the years to come.”

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President Joe Biden’s administration launched an “urgent initiative” in response to the growing threat from China and Russia. Photo: AFP
President Joe Biden’s administration launched an “urgent initiative” in response to the growing threat from China and Russia. Photo: AFP

The think tank urged for a return to high-level communication between the countries to cooperate on cyber issues such as digital trade, cross-border flows of data, cybercrime and cyberspace norms. SIIS advises the Chinese government on foreign policy and international security, and its Academic Affairs Council is chaired by Yang Jiemian, brother of China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi.

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Biden’s administration has signalled that it will prioritise cybersecurity issues, launching an “urgent initiative” in response to the growing threat to Washington from China and Russia. Analysts have said that the two will continue to struggle for dominance in the cyber sphere, after the Trump administration’s efforts to block countries from using 5G technology from Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies and concerns from the US over Chinese espionage and intellectual property theft.

Biden has said China would face “extreme competition” from the US, and signalled he would maintain the harder line against Beijing from the Trump era, albeit with a stronger focus on working in conjunction with allies to deal with China.

Chen Dongxiao, president of the SIIS, warned in the report that Biden’s policy towards China would “hang on to Trump’s legacy of containment and suppression of China”, and expected that there would be greater competition in the cyber digital transformation and in cyberspace rule-making.

He wrote that the policy direction was almost certain to bring “complexities to the overall China-US relations, including the bilateral dynamics in cyberspace and the digital domain”.

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The report said that Biden was set to work with allies in a united front against China and Russia and to re-establish US leadership in shaping global cyber rules, while working to restrict Chinese technology companies, undermine Beijing’s influence in cyberspace governance and curb Beijing’s information and communications technology development.

“As the Biden administration sees it, cybersecurity must serve national security and economic well-being to preserve US strategic advantage over China,” it said. “The Biden team shares Trump’s perceptions on cyber development and security, and remains committed to implementing a cyber strategy in the service of economic and national security at home and maintaining America’s superiority in the global technology landscape vis-à-vis China and Russia.”

In order to address common cyber threats, SIIS scholars urged the two sides to restore high-level cyber dialogue, strengthen the United Nations’ cyber-related institutions and to set up cyber platforms to coordinate on issues such as artificial intelligence. The think tank also called for international laws on cyberspace, a mechanism to evaluate security risks from digital infrastructure suppliers and military-to-military dialogue to manage cyber-related crises.

“Cyber strategic stability depends, to a large degree, upon the way in which strategic rivals engage with each other,” it said. “China and the United States could also negotiate a bilateral agreement on the rules of engagement between the two militaries in cyberspace to help better perceive and interpret one another’s cyber behaviour, capabilities and intentions, with a view to keep cyber incidents from escalating into larger-scale crises or conflicts.”

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