To Forecast Global Cyber Alliances, Just Follow the Money (Part 1): Understanding a Sino-Russian Cyber Agreement through Economic Regionalism

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called cyberspace “the battlefield of the future,” and this characterization of the cyber domain has only increased as cyber attacks grow more prevalent and disruptive. But this militarization of the cyber domain often masks an underlying cooperation that is occurring simultaneous to rising geopolitical friction. Rumors of a Sino-Russian cyber agreement have sparked alarm, and are a reminder that both cooperation and conflict are natural outcomes as states jockey for power in cyberspace.

The rumored Sino-Russian cyber agreement is just the latest in a global trend of states signaling diplomatic preferences and commitments via formalized cooperative cyber security agreements. Cooperation in cyberspace in the modern era is reminiscent of the transition to economic cooperation in the post-World War II era and the military cooperation that dominated the earlier eras. In each case, states rely upon those distinct domains to signal affinities and exert power. Since the latter part of the 20th century, economic regionalism has become the defining mode of cooperation among states, in many instances replacing the role alliances once played. With that in mind, policymakers should look to the economic cooperative landscape as a foundation for forecasting the future of cyber security cooperation.

Sino-Russian collaboration across the monetary, commercial, and investment space reveals ever tighter integration among the two countries, and thus a cyber agreement should come as no surprise to those who follow global economic relations. However, the real insights may come in using economic regionalism to assess the implications of this rumored agreement. While a Sino-Russian agreement could be extraordinarily disruptive to the global order, it may have unintentional positive ramifications for the US. In fact, such an agreement may encourage other countries across the globe to ameliorate the persistent tensions with the US that have occurred since the Snowden disclosures. Given the current divergent approaches to the role of the Internet, most states are likely to find a universal approach to the Internet much more appealing than the model of censorship and control that Russia and China represent. A quick review of economic regionalism exemplifies the role of agreements, and soft power, in shaping global geopolitical partnerships.

Economic regionalism constitutes the range of economic relations between states, the most prevalent of which are regional trade agreements (RTAs). RTAs increased exponentially beginning with the end of the Cold War and the subsequent global economic liberation. According to the World Trade Organization, there are currently 379 RTAs in force. In many cases, these RTAs have taken on military cooperative aspects, such as Africa’s Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In fact, with the rise of globalization, RTAs often serve as the preferred mode of cooperation as formal alliances have declined. Similarly, cyber security cooperative agreements may soon become the modus operandi for power politics cooperation across the globe, superseding or augmenting the role of economic agreements.

While the impact of today’s RTA-influenced global economic order has been debated considerably, it is clear that cooperation in cyberspace is following a similar structure to that of cooperation in the commercial domain over the last 25 years. In a seminal overview of global political economy, Robert Gilpin notes that, “Important factors in the spread of economic regionalism include the emergence of new economic powers, intensification of international economic competition, and rapid technological developments…Economic regionalism is also driven by the dynamics of an economic security dilemma.” It’s easy to foresee a future wherein “cyber” replaces “economic” in Gilpin’s analysis. In fact, it’s not a stretch to imagine a cyber security dilemma emerging in response to a Sino-Russian cyber security agreement.