To Forecast Global Cyber Alliances, Just Follow the Money (Part 3): Moving Toward a Cyber Curtain - APEC and the Implications of a Potential Sino-Russian Cyber Agreement

Next week’s APEC summit may, in addition to providing great insight into economic collaborative trends, serve as a harbinger to subsequent cyber collaboration. If the economic trends carry over, it’s likely that a Sino-Russian cyber agreement just may provide the impetus that pushes many countries toward closer relations with the US, especially if it addresses joint cyber operations. The Sino-Russian cyber agreement plausibly can be viewed as part of a response to the Snowden disclosures of last year. The disclosures similarly strained relations between the US and its partners across the globe. However, in light of a Sino-Russian cyber accord, these strained relations could dissipate when states are left choosing between two greatly distinct approaches to the Internet. On the one hand, although the US certainly must continue to mend global relations, it nevertheless still promotes an open, transparent, and universal approach to the Internet. From the beginning, the US has encouraged Internet expansion and integration, providing economies of scale for access to information across the globe.

In contrast, between the Great Firewall of China and Russia’s increased censorship, a Sino-Russian pact symbolizes in many ways the modern version of the Iron Curtain. Just as the Iron Curtain epitomized the sharp divide between closed and open societies, a Sino-Russian accord could signify the start of a ‘Cyber Curtain’, reflecting a sharp divide between two very different approaches to Internet freedoms, access to information, and even the role of the government. Despite all of the past year’s controversy over the Snowden disclosures, the US still has soft power on its side as a key proponent of universal Internet expansion and information access. This soft power will likely be much more attractive than the censored and disconnected approach offered by China and Russia.

China will certainly continue to flex its economic muscles during the APEC summit. However, keep an eye out for a Sino-Russian cyber agreement that may sneak under the radar due to the summit’s focus on economic issues. China’s ongoing provocations across the South China Sea, coupled with Russia’s cyber and military expansion into Eastern Europe, have already induced uncertainty and concern among the other players in each region. This uncertainty has already begun to push neighbors and rivals together to counter the provocations. Similarly, a Sino-Russian cyber agreement may inadvertently cause many countries in both Europe and Asia to rethink their stance and push them toward greater cyber collaboration with the US. This would create a cyber curtain reflecting two very distinct approaches to the cyber landscape – one championed by the US and one by Russia and China. Just as the pre-World War I Gold Standard and the Cold War Iron Curtain signified a sharp contrast between global integration and nationalistic isolation, the current global structure may soon reflect a cyber divide between cyber-nationalism and cyber-integration, reflecting the patterns of cyber cooperation.

To get a head start on understanding this emergent cyber security cooperation, policymakers would do well to look at how economic regionalism might help them better forecast the cyber future. If the economic cooperative landscape is any indicator, the US may finally move beyond the tensions sparked by the Snowden revelations and amend cyber relations with the rest of the global community. It’s ironic that Russia and China may play the determining hand in creating that outcome.