How the Sino-Russian Cyber Pact Furthers the Geopolitical Digital Divide

As I wrote at the end of last year, China and Russia have been in discussions to initiate a security agreement to tackle the various forms of digital behavior in cyberspace. Last Friday, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin formally signed a cyber security pact, bringing the two countries closer together and solidifying a virtual united front against the US. This non-aggression pact serves as just one of a series of cooperative agreements occurring in the cyber domain, and is indicative of the increasingly divisive power politics that are shaping the polarity of the international system for decades to come.

Non-aggression pacts are not new, and by definition focus solely on preventing the use of force between signatories to the pact. However, although they are structured to only impact bilateral country relations, historically they have had significant international implications. By signaling ideological, political, or military intentions, non-aggression pacts can exclude similar levels of cooperation with other states. In fact, when states form neutrality pacts (which are similar, but slightly distinct from non-aggression pacts), the probability of a state initiating a conflict is 57% higher than those without any alliance commitments. Regardless of the make-up of a state’s alliance portfolio—whether non-aggression or neutrality pacts, offensive or defensive alliances—a state’s involvement in alliances of any kind increases the likelihood of that state initiating conflict. It would be a mistake to assume that pacts in the cyber domain should be any different, as they serve a similar signaling mechanism of affiliation in the international system. In fact, last week’s cyber security pact has already prompted analogies to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the non-aggression treaty signed in 1939 between Germany and the USSR.  While externally the emphasis was on preventing conflict between the two signatories (which clearly didn’t last), the pact contained a privately held aspect dividing parts of Eastern Europe into Soviet and Russian spheres of influence. In short, while non-aggression pacts may appear pacifistic, rarely has that been the case historically.

Moreover, the Sino-Russian pact provides a forum for each state to further shape the guiding principals and norms in cyberspace away from its foundation, which is based on Internet freedom of information and access, and toward the norm of cyberspace sovereignty. Following the surveillance revelations beginning in 2013, global interest in the notion of cyberspace sovereignty has increased, largely aimed at limiting external interventions viewed as an infringement on traditional notions of state sovereignty.  On the surface, this merely extends the Westphalian notion of state sovereignty. However, authoritarian regimes (such as Russia and China) have coopted the de jure legitimacy of state sovereignty to control, monitor and censor information within their borders. This is orthogonal to those norms generally favored by Western democracies and further divides cyberspace into two distinct spheres defined by proponents of freedom of information versus proponents of domestic state control. The Sino-Russian pact will likely only encourage greater fractionalization of the Internet based on the norm of cyberspace sovereignty.

Finally, this pact must be viewed in the context of the growing trend of bilateral cyber security pacts. Japan and the US recently announced the Joint Defense Guidelines, which covers a wide range of cooperative aspects targeted at the cyber domain and the promotion of international cyber norms. Just as the agreement with Japan is likely targeted at countering China, many states in the Middle East are requesting similar cooperation in light of the potential easing of Iranian sanctions. The Gulf Cooperation Council—a political and economic union of Arabic states in the Middle East—is similarly pushing for a cyber security agreement with the US to help deter Iranian aggression in cyberspace. In short, these cooperative cyber security agreements are indicative of the larger power politics that shape the international system. States are increasingly jockeying for positions in cyberspace, signaling their intent and allegiance, which will have implications for the foreseeable future. The Sino-Russian agreement is only the latest in the string of cyber pacts that reflects the competing visions for cyberspace, and the ever-growing geopolitical digital divide.