Russia, China and the United States – Tangible alliances and conflicts in the virtual sphere


By Yuri Kogan | August, 2021

Photos: | CC BY 4.0


In late June, the Chinese embassy in Moscow issued an update on a video conference held between the presidents of the two countries on June 28, 2021, during which Presidents Xi and Putin agreed to extend the Treaty on Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation. signed on July 16, 2001 (hereinafter: the treaty).


The content of the new agreement between China and Russia aligns with Putin's doctrine as painted by the principles of Russia's national security strategy (hereinafter: the strategy), published in early July 2021. Among the key points on which the treaty and strategy are aligned is the reiterated multipolar world narrative that is being raised by Putin for years as a counterweight to the unipolar world promoted by the United States, according to the Russian narrative. Another issue on which the treaty and strategy agree is the direction of Russia's collaboration efforts toward China. In this context it is interesting to note that, according to the original draft of the treaty from 2001, it is to be extended automatically unless either of the parties has issued notice that it is not to be extended one year prior to its expiration date. It therefore seems that there was no need for a treaty extension ceremony, as the treaty was valid regardless. The ceremonial aspect of the treaty renewal may have originated in the parties' need to have a significant milestone that each of them would be able to present to their citizens back home. In early July, China celebrated 100 years to the establishment of the Communist Party, and perhaps the renewal of the strategic treaty with its large neighbor meets a Chinese need of a significant milestone to accompany the centennial festivities. This insight is further supported by the fact that the date set for the leaders' (virtual) meeting, as well as the date on which the extension of the treaty was announced, were coordinated with the celebrations, since the anniversary of the original treaty signing was on July 16, more than two weeks after the date of its renewal, which, in any event, was unnecessary as the original treaty was extended automatically. Another source of support for the notion that this announcement primarily satisfied Chinese needs is the fact that the renewing of the treaty was covered on the Russian media by way of resonating the wide coverage of Chinese embassies worldwide, as well as the Chinese media. The Russian media did little but quote and echo the Chinese sources.


The ceremonial meeting during which the treaty was extended, despite never having expired, may have been a form of Russian quid pro quo in light of China's support of the steps its neighbor has been leading to change the governance status of the internet by placing an emphasis on defining countries' sovereign spheres in cyberspace in alignment with the strategy, which addresses cyberspace for the first time and in detail as a key component in Russia's national security.


The treaty is worded to explicitly underscore countries' authority to manage what is referred to in Russia as "the national segment of the internet" and desire to increase international organizations' control over the virtual sphere. Emphasis is placed on the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an official UN agency, in which Russia's and China's ability to make an impact will be greater than in the voluntary regulatory body ICANN – a non-profit, U.S.-based organization currently in charge of allocating internet addresses and domains.


The treaty reiterates the governance derivative of the internet as a medium, and coupled with Russia's measures of increasing its official institutions' control over the international information highway, and particularly what it calls "the sovereign internet segment", the two form responses to the growing tension between the United States and European Union on the one hand, and Russia and China, severally, on the other, due to the former's suspicion that the two latter are involved in cybercrime, while also intervening in the domestic democratic processes of the former.


In addition to the actions designed to increase its involvement in managing cyberspace by shifting control over its management from ICANN to the ITU with China's support, Russia has also initiated a move in 2019 in the UN whereby an international anti-cybercrime convention be signed. This initiative met with significant objection by international human rights organizations, the United States and the European Union, who argued that it would materially infringe upon people's liberties, particularly in countries such as Russia and China that already have mechanisms in place effectively limiting the free use of cyberspace. This move, which began in 2019, has yet to be finalized, it is under procedural discussions among UN member states that are expected to last into 2022.


Russia's actions correspond with the siege mentality that emerges from its updated national security strategy, as well as Moscow's view that it is in constant struggle against the United States and its allies who are trying to cause it harm, curb its independence and gnaw at its international status. In this context, Russia makes no distinction between the physical geopolitical sphere and the virtual one. To Moscow, the differences between expanding NATO to include parts of the the post-Soviet space, which it views as one traditionally belonging to Russia’s sphere of influence, and the activities in which multinational technological companies and western social media engage are immaterial. The Russian narrative regards both cases as examples of a struggle that boils down to a conflict of interests, ideas, and values whereby the enemy seeks to harm Russia's territorial contiguity, social cohesion, cultural and religious values. In cyberspace, such harmful steps are taken, from Russia's perspective, to cause detriment to its national and social information infrastructures, under the definition of which fall both physical infrastructure and the realms of information and content.


These views are expressed in practical terms in the Sovereign Internet Law passed in Russia in 2019, which defines the need to set up a national routing system for internet traffic and increased control over the virtual sphere by oversight and enforcement agencies, to the point of disconnecting RuNet from the worldwide web should the negative trend in the current relations between Russia, the U.S. and other western countries continue. As a result of this law, Russia's enforcement and oversight authorities will have greater power, enabling them to block sites, social media, limit the flow of information, and prioritize what the regime views as "the appropriate narrative". By doing so, Russia is learning from its neighbor, China's, experience, as stated by the deputy chairman of Russia's security council, and former president and prime minister, Medvedev, in an interview to Russian media in February 2021, in which he was quoted as saying that "in China, international social media has been replaced by local media, and everyone got through it with total ease".




Authored by Yuri Kogan, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.




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