It’s awfully hard for two powers to see eye to eye when one is the king of the status quo and the other is still a status seeker. But that’s how it is with the United States, the most powerful state in today’s status quo, and China, on the rise, but not on top just yet.
Status quo powers scan the horizon and see many things, and in many of them, they see a threat to stability and to their place as kind of the stabilizers. The status-seeker power sees only one thing; that it ‘s not there yet, that there are other powers with more power as things are.
That’s how it is with the United States and China on issues of cyber-security. The U.S. sees strong evidence of Chinese hacking…cyber-penetrations of everything from defense Department documents, Federal personnel records, and business plans of Google and trade discussions of the United Steelworkers Union. And the U.S. sees in each of those cases an offense against the laws and order of the internet age, an offense that must be responded to.
China, of course, claims not to see any evidence, and will not confess to any cyber-law-breaking. What it says it does see is America aggressively defending its own hegemony over the digital universe. Whatever you say we’ve done, the Chinese insist, the fact remains, America is the dominant power and we’re just trying to defend our dignity by catching up.
This is, as the sadistic prison guard said in the movie Cool Hand Luke, “a failure to communicate.” It is for both sides, confirmation for mistrust.
In international relations few things are more potentially dangerous than mutual mistrust, which is why America’s ongoing disagreement with China about proper uses and criminal abuses of cyber-communication gets so much attention.
Scott is associate director of the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, and a member of the Pardee RAND Graduate School faculty. He specializes in Chinese foreign policy, East Asian security, and international affairs.
Prior to joining RAND in August 2008, Harold worked at the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center from 2006 to 2008. In addition to his work at RAND, Harold is an adjunct professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he has taught since 2006. He has also taught Chinese politics at Columbia University.