Signs of life under the cyber ice

Signs of life under the cyber ice

Australia's role in the cyber stand-off between China and the US should be that of a constructive middle power. Just because their relations have frozen doesn't mean Australia can't push its interests, writes Klée Aiken.

The cyber chasm between the United States and China is growing larger with every accusation and retaliation lobbed since the May 19 Department of Justice cyber espionage indictment.

The initial response by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was formulaic, following the tried and true prose of "China is a victim" and cancelling the newly minted US-China cyber working group.

However, the grand jury indictment has upped the ante by providing specific and damning evidence that gives legal justification for the US to pursue punitive measures. The coming months will likely see escalated tensions between the two powers as they jockey for control of the narrative and a deep freeze on any productive cyber efforts for the foreseeable future.

For Australia, to "win friends rather than to find fault" in such tumultuous waters will be a challenge for sure, but it offers a useful opportunity for Australia to define its place in the regional cyber discussion.

The type of industrial cyber espionage outlined in the grand jury report is undoubtedly of serious concern to the Australian business community. While he did not point any fingers or present exact costs, earlier this year ASIO chief David Irvine told the AFR that "electronic intelligence gathering is being used against Australia on a massive scale to extract confidential information".

With former NSA and CYBERCOM head General Keith Alexander estimating the cost of IP theft to US companies at $250 billion, about 1.5 per cent of GDP, the cost to Australian business could be roughly extrapolated to upwards of $22.5 billion each year.

Given such high costs there is a clear and present need to name and shame states aggressively partaking in such activities.

As James Andrew Lewis put it, "if you don't hold countries accountable for bad actions, they see no reason to stop."

However, this tactic not only carries heavy diplomatic tolls, it also results in a strategic deadlock and Australia has demonstrated in the past that it is not willing to raise the stakes to this degree.

The simple reality is that it is not in a position to have a decisive impact using such measures, making joining the United States in calling out China frankly counterproductive. Instead Australia should work as a parallel conduit, ensuring China remains engaged in a wide ranging cyber dialogue with an emphasis on practical measures and confidence building activities.

While relations have frozen over between the two leading cyber powers of the day, as with a pond in winter, below the frost line the water remains habitable.

With the US playing the role of the proverbial "bad cop", the key is to let cooperation be the basis for the Sino-Australian relationship before grappling with more fundamental and contentious issues.

 

Australia is in a prime position to increase practical cyber engagement with China. Off the back of a successful visit by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in April, the upcoming G20 in Brisbane, and with the prospects of a Free Trade Agreement in the near future, goodwill and prospects for positive, senior-level engagement are at a high.

Leveraging this goodwill, Australia should work to build a raft of concrete avenues of engagement with an emphasis on practical cooperation. This includes increasing ties between national CERTs, bolstering proven AFP international cybercrime partnerships, and prompting frank discussions on cyber policy structures as both China and Australia struggle to shape bureaucratic structures to govern this all-encompassing area.

Common interest in building ICT capacity and the opportunity to support the opening of digital economies throughout South-East Asia is also a clear area of mutual interest.

In their meeting, Prime Minister Abbott and President Xi Jinping agreed that both countries should jointly "address global challenges" including cyber. Australia might be so bold as to elevate this discussion into a bilateral cyber dialogue in the image of the Sino-US cyber working group to discuss areas for mutually beneficial cooperation.

With the US playing the role of the proverbial "bad cop", the key is to let cooperation be the basis for the Sino-Australian relationship before grappling with more fundamental and contentious issues.

However disagreeable some Chinese cyber policies may be for Australia, it is not the threatening monolith of popular portrayal. Chinese digital businesses are pressing from within, as they look to break out of the domestic market and are keen to shed the costly stigma of a digital pariah.

The government's approach to cyber issues has matured rapidly as well, epitomised by the establishment of a small leading group on informationisation and internet security. An increasingly nuanced approach that was on show in spades during the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's recent visit to Beijing.

With Australian companies falling victim to state-linked cyber espionage, it is important that Australia maintains the vital distinction between state espionage and commercial espionage that forms the core of America's grievances.

Ensuring that it can reach out in productive dialogue with China without undermining American efforts is a narrow path to navigate. However, Australia, the US, and other likeminded actors will be better served with an Australia that increases dialogue on wider cyber issue rather than simply jumping on the name and shame bandwagon.

Australia is a highly respected player in the region with its leadership at the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts on Cyber Security showing that, when determined, it has the ability to bridge divides and be a leader in this area. Australia's role in the cyber debate should be that of a constructive middle power, filling a niche that in the long term complements the US hard nose approach.

This post first appeared on ABC's The Drum.

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