The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Russia and China are attempting to rewrite cyberworld order

Chinese Communist Party diplomat Yang Jiechi speaks at the U.S.-China talks in Anchorage on March 18. (Frederic J. Brown/AP)

China’s top diplomat had an interesting rejoinder to Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s call in Anchorage this month to “strengthen the rules-based international order.” Such an order already exists, answered Politburo member Yang Jiechi. It’s called the United Nations.

Many people have grown used to thinking of the United Nations in recent decades as an annoying talk shop, created with the noblest intentions but increasingly a morass of bureaucracy and mutual back-scratching. But for China and Russia, the United Nations is increasingly the venue for unsubtle power plays — often ignored by the United States — that could shape the new world order that’s emerging.

Yang’s March 18 riposte in Anchorage is worth studying, because it reveals a broader strategic design: “What China and the international community follow or uphold is the United Nations-centered system and the international order underpinned by international law, not what is advocated by a small number of countries of the so-called rules-based international order.”

The United Nations can be a pain, like one of those community meetings that become dominated by die-hards who are willing to stay later and talk louder than their neighbors. But it’s a game that the United States has to play, and skillfully, lest our adversaries hijack global institutions that retain some legitimacy.

Cyberspace is the best example of a domain where authoritarian nations, led by China and Russia, are using the United Nations to craft new rules that could undermine Western norms of openness and democracy.

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Here’s how the process works: In December 2019, while a Donald Trump-distracted world was looking the other way, Russia won approval from the U.N. General Assembly to begin drafting a global treaty to combat cybercrime. The United States said back then that it had “very serious concerns” that such a treaty would “stand against fundamental American freedoms,” but it lost the vote, 79 to 60.

Work on the new U.N. treaty hasn’t started yet because of the coronavirus pandemic. The first drafting meeting is scheduled for May. If completed and ratified, the treaty would replace the 2001 Budapest Convention on Cybercrime. That document was crafted by the Council of Europe and ratified by 65 nations, including all the leading democracies — but never endorsed by Russia or China because they considered its provisions too intrusive.

Another example of gaming the U.N. system is Russia’s creation (with Chinese support) of a U.N. cyber discussion body called the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG), with all 193 U.N. member states, intended to work in parallel with the smaller, 25-member Group of Governmental Experts that had been issuing reports on complex tech issues.

Andrei Krutskikh, a top cyber adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, crowed at an OEWG meeting last month that the group represented “the triumphant success of Russian diplomacy,” according to a March 13 report by Tass, the state-owned Russian news service. He accused unnamed nations of “whipping up of the international situation in the field of information” — presumably a reference to American allegations about Russian hacking in the 2016, 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections and Moscow’s role in the devastating SolarWinds hack.

Russia may hope that the Open-Ended Working Group eventually supplants the smaller experts group, which could turn what should be technical discussions about Internet and telecommunications security into a political stalemate.

The Russians (again with Chinese help) had tried to take over Internet governance through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) back in January. This putsch to depose the private consortium of experts known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, was backed by former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, who claimed in an Aug. 12, 2020, statement that “the U.S. fully controls the Domain Name System used to resolve IP-addresses.” The ITU, thankfully, ignored the Russian proposal.

On such obscure U.N. battlegrounds lies the dreary but essential work of protecting the “rules-based order” for promoting an open and secure Internet. The raiders are mobilizing. In a little-noticed March 26 statement, Putin announced Russia’s intent to dominate oversight of cyberspace.

“Largely thanks to our efforts, information security has become an item on the U.N. General Assembly’s agenda,” Putin boasted in a statement to Russia’s Security Council. “We believe it is necessary to conclude universal international legal agreements designed to prevent conflicts and build a mutually beneficial partnership in the global cyberspace.” That language is chilling, when you realize he’s talking about rules written largely by China and Russia.

It’s breathtaking, really. The nations that have subverted the Internet most aggressively now want to police it, setting their own standards. Fighting back in this case requires patience and persistence — and a willingness to sit through endless meetings where the order that the United States and its global partners created a generation ago is under slow, relentless attack.

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