Can International Law Cover Cyberspace?

Adam Segal of the Council on Foreign Relations wades into the waters of international law, where China and the United States are at odds over whether and how to apply existing international law in cyberspace. From The Diplomat:

A failure to agree on these norms is destabilizing. One country may see its action as permissible, the other as an act of war. It is unclear how wedded Beijing is to its opposition to cyber and LOAC, and we could begin to see some modification of the Chinese position. Wang Tianlong of the China Center for International Economic Exchanges writing in the Shanghai Securities News recently argued “we should study the feasibility of applying the principles of the Law of Armed Conflict to cyberspace and push for the formulation of a code of conduct for cyberconflict.”

The United States has certainly upped its rhetorical pressure on China over the last year. The more open discussion of offensive cyber has been accompanied by the increasing number of U.S. government officials naming and shaming Chinese hackers (the most recent is Rear Admiral Samuel Cox stating that the pace of attacks was actually increasing). Secretary Clinton and Secretary Panetta both raised cyber with their Chinese counterparts during recent meetings.

The most important driver may be that Beijing could soon find itself isolated. Russia has been much more receptive to discussing how LOAC applies to cyber, and has been less adamant about the International Code of Conduct in multilateral meetings recently. The United States needs to keep engaging Beijing on this issue, but, as with so many issues, it is likely to get better traction with China by scheduling more meetings in other countries’ capitals.

Cybersecurity has become a flashpoint in Sino-US relations over the past year, with Washington claiming late last year that they had linked a bulk of China-based cyberattacks against America to groups backed or directed by the Chinese government. From compromised intellectual property to the potential theft of state secrets, experts in the U.S. have also called on President Barack Obama to take more forceful measures to tackle the issue. And most recently, a year-long U.S. House intelligence committee concluded that Chinese telecom giant Huawei poses a security risk to America, allegations which the world’s largest manufacturer of telecom equipment has denied.

See also previous CDT coverage of Huawei, cybersecurity and cyber espionage.