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Do the U.S. and China need a 'cyber détente'?


Our colleagues at Defense Tech broached this idea on Monday: No less an authority on international relations than Henry Kissinger has called for the United States and China to reach a 'cyber détente,' in which both countries would formally or informally agree to dial back their intrusions of each other's computer networks. Defense Tech's cyber warfare correspondent, Kevin Coleman, writes that the Chinese might be amenable to such an idea, or at least, that officials "are open to discussions with the international community about Internet security."

Kissinger's notion raises some interesting ideas: If the 21st century is bringing about a kind of second Great Powers era, in which the domination of the U.S. is giving way to a more complicated, multi-polar system, the first place that might manifest itself is in the cyber domain, where traditional "hard" power matters least. You've read here before that cyber crisis might be the new normal for the West, so if governments could reach even an agreement not to mess with each other, they might consider it just to regain some order in the chaos. International treaties have helped slow the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons -- why not the spread of computer viruses, cyber-snooping, or attacks?

Probably because  no government would trust another to actually stop its cyber-spying, nor would it want to give up whatever edge it can get from exploring others' networks. An agreement proclaiming cyber-détente would have all the effect of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the international treaty that abolished war in 1928. (Somehow, wars continued to take place.) What's more, much of the hacking that takes place today is done by semi- or unofficial users, so enforcing a cyber-treaty might be effectively impossible.

Détente might not even be a good deal for the U.S.: As Coleman writes, we open source normies don't get the full picture of today's cyber-situation, because even though we see a lot of scary headlines about Chinese and other cyber-mischief committed against American networks, we have only a dim idea about our own government's cyber capabilities. Secretary Gates may have full blueprints for the J-2o in his desk drawer right now, secretly pulled straight off the computer servers at Chengdu Aerospace, and full confidence he could get anything else he wanted. If so, he and leaders in the intelligence community might decide China's network intrusions are a price worth paying -- and for that matter, they might even believe it's a good thing that both governments can keep close tabs on each other.

What do you think?

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