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Opinion

China is not the cyber superpower that many people think

Critical weaknesses put Beijing well behind the US

| China
Chinese soldiers browse online news: China's strategy is lagging, and its cyber defenses are weak.   © Imaginechina/AP

Greg Austin is senior fellow for cyber, space and future conflict at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He is based in Singapore.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato recently warned that cyberattacks should be expected during the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, due to start on July 23. Yet Japan's defenses in this sphere remain somewhat immature, creating cause for concern given escalating threats and reports about shifting power balances, both in cyberspace and more broadly.

In this debate, China is often portrayed as a world-leading cyber power based on its massive and highly successful espionage operations. But for now, according to a new assessment by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the U.S. is still ahead of China on that front and has a much stronger track record.

Alongside political will, cyber power depends on three factors: how well organized each country is -- strategy and doctrine, and command and control; how well it can defend itself through its own cybersecurity or through international partnerships; as well as how effectively its digital economy can support its cyber needs and ambitions.

China's strategy is lagging, and its cyber defenses are weak, but it is the third area just mentioned -- the strength of its digital economy -- where the U.S. maintains its most powerful edge over China. This might come as a shock to many Americans in the political classes who see themselves as slipping into second place behind Beijing's cyber superpower ambitions. But it will not be so shocking to long-term students of national innovation systems, nor those who have experienced university life overseen by a self-confessed dictatorship.

Chinese universities have made great strides and the country's researchers are world leaders in some important advanced technologies, such as quantum communications.

But survey data from China's University Alumni Association indicates that it has no world-class universities in the field of cybersecurity, which is an essential foundation of cyber capability. The Chinese innovation system is struggling to adapt to the demands of security in cyberspace and universities may be its weakest link.

Several factors are combining to retard China's universities: higher education institutions globally are highly conservative; professors who control curricula, spending and organizational arrangements do not like new or expanded departments of cybersecurity; there are not enough university educators and dissertation supervisors to meet rising demand. Add to that the fact that the Chinese Communist Party is too intent on linking promotion to ideological activism, monitoring every email sent by professors and students.

Outside its universities, China has no answer for the highly successful U.S. formula of close collaboration -- for private profit -- among universities, industry and government. Yes, there have been great Chinese examples of private-sector success. Lenovo, now a top global brand in sales of personal computers, grew out of Legend, a company set up by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences back in 1984.

But the three-way cooperation among government, industry and academia -- a so-called triple helix of national innovation -- is not yet the norm in China. President Xi Jinping's best response has been a so-called civil-military fusion policy that is proving to be as bureaucratic and sloganistic as it sounds.

Even if China could rise to the top rank of cyber power in a one-to-one comparison with the U.S., it still does not have the means to match American power arising from its position as the hub of the most powerful cyber intelligence alliance in history, the Five Eyes network.

The U.S. can also count on many other cyber-capable allies, such as France and Israel. It can also count on Japan, though in very different ways. But how useful could Japan's contribution to U.S. cyber power actually be if the Self Defense Forces and intelligence agencies have been slow to develop cyber capabilities?

Ironically, Japan makes a huge contribution to alliance power in the very field where China is not yet doing as well as it wants to -- the strength of its digital economy. Japan remains second only to the U.S. in important aspects of information and communication technology industrial performance and policy.

For example, it has more tech and telecoms companies in the 2020 Fortune Global 500 than China, 10 and eight respectively, compared with the U.S. at 16. Japan has arguably been at least as influential in fifth-generation, or 5G, mobile technology standard setting as China. Japan remains, along with the United States, the largest funder of the International Telecommunication Union.

Japan has been as influential in 5G mobile technology standard setting as China.   © Sipa/AP

Most importantly, Japan has been very active in its diplomacy to help ensure the U.S. and allied technological preeminence over China remains intact. It was an early advocate among U.S. allies of the idea of banning Huawei Technologies from the 5G rollout, ahead even of Washington's official position.

Thus, as Japan takes account of its cybersecurity dilemmas and very visible operational gaps in its national cyber power, either in advance of the Olympic Games or over the long term future, it can take quite some credit for executing successful diplomacy as an important line of defense.

If the worst were to happen, and Japan were to suffer a serious cyberattack, it will not have to depend only on its own weak cyber forces. It has many partners, led by the U.S., who will stand with it on the front lines of cyber defense.

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