A game of wei qi in the Middle East: China’s cyber diplomacy
Cyberspace is an increasingly significant domain for states’ strategic outlooks. Defined by its lawlessness and chaos, this new frontier resembles international relations prior to the existence of formal global institutions, where large states pursued their interests with impunity.
Once again, states are shielded from criticism; in cyberspace their actions are obscured by the division between East and West on internet norms and rules, and through the use of proxy actors, which enable them to plausibly deny any covert action. However, there is a considerable difference between the Darwinian power of old states and the cyber-power wielded by modern states. That is, cyber-power is able to be deployed by smaller countries and non-state actors just as easily as it is by great powers. This is because of the cost factor. A substantial amount of damage can be done using fairly simple materials, leveling the playing field for smaller, but ideologically motivated actors.
A seminal example of this was the covert actions undertaken by Iran’s Mabna Institute in 2011. In an effort to remain competitive with other nations’ research and development programs, Iran appropriated a large amount of intellectual property from a variety of educational and corporate institutions, leapfrogging its domestic scientific industry. The US’ response was to identify and sanction various associated actors.
Despite the identification and indictment of individual Mabna Institute officials, and the discovery of a link between them and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (ostensibly the most difficult part of any investigation into state-sanctioned cyber crime), these individuals remain ‘at large.’ Moreover, Iran never offered an extradition deal to the US.
Notwithstanding that other sanctions were already placed on Iran by the US last year, the response to Iran’s actions arguably demonstrates the inability of great powers to retaliate to cyber warfare.
In terms of defence spending, Iran lags behind other Middle Eastern countries - which themselves pale in comparison to the US’ defence budget. For example, Saudi Arabia spent “five times Iran’s US$12.7 billion” in 2016. Nevertheless, it is clear that Iran’s cyber capabilities are highly developed, being able to mount an attack and steal intellectual property, with a lacklustre response from the US.
All of this suggests one thing: a small country with cyber capabilities can affect a great power such as the US, without fear of significant retaliation. The obvious asymmetric advantages that cyber warfare provides to smaller nations makes large arsenals of conventional or nuclear weapons somewhat redundant. At the very least, it reduces their deterrence effect during peacetime, as cyber actors continue to launch digital strikes on countries with large militaries.
What then does this mean for great powers, specifically China?
Now faced with the reality of cyber warfare from less powerful states, the US and China, which appear to be locked in a great power struggle, “are in a race to attract as many states as possible into their respective [cyber] orbits.” To some degree, this resembles the containment diplomacy of the US during the Cold War.
Despite this, Western and Eastern countries have adopted fundamentally different approaches to achieving long term strategic objectives. As Kissinger explains, “where the Western tradition prized the decisive clash of forces emphasising feats of heroism, the Chinese ideal stressed subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage”. Similar to the ancient Chinese game wei qi (a game of surrounding pieces), this building of relative advantage and encirclement is playing out currently in China’s Middle Eastern cyber diplomacy. Meanwhile, although the US maintains some alliances in the Middle East, ultimately it has been extricating itself from the region.
China’s approach is evidenced most recently through the Sino-Iranian 25 Year Joint Cooperation Agreement (leaked in 2020), finalised in 2021. Part of it includes an agreement “to build the infrastructure for a 5G telecommunications network, to offer the new Chinese global positioning system…and to help Iranian authorities assert greater control over what circulates in cyberspace.” This agreement symbolises further alignment between Iran and China which in 2019 already declared a “united front…to confront US unilateralism and hegemony in the field of IT.”. It is unclear what ‘further cooperation’ actually means in terms of cyber warfare capabilities. Indeed, China has previously abandoned a number of planned projects under similar circumstances, including in Iran, and is often accused of ‘debt trap diplomacy’.
Nevertheless, it is reasonable to suggest that this strengthening of ties may lead to further cyber-coordination. For instance, in terms of data tracking and surveillance, “Beijing has agreed… to work with Iranian officials to set up smart cities using Chinese-made technologies." A side effect of this is transference of data between Tehran and Beijing, providing China with some leverage over their ally. Importantly, this alignment and Iran’s interest in surveillance demonstrates its fundamental commitment to China’s cyber sovereignty which “rejects the ideal of an open internet [and instead] …. wants to govern citizens in cyberspace with the same authority it exercises in the physical realm.”
Despite China’s strategic interest in Iran as a cyber partner, it has been guarded against being too aligned with Tehran. It has not exported “drones to Iran in all these years, while providing various types to…Iran’s regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia”. This balancing act which has provided some regional credibility to China, is indicative of a wei qi approach. This may provide enough face to Middle Eastern countries to pursue technological and diplomatic ties with China - despite the latter’s policies towards Iran.
Moreover, some Middle Eastern countries which have authoritarian or oppressive theocratic systems of government may be more likely to accept technology from China rather than the US. China, unlike the US, does not attempt to impose concessions in the form of governance and human rights reforms when it provides aid or trade. In China’s case then, credibility in the Middle East seems to be about restrained diplomacy.
This credibility has enabled China to conduct cyber diplomacy in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. “Chinese companies play an integral role in affordable 5G network development.” Huawei and ZTE now have infrastructure all over the Middle East. Implicit in these technologies is the ability for either company to control, spy on, or disrupt communications of users that run through these new 5G networks. Aside from geopolitical considerations, what makes these activities more likely is the fact that Chinese companies are specifically mandated, under China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, to cooperate with the Chinese Communist Party to collect intelligence. As such, any Middle Eastern country which has adopted these technologies could be coerced.
It is time to ask: is the map of the Middle East being redrawn in China’s favour?
Ryan Davis is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts and Advanced Studies in international relations at the University of Sydney. His interests include Chinese and US foreign policy, cyber diplomacy, information warfare, and foreign influence.