Network nationalism

Imposing national will through digital networks – either by expanding them or censoring them – may not always be the intention. Yet with such a tool of influence in hand, nations will be drawn to use it.

Tinanamen Square 1989 (

As I wrote for the ANU: “Policymakers may struggle to understand the risks and exposures inherent in various networks. The viral nature of technology promotion shortens decision-making time for government.” 

That comes to mind with the news that Zoom, the popular web conference platform, blocked the accounts of people organizing a Tiananmen Square anniversary event, including people outside of China.

According to Zoom, the PRC government warned them that the activity was illegal in China, and the company acted once it saw that the planned meetings involved PRC-citizens.

This is a policy that Apple has used in the past with regards to China. The lack of corporate resistance to authoritarian influence is a vulnerability for democracies, giving hardline regimes veto power of activities in networks whether happening in their native country or in the regime’s jurisdiction.

The digital technology companies are active in international markets, but, as commercial entities, don’t have the competency or will to make determinations about real political consequences, and to stick with them. They certainly don’t have the incentive to lock horns with regulators in markets. History hasn’t asked these companies to consider political rights as a matter of doing business, either.

If you don’t think Western companies can’t be leaned on to uphold authoritarian values for fear of offending a customer, just consider that Zoom’s statement on the Tiananmen Square anniversary incident doesn’t mention the words “Tiananmen Square.”

While the misalignment between networks and local laws is stark between Asia and the US, it’s going on in every jurisdiction, including between companies from the US and open democracies, like Australia.

Those companies, however, function more like nation-states than enterprises existing under the rules of a government.

Text of Shinzo Abe’s speech to Australia’s parliament

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe swears that Japan’s 20th century ‘horrors’ will not happen again, and stresses Australia and Japan’s shared support for the “rule of law.” Full text in English here.

One key quote:

We will never let the horrors of the past century’s history repeat themselves. This vow that Japan made after the war is still fully alive today. It will never change going forward. There is no question at all about this point.

Would this line raise eyebrows in Washington? Abe, discussing the conclusion of the Australia-Japan FTA says:

The next step for us will be the TPP. After that, RCEP. And then the FTAAP.

RCEP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, is the China-backed regional trade deal, that is seen as the rival to the US-backed TPP. Australia, is one of a number of countries pursuing both agreements.

Also, Abe’s mentioned “rule of law” twice, which echoes lingo that has been used since the time the US’s Asian pivot was announced.


Path of Chinese navy ships passing near Australia, Indonesia on visit to Indian Ocean


In a move that would make fabled Chinese explorer Zheng He proud, the Chinese navy has ventured into the Indian Ocean for exercises, passing through Indonesia on the way.

This is an approximate map of the path taken by People’s Liberation Navy ships Changbaishan, Wuhan and Haikou taken in late January 2014. The landmass at the bottom right is Australia.

The path is based on information from the Associated Press and the Australia-based thinktank, the Lowy Interpreter.

Any fear in the wake of this unannounced visit to the neighborhood will certainly build the case for a more capable Australian submarine fleet. US foreign policy realist John Mearsheimer laid out this scenario in 2010 in an article for the UK Spectator.


The problem with the “power-sharing” expectation in China-US relations

The respected Australian security studies analyst Hugh White has argued for some time that the US should “accommodate” a rising China in a power-sharing agreement in the Western Pacific. The view is broadly shared by former prime ministers Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd.

White argues that China and the US are strategic rivals and while China is plainly rising, it should not be denied its zone of influence in Asian security affairs. The US should instead acknowledge the inevitable rise of China will cede responsibility and power to it to ensure security in the region. The US should not try to hold on to its grip of security in the region which has been in place since the end of WWII.

White’s view sounds good on paper. But the reality is not nearly so clear-cut. His view seems to assume some kind of civilized handover of power between the US and a China that mirrors the sort of diplomatic protocol common in the US, Australia and other Western nations. One only has to look to China’s strategy of raising the pressure on neighbors in the East China Sea to understand that White’s view represents a kind of well-meaning fantasy.

But it’s one of many fantasies that have underpinned China’s rise. The Western fantasy always was that China would open to Western companies, to Western ideas, to Western-designed international bodies of governance, and finally, to Western influence as it marched toward modernism.

No doubt China is modernising. But often its strides come at the expense of Western countries as well as the notion of fair play. And what’s becoming of that rules-based order that has dominated world affairs since the end of WWII? Well, it’s eroding. As Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas chief Jared Cohen writes, China is a signatory to international agreements on copyright laws.

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit in 2011, then Chinese president Hu Jintao privately told a small group of business leaders that China would ‘fully implement all of the intellectual property laws as required by the WTO and modern Western practices.’ We attended this meeting, and as we filed out of the room after President Hu’s comments, the American business contingent clearly expressed scepticism toward his claim….

The treaties of which China is a signatory are either unenforced or ignored by China. Increasingly, China and Western businesses make a cynical trade-off. Basically, companies can hand over their technology for access to China’s markets. The Germans do it. The US does. All modern economies hand over technology in exchange for access to China. It’s all done in the hope that the value of access to China will lead to justifiable profits from China. Basically, a blue skies projection.

But the reality is a lot less beneficial to Western business, economies and standards of living.

Likewise, in the realm of security, Hugh White and others believe that China can be “accommodated” and it will prevent an inevitable clash. But that belief assumes that inside China there is a rational decision-making apparatus that wants to avoid risk. The reality on the ground is that it’s never clear who is making decisions in China, and obviously, avoiding risk is pretty low on their priority.

Basically, it reminds me of a phrase I have heard from a US policymaker, which is that the US must deal with the China that is, not the one it hopes for. Security analysts may be well-served to do the same.