Before heading to this weekend's Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter addressed recent graduates of the US Naval Academy in Maryland. It's clear that he was there to talk about one thing: China and the rules-based liberal international order.

Carter made a couple of similarly intentioned speeches before last year's Dialogue. Saying the tough words before an important summit is generally smart diplomacy. That said, Carter's tone on one specific topic shifted fairly dramatically this year.

In a speech on 6 April 2015 at the McCain Institute at Arizona State University, Carter made a speech largely selling the Obama Administration's 'rebalance' to the Asia Pacific. This was the famous speech where Carter said he equated passing the TPP with possessing 'another aircraft carrier'. As Sam Roggeveen pointed out at the time, Carter's linking of the TPP with America's military capability likely did not go down well in the region, and added some ammunition for those who believe America's rebalance to the region is a containment strategy aimed at China. However, I want to point to how Carter couched the TPP:

TPP would provide these businesses – and all of us – a more level playing field and more opportunities to succeed.  It would do so by requiring these other countries to adopt the standards that we hold ourselves to here in the United States, such as: government transparency, intellectual property laws, a free and open internet, environmental protections, and workers’ rights. TPP would also lower barriers to American goods and services in the Asia-Pacific’s fastest growing markets.

Note the mention of a 'free and open internet'. In the same speech, Carter mentioned that the US is concerned with China's 'opaque defense budget...its actions in cyberspace...and its behavior in places like the South and East China Sea'. This was the full extent to which Carter was prepared to link China's actions in the South China Sea to cyberspace. However, drawing from his most recent speech, this seems to have become a much bigger priority: 

Now, our focus on upholding principles extends beyond the maritime domain.  For example, China wants its companies that depend on the Internet to flourish in the global marketplace so it can lift its people’s prosperity to globally-comparative levels after decades of poverty.  And yet, China’s cyber-actors have violated the spirit of the Internet – not to mention the law – to perpetrate large-scale intellectual property theft from American companies.  That’s why the President has been determined to develop international understandings of behavior in cyberspace.

China also wants and enjoys all the benefits of free trade and a free Internet, while sometimes restricting both as they apply to them.

In sum, on the seas, in cyberspace, in the global economy, and elsewhere, China has benefited from the principles and systems that others have worked to establish and uphold, including us.  But instead of helping sustain those very principles and systems that have served all of us so well, for so long, instead of working toward what… quote, called the “win-win cooperation” that Beijing publicly says it wants, China sometimes plays by its own rules...undercutting those principles.

I reckon this might be a first for the US Secretary of Defense: explicitly linking freedom of navigation in the South China Sea to China's role in cyberspace. But more interesting, this rhetoric ('China's cyber-actors have violated the spirit of the internet') actually moves beyond the usual IP theft claims and into trade and internet governance.

A few thoughts:

  • I think treating the global commons equally — whether in cyberspace or on the oceans — is important and strengthens Washington's argument regarding the importance of the entire rules-based global order. But is this Carter's role? Coming in the lead-up to Shangri La, this was a speech many Southeast Asian countries will be analysing for US reassurances regarding China's actions in the South China Sea. These countries do care about freedom of navigation but have significantly different views to the US on the shape of the internet. Does Carter risk fracturing the coalition working to uphold international law in the South China Sea?
  • Carter's comments reflect what is clearly becoming a bigger issue for the US in its relations with China, politically but also economically. There is a growing history of US promotion of internet freedom, one that started with Hillary Clinton's internet freedom agenda. However, after significant push-back from China, there has been a shift of emphasis to trade and economics, with the most recent Trade Estimate Report from the Office of the US Trade Representative listing China's Great Firewall as a trade impediment. As Sarah Logan has said, this largely reflects the power of the US tech lobby.
  • Calling out China's efforts to control its internet not just for political reasons but also to champion its own tech firms (as well as co-opt Western ones) is not misplaced. In fact this policy, and China's battle against Western influence in cyberspace, is becoming more overt. Xi Jinping has repeatedly reiterated that with 700+ million internet users, China should have a significant say in internet governance and has a right to impose 'cyber sovereignty'. He has followed this up with meetings with the CEOs of China's largest tech companies to discuss the state's 'web governance goals.' There are also rumours China is looking at requiring new companies that wish to be granted licences to operate in the Chinese market to hand over a board seat and a 1% stake in the company to the government. Also, the list of Western, and primarily American, content providers and tech companies that are now blocked in China is growing and includes The Economist, Bloomberg, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Google, Facebook and Twitter. Apple's book and movie services was also recently blocked.

Clearly, this trend and situation was tolerable while the Chinese market was still relatively small and Chinese tech companies were still growing. This has changed dramatically in just the last five years. And as Chinese government-protected media and tech companies continue to expand in overseas markets, there will be growing pressure on Western governments to make the playing field more even. However, it seems a difference of views over trade and business in cyberspace could easily become an ideological one.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ash Carter.