When an open-ended working group met at the United Nations in New York in mid-September to discuss the future of cyberspace it did so with little fanfare.

Just seven member states had submitted working papers to that meeting outlining their vision for what countries should and should not be allowed to do to each other and their own people in the online world.

One of the countries to put forward its position was China, which used the forum to make what observers said was its most important UN submission on the topic yet – a detailed vision of its style of cyber governance in which states have sovereign right to maintain strict controls on internet and technology infrastructure for “social stability.” Under such a system, states have the right to censor, collect data, and restrict online access within their borders.

China's online censorship is notorious in other parts of the world, but the country considers it a matter of sovereignty. (Picture: Shutterstock)

The submission comes as the United Nations has created two groups tasked with spending the next one to two years exploring what frameworks could best maintain peace and security online, a framework that Beijing hopes to help shape.

It is all part of a broader push by China to try to influence the global norms for cyberspace, pushing back against the competing international support for a free and open online world as cyberattacks, digital espionage and online influence campaigns grow as security concerns.

China’s efforts to promote its vision of cyber governance at the UN did not go unnoticed.

Days after China’s statement, a group of 27 nations, including the United States, Japan, South Korea and a host of European countries, made their own statement to the UN, calling for a “free, open” cyberspace that upholds democracy and human rights.

This was broadly seen by observers as a rebuke of the Chinese and Russian models of internet regulation, which restrict online activities and monitor the tech sector in the name of social stability.

The statement called on members to guard against practices that “undercut fair competition in our global economy by stealing ideas when they cannot create them,” echoing US accusations about the behavior of Chinese tech companies.

China, meanwhile, had cautioned that countries should not “exploit their dominant [technological] position” to undermine other states’ security or supply chains, or “politicize technology and cybersecurity issues,” jeopardizing global development – an apparent criticism of recent actions by the US against Chinese tech companies.

Their differences mirror broader tensions in which the US has accused China of cybertheft of trade secrets and classified research, and launched a global campaign against Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technology based on national security concerns.

Chinese citizens have been playing a bigger role in other groups that set global technology standards. In a report in April, the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin said Chinese citizens were or recently had been filling top leadership positions at the International Standardization Organisation, the International Electrotechnical Commission and the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, all key governing bodies regulating technologies from the internet of things to satellite orbits.

China’s private tech companies have also sent numerous delegates to meetings about planning critical infrastructure. For example, the number of employees from telecoms company Huawei who attended meetings on standards development for 5G networks exceeded that of the second most represented company by more than 500, according to July statistics from patent research firm IPlytics.

Huang Zhixiong, professor of international relations at Wuhan University’s law school, said that being part of international discussions on cyberspace and technology regulations was vital for China as it worked to establish itself as a cyber power.

“It’s clear that without meaningful involvement in international conversations and negotiations, and without a strong voice in global cyber governance, then however strong you are domestically, you simply cannot become a cyber power,” said Huang, a specialist in cyber governance.

China’s drive to become a cyber power is fueled in part by its deep-seated concerns about sovereignty and foreign interference.

Huang said the Arab spring anti-government uprisings of earlier this decade offered a cautionary tale that informed China’s emphasis on cyber sovereignty.

“It is believed that countries like the United States successfully made use of the internet to subvert” Arab regimes and cause “social instability,” he said.

Domestic political considerations have played an influential role in how China wants to shape global policies on information and communications technology, according to Helena Legarda, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies.

“If Beijing wants a [domestic] cyberspace that is secure and controllable, that would be substantially easier if it were able to introduce that concept of cyber sovereignty in international cyber governance,” she said.

Since the governance conversations happened at the UN, “China is very involved” there, she said.

But a closed or open internet is not the only battleground for the dueling ideologies of China and the bloc of 27. There are differences in how countries view tangible national security concerns such as cyber warfare.

The major Western countries broadly maintain that existing international laws, including those that justify war in some situations, should be applied to the cyber realm.

By contrast, China proposes that “cyber warfare should not be recognized under any circumstance” – a position experts attribute to the country’s comparatively weak cyber abilities and interest in having any such attacks monitored by the UN, where it has allies.

“China favors a strong role for the United Nations in developing and managing a code of conduct in the governance of cyberspace, mainly because China is assessing that the bulk of UN member states would be more supportive [than rival states outside an international framework] of its view of what states should and shouldn’t be doing [in terms of cyber warfare],” Bart Hogeveen, an analyst with the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said.

But while China’s “public position is that it is not using cyberspace as a military domain,” Hogeveen said that “all countries involved, particularly those who are very active in these debates, do use cyberspace for military means as well, including China.”

The difference is that unlike the US and Australia, which openly declare that they have the capacity to use cyber weapons for defensive and offensive operations, China was “not projecting that in the same way,” he said.

Even if calling for a peaceful cyberspace may not reflect “the factual situation” for China, it “resonates pretty well with other states in the region,” including those in Southeast Asia with weaker tech capabilities, according to Hogeveen.

“It wants to bring neighboring countries within its sphere of influence, and definitely Southeast Asian states are concerned about becoming victim to military use of cyberspace,” he said, adding that those countries had a track record of being “against the military use of any space to advance national interests.”

China’s call for a more formal overhaul of existing cyber norms with new international laws or treaties contrasts with the softer international agreements around new norms advocated by the West. The formal approach could appeal to states that felt UN laws formulated after the second world war no longer reflected economic and geopolitical realities, Hogeveen said.

Legarda said that support for China from countries that did not rank as major global powers but had ties or converging interests with Beijing could help China sell its vision of cyber governance in the UN arena.

This was especially true as China worked to “export its own cyber governance norms,” including internet censorship and helping countries to monitor telecoms, she said.

In recent years, countries including Vietnam, Russia and Tanzania have adopted tighter internet restrictions, resembling China’s.

“In the end, the UN is a numbers game,” she said. “Decisions are taken by majority vote, so the more countries that sign on to China’s model of cyber governance, regulation and state control of cyberspace, the harder it is going to be for countries who do not support that model to defend the existing system.”