Hidden Arena: Cyber Competition and Conflict in Indo-Pacific Asia

Prepared for the Lowy Institute MacArthur Asia Security Project

Cyber infrastructure is critical to the global economy. Yet it is badly secured, worse governed, and a place of interstate competition and potential conflict. There is widespread concern among states over strategic competition in cyberspace, including cyber espionage and cyber attack. Asia, with its political tensions, vigorous economies, and lack of strong multilateral institutions, is a focal point for this competition. The rise of China and its extensive cyber capabilities defines strategic competition in both Asia and in cyberspace globally.

The cyber domain is better understood in terms of competition than of war. The possession of advanced cyber attack capabilities has tended to instill caution in nations. Still, because of the newness of technology, lack of agreement on norms, and potential to mistake cyber espionage for military action, cyber competition can increase risks of miscalculation, conflict and escalation during wider interstate tension.

The strategic cyber challenge in Asia should be addressed in multiple ways. Cooperation in cyber defence between the United States and its allies can proceed in tandem with greater efforts at US-China dialogue and reassurance. Cooperative approaches worth pursuing include agreement on norms for responsible state behavior in cyberspace and reaching common agreement on the applicability of international laws of war in cyberspace.

James Andrew Lewis
Senior Vice President; Pritzker Chair; and Director, Strategic Technologies Program