IGF 2020 WS #81 Overcoming the US-China digital Cold War

Tuesday, 10th November, 2020 (14:10 UTC) - Tuesday, 10th November, 2020 (15:40 UTC)
Room 3
About this Session
How should Internet governance respond to the intensifying conflict between the US and China? Do cybersecurity concerns really justify economic sanctions, trade barriers and the blocking of information? What forms of peaceful co-existence are possible between the US and Chinese Internets? Between the European and Chinese Internets?

Organizer 1: Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Organizer 2: Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group
Organizer 3: Civil Society, Eastern European Group

Speaker 1: Kulesza Joanna, Civil Society, Eastern European Group
Speaker 2: Gagliardone Iginio, Civil Society, African Group
Speaker 3: Jyoti Panday , Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group
Speaker 4: Feng Guo, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group

Additional Speakers

Stephen C. Anderson, Government, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)

Charles Mok, Government, Asia-Pacific Group


Debate - Auditorium - 90 Min

Policy Question(s)

How should Internet governance respond to the intensifying conflict between the US and China? Does the conflict between the US and China threaten to create separate techno-economic infrastructures? Will standards bodies split, will compatibility issues arise? Do cybersecurity concerns really justify economic sanctions, trade barriers and the blocking of information? What forms of peaceful co-existence are possible between the US and Chinese Internets? Between the European and Chinese Internets?

Discussion will be organized around these 4 Issues/Challenges/Opportunities: 1. Is the rise of China’s digital economy a threat to the values and standards of the open, global Internet or is it an improvement? Does the conflict between the US and China threaten to create separate techno-economic infrastructures? 2. What impact does the US-China conflict have on the rest of the world? How does it affect Africa, which is often portrayed as a region where China is gaining influence, or India, which has a history of conflict and cooperation with both countries? 3. Hong Kong is a place where Chinese sovereignty co-exists with a relatively open economy and free and open internet. Does HK’s recent resistance to Chinese rule indicate that global integration of China and liberal democracies is impossible? 4. Are North American and European countries prepared to open their digital economies to Chinese telecommunication manufacturers and information service providers? Is China prepared to open to North American and European providers?


GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
GOAL 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions


In 2019 and 2020, economic and political conflict between the US and China intensified. It is now apparent that the tensions between the US and China in the digital economy are not just about trade or even cybersecurity. They are part of a global power competition. The US fears it is losing its dominant position in the digital economy and that this will undermine its strategic and military dominance over the long term. The US, and Europe also to some extent, have linked this conflict to Internet governance, seeing China's rise as a threat to core IG values such as openness, free expression, and multistakeholder governance. This proposal calls for a moderated debate and discussion that brings together policy analysts from the US, China, India, Europe and Africa. They will offer different, and sometimes clashing, perspectives on the meaning and significance of the growing cleavage between the Chinese and US digital economies. This proposal seeks to find a peaceful and mutually beneficial way out of the US-China conflict. It is proposed by people who believe that the opening of the Chinese and American digital economies to each other will benefit both sides. To succeed, however, both sides have to make concessions. What will those concessions be? The debate will be moderated by Dr. Milton Mueller of the Internet Governance Project at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Dr. Mueller is the author of 3 books on Internet governance and one on China in the Information Age. The debate will include the following speakers from different world regions: - Eastern Europe: Joanna Kulesza, University of Lodz, Poland - Africa Iginio Gagliardone, WITS University, South Africa - North America: Robert Strayer, Deputy Assistant for Cyber and International Communication and Information Policy, US State Department, USA - South Asia: Jyoti Panday, IGP, India China: Guo Feng, Ministry of Information Industry and Technology (MIIT), PRC Hong Kong: Charles Mok, ICT sector Legislative Councillor, Hong Kong SAR, China

Expected Outcomes

1) The immediate outcome of this workshop is to bring together networks of policy makers and policy analysts who are polarized and not talking to each other. Digital policy circles in the US have converged on an anti-China position, and there are no influential figures willing to engage with Chinese intellectuals and policy makers. There is a problem on the other side, as well: because China is a one-party state and its bureaucracy has no legal autonomy, the exchange of ideas and policy influence among its citizens is far more restricted. So we need to deepen and expand East-West dialogue on these matters. This panel brings the two sides together in a public, visible event. That in itself is an important step forward. 2) Another outcome is to introduce new ideas into the policy dialogue, ideas about cooperation rather than conflict. We expect the workshop to help make the world dialogue about the US-China conflict more balanced, well-informed, and productive. 3) A more long term goal of this panel is to alter the course of the US-China conflict in ways that will preserve a global and open internet. and avoid the kind of polarization that can split the world into two camps.

Once it is known that the proposal has been accepted by the MAG, the organizers will begin preparing the speakers by holding several online pre-meetings to work out the specific wording of the questions that will be debated, the order in which speakers respond, and the viewpoints that will be expressed. Advance preparation of this kind improves the quality of the interactions. During the workshop the moderator will begin by describing the general situation that has given rise to the debate and framing the issues to be addressed. The next segment of the workshop will be organized around the four Issues/Challenges/Opportunities listed in Section 6. For each Issue, governmental representatives from China and the US will be given 5 minutes to state their views. Reactions to these views from the standpoint of Africa, Europe, Hong Kong and India will then be heard. After the speakers are finished, we will allow 2 or 3 questions from the floor and online on each Issue. In the final 10 minutes, there will be an attempt to identify any areas of agreement on the most constructive next steps.

Relevance to Internet Governance: Because the markets of the US and China support the largest Internet industries, they have the strongest influence on the Internet governance policies and institutions in the world. In the US-China conflict, both sides are using the digital economy as their hostage. Telecommunication equipment, telecommunication services and information services are the main battleground upon which the conflict is fought. The US and China are unable to reach agreement about how their internets will become integrated with each other. Both sides do not trust each other’s private ICT companies to participate in their markets. This division is costing the world billions in lost efficiency and information. This problem cannot be solved if it is seen as a military problem, a trade problem, or even a cybersecurity problem. It is really an Internet governance problem, in that it involves two world powers in the internet economy trying to find some way to cooperate on the integration of their Internet/ICT sectors.

Relevance to Theme: TRUST is the thematic track, and this workshop engages with several key aspects of "trust" in Internet governance. It deals with the very high-level mistrust between two nation-states over a potential power conflict. It shows how those macro-level trust issues translate into policies that profoundly affect internet governance, such as the US blocking Huawei from its markets, or China blocking US cloud companies and American social media platforms and information sources from its markets. It is directly relevant to the impact of digital sovereignty and Internet fragmentation on trust, as well as to cybersecurity standards, policies and norms.

Online Participation


Usage of IGF Official Tool. Additional Tools proposed: We will use Twitter to promote awareness of the session and real-time tweeting to encourage global commentary on the session as it happens


1. Key Policy Questions and related issues
Conflict between US and China on Internet governance models, cyber-sovereignty
Global trade in information services and telecom equipment
China's approach to data governance and data control
2. Summary of Issues Discussed

Internet freedom. Are China/US actions threatening the open and free internet? There was no agreement on this from representatives of China and the USA. But civil society, academic and industry participants indicated that both governments are doing things that restrict and divide internet connectivity. As one panelist said, “In principle, [if] we disagree with the great firewall of China, we should probably also disagree with the clean networks as well.”

Fragmentation and sovereignty The US representative said the Clean Networks initiative was necessary to maintain trust. China's representatives defended the concept of cyber-sovereignty but also claimed that the US is trying to achieve sovereignty as well. The European suggested that while China and the US fight, Europe may be able to "take the cake" by developing a "third way," but the nature of this alternative was not well specified.

Competing models of IG. In Africa, China's government is not using telecom infrastructure to impose its internet governance model on foreign markets, but its commercial vendors sometimes use China's reputation for surveillance and control to sell their products. The US claims China is a threat to the multistakeholder model, but China says it has expressed support for it many times and participate in ICANN.

Hong Kong National Security Law. creates extraordinary powers and was criticized as shutting down free speech in HK, but has not been used to harass western platforms yet.

New IP proposal was criticized by the US as “an attack on the very foundations of the Internet” but this was revealed as an overstatement as it is not really a protocol yet

China’s “Global Initiative on Data Security” was presented but criticized as too territorial and sovereignty-based.

The Chip war (US export controls) was discussed as punitive rather than supporting cybersecurity or creating trade leverage

3. Key Takeaways

Although the fundamental policy differences underlying the US-China division were not overcome, there was near-consensus on one critical point: centrality of global internet users.

Most panelists agreed that the well-being of internet users globally, not nation-states, should be the starting point of the debate. Mr Mok of Hong Kong put it well: "I do still wish as a user all this censorship and surveillance would go away by everybody. It hurts me as a user to see the powers of both sides pointing fingers at each other and saying I am better than you are." Rather than speaking of national sovereignty, we should speak of "user, people's sovereignty." As one panelist said, "things will happen from the users upwards rather than imposing restriction or standards of one country or the other." We think this is one of the most important ideas that high-level policy makers need to know about. 

6. Final Speakers

All speakers in the original proposal were present and participated:
Milton Mueller (Georgia Institute of Technology) and Peixi Xu (Communication University of China), moderators and organizers

Stephen Anderson, US State Department, USA

Guo Feng, Ministry of Information Technology, PRC

Iginio Gagliardone, WITS University, South Africa

Jyoti Panday, Internet Governance Project, India

Joanna Kulesza, University of Lodz, Poland

7. Reflection to Gender Issues

Gender issues were not discussed. 

9. Group Photo
Overcoming the US China Digital Cold War
10. Voluntary Commitment

Professor Milton Mueller committed to hold educational sessions on multi-stakeholder governance directed towards a Chinese audience.

Professor Joanna Kulesza committed to advance the end user-focused sovereignty concept within ICANN on behalf of the end user community.

Professor Peixi Xu committed to promote digital interdependence through the UN