Fallout of Snowden expose

Updated: 2013-07-13 08:25

By Fu Mengzi (China Daily)

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Washington should abandon its surveillance program and take steps to strengthen cybersecurity cooperation with Beijing

Former CIA agent and National Security Agency operative Edward Snowden left Hong Kong about three weeks ago, but the world's attention is still on the man who exposed the US' global surveillance program. The flight of Snowden from Hong Kong to Moscow sparked a war of words between the US and China, with the US State Department warning that the incident could harm bilateral relations.

The possible fallout of the Snowden incident, however, is yet to be assessed. To do that, we have to focus on two aspects: PRISM, the program which Snowden exposed, and Hong Kong authorities' permission to Snowden to leave the city.

To begin with, the PRISM expos is likely to change the nature of China-US dialogue.

There is still no shortage of people in the US who believe the current China-US problem pertains neither to security nor strategy, but to cyber issues - Chinese cyberattacks against the US, to be precise. That is hardly surprising, because before Snowden exposed the surveillance program the US portrayed itself as a victim of cyberattacks, accusing the Chinese government and companies of hacking into American computers. The US ignored China's refutations, and even made cyberattacks a part of the agenda of the meeting between President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Barack Obama in Sunnylands, California.

But "the Snowden evidence" has reversed the situation by establishing that China is a victim of cyberattacks. So now China should change its passive posture - which it maintained earlier in the wake of US accusations - and be confident enough to ask Washington to abandon its surveillance program and strengthen its cybersecurity cooperation with Beijing.

The Snowden incident also has marred the US' image across the world, especially in China. Chinese people have mixed feelings toward the US. On one hand, they detest America's past hostility toward China and hate its hegemonic attitude. On the other, many Chinese see the US as a country which believes in the principle that "all men are created equal"and "personal freedom is not to be violated".

Not surprisingly, the US government has used this principle to occupy a high moral ground in international relations. But the disclosure of a deep-rooted, extensive mass surveillance program has exposed American hypocrisy. The US never had - and will never have - the right to demand that other countries obey or endorse its domestic laws.

The US, along with the rest of world, will now have to adapt to the changed situation. That the US has been spying on China is neither surprising nor strange. What is baffling, though, is that it has also been snooping into the internal affairs of its allies such as European countries and Japan. How could US allies not feel wronged?

Talking about the second aspect, the Hong Kong authorities allowed Snowden to leave for Moscow because the US State Department failed to provide them with enough evidence to justify his further detention. This issue will indeed have a major impact on China-US relations, but at this point of time it is difficult to say whether it will be negative or positive.

First, we have to remember that the central government allowed the Hong Kong SAR government to handle the incident on its own. Of course, the US will always suspect that Hong Kong followed Beijing's orders to allow Snowden to flee Hong Kong. But as two major powers, the US and China can always discuss this issue (as well as other issues) across the table. The question is: Will the US agree to do so?

The US should understand that Snowden's departure from Hong Kong avoided a negotiation that in all likelihood would not have ended in an amicable agreement and could have harmed bilateral relations.

Second, Washington has cited security reasons for preventing Chinese information and communication technology solutions providers Huawei and ZTE from investing further in the US. But eight big US companies, including Cisco, IBM, Google, Qualcomm, Intel, Apple, Oracle and Microsoft, "hold key Chinese sectors such as government, customs, post, finance, railway, civil aviation, medical service, military and police, maintain close contacts with the US government and military and as such there is zero threshold for the US intelligence to obtain information through their equipment, software and networks".

With their products playing a dominating role in key information infrastructure, these US companies can actually create havoc in China. So after Snowden's expos, the Chinese have the right to demand a thorough investigation into the matter.

Third, the Snowden incident may have cast a shadow over China-US ties, but it could also help Washington realize that, despite attaching great importance to bilateral relations, Beijing will never compromise on its principles or interests. So irrespective of whether China and the US agree or disagree, neither side should hold bilateral ties hostage to win a negotiation. Only with this understanding can bilateral relations develop soundly. That's why coming clean on the PRISM program will help the US to secure its ties not only with China but also with the rest of the world.

At the same time, it is also important not to exaggerate the impact of the Snowden incident on China-US ties, because the relaxed statements of Obama and US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel suggest that overall bilateral relations will not suffer.

The author is vice-president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. www.chinausfocus.com

(China Daily 07/13/2013 page5)