Exaggerated fears about the paralysis of digital infrastructure and the loss of competitive advantage contribute to a spiral of mistrust in U.S.-China relations. In every category of putative Chinese cyber threat, there are also considerable Chinese vulnerabilities and Western advantages. China has inadvertently degraded the economic efficiency of its networks and exposed them to foreign infiltration by prioritizing political information control over technical cyber defense. Although China also actively infiltrates foreign targets, its ability to absorb stolen data is questionable, especially at the most competitive end of the value chain, where the United States dominates. Similarly, China's military cyber capacity cannot live up to its aggressive doctrinal aspirations, even as its efforts to guide national information technology development create vulnerabilities that more experienced U.S. cyber operators can attack. Outmatched by the West, China is resorting to a strategy of international institutional reform, but it benefits too much from multistakeholder governance to pose a credible alternative. A cyber version of the stability-instability paradox constrains the intensity of cyber interaction in the U.S.-China relationship—and in international relations more broadly—even as lesser irritants continue to proliferate.

You do not currently have access to this content.