Authors: Elena Zinovieva and Bai Yajie
The mounting propensity towards conflict in the digital realm makes national states willing to strengthen their digital borders and to protect their sovereignty. China is the leader and pioneer in this area, while Russia has also pursued a policy of digital sovereignty for quite some time. After the start of the special military operation, this policy received an additional impetus — in particular, a number of Western social networks and media outlets were banned.
The pursuit of digital sovereignty by both nations results in their making the security issues a major cornerstone, despite some differences in implementation practices. Russia pays much attention to diplomatic efforts and foreign policy initiatives in the field of digital sovereignty, emphasizing international information security (IIS). China, on the other hand, views digital sovereignty as an important element of protecting economically significant digital assets from cyber threats, as well as focusing on content control within the national segment of the Internet, while at the international level China is more inclined to support Russian initiatives and, compared to Russia, is much less likely to undertake diplomatic projects in this area.
Meanwhile, the similarity of priorities in the field of digital sovereignty facilitates bilateral cooperation in this area and allows Russia and China to promote common approaches on global and regional platforms in a coordinated manner.
Digital sovereignty in global affairs
In response to the growing scale of threats to international information security, different states tend to strengthen their digital sovereignty. Given that digital technologies are crucial to economic development, the political process, national and international security, control over their development becomes a crucial stake in global contention for supremacy.
The political concept of sovereignty, construed as power, held by a governing body without any interference from outside forces, comes from the Latin word “superanus,” which means “over” or “supreme.” Sovereignty primarily means the independence of a particular nation vis-a-vis other nations (external sovereignty), as well as its supreme authority over all powers within the national borders (internal sovereignty). The same interpretation applies to the analysis of digital sovereignty enjoyed by modern states.
Initially, the Internet was perceived as a space which is not subject to sovereignty norms and to which the notion of state borders does not apply. However, as the technology grew in importance, national states realized the need to manage its development and control the national segment of digital space. The vision of a global Internet with no state borders that characterized the 1990s and 2000s is now a thing of the past.
In 2011 “The Arab Spring” showed the vulnerability of political regimes to external information influences. This was a watershed that led many states to revise their approach to information security, as well as spurred them to control the cross-border flows of information transmitted via social networks, in order to prevent the instigation of “color revolutions” through digital channels. In addition, the need to protect critical information infrastructure from potential attacks was an important impetus for strengthening the digital sovereignty. Digital sovereignty implies control over the external dimension of digital infrastructure to protect against information influence and cyberattacks, the existence of an autonomous software and hardware base in the field of digital technology, developed IT sector and platform companies, as well as technologies for the production of radio- and microelectronics, routers, chips, microprocessors and semiconductors. So, this is a very broad concept, which by a number of parameters is close to categories such as “technological sovereignty” and “strategic autonomy.”
In addition to the internal component, digital sovereignty implies the legal entrenchment of the principle of sovereign equality of nations as regards the information and communications technology (ICT) environment in international documents in order to formalize it not only as an international legal norm, but also as a rule of law.
A pioneer in digital sovereignty was China, where since the late 1990s a policy to protect national information space has been pursued, the Great Firewall of China being its token and practical implementation. Russia has made a significant contribution to the recognition of how important sovereignty in the ICT environment is at the international level, and in recent years it has been more focused on the control of content transmitted across borders in the network.
Russia’s approach to ensuring digital sovereignty
Russia is one of the centers of power in the global information space. In terms of the number of Internet users, as well as the development of IT businesses and the platform economy, the country is among the leaders in the European region, which was showcased by the effectiveness of Russian platform companies in times of the pandemic. Russian information security companies have become leaders in global markets, Kaspersky being a prime example.
Russia has traditionally placed special emphasis on international and political framing of the principle of state sovereignty in the ICT environment. Russia was a pioneer in shaping the foreign policy agenda on IIS and digital sovereignty, retaining intellectual leadership in this area. Russia has been promoting the initiative of ensuring international information security pivoted on the internationally acclaimed legal principle of sovereign equality of national states at the UN level, regional and trans-regional international organizations, as well as within the framework of bilateral cooperation since 1998.
The diplomatic efforts of the Russian Federation greatly contributed to the formation of the political and legal foundations of state sovereignty in the ICT environment. In particular, at Russia’s instigation, the proposition that political authority over Internet-related policies is the sovereign right of nations was entered into the final documents of the 2003 and 2005 World Summits on the Information Society (WSIS). This tenet is also reflected in a number of UNGA Resolutions and in the documents prepared by the Group of Governmental Experts in International Information Security. At present, there is the Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) on security of and in the use of information and communications technologies, established at Russia’s initiative within the UN, to discuss the most pressing issues of international information security. The documents of this Group also reflect the principle of sovereign equality of states.
However, Russia emphasizes not only the international and political component of sovereignty in the ICT environment, but also the strengthening of digital borders. Digital sovereignty in the Russian Federation dates back to the 2000s, its founding document being the Doctrine of Information Security 2000. The most important components of digital sovereignty were the development of national search systems and social networks, the strengthening of the digital contour of the national Internet segment, including the creation of data repositories and traffic exchange points. Steps were taken to develop Russian software and hardware, to reduce dependence on foreign technology.
The national payment system also became an element of digital sovereignty. Progress in this area was achieved in 2000-2010, which further promoted the pursuit of the chosen policy. In particular, Russia’s Information Security Doctrine 2016 stresses the importance of eliminating the dependence of the domestic industry on foreign technologies both due to the creation, advancement and broad implementation of domestic developments, and the manufacture of national products as well as services provided on their basis.
The policy of digital sovereignty became statutory and regulatory with the passing of the Law on Sovereign Internet  in November 2019, which formed the legal basis for centralized management of the Internet within the state borders. Yet, for quite a long time, digital sovereignty in Russia did not involve control over the content of the internal segment of the Internet and limiting access to Western digital platforms in imitation of the Chinese model. The start of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine and the aggravation of relations with Western nations made Russia’s policy of digital sovereignty urgent, relevant and necessary. In 2022, a number of Western IT platforms were banned in Russia, which was another step towards the national digital sovereignty. The pressure of western sanctions also reduced the technological dependence of the domestic IT sector. In particular, domestic IT solutions such as online educational platforms Stepik and Skillbox have replaced Coursera. In addition, the demand for Russian software, especially in the field of information security, has grown significantly over the past year.
As Mr. Drobinin points out, only securing the sovereignty, possible “under the openness to the broadest mutually enriching and equitable international cooperation, can guarantee Russia’s sustainable development and a worthy spot for our country in a multipolar world order.” According to Mr. Safranchuk, however, Russia’s behavior in the international arena has long been determined by the dilemma between sovereignty and development, which implied a desire to focus on Western models of governance in the digital space.
Nowadays, the understanding of the need to focus on national technologies has come. The Russian practice of digital sovereignty is largely focused on cooperation with China, reflecting the general thrust of our country’s foreign policy, which is characterized by a pivot to the East.
China’s approach to ensuring the digital sovereignty
China has become a pioneer state in the sovereign development of digital technology. In the late 1990s, the PRC created a technical system of content control and filtering called the Great Internet Firewall of China. It was the government support and limits on the presence of Western IT giants that contributed to the growth of China’s autonomous IT sector, which currently includes leading companies in both the platform economy and technological network infrastructure. As estimated by the UNCTAD, China is second only to the United States in terms of digital development.
The concept of a sovereign Internet was formulated by the “father of the Chinese firewall” Fang Binxing who announced it in 2011 at the International Symposium on Information Security in Changsha. His idea is based on four principles: each country should have full control over its segment of the Internet; the state should be able to protect its segment of the Internet from any external attacks; all countries should have equal rights to using the Internet resources; other countries should have no control over the root DNS servers through which the national segment of the Internet is accessed.
China’s approach to digital sovereignty is based on the premise that digital technology and the Internet are significant elements necessary to achieve geopolitical leadership. It emphasizes the development of breakthrough technologies and realization of the economic benefits of digitalization. Among the “four principles” and “five proposals” for Internet development and governance put forward during the Second World Internet Conference in 2015, the first principle is “respect for sovereignty in the Internet space.”
As in Russia, ensuring security in cyberspace is an essential part of the digital sovereignty policy pursued by China. In 2016, China promulgated the Law on Cybersecurity and the National Cyberspace Security Strategy. The strategic planning documents emphasize the need to ensure sovereignty and national security in cyberspace, protect information infrastructure, and combat cyber terrorism and crime. This said, security also implies the development of international cooperation. In 2017 China’s Strategy for International Cooperation in Cyberspace was released, and China’s cyber security position and proposals were systematized and clarified. The national sovereignty of cyberspace is emphasized and the leading role of the UN is upheld.
It was underlined at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of China, held in October 2022, that without cybersecurity there would be no national security, and that without IT penetration there would be no modernization, the protection of digital sovereignty being an important guarantee of cybersecurity.
However, as China’s technological capabilities grew, the US began to cut off Chinese technology companies from global supply chains, capital markets, denying them access to Western markets. At various times, the US and its allies have imposed restrictive measures against Chinese companies and social networks such as ZTE, Huawei, WeChat, TikTok and others.
In this environment, China has become more active in elaborating the foreign policy agenda. In September 2020, China released the Global Data Security Initiative, which stresses that all nations should respect the sovereignty of other nations and crack down on the illegal collection of personal information about citizens of other countries and the transfer of data from other countries without their permission. The document also stresses the importance of respect for state data sovereignty, as well as the central role of the UN in international cooperation. Russia backed China’s vision.
The Digital Silk Road foreign policy initiative plays an important role in promoting China’s national interests in the digital environment. Thanks to the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, the cross-border digital infrastructure of states and regions along this route is getting increasingly interconnected. Consequently, there is the imperative of cross-border digital infrastructure security, which makes the need for international cooperation more relevant than ever before. The interaction between Russia and China in the field of information security issues plays a special role, both within the international system at large and the Greater Eurasia region, in particular.
Respect for state sovereignty as a principle underlying digital cooperation between Russia and China
Cooperation between Russia and China in IIS has a long tradition on both the bilateral and multilateral levels. In 2006, the national leaders adopted a joint statement on international information security on the sidelines of the SCO summit. In May 2015 Russia and China signed a bilateral cooperation agreement on IIS. In June 2016 Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping issued a bilateral statement on cooperation in information space development. The leaders emphasize that they uphold the principle of respect for national sovereignty in the information space and are exploring the possibility of elaborating universal rules of responsible behavior in the information space within the UN framework.
In addition to information security, the bilateral interaction also addresses a wide range of new security threats related to the development of breakthrough technologies. In 2022, the two sides signed a Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development. Both sides attach great importance to the issue of managing artificial intelligence, confirming the deepening of cooperation in IIS. It is also noted that principles such as respect for state sovereignty and fundamental human rights, as well as non-interference in internal affairs are applicable to the information space.
The two countries interact through regional and trans-regional international platforms, the SCO and BRICS holding a special place among these. In September 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping said at the Samarkand summit that SCO member states should support each other’s efforts and defend against “color revolutions,” while maintaining their sovereignty and political security. Within the BRICS, whose members are referred to as “sovereignty hawks,” there is also an emerging coordination of information security and digital sovereignty policies. Russia and China have been the most active supporters of discussing those issues within the BRICS framework.
The SCO and BRICS have identified the development of cooperation within the UN as their priority goal. Unfortunately, with the fragmentation of the global information space, international cooperation in this area at the UN level is facing growing opposition from Western nations, putting forward alternative initiatives. These include the French-led UN Programme of Action to Promote Responsible Behavior in Cyberspace, the OECD recommendations for regulating artificial intelligence technologies, and the G7 initiative for regulating cross-border data flows.  A similar competition of projects to govern advanced technologies can be seen in artificial intelligence, regulating the next generation of communication networks (5G), as well as the Internet of Things, etc.
Thus, the international struggle flares up around new instruments of global influence, such as global norms and institutions, technological standards, trade and technology. The West promotes a rules-based order in which the digital sovereignty of non-Western states is not supposed to be respected. Russia and China, as well as partners in the SCO, BRICS and other international organizations, offer an alternative vision of the global digital sphere based on the respect for state sovereignty.
Russia and China make information security the cornerstone of their digital sovereignty policies, with Russia being a leader of building the international regime in this area, while China places greater emphasis on data security as a critical asset of digital economy. In both countries, protecting digital sovereignty includes control over the content of the national segment of the Internet. This implies the support for creating national social media services, platform companies, as well as search engines and email services. Digital sovereignty means self-reliance, including in the hardware base of modern digital technology; however, it does not entail restricted access but rather the manageable openness and willingness to cooperate while maintaining independence.
 The law of “sovereign Internet” is an informal name for Federal Law No. 90-FZ, dated May 01, 2019 “On Amending the Federal Law “About Communications” and the Federal law “About Information, IT and Information Protection.”
 The G7 Road Map for Cooperation in Trust and Free Data Flows. London, 2021.
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