Controlling Confrontation: How Emerging Technologies Are Increasing the Risk of Conflict Between the United States and China

The Effect of Cyber Tools on US-China Relations

This project will reimagine the concepts of strategic stability and arms control in cyberspace to understand and manage US-China relations as both countries are investing heavily in their cyber capabilities.

Project Title

Controlling Confrontation: How Emerging Technologies Are Increasing the Risk of Conflict Between the United States and China

Although the US and China are two of the world’s leading powers in cyberspace, other nations—including Russia, Iran, and North Korea—have also demonstrated the capability and the intent to strike targets through cyberspace. If progress toward stability can be made between the US and China, the foundations of that progress may serve as a model for relationships between other countries.

Project Summary

Cyberspace has emerged as a major component in the US-China bilateral relationship in recent years. Efforts by both governments to mitigate cyber irritants to the relationship, such as Chinese commercial espionage and US government surveillance, have had some success. But they have not adequately addressed the threat to both nations at the intersection of conflict and cyberspace. As the US-China

relationship becomes more contentious, both countries are building their cyber military capabilities and could be tempted to use them in a crisis or conflict. This project brings a team of Harvard scholars with extensive experience in government and research expertise in Chinese foreign policy together with their Chinese counterparts to address this threat.

Over two years, the project will explore how the two governments and their technology firms can jointly promote greater international stability in cyberspace. Drawing on the Belfer Center’s historical legacy as an incubator of ideas for nuclear stability during the Cold War, the project will consider whether and how Cold War concepts of strategic stability and arms control can be adapted to cyberspace, much of which is owned and operated by private, nongovernmental entities. Through a combination of research papers and dialogue, the project will produce a final report identifying the levers available to each government, and to technology companies in each country, that might lead to or reduce the prospect of conflict in cyberspace.

Partner Affiliations in China

China Institute for International Strategic Studies

Principal Investigator

  • AC

    Ash Carter

    Belfer Professor of Technology and Global Affairs, and Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School