On the 11th of October 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India for the 2nd informal summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While the Indian Prime Minister flew to the summit, Chinese President arrived in Hongqi — a Chinese luxury car. Although the summit was to hold comprehensive talks on issues of military concern on land & sea, the silence about cyberattacks by China, and India’s lenient stance over the matter, had much noise from cybersecurity experts. The arrival of the President on a Chinese luxury car was also viewed as ‘diplomacy for cyber-sovereignty’ and ‘safeguard against surveillance’. In this article, I present an analysis of the emergence of China’s ‘cyber diplomacy’ for cybersovereignity and the cyberthreat looming the automotive manufacturing sector.
Once upon a time, China’s political leaders believed that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. However, this has changed, and now current leaders believe that the power source is from soft sources such as the country’s ancient culture, economic success, homegrown brands, and ideologies & policy such as — ‘Cybersovereignity.’
So, what is ‘Cybersovereignty’?The power to set rules defines a ‘sovereign’ nation. When this power applies to cyberspace, it means the ability to set rules and regulations within the national border and control what happens with the data generated.
Public diplomacy in the digital realm
“During the period of globalisation, the sphere of competition is no longer about land, resource or market, but rule-making, setting regulation, norms or customs” — Professor Yan Xuetong, Tsinghua University
China’s leaders regard public diplomacy as a tool to strengthen China’s soft power — one of the four fundamental components of China’s Comprehensive National Power, on par with economic, military and political power. In the eyes of China’s power theorist, building soft power is a way to advance China’s domestic and international agenda, to guard Beijing against foreign criticism, and to boost China’s international standing. When information and communication technology(ICT) is used for public diplomacy, it gets labeled as digital diplomacy.
Here, it is essential to understand the difference between Digital Diplomacy and Cyber Diplomacy.
While Cyberdiplomacy is considered to be synonymous with e-diplomacy or digital diplomacy, these concepts differ from each other. Cyberdiplomacy involves managing foreign policy. However, e-diplomacy or digital diplomacy reflects the impact of new technology on the objective, tools, and structure of diplomacy. Therefore, China’s President arriving in Hongqi luxury car is seen as Cyberdiplomacy, as it asserts china’s foreign policy agenda in cyberspace — Cybersovereignity in Automobile Manufacturing.
“The growing emphasis on software & connectivity in the automotive industry adds a new challenge: Cybersecurity.”
The luxury car Hongqi is not conventional in the Indian market and had to be shipped from China to India just for President Xi Jingpin’s travel. While analysts see this as brand promotion, others differ to agree, as there are many other cost-effective ways to promote a brand. Therefore, the only reason that comes to mind is the fact that there is an enormous amount of cyberthreat and surveillance facing manufacturers in the automotive industry.
Cyberthreat in ‘connected’ luxury cars
Various articles highlight that most luxury cars are connected to smart devices. The problem that is endemic with smart devices is that they tend to have inadequate security. While some are appropriately secured, in others, there is no way to patch their firmware once a vulnerability develops. When an exploit is discovered in one vehicle, or perhaps even in one manufacturer’s software that is deployed through many of their models, it could be used to gain control of millions of cars quickly.
There is a potential threat to all aspects of the vehicle. Acceleration could be ramped up remotely, and brakes could be disabled or engaged suddenly. It is even possible for steering to be controlled remotely under the right circumstances. An attacker could also involve the window and door locks. Also, smart devices could be used in surveillance.
Shift in Diplomacy at the Digital Age
This incident is very symbolic and marks a shift in the way public diplomacy is practiced. It not only highlights the use of Cyberdiplomacy by China for its foreign policy agenda, but the change in diplomatic practices due to ICT. This also brings up the deeper questions on changing trust & security between nation states.
About the author:
Sanjana Rathi is a student of security and diplomacy at Tel Aviv University & a Research Analyst for Cyber Peace Foundation, an NGO in India in the domain of Technology and Policy. She has previously worked with international law-enforcement, think tank, academia, and the private sector in Singapore, Israel, UK and India. Her domain of expertise is in cybersecurity, technology, innovation and business development. She is a Computer Science Engineer and also holds an MSc. Degree in Digital Innovation from the London School of Economics. Besides that, she has a Diploma in Cyber Law and Forensics from National Law School of India University.