The Revenge of Geography in Cyberspace
In The Revenge of Geography, Robert Kaplan pinpointed the fall of the Berlin Wall as the day when strategists and commentators ceased to believe that physical and national borders mattered to global affairs. Published in 2012, Kaplan urged readers to recover a "sensibility about time and space" he believed lost "in the jet and information ages." The book was not without critics. Anne-Marie Slaughter argued that Kaplan’s focus on national differences was somewhat old hat: the world was instead growing more interconnected, with cyber technologies like social media empowering citizens to look beyond physical borders.
Cyberspace was not a terrain much touched on in Kaplan’s book. But in the months following its publication, events in cyberspace conspired to provide a sharp rejoinder to his critics. Mid-2012 was the beginning of what Adam Segal calls cyber Year Zero: the opening gambits in a global information war that has only intensified since. Bookended by New York Times revelations about America's Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, and the Guardian's publication of the Snowden leaks, Year Zero also saw Iran launch damaging cyber-attacks against American financial institutions, and Chinese hackers escalate their theft of foreign intellectual property.
If the fall of the Berlin Wall was the day the West lost its geographic sensibility; 2019 is the year it is being restored. In the years since 2012/13, states have aggressively incorporated cyber and information attacks into their foreign policy; a development showcased by Russia’s widespread interference in U.S. politics. States are also reasserting control over data and information within their borders. America’s decision this month to ban its companies from doing business with Chinese tech champion Huawei is an obvious example of this trend.
The reality is, geography and borders never stopped mattering in the information age. Here are three reasons why geopolitics matters in cyberspace and, with developments in data-driven technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), will become increasingly significant.
First, states hold power over internet infrastructure and service providers inside their territory.
Powered by cross-continental undersea cables, network routers, and ever-expanding data centers, the internet has a vast physical footprint. This provides states with many of the information age’s trump cards. As the Snowden leaks revealed, the National Security Agency believed that the fact that most internet traffic still passes through the United States supplied America with a home-field advantage.
China is also using geography to level the playing field. The technical components of the “Great Firewall” are baked into infrastructure on Chinese soil—a process China started when the internet first reached its shores in the 1990s. The Great Firewall blocks Chinese citizens from foreign ideas, and foreign tech companies from the Chinese market. Recently-introduced data localization laws also require Chinese information to be kept onshore—that is, close to the fingertips of domestic spy agencies and far from U.S. agencies and companies desperate to access valuable Chinese data.
Next to physical control, the law is another powerful tool that lets states bend cyberspace to their will. Russia, Indonesia, India, and Vietnam have also introduced strict data localization rules, gumming up the wheels of global free trade. Many countries, from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, to Turkey, Iran, Uganda and Zimbabwe regularly require their domestic internet service providers to censor the internet or implement social media blackouts.
Europe uses its law-making powers to project influence globally. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation imposes standards on companies that process European data, no matter where in the world they are. Even smaller democracies such as Australia are reasserting the role of the state in cyberspace. Last month, Australia introduced world-first criminal penalties for social media companies that fail to take down abhorrently violent content shared to their platforms.
Second, the digital and physical worlds are increasingly inseparable.
From electricity grids and industrial control centers to city surveillance networks and national identification and healthcare systems, most 21st century infrastructure is digitally enabled or enhanced. Cyberspace is no longer the consensual hallucination of yore—a space primarily for sharing intangibles—it has a significant real-world footprint.
This means nations able to supply next-generation cyber technologies will also expand their real-world geopolitical presence. Recent research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute maps Chinese tech giants’ involvement in over 70 smart cities across Europe, South America, and Africa, and 52 5G initiatives in 34 countries.
Since Chinese companies are required by law to cooperate with intelligence and security agencies, their global footprint equips China with surveillance and espionage opportunities of colossal proportions and unprecedented leverage for interference and coercion should relations with recipient nations sour.
China’s digital colonization also comes with soft-power benefits. As Chinese tech companies continue to produce world-class public infrastructure, as well as communications and e-commerce platforms, more countries and people will be drawn into its orbit. In this sense, venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee predicts China’s widening lead in artificial intelligence will not only ensure the “economic balance of power tilts in China’s favor,” but will tilt “political influence and soft power, towards China,” cementing its “cultural and ideological footprint around the globe.”
Third, cyberspace is a new battleground for old geopolitical games of persuasion and coercion.
Speaking to Wired in 1997, Chinese internet pioneer Xia Hong declared, “No question about it: the Internet is an information colony. From the moment you go online, you're confronted with English [language] hegemony.” For decades, China, Russia, and other non-western countries have perceived the internet as a conduit for western power.
Authoritarian states, in particular, are pushing back. They are co-opting cyberspace to advance their own national interests and priorities. These efforts largely map onto existing geopolitical fault-lines. Russia’s weaponization of social media to destabilize its old rival, America, is well-documented, as is its use of these tactics to shape its near abroad. China engages in widespread social media disinformation campaigns to destabilize Taiwan and push its citizens closer to the mainland. The governments of the Philippines, Japan, and Vietnam expect to face cyberattacks from China when tensions flare over disputed territories.
States’ use of cyberspace also reflects the realities of human geography. Tencent-owned WeChat, which supports Chinese Communist Party censorship and surveillance efforts, equips China with a powerful tool to influence or manipulate hundreds of millions of the diaspora spread across the globe who regularly use the app.
In sum, as they have since antiquity, geopolitical factors will continue to shape and constrain world affairs in our digital age. Emerging technologies will only up the ante—as underscored by global debates on Huawei’s involvement in the roll-out of 5G, and China-US trade disputes over data localization.
Applying a geopolitical lens to events like these will be an essential first step to crafting good strategy to respond.
Katherine Mansted is a senior adviser at the Australian National University’s National Security College and a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. The opinions expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the Australian National University or the Australian Government.
This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.
 Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle against Fate (New York: Random House, 2012), xix.
 Adam Segal, The Hacked World Order: How Nations Fight, Trade, Maneuver, and Manipulate in the Digital Age (New York: PublicAffairs, 2016), chap. 1, Kindle.
 Eric Rosenbach and Katherine Mansted, “Can Democracy Survive in the Information Age?,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, October 2018, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/can-democracy-survive-information-age.
 “Mapping China’s Tech Giants,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, last modified April 18, 2019, https://www.aspi.org.au/report/mapping-chinas-tech-giants.
 Kai-Fu Lee, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), Kindle, loc. 351.
 Geremie R. Barme and Sang Ye, “The Great Firewall of China,” Wired, June 1, 1997, https://www.wired.com/1997/06/china-3/.
 Todd C. Helmus et al., “Russian Social Media Influence: Understanding Russian Propaganda in Eastern Europe,” RAND Corporation, 2018, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2237.html.
 Edward White, “Taiwan Warns of ‘Rampant’ Fake News Amid China Interference Fears,” Financial Times, April 2, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/0edbf61e-01a6-11e9-99df-6183d3002ee1.
 Katherine Mansted, “The Public Square in the Digital Age” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, June 2018, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/public-square-digital-age.
 Sarah Cook, “Worried About Huawei? Take a Closer Look at Tencent,” The Diplomat, March 26, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/03/worried-about-huawei-take-a-closer-look-at-tencent/.