China hails Arab data security pact amid battle for cyber influence

Wendy Wu
·3-min read

China has signed an agreement on data security with the Arab world as it aims to cement ties with Middle East nations and bolster its influence in the digital sphere.

The League of Arab States and China announced their initiative on data security cooperation at a virtual conference on Monday, during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s six-nation tour to rally support.

It comes at a time when China’s tensions with the United States and the European Union are further escalating, with alleged human rights abuses against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang receiving renewed attention.

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Ma Zhaoxu, the deputy foreign minister, who hosted Monday’s conference for the Chinese side, said the deal was intended to create an “open, fair, non-discriminative” environment for digital development and would help give developing countries a bigger voice in global governance. No details of the agreement were revealed.

“The prominent risks and challenges on data security posed by personal information infringement and massive cyber-surveillance on other countries have made it urgent [to find] a global solution,” Ma said, according to a statement posted by the ministry on Tuesday.

Global powers have been vying for influence over the formulation of digital rules and standards.

China last September proposed its Initiative on Global Data Security, an effort to ease security concerns about Chinese tech companies and offer an alternative set of standards to the US’ Clean Network programme. Beijing’s initiative came weeks after the Clean Network was expanded to cover elements such as apps and cable infrastructure – areas in which Chinese firms have been targeted by Washington.

The US government said at the time that its initiative had been joined by “more than 30 like-minded clean countries and territories who have committed to protecting their 5G networks from untrusted vendors”. It said 27 of Nato’s 30 members and 26 of the 27 EU states had joined.

Beijing has repeatedly complained of what it sees as attempts to politicise cybersecurity, and accused Washington of double standards by damaging the business of Chinese technology firms.

But its data security proposal has received the cold shoulder from Western nations, which disagree with China on how to supervise cross-border data. Meanwhile, the EU has talked up the concept of digital sovereignty and has been in talks with the US to strike a transatlantic data transfer pact.

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Ma said on Monday that China and the Arab nations had held discussions on a cooperation initiative over the previous few months.

The League of Arab States said in a statement that it was “keen to strengthen cooperation in the fields of communications and information technology, including international data security, with all partners at the regional and international levels”.

China and the Arab nations have cooperated previously on 5G and artificial intelligence as well as data security.

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