Mapping China by the Numbers: The Role of International Cooperation

As part of a week-long series focused on Mapping China’s Ambitions, The Cipher Brief is partnering with Harvard Research Fellow and former British diplomat Jamie Burnham to explore China’s threat vectors, how it is organizing to win, what a government ecosystem looks like and the impact that international collaboration will have in the future.

Today, Burnham focuses on the importance of international collaboration.  Earlier in The Cipher Brief,  Burnham explored organizing a government data ecosystem, how China is organizing to win and China’s broader ambitions and threat vectors.

Jamie Burnham, Research Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Jamie Burnham is a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs where he is exploring how digital technologies are changing political intelligence and policy-making.  As a British diplomat, he served across Africa and the Middle East, with specific interests in weapons technology proliferation and the resilience of fragile states.

The scale and transnational nature of the challenge posed by China demands greater utility from the network of international relationships that have evolved since the Second World War.  The most well-established international information-sharing partnership is known colloquially as the Five Eyes: US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  David Omand, a former director of GCHQ, describes a degree of mutual trustworthiness which comes ‘from a long history of respect for the sensitivities of the other, demonstrating that commitments entered into and restrictions imposed will be honoured.’

Data technologies are, however, shifting the information landscape at pace.  Beyond SIGINT, international data sharing has not evolved either as quickly as the technologies might permit nor the new operational drivers demand.  Avril Haines, the new Director of National Intelligence, argues that ‘U.S. intelligence must re-imagine its closest liaison partnerships from ones centered on intelligence sharing to ones of intelligence generation, building a full-spectrum intelligence partnership that jointly develops technology and executes tech-enabled intelligence missions.’

Institutional architecture is slow to develop even within national boundaries.  In an international context, change is inhibited by conflicting policy, legal, institutional and cultural interests.  These can often be exacerbated by poor mutual understanding of issues and a lack of shared vision of Mission.  Any sharing tends to be bilateral and ad-hoc, with a high degree of wariness as to how information might be misused.  Absence of institutional architecture prevents sharing as a norm.   Opportunities are missed. High advantage secondary datasets (for example, network analysis) may not benefit from partners’ existing knowledge base.  New analytical techniques or innovations, such as machine learning algorithms, are not shared.


International data partnerships must form part of the necessary mutual response to the challenge of China (and other state actors).  A data-sharing ‘backbone’ may secure the following operational benefits:

  • Increase efficiency by reducing duplication of data collection, cleaning and ingestion and adopting a ‘data only once’ approach;
  • Encourage sharing of high advantage secondary data sets, such as PRC acquisition networks;
  • Developing a common understanding of risks;
  • Improve cross domain collaboration by more readily fusing different data collection techniques to deliver impact;
  • Encourage innovation and sharing of data exploitation techniques and analytical tooling.

While there are technological and infrastructure challenges, these are unlikely to prove the most significant barriers – particularly as migration to cloud-based services will force common technology standards and secure data highways.  Greater inhibition is likely to sit in the following spheres:

  • Policy.  Existing institutional arrangements are robust and well proven.  Undermining protocols and trust on existing intelligence sharing arrangements would create significant risk and undermine consent for an emergent approach.
  • Legal.  Five Eyes partners have different privacy and data governance laws, with much higher judicial oversight and regulation in those jurisdictions that employ the ‘Westminster’ system of government (UK, AUS, CAN, NZ).
  • Governance.  The functions of Chief Data/Information Officer would normally be required to ensure common standards and appropriate investment.  However, a collaborative governance system can be established, to ensure mutual inter-operability.

Outside the 5 EYES network, there may be opportunities to establish non-traditional data partnerships, recognizing some of the barriers of trust and regulatory divergence.  These may include entities within the Asian economies, such as Japan’s Ministry of Trade and Industry (MITI) which has a deep knowledge reservoir of commercial intelligence.  With the departure of the UK from the European Union, there is greater freedom to establish an information regime which supports the protection of international trade and intellectual property.

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The ambition should be to deliver a data backbone which enables a ‘network of networks’, in which liberal democracies are able to secure knowledge advantage over their adversaries.  Achieving such an ambition is unlikely to be simple, and it will require the patronage of senior leaders.


The threats to our citizens are emerging along the networks of global infrastructure.  The PRC are combining scale and technological adroitness to gain advantage over the established advanced economies.  To the UK, the costs may be measured in livelihoods lost, tax revenue foregone, and security capabilities compromised.

At one level, the UK’s response will reflect the state’s ability to protect its citizens.  Nick Clegg described his years as deputy Prime Minister as being ‘squeezed between the wish to react rapidly to reasonable plans for action and the reality of cumbersome decision-making in government, stuck between the politics of a digital age and the analogue arrangements of Whitehall.’  The infrastructure of the modern economy is not new.   The technologies driving change have been visible for many years.  The government has been slow to develop business models that improve delivery of public services while reducing cost.  Within national security, delivering data within and across functions has too often been regarded as the exception rather than the rule.

The challenges present choices for the intelligence community.  Much current intelligence practice will continue to have long-term, strategic value.  Behind even the most advanced technologies are people. Human intelligence is likely always to have some role in revealing the intentions of adversaries.  However, if the absolute value of such techniques will remain a constant, its comparative value may diminish.  The scale of activity is too large, and the complexity too great, to rely on niche collection systems to protect a broad threat surface.  New forms of information collection and dissemination are demanded, building on the existing base of skills within government.  The value of information must be determined by impact rather than sensitivity of source.

The approaches required for data are, moreover, in direct conflict with the doctrines of secret intelligence collection.  The most effective ways of maximizing the value of data is through a highly networked, collaborative approach in which information is shared widely and instantaneously.   These principles are contrary to intelligence practices which demand that information be heavily compartmentalised and distribution of information minimised.  There are reasons to adopt either approach, but the fact of a choice may not be apparent to those who deliver in well-established operational models.  Cloud technologies will deliver little benefit if existing practices are simply replicated.

A new data analytics capability focused on China requires a model of intelligence and information delivery, which sits uncomfortably with existing practices.  It may be necessary to establish an equivalent of GCHQ’s NCSC which operates successfully in both low- and high-side domains, or an organization outside the current intelligence community.  In any event, information delivery requires more than acquisition of tools and data but broader examination of assumptions, training, and policy and regulatory governance.  Boundaries between government capability and the commercial sector may be made more fungible, with problems shared and solved to support innovation.  Networked international partnerships may permit sharing of insight, methods and techniques, and creating opportunities to take disruptive action.

Navigation of these waters will take persistence and commitment, not least from the senior leadership.  If these paradoxes and conflicts can be managed, there will likely be broader benefits.  Intelligence agencies may in the long term evolve into ‘knowledge platforms’ on which sit a range of capabilities to collect, exploit and take action on information.  They will also require organizational culture that is mission-focused, flat, inclusive, collaborative and creative.  Meeting the challenge of China demands the very best in us.

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