US China cyberwar: Did Obama flag a cyber conflict with China in his foreign policy speech?

by Chris Zappone

Not quite. But Obama certainly offered clues on the future direction of a cyber conflict with a country like China.

As the US methodically ratchets up the pressure on China’s cyber-trade secret theft, the recent indictments, handled by the FBI and the Department of Justice, are just one step in a likely series of actions. If China’s intellectual property theft is the threat to US economic well-being that the White House claims it is, then Obama just left the door open to cyberattacks to counter the Chinese actions.

In describing his vision for how the US and the military “should lead in the years to come” Obama explains:

The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it — when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger. In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just. International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland, or our way of life.

Later in the speech, discussing the behavior of states, Obama lays it out: “We have a serious problem with cyber-attacks, which is why we’re working to shape and enforce rules of the road to secure our networks and our citizens.”

The key phrases here are “core interests” and “when our livelihoods are at stake”. The issue of online trade secret theft is critical for the US, especially for its economy relative to China’s. For years, China the emerging industrial giant has used foreign technology acquired through trade agreements or otherwise to build its industries and lift millions out of poverty. Now, the US in weak-growth mode and facing years of competition from across the Pacific, has to shore up its competitive economic advantages. One of the biggest US economic advantages is in the area of innovation, technology and design. The ability to ensure US inventions benefit US businesses – and not foreign ones – is critical to the US’s long-term economic prospects. My bet is that this would qualify as a core American interest.

The reference to a “serious problem with cyber-attacks” is all about China. Plainly. And working to shape and enforce rules brings to mind the recent sharing of the US cyber policy with the Chinese themselves. Despite the laudable gesture, which speaks volumes about the policy-making apparatus in the US and China, China is probably too internally divided for it to make a difference.

To give a sense of the growing centrality of cyber-defense to the US, West Point soldiers are increasingly being educated in the sphere – which means the US is thinking long-term about the cyber defense, with generals likening the cyber realm to what the sky is for the air force, or what the sea is for the navy.

More broadly, Obama’s use of the “core interests” is interesting, too. Rather than a Kennedyesque speech of “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship,” the core interests argument now reflects the new age we’re in. The US’s biggest rival, China, has expanded its use of the “core interest” justification in recent years in explaining its actions. I read this as an American response. Regarding foreign policy in general, but cyber defense it particular, core interests gives the US a lot of latitude in act, another reason to watch this area in the future.