US-China cyber issue: US adapting to China’s modus operandi

by Chris Zappone

The US is taking a page from China in how it contends with Beijing on the cyber issue. This is significant because every great geopolitical struggle reflects the chemistry of the two powers. The behavior the US embraced with the USSR during the Cold War, or with Western partners, doesn’t work with China. Consequently, the US is adapting to the changed circumstances. Case in point: the US desire to publicly shame China over the cyber-theft issue. Most recently, the indictments from the US Justice Department came days after a visit from PLA General Fang Fenghui.

From the Financial Times:

The US announcement was calculated to cause offence in China, with the FBI publishing “Wanted” notices on its website depicting the alleged hackers, some in full PLA regalia, as common criminals.

“They are pretty annoyed, especially with pictures of guys in uniforms on wanted posters,” says Chris Johnson, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and formerly the CIA’s chief China analyst, who discussed the case with Chinese officials in Beijing this week.

“This touches on the guardians of the regime at a time when the high politics [in Beijing] are very sensitive,” he says.

One powerful Chinese who will be especially offended is General Fang Fenghui, the chief of the general staff of the PLA, who had just been to Washington but was not told of the coming indictments.

“This is a huge loss of face for Fang Fenghui…” said Mr Johnson.

But this is not without precedent from the American side. Recall Obama’s willingness to bring up the issue publicly with China’s president Xi Jinping at the shirtsleeves summit in Sunnyvale California last year. In December, when VP Joe Biden visited Beijing, he met with US reporters whose visas were being denied by China – which would be a source of embarrassment for them.

Basically, the US is learning what’s most effective with China by watching China’s behavior in these matters. In 2012, the day before US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Beijing, the US ambassador’s car was jostled by protesters.

More pointedly, in 2011 ex-US Defense Secretary Robert Gates visiting China only to have China roll out a new fighter plane on his visit.

As CNN wrote:

China took its latest powerful toy, a new stealth fighter jet, out for its first test spin Tuesday, leading U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to wonder whether the flight was scheduled to coincide with his visit.

“I asked President Hu (Jintao) about it directly,” Gates said at a briefing with reporters in Beijing. “And he said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a pre-planned test. And that’s where we left it.”

And the surprises related to China’s military go back further than that. In 2007, a PLA Navy sub popped up amidst a US fleet. The same year China shocked the world by destroyed one of its defunct satellites, sending debris through orbit.