Is the White House adapting to a Chinese cyber strategy?

by Chris Zappone

The world’s strategic environment may have changed when the US said it planned to retaliate against China’s hack of the Office of Personnel Management, but it wouldn’t say how. Partly the incomplete announcement comes from US frustration over China’s unrelenting cyber intrusions.

From the New York Times:

…In a series of classified meetings, officials have struggled to choose among options that range from largely symbolic responses — for example, diplomatic protests or the ouster of known Chinese agents in the United States — to more significant actions that some officials fear could lead to an escalation of the hacking conflict between the two countries.

That does not mean a response will happen anytime soon — or be obvious when it does.

Economic sanctions and more indictments seem unlikely. Instead, there has been discussion of retaliatory operations to steal or expose sensitive information, possibly to the public. Or to breach the Great Fire Wall to “demonstrate to the Chinese leadership that the one thing they value most — keeping absolute control over the country’s political dialogue — could be at risk if they do not moderate attacks on the United States.”

Adam Segal at the CFR makes some good points about why going after the Great Fire Wall may be a mistake, with the Chinese already believing “that the United States is already using the Internet to undermine domestic stability and regime legitimacy.”

Chinese strategist Sun Tzu.

Chinese strategist Sun Tzu.

More importantly, by going public with what amounts to an open-ended threat to China suggests something else could be happening. The US is realizing that a treaty with China on hacking is far off (or impossible). In turn, it’s finally adjusting to the strategic reality of an Asian rival in cybersphere.

In Asian strategic thinking, uncertainty encourages security, while transparency invites attack.

Everett Dolman observes the cultural difference between Western and Eastern strategy in the context of space. But it can easily be applied to the cyber realm:

The Western mind sees transparency and openness as the surest way to peace. When one state can effectively monitor another, fears of surprise attack are mitigated, and the tendency to overestimate a potential opponent’s
capacities and intentions is minimized. With transparency, the security dilemma is obviated and cooperation is possible.

But transparency as a confidence-building measure is a purely Western mode of thought. To an Eastern strategist, letting an opponent know precisely one’s strengths and weaknesses merely invites attack. The key to stability in this view is uncertainty—not knowing how strong or how weak an opponent is and never, under any circumstances, revealing one’s own strengths or weaknesses. The more sure the knowledge, the more crafty the countervailing plan, and the more likely its success.

The ambiguous message of the White House may be the point of the announcement. In fact, it’s possible that the US is adopting an attitude that would get more traction in China.