Chinese cyber attacks and US wishful thinking


When kids play hide-and-seek, whoever is ‘it’ turns their back, covers their eyes and counts to twenty before calling out ‘ready or not, here I come’. That’s when the game begins.

I feel somehow like the US is trying to do this with China by offering China an explicit description of the Pentagon’s cyber defense policy. The problem is, China began their unique brand of economic cybertheft years before. They are not about to give a forewarning. There is little incentive for, or history of China participating in this kind of trust-building exercise. Consequently, as high-minded as the US may look, and as wise as the US plan may look in a traditional Cold War sense, it makes little sense with China.

There is something a bit overly wishful about the US wanting greater openness and information with a country whose strategy seems reliant on the opposite.

In the possibly misguided spirit of fair play, here are the key quotes on cyber defense from US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s speech at the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University earlier this month.

Openness and two-way communication is especially important in the area of strategic and emerging capabilities, and in managing regional security challenges. It is why we seek to resume a U.S.-China nuclear policy and strategy dialogue. It is also why, through our Cyber Working Group, the United States has been forthright in our concerns about Chinese use of networks to perpetrate commercial espionage and intellectual property theft. We’ve also made efforts to be more open about our cyber capabilities, including our approach of restraint.

Those efforts recently took a major step forward when the Department of Defense, for the first time ever, provided to representatives of the Chinese government a briefing on DoD’s doctrine governing the use of its cyber capabilities. We’ve urged China to do the same. It’s in both of our interests to continue to follow this path.

Photo courtesy: WikiHow

‘To the Chinese, gaining economic advantage is part of national security.’

“To the Chinese, gaining economic advantage is part of national security.”

This is a quote from Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institute, on why the US arguments against China’s economic online espionage fall flat. It’s contained in a New York Times article with the latest Snowden revelation.

Singer’s observation about China speaks volumes about how the geopolitical situation may soon evolve between China and the US. The US still expects some kind of Cold War understanding about rules of engagement between countries, in which political spying is somehow demarcated from economic spying. But that period has ended.

What comes to mind is another quote, this one from University of California, Riverside Chinese literature professor Perry Link discussing China’s political culture in regards to withholding visas for American journalists:

If there is a silver lining in the predicament of the New York Times and Bloomberg, it is that the West may finally be getting a direct sense of the political culture at the top in China. It is a shrewd and inveterately competitive culture, drawn far less from Karl Marx than from China’s classic novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” in which outsmarting the opponent by whatever means is the most admired of achievements. When U.S. policymakers use terms like “strategic partner” and “responsible stakeholder” for the people at the top in Beijing, they are out of their depth.

And Link is right, then arguably there is a sort of post-Cold War laziness among US policymakers on their China thinking. If not laziness, it’s a lack of imagination. Many politicians, diplomats, thinkers expect the norms around advancing a nation’s political system and its economy that have been in place during the Cold War to continue on into the period of China’s growth. But China is a very different animal.

From where I sit, two things stand out immediately.

1) China’s military still operates with a considerable amount of autonomy from China’s civilian leaders, despite the flood of stories about Xi assuming control of the military.

2) China’s military works in conjunction with China’s business in an arrangement that serves the country. Whether the military rewards business leaders with trade secrets, or its under orders to do so, is not clear. But what is clear is that, as Singer says, that the People’s Republic of China as a country doesn’t distinguish between economic and political spying.

Western politicians must understand this second point and take steps to grow and secure their economies in this environment. Because China isn’t going away. And the new model they represent, which is actually a very old model, is going to shape global politics.

Chinese businesses, executives involved in cyber espionage of US businesses targeted in bills in Congress

Republican congressman Mike Rogers wants to put prohibitions on Chinese products and executives linked to cyber-espionage, according this PBS report. The move would impose a high cost on the businesses that profit from trade secrets.

Republican Congressman Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has proposed legislation that would deny issuing visas to Chinese citizens involved in cyber-theft, and freeze their assets, too.

This is all about making sure that those actors that we can identify — and believe me we can identify them — they there is a cost for their cyber-espionage.

In the Senate…

Democratic Sen. Carl Levin and three Senate co-sponsors want to take the profit out of cyber-crime. They have introduced legislation that block products that use stolen intellectual property from entering the U.S. market.

The move to “hit people in their wallet” creating a “remedy that bites” could, if implemented, create all sorts of new issues – and even new markets. But as the BRICs economies rise, the question is, would the US be excluding itself from
beneficial trade. Or, would the US start down a path that would divide the global economy.

It’s possible that foreign countries that are also victim of China’s economic espionage would adopt the restrictions, as they can. In that scenario, you can see the balkanization of technology happening.

With swaths of Chinese designed routers, car components, and other high-end technology outlawed in the US, a new market would emerge for products that meet the criteria. 

Enforcement would be difficult too. But the fact that they are talking about this in the House and Senate shows the potential allure of such bans. It’s telling that both the bills sponsors are from Michigan – a manufacturing state – and one is a Republican while the other is a Democrat.

The new frontier of China-US competition

This story about an online leaker in Zimbabwe’s president’s campaign contains an interesting line that relates directly to an emerging online cold war, discussed on this blog.

Someone in President Robert Mugabe’s office is posting inside information on a Facebook page, causing much embarrassment for the 89-year-old leader.

From the Daily Telegraph:

Determined attempts by senior Zanu-PF party officials to persuade Facebook to close the page failed and the president has now reportedly appealed to friends in the Chinese government for technical support to censor the site and identify its user.

When it comes to propping up an African strongman who has been in power for decades, it will certainly help if the internet infrastructure provider shares the same authoritarian values. Likewise, the freedom of the flow of political information, embraced by many Western countries, will increasingly become an irritant.

The companies linked to democracies will handle requests to block free speech online differently to countries that are authoritarian in nature themselves. This is an area to watch closely, as there are likely many more stories to surface.

And where there is struggle for influence, there may well be a battle of ideas.