In recent years, “engaging in cyber warfare” has become part of the parlance used by those who discuss US-China relations, especially when focusing on current tensions between the two countries. Its use has become even more frequent in the last two or three years.
The term “cyber war,” in fact, takes its place among other types of “warfare” China allegedly employs against the United States: trade war, currency war, spy war, space war, and more. All these are said to be components of China’s grand design to counter American influence and realize its dream of becoming a big, even dominant, world power.
How true are these charges? What is the evidence?
China is training more engineers, including computer and electronics specialists, than other countries, many more than even the United States. China sends an inordinate number of students, more than any other country, to the US to study the hard sciences. Many have a reputation for being computer geniuses.
Another “field of evidence” is the fact that the United States is extremely vulnerable to cyber attacks. The Chief of Naval Operations a few years ago said, “Cyberspace is on the ocean floor.” Other military leaders have averred, no doubt correctly, that introducing malware into US computer networks can produce traumatic results.
Some even say that America’s military power projection capabilities are being lost because of cyber attacks.
The US government is indeed alarmed and this is the stated reason it accuses China of hacking government websites and various other kinds of malicious deeds. Politicians running for office repeat these charges during election campaigns. In fact, it is a favorite scapegoating tactic. American businesses also do it.
Alas, both government agencies and large businesses attach a high price to their losses and label it big-time theft. US officials have called China’s espionage the “greatest transfer of wealth in human history.”
The US Cyber Command and the National Security Agency have both labeled China the major threat to US weapons systems in cyber space. President Obama has referred to China’s actions as an “act of aggression.”
Last year. the US government’s Office of Personnel Management reported the breach of 22 million security files and said this matter could not go unanswered. China was blamed.
The evidence against China is perceived, to use a term employed by nuclear physicists, as having reached a critical mass. China is said to be the world’s worst villain in doing damage to the United States with cyber attacks.
But the evidence against China is almost all deduced. Much of it is simply testimony. What may be called hard proof is missing. The problem, of course, is that solid verification that might be offered by the US government would require the disclosure of classified information. Or it would have to come via US spying on China. Businesses would have to risk their trade secrets to substantiate what they say.
Another conundrum is separating government hacking from private individuals doing this. The line between the two is seldom clear. Also complicating the matter is the fact that foreign hackers can operate in or through China. They love to cast blame on China since many people would believe their deception.
There is still another problem: Other countries regularly engage in computer hacking and other forms of cyber warfare, including the United States. As a matter of fact, the US is more capable at playing this game then other countries—including China.
US intelligence agencies have worked at this for years. They have been at it much longer than China. That would certainly, one would think, give them an edge.
Confirming this thought, Michael Hayden, the only person ever to serve as head of both the CIA and the NSA, recently stated: “We are better at stealing other people’s secrets than anyone else in the world.”
US government hackers have produced some rather spectacular results from their work that confirm what Hayden said; some have even become big news. It might be presumed that there are many more and US successes in the realm of cyber warfare far exceed in number those announced, which are merely the tip of the iceberg.
There is evidence China has been a target of cyber attacks. One high official in China has said publicly that his country is the world’s “biggest victim” of cyber warfare.
One special case is Stuxnet. This “weapon” was a top-secret computer worm developed during George W. Bush’s presidency and reauthorized by President Barack Obama. It attacked the control system Iran used for its nuclear bomb program causing centrifuges to speed up and slow down until they destroyed themselves. Iranian officials thought their engineers were incompetent. The effort put a crimp in Iran’s path to building nuclear weapons.
One would thus have to be naïve to think that the United States is not spying and using cyber warfare weapons against China as much, or more, than China is employing against the US.
The context offers some hints about this.
The Obama administration has accused China of being assertive, aggressive and belligerent in its claims to the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands in the East China Sea and its actions in the South China Sea. President Obama has ordered navy ships and air force planes to both areas to show US resolve.
The White House has taken actions to stymie China’s global influence by asking allies (with little success) not to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Obama has taken steps to block China’s renminbi from becoming an international currency. He has advised against or obstructed projects that are part of China’s huge “One Belt, One Road” project that will anoint China the world’s builder (taking that role from the US). These actions have been hurtful to developing countries.
President Obama has been purposely hostile towards China in the last few years. The result is that US-China relations have not been worse at this stage in any administration since before President Nixon.
There is also evidence China has been a target of cyber attacks. In fact, one high official in China has said publicly that his country is the world’s “biggest victim” of cyber warfare. In 2013 Xinhua, China’s main news agency, reported that almost 90,000 individual IP addresses had been attacked by Trojan horse viruses or zombie programs. Last year China’s huge computer maker, Lenovo, was attacked. In the last several months, China’s Internet servers have been hit in almost two hundred countries.
In September last year, President Obama and President Xi Jinping met and concluded an agreement on cyber security that gave the appearance of resolving the problem. The deal will enable US law enforcement agencies to call on their counterparts in China to investigate and make arrests when American commercial secrets are stolen.
This may help stem the loss of intellectual property rights to some degree. But what about state secrets?
James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence in the US, recently gave a briefing to the Senate Armed Forces Committee and said that China remains active in cyberspace threats against the United States in spite of the Obama-Xi agreement.
Thus it would seem that the White House focused on protecting private interests, including the intellectual property of those who had been donating money generously to political campaign activities, while ignoring broader, arguably more important, problems.
The Obama administration seems to find it difficult to pursue a more robust policy to deal with China’s cyber warfare against the United States government while owing a huge amount of money to China and borrowing more; needing China’s help to deal with global financial problems; relieve global warming; stop nuclear proliferation; cope with terrorism; and more at a time when it has not been able to generally maintain good relations with Beijing.
Alternatively, President Obama may think that solving this problem is not important or it is a “convenient crisis.”
Perhaps President Obama feels that responding tit-for-tat to China’s actions is enough or more than enough to deal with the problem. Or that the problem has created a useful diversion from other issues. Maybe he has too many other problems to deal with and wants to pass the problem on to his successor. Could it be that cyber war is the only war against China the president thinks he can win?
In any case, the issue of China engaging the US in cyber war is not as simple as it appears and the context presents a different picture than just the charges alone.