The U.S. Department of Justice charging of five PLA officers cast a shadow on Sino-US cyber cooperation. The negative impact of the event can not be eliminated in the short term, and it also sets a dangerous precedent in the international cyber security arena. Because the US government made a series of mistakes, it is difficult for it to achieve its desired results.
One mistake was the improper time to launch its surprise attack, which made China suspect the true intentions behind its move. Since the PRISM project was revealed in June 2013, the US government got a lot of criticism both at home and abroad. Just in March of this year, it was reported by the US media that the National Security Agency had hacked the servers of Huawei. The charge by the US Department of Justice followed shortly after these unresolved issues. It seems that the charge was a strategy to divert attention from the PRISM project.
On the other hand, there was increasing cyber cooperation between the two countries over the past year. In July 2013, the China-US working group on cyber security held its first meeting in Washington DC. From the feedback from both sides, the new mechanism added positive momentum to Sino-US cyber cooperation, and eased the tension caused by the Mandiant report and the PRISM revelations. However, the charge suddenly ended this trend. China is rightly skeptical of US sincerity in establishing the Joint Working Group, and also wonders whether the charge was a bargaining chip for requesting excessive concessions in the dialogue. If it is true, this is clearly an unconstructive and not clever trick.
The second mistake is that the US is moving against the wrong target. The indictment of active duty military PLA officers makes the issue more complicated. The unit 61398 charged by U.S. Justice was the same one that the American security firm Mandiant mentioned a year ago in their report. As many cyber security experts from China and US doubted the Mandiant report due to its critical analytic flaws and neglected other alternative hypotheses, it is questionable whether the charge by U.S. Justice was another groundless accusation. Furthermore, active duty military has little chance for self-defense in the civil court for protecting its national secrets. It means that the charge has been unjust and imbalanced from the beginning.
The third mistake is that the US chose the worst way to express its concerns. The US hoped to put pressure on China over cyber issues through domestic judicial procedures, but China is treating it as a provocative measure. In China, the Court is the last place to resolve differences, which means that both sides have no room to compromise. The US publicly issued five arrest warrants for its suspects, which deepened the Chinese belief that the U.S. was deliberately damaging China’s national dignity. No wonder that China is angry about the charge. What the US has done to China makes it difficult to rectify the situation. In addition, due to US judicial independence, China does not expect that any move could change or cancel the lawsuit.
As a result, China has decided to freeze the China-US working group on cyber security, which was supposed to be held during the S&ED in July 2014. It is expected that the charge and related cyber issues will become a hot dispute in the dialogue, but it is impossible that the two sides will achieve progress on this issue at this time.
What is more important is that the event will have a negative effect on the security situation of the global Internet. International trust is at the core of internet security, but the event has put the trust of the two biggest cyber countries in danger. Trust is essential to persuade countries to use a unified internet system rather than develop its own independent system out of national security concerns. Trust is also critical to the international community for combating transnational internet crimes. Both China and the US should be aware that non-state actors, such as terrorists and cyber-crime groups are responsible for the majority of cyber attacks and ultimately threaten the future of the internet. And some of these groups use advanced technical means to hide or disguise their sources. As Lillian Ablon and two other scholars from RAND Corporation mentioned in their research on cyber crime, a global market for Cybercrime Tools and Stolen Data was rising. The US charge against PLA officials will have a serious impact on China-US cooperation over cyber security. This may be good news for cybercriminals.
Li Zheng is an Assistant Researcher at the Institute of American Studies of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.