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China Won’t Cut Its Cyberspying

Feb 21 , 2013
  • Greg Austin

    Professorial Fellow at the EastWest Institute

President Barack Obama registered his serious concern in the State of the Union address over cyberespionage by what he called “our enemies.” His remarks on Feb. 12 came two days after leaks from a U.S. intelligence estimate named China – again – as the most serious menace in the cyberdomain.

Some Obama advisers have recommended harsh action to send a clear signal to China to change its ways. But even if the Americans retaliate, China is unlikely to respond as they might hope. The spying will continue and probably intensify regardless of what the United States does.

One of the two main complaints against China’s espionage is that organizations, both private and governmental, are stealing design secrets from Western corporations on a massive scale.

Such theft of intellectual property rights (I.P.R.) is contrary to China’s domestic law and international treaty commitments in place for more than a decade. Recent efforts by China to honor its commitments have been substantial considering that it had no such laws for most of its history. But there is a joke in China that its courts are where American corporations go to lose I.P.R. cases.

Bilateral cooperation on cyberespionage against each other by the United States and China more or less exhausts itself at this rather unsatisfactory point.

It is the second main complaint – very distinct from I.P.R. theft – that gives a clearer picture of what is at stake for China in this escalating diplomatic confrontation about cyberthreats. This is the charge that China is actively penetrating critical information infrastructure in the United States with hostile strategic intent.

The Obama administration asserts that China, using cyberprobes of various kinds, is occupying certain positions inside the information networks of some critical U.S. infrastructure so that it can interfere with it if a military confrontation over Taiwan became imminent.

To planners in China, such activity would be seen as no different from the sort of contingency planning and cyberoperations the United States undertakes toward Chinese military and infrastructure targets. Chinese military analysts and leaders have been studying the United States’ use of cyberattacks against critical infrastructure ever since unconfirmed reports surfaced of U.S. attacks in 1999 against Serbia’s electricity supply and telephone system.

China’s view is also colored by the leadership’s heavy dependence for political stability on the intelligence services and armed forces, the main perpetrators of the espionage.

Yet there is disbelief in China that the United States would expect it to make a principled rejection of military cyberespionage. The Chinese would argue that the United States is doing it, and so should China. There is commitment in China to the idea that in terms of military preparedness in the Information Age, a country has to be able to use cyberassets, if it can, to disable adversary infrastructure on which a military campaign might depend. Last November, the Chinese leadership announced it would hasten the development of information technology for military purposes.

Military advisers in China have an easy case to make. Why should China abandon its nonlethal, contingency operations related to possible cyberattacks on critical infrastructure where the United States itself now is vigorously pursuing offensive cyberoptions?

The United States, they will say, is the principal architect of a direct and unlawful sabotage attack on the critical infrastructure of Iran in peacetime through Stuxnet. Internal assessments in China paint its cyberwar capability (as opposed to its information siphoning) relative to that of the United States as basic versus advanced. This assessment is shared by some former senior U.S. military officials.

Chinese military planners believe that they would only launch a cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure in the event of an imminent large scale military clash with the United States over Taiwan. While Americans cannot have equal confidence, and their concern is legitimate, it is the Chinese perception that shapes China’s responses.

The American case is not helped by its blurring of the two distinct complaints: I.P.R. theft and national security threats. This confusion comes about because some in the United States have assessed that China has an explicit policy of eroding American national economic power through large-scale cyberespionage. This is presented as a form of economic warfare – an argument that many American analysts dispute.

It is true that China has a policy of using any means available – including covert intelligence collection – to improve its own technology and, through that, its economic power. After all, it has to get around U.S. high-technology export bans in place for China. But Chinese officials say – and most foreign economists agree – that China has a huge vested interest in the stability and vitality of the U.S. economy.

The United States has a good and urgent cause to argue for: strategic stability in cyberspace. To work toward that goal with China as an unavoidable partner, the United States will need to make arguments about cyberspying that fit more sensibly than they have so far into a vision of the interconnected, interdependent digital world.

Greg Austin is director of policy innovation at the EastWest Institute.

This article was originally published by EastWest Institute

About Greg Austin

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