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The Drums of U.S.-China Cyber War

Feb 29, 2024

FBI Director Christopher Wray recently upped the ante in America’s anti-China campaign. In congressional testimony on January 31, he sounded the alarm over intensified Chinese hacking activity and warned that US infrastructure – telecommunications, energy, transportation, and water – is acutely vulnerable to the Chinese state-sponsored hacker group Volt Typhoon. Front-page coverage by the New York Times added to the sense of urgency. 

A few days after Wray’s testimony, a joint report from the FBI, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), and the National Security Agency (NSA) provided detailed documentation of the Volt Typhoon threat. More front-page coverage by the Times duly followed. And then came the outage of a major cellular network on February 22. Suddenly, cyber fears have taken on a life of their own. 

Largely ignored in this frenzy is an important conditionality to Wray’s warning. China, he alleged, was “prepositioning” for future conflict. That is not the same as Russian President Vladimir Putin massing troops on Ukraine’s border in late 2021 and early 2022. In Wray’s words, Volt Typhoon could be expected to attack US critical infrastructure, “If or when China decides the time has come to strike” (my emphasis). 

Thus, the FBI, in concurrence with CISA and the NSA, is basing its very public alarm purely on conjecture about China’s future intent, not on any concrete information of an imminent cyberattack. Far be it for me to doubt the veracity of the US intelligence community’s evidence on Volt Typhoon; I would merely point out that this is circumstantial evidence that has revealed absolutely nothing about the likelihood of action. For those who remember the dire, but erroneous, warnings about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, which the United States used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003, this is no small concern. 

Having recently written a book about the potential of false narratives to trigger an accidental conflict between the US and China, I worry a lot about over-zealous emphasis on circumstantial evidence. I also worry about the hypocrisy of the allegations of Chinese cyber prepositioning. Recall that the US deployed the Stuxnet computer virus against Iranian nuclear centrifuges back in 2010. 

In a remarkable new book, The Politics of Language, David Beaver and Jason Stanley describe such leaps of faith as cases of “presuppositional resonance”: unsubstantiated projections of tangential (circumstantial) information that are marshaled to justify a politically expedient course of action. The current US political agenda vis-à-vis China is a classic example of this tendency. 

Wray’s presuppositional warnings do not come out of thin air. He has a long history of anti-China fearmongering. In the summer of 2020, as that year’s presidential election campaign was heating up, Wray joined three other senior officials from Donald Trump’s administration (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General William Barr, and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien) in a succession of carefully orchestrated anti-China tirades. Once a lead actor in Trump’s political theater, Wray has been unwavering in his strident Sinophobic views ever since. 

The FBI director’s fixation on Chinese cyber threats has an unfortunate historical precedent that harks back to the first Cold War. The “red baiting” that targeted the Soviet Union and alleged Communist sympathizers back then is aimed at China today. 

The bipartisan anti-China campaign in Washington seems dead set on backing the Chinese into a corner. That has become increasingly evident in the past three years, as the Biden administration has continued to prosecute the trade and tech wars that Trump started. Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi compounded the pressure campaign with her 2022 visit to Taiwan, which poured salt on one of China’s most sensitive open wounds. 

Similarly, under the leadership of US Representative Mike Gallagher – a soon-to-be retiring Republican from Wisconsin – a new bipartisan House Select Committee on China has used a combination of carefully staged hearings, threatening letters to US companies, and multimedia stagecraft to lead a crusade against China. It was hardly surprising to see the committee welcome Wray with open arms to its hearing on January 31. 

Countless other US politicians have jumped on the bandwagon. There probably is not a single member of the US Congress – Democrat or Republican – who is willing to take a principled stand in favor of US re-engagement with China. Anyone tempted to do so will be accused of Munich-like appeasement. Although President Joe Biden came close to re-engagement at the Woodside Summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping last November, his administration remains unwavering in imposing escalating restrictions on Chinese access to advanced technology.

To be sure, China hasn’t made it easy. The surveillance balloon incident early last year – to say nothing of a “no limits” partnership with Russia, a country prosecuting a barbaric, illegal war of aggression – feeds America’s China-bashing politics. Wray’s cyber alarms amplify these presumed threats. In the end, however, this pressure campaign could backfire. Increasingly aggressive US actions have been stoking precisely the kind of hostile Chinese intentions that paranoid US politicians fear most. That is true regarding Taiwan and is also the case now with cyber security. America needs to be very careful of what it asks for. 

All this points to a new chapter in the US-China conflict – trade and tech wars now reinforced by a cyberwar. Notwithstanding Biden and Xi’s denials, this conflict has cold war written all over it. The original Cold War came dangerously close to being hot, especially during the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Could the risks of cyberwar take us that close again? Do we have the trust-based capacity to temper those risks? Wray’s fearmongering provides worrying answers to those questions. Grave danger lies ahead in the growing drumbeat of US-China cyberwar. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.

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