American accusations of Chinese hacking – especially government-sponsored hacking – is nothing new. Cyber attacks, and Huawei in particular, were a case study in one of my PhD chapters – a chapter I first drafted in 2010.
Whether attempts to acquire intellectual property or explore and, potentially, undermine US governmental information structures, this has apparently been going on for a long time. Chinese cyber attacks have even made its way into pop culture – the effect of cyber-attacks in US-China relations is the foreign policy plotline for the second season of Netflix’s House of Cards. (I’m watching this again at the moment, as it happens, and today’s headlines could appear to be plagiarism…)
Naturally, the accusations have been met with vehement and spirited denials and counter-accusations from Chinese officials. This is also entirely par for the course. This time, however, Beijing has a bit of extra ammunition to strengthen their case. While suggesting that the American accusations are “made up” and “baseless”, as can be expected. They have also fired back that the US is being “hypocritical” – another typical retort, but this time it comes in the wake of Edward Snowdon… Given the revelations of US diplomatic spying unveiled by Snowdon and his enablers at The Guardian (Glen Greenwald et al), though, the US isn’t exactly occupying the moral high-ground on the issue of government-sponsored hacking. As reported in the Washington Post on March 22nd, 2014,
“The National Security Agency has sought to create back doors into the networks of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies in an effort to learn whether the company was spying on behalf of Beijing, according to a leaked document.”
Other documents obtained by the New York Times showed that the NSA “pried its way into the servers” of Huawei at its headquarters in Shenzhen, “obtained data about how the company’s routers worked and monitored the communications of the company’s top executives.”
In 2013, the Canadian Globe & Mail published an opinion piece that argued that China was one of the big winners following the Snowden leaks [behind a pay-wall, unfortunately]. The newspaper has also published a primer on the subject and Beijing’s predictable response.
The Washington Post described this as a “landmark case”, which “paves the way for more indictments and demonstrates that the United States is serious about holding foreign governments accountable for crimes committed in cyberspace…” I would disagree. There is little-to-no chance that the five indicted Chinese hackers will ever be punished, let alone extradited to the US. And the public posturing – for that is certainly how it appears to be – is for domestic consumption and very much within the standard US-China policy and rhetorical response. This seems to be an opinion shared (in part) by The Daily Beast, who stated that “the high-profile rollout shows the Obama administration wanted to admonish China publicly.” Whether or not this public admonishment will lead to concrete developments and improvements in US-China relations is unclear.
“The decision to confront China grew out of a White House strategy formulated two years ago to impose increasing costs on Beijing if it didn’t respond to requests to stop its widespread hacking for commercial advantage. The indictment is intended to address what President Obama and senior intelligence officials have called one of the top threats to national and economic security, with an estimated annual cost to the U.S. economy that ranges from the tens of billions of dollars to more than $100 billion.”
Time magazine published a piece on their website that outlined what the US believed had been stolen through this hacking, identifying four key areas of ‘loot’: Solar power technology, nuclear power technology, inside information on US business strategy, and data that would enable Chinese companies and its government to outwit American regulators. Those first two could be categorised as “typical” corporate espionage, but the two final examples are more troubling for the US.
The Daily Beast further explained the current situation:
“The Justice Department may not have meant to start another battle with China at the worst possible time, but that’s what it has done. Just as U.S.-China relations have hit a low point, for the first time ever the United States is charging Chinese government officials with conducting cyber espionage against private American companies.”
Certainly, following Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Chang Wanquan’s visit to the US, relations have been somewhat strained over China’s continuing (and expanding) territorial disputes in the seas off its coast, and also Beijing’s recent declaration of an “air defence zone” that encompasses some of the disputed territories. The trip was apparently intended to help deescalate tension over China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors. On this trip, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “sparred publicly” with Minister Chang Wanquan over China’s actions in the East China Sea, with little progress made on that situation. Given this fact, one wonders why the United States unrolled this accusation – perhaps as a way to split China’s focus, or draw it away from the territorial disputes?
Ultimately, while I have no difficulty believing hacking has been taking place and that it is no trivial matter, much of this seems aimed at the domestic markets of the two countries in question. This is by no means new – there are plenty of examples throughout the history of US-China relations (especially post-Cold War) when “scandals” have been trumpeted, or one or the other loudly accused of wrongdoing. Each time, the issue in question is met with explainers in the press, denunciations in the accused’s press, and then a quick reversion to the norm. I can’t help but think that there is an understanding between the US and Chinese authorities over this: the United States will complain certain issues, China will do likewise, with the understanding that it makes for good domestic politics.
[If you’d like to read more on this, be sure to check out Debating China, published by Oxford University Press – and particularly the chapter on the Media’s part in framing the relationship. That and also my thesis chapter on the same subject…]