Cyber breaches undermine delicate US-China relations

Cyber breaches undermine delicate US-China relations

Cyber-warfare has emerged as the spearhead of the new strategic capabilities strongly supported under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. However, extensive cyber-attacks launched from China targeting U.S. core economic, military, and strategic interests pose a major threat to this delicate phase in U.S.-China relations. 

In the last few weeks, the controversial issue of cyber-attacks allegedly sponsored by Beijing has created a great deal of concern for the Obama Administration.

First, the upcoming visit of President Xi Jinping to Washington looms on the horizon. Secondly, the Administration called for immediate sanctions against Chinese individuals and companies involved in the recent massive cyber attacks against the Office of Personnel Management networks that has compromised the private data of 22 million people.

If a response were authorised by the Obama Administration, a cyber counterattack would surely give origin to a silent but dreadful confrontation targeting mutual strategic interests in the region whose unpredictable outcomes could seriously affect the fragile relations between China and the U.S. Nevertheless, China has repeatedly denied any involvement in the cyber attacks, expressing concern that these frictions could undermine Chinese efforts to establish constructive relations with Washington.

In the 6th Century BC, Chinese philosopher and strategist Sun Tsu (孫子) elaborated a military treatise that is still considered a cornerstone of modern military strategy, based on information dominance, unrestricted warfare and asymmetrical capabilities. Despite the 2,500 year gap, Sun Tsu’s lessons still maintain a strong appeal for Chinese leadership, whose efforts are focused on expanding intelligence capabilities harmonised with the rise of China as a cyber-power nation.

In February 2014, the establishment of the Internet Security and Informatisation Leading Small Group (ISILSG) showed the strong emphasis President Xi places on the cyber security issue. For Xi’s administration, cyber is crucial in pursuing a national security strategy as well as facilitating China’s path toward modernity.

Technological dimension of the Chinese modernisation

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has massively invested in enhancing its cyber strategic capabilities in order to adapt itself to the challenges coming from deep changes in the international strategic scenario, and to the rise of domestic threats able to destabilise the Chinese Communist Party’s political power and legitimacy.

Under these conditions, the PLA has launched deep changes aimed at improving its combat capabilities through the development and acquisition of technology, transforming its military from a man-power intensive to a high-tech intensive apparatus. Expanding and increasing the sophistication of cyber-warfare capabilities has a strategic importance in modern conflicts, not only when neutralising the military capabilities of technologically superior enemies, but also in damaging vital infrastructures such as energy, transport, and finance.

Moreover, cyber intrusions coming from China have reportedly stolen confidential documents from hundreds of governments and private companies around the world. The rising numbers of China’s silent cyber army have created mistrust about Beijing’s cyber power.

Recent attacks aimed at gathering sensitive information and data against the U.S. administration and Taiwan have proven that Chinese hackers have reached an advanced level of sophistication. According to many analysts, any attempt of reclaiming Taiwan would be anticipated by extensive cyber attacks, in order to disrupt Taipei’s communication lines and strategic infrastructure.

Yet, compared to conventional military power, Beijing’s cyber power represents a formidable threat to the U.S. security umbrella in the Asia Pacific region.

Beijing and Washington are experiencing a difficult phase of their relations, and an additional fracture over the issue of the cybersecurity could compromise their balance of power. Further development of Chinese cyber activities could lead to a more problematic standoff between the two countries.

Despite Beijing’s willingness to make some concessions, given the upcoming visit of President Xi in Washington, we should not expect strong changes in the Chinese Network Security Strategy. Yet, Chinese behaviour is ruled by the idea that cyber-power is a vital and fundamental tool not only to guarantee stability and prosperity, but also to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

In addition, the recent spying scandals that exposed the Obama Administration have seriously undermined Washington’s reputation, demonstrating the strategic importance of cyber-espionage even for consolidated democracies.

In the foreseeable future, the sophistication of Chinese cyber-power will greatly expand. China’s warfare techniques and information operations will represent a formidable challenge not only to Washington, but to the whole U.S. security architecture in Asia.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito is a London-based analyst. He is also a GRI analyst and regular contributor for the Foreign Policy Association, where he writes mostly on the Koreas ‘blog. He holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, Japanese politics and Chinese foreign policy. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito.