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U.S. and China in a Lethal Game of Cyber Chess

Liz | Wednesday, April 09, 2014 - 11:11 am

In a game of “I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours” that would make Anthony Wiener proud, Pentagon officials have been briefing Chinese defense leaders on our military and intelligence community’s cyber intentions and capabilities.

They apparently expected the Chinese to reciprocate. Shocker: Beijing is not playing ball. Since we have ceded the high ground to the world’s most aggressive covert hackers, thanks to Edward Snowden’s leakage about our virtual intrusions into various Chinese networks, we have a weak hand. There is no reason for China to break from their long-standing denial of cyber espionage. Once again, the U.S. looks naive and foolish.

Related: China Blames U.S. for Rising Hacker Attacks  

The rationale for this unilateral dishing of state secrets is that we don’t want the Chinese to be alarmed over our beefed-up cyber department, which is moving from only 900 a year ago January to more than 6,000 virtual warriors over the next two years. Since it is largely Beijing’s aggressive cyber thievery that has prompted the upgrade, and since they know all too well how they have outgunned us in cyberspace, this soothing effort seems unnecessary.

The New York Times quotes a Pentagon official likening the cyber-openness to Cold-war exchanges with the Soviets over missile deployments, which were aimed at averting a potentially catastrophic mistake. Of course, nuclear cold-war tensions derived to some degree from our enemies’ respect for former U.S. presidents and for our military preparedness. Does anyone seriously imagine that President Obama, last seen scrubbing out his Syrian line in the sand, will launch hostilities against the Chinese? 

In case they were unclear on just how little backbone the U.S. retains, Mr. Hagel went out of his way recently to reassure our adversaries, saying we will adhere to a doctrine of “minimal use” of cyber warfare against other states.

President Obama’s timidity in recent encounters in Syria and Ukraine has emboldened the Chinese. After Obama condemned Chinese cyber hacking of our institutions and corporations, the pace of attacks picked up. They continue to siphon company secrets, as well as to test our defenses. Given the Snowden leaks, it is hard to protest the continued drainage of national secrets, which is expensive and infuriating. Without a doubt, Chinese leaders are enjoying our embarrassment.

Related: Spies Like Us—The NSA Is Intrusive and Incompetent

The China Daily recently wrote, “Beijing has demanded a clear explanation from Washington over reports of espionage by the US National Security Agency (NSA)…. Senior officials in Beijing say they are gravely concerned about the claims and demand that any such spying be stopped.” The former NSA contractor revealed that the US had penetrated China’s Huawei, a large telecom conglomerate, in order to gain access to that company’s customers in hostile countries like Iran and Cuba. That seemed like a dandy idea, before it became public.

China has become increasingly assertive and confrontational, in both its regional ambitions and its relations with the U.S. It has recently pursued ownership of disputed islands in the South China Sea, established a unilateral air defense zone over those contested territories and faced off against Japan over other islands in the East China Sea. After Joe Biden met with anti-Beijing activists in Hong Kong, officials warned the U.S. to back off.  It has also dismissed U.S. concerns about its sliding currency, a perennial source of friction between the two world leaders. The renminbi is down 2.5 percent in the past two months, a sharp turnabout from several quarters of gradual strengthening, and not a trend welcomed by the U.S. Treasury.

It is beyond ironic that the Obama White House appears ready to tell Chinese military personnel more about our cyber efforts than they have shared with Americans. The Pentagon Press Secretary claimed that the U.S. military would be “as transparent as possible” about our snooping. Nice to know. We’ll hope that transparency extends to phone taps and email intercepts of U.S. citizens as well.

In short, we are ill positioned in the extreme to look for concessions from Beijing. Nor does it make sense to continue prying the lid off our covert cyber activities. From the sound of it, we have few secrets left. Maybe we should keep them.

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