China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has resumed its cyber attacks against the U.S., according to The New York Times.
When news surfaced months ago that elements of the PLA were engaged in cyber attacks, there was a hope in some quarters that the Chinese government might be “shamed” into suspending such attacks. It was hoped that, coupled with comments by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon that Chinese cyber attacks were jeopardizing U.S.–Chinese ties, Beijing would suspend such activities. Instead, after only a brief pause, the Chinese appear to have renewed their cyber activities, although they have modified some of their methods.
This renewed set of attacks highlights the flawed assumption that Beijing can be coerced into suspending its broad range of computer network penetrations, which span the gamut of government, commercial, civilian, and private computers and networks. This naïve assumption presumes that publicizing Chinese cyber activities will somehow outweigh the evident benefits China gains from hacking—including access to key American intelligence databases. Is it really credible to believe that the Chinese will forgo opportunities to learn the identities of American agents in China, because its activities will be highlighted?
Indeed, the entire American approach seems to start from questionable assumptions. General Martin Dempsey, in his recent trip to China, reportedly told Chinese leaders that it was against their strategic and economic interests to allow cyber intrusions to continue—as though Chinese cyber activities were the product of independent hackers, rather than the Chinese military itself. Indeed, he seems to accept at face value Chinese denials that they have anything to do with computer attacks.
It should be remembered, though, that General Dempsey has previously stated that, “should China’s military be found to be behind hacks into the U.S. infrastructure, it would not necessarily be a ‘hostile act.’” It is therefore perhaps not surprising that, despite evidence that the PLA is in fact behind various computer attacks, he remains open to cooperation with China, rather than viewing them as the source of attacks, i.e., “hostile.”
Yet, with Donilon’s comments as a backdrop, the impending summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping offers an opportunity to make clear to Beijing the serious consequences of its cyber activities. The question is whether the Obama Administration will seize it.