Understanding root differences on the Internet to make progress on cybersecurity: my latest at China-US Focus

New at China-U.S. Focus, I argue that there is real potential for progress on cybersecurity in the U.S.–China relationship, but basic differences in the way the governments and peoples view the Internet cannot be brushed aside.

Probe Deep Differences to Make Real Progress on Cybersecurity

In a U.S.–China relationship confronting numerous challenges, perhaps no topic is as hard to discuss as cybersecurity. Unlike other strategic challenges, such as minimizing the potential for inadvertent clashes at sea or in the air, smoothing bilateral economic investment regulations, or even reducing the severity and effects of climate change, cybersecurity cuts across policy areas with a blade of uncertainty and mutual suspicion. Some observers have suggested U.S.–China differences are so deep that dialogue is futile, but even if it doesn’t produce a swift resolution, a recent increase in public and private discussions on the topic can build a foundation of understanding.

[Continue reading.]

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Cybersecurity as ‘pivot’ version two? A policy narrative for media-friendly U.S.–China relations

Pivot. “I personally don’t like the term,” said Jeffrey Bader, former senior director for East Asia of the U.S. National Security Council. It was an “unfortunate word” selected by staff seeking a positive press response to President Barack Obama’s trip to Asia in 2011, he said at Beijing’s Tsinghua University on Nov. 29, 2012. Each time the president goes to Asia, he said, the story is always about China, and there are two options: Either the United States came as a supplicant and is in decline, or it put China on its heels. Both stories are wrong, Bader argues, but the word “pivot” was selected to push for the second story in the U.S. press.

The word “pivot” swiftly became “rebalance” in U.S. government statements. To some, it had implied a turn away from other regions, not a reassuring message for those seeking continued support in the Middle East. Some also thought it implied that the United States would shift its interventionist tactics from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific region. “Rebalance” was rolled out with more nuance, emphasizing at times that it implied only minor increases in the Pacific, instead emphasizing drawdowns elsewhere. Then, the question of whether the “pivot” or “rebalance” had failed as a strategy soared to the top of the discussion after Obama was reelected. In Secretary of State John Kerry’s confirmation hearings, he implied limited support for a shift of resources: “I’m not convinced that increased military ramp-up is critical yet. I’m not convinced of that. That’s something I’d want to look at very carefully when and if you folks confirm me and I can get in there and sort of dig into this a little deeper.”

With the pivot/rebalance downgraded as a strong-on-China rhetoric, and the deep need for greater engagement with China, what was left to keep the press on the “China on its heels” narrative? Consider cybersecurity. President Obama began a rollout with the State of the Union this year. Without naming China, he made “enemies [who] are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air trafic control systems” the China policy point. The day before, someone had leaked to the Washington Post a classified National Intelligence Estimate naming China as the most aggressive cybersecurity threat.

President Barack Obama meets then-Vice President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office on Feb. 14, 2012.

President Barack Obama meets then-Vice President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office on Feb. 14, 2012.

In the coming days, the private online security firm Mandiant released a report that allegedly detailed Chinese military involvement in spying on U.S. businesses. A “senior defense official” told The New York Times, “In the cold war, we were focused every day on the nuclear command centers around Moscow. … Today it’s fair to say that we worry as much about the computer servers in Shanghai.” Then the White House released its “Strategy to Mitigate the Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets,” which does not name China in the body text but features it in six of the seven theft examples in sidebars.

This drumbeat has continued through February and March and up to today. National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon said in a speech in March that “intellectual property and trade secrets” had “moved to the forefront of our agenda.” Since then, cybersecurity, often with some degree of conflation between national security threats and threats to private intellectual property, has moved to the top of the U.S. media agenda on China, along with North Korea. In the White House background briefing on the upcoming summit between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the briefers didn’t have to bring up cybersecurity. The first question and half of all questions mentioned the topic (including the meta-question “how do you keep this summit from being a cyber summit?”). Admittedly impressionistic data from Google Trends shows U.S. searches for “China” and “cyber” peaking in February.

U.S. search interest in "China cyber" over time, according to Google Trends.

U.S. search interest in “China cyber” over time, according to Google Trends. (Embedding isn’t working, so here’s a screenshot. The y-axis is calibrated to set the peak in February at 100.)

Now, the White House is in the midst of a significant surge in China diplomacy with considerable attention to the future. The Obama-Xi “shirt-sleeves summit” near Palm Springs, Calif., to take place Friday and Saturday was preceded by, among other efforts:

  • Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to China in August 2011.
  • Xi’s trip to the United States as vice president and heir-apparent, with Biden as his host and an Oval Office meeting with Obama in February 2012.
  • Secretary of Treasury Jack Lew’s trip to China in March 2013.
  • Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to China in April 2013.
  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey’s trip to China in April 2013.
  • The April announcement of the 2013 round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue to be held in Washington July 8–12, 2013.
  • National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon’s trip to China in May 2013.

It’s possible to view the dogged focus on cybersecurity in the media and in government statements as misplaced. After all, it is unclear what if any effect on actual operations the “naming and shaming” process is having, and we will have to wait and see what further measures the U.S. government might take. Meanwhile, other issues such as energy and climate cooperation, maintaining stability around North Korea, and military-to-military relations are also pressing. Perhaps most of all, say (almost) all the comments out there, Obama and Xi have the opportunity to open a new chapter of U.S.–China relations through high-level dialogue and building a “new kind of great power relations” (Chinese wording) or a “new model of relations between an existing power and an emerging one” (U.S. version).

These cooperative notes, however, could trigger the media narrative Bader said the administration dreads: the United States as declining supplicant. Instead, the administration gets to claim they will raise cybersecurity in this and other interactions. They have high-level working groups in progress or planned for cybersecurity (a challenge) and climate change (an opportunity and a challenge). And needless to say, there is the benefit of getting a very serious issue for U.S. businesses and the U.S. national security community on the table in a way the Chinese government cannot entirely ignore.

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Japanese constitutional revision, and welcoming Tobias Harris and Observing Japan back to blogville

Harris headshotAfter a reasonably long hiatus that led me to remove Observing Japan from the Transpacifica blogroll (which I have capped at 25 in an effort to list only the most valuable sources), author and friend Tobias Harris is back, and with a vengeance.

Reasons to welcome him back:

(1) While he apparently did not win on Jeopardy on Monday, this guy was on Jeopardy!

(2) More pertinently, read his latest post: Is constitution revision actually possible? He writes:

[W]e’re probably seeing the emergence of what will likely be a persistent pattern should Abe remain in power. Abe and his lieutenants will talk about the need to revise the constitution, Komeito will express its unease about revision, what’s left of the left wing will sound the alarm, public opinion polls will reveal skepticism about revision, LDP grandees will suggest backing down…and rinse and repeat.

The underlying issue is the much-discussed revision of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which reads:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

As is obvious to all in the region, land, sea, and air forces are very well maintained in the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, so the letter of this law is in some sense moot. But Article 9 still has force and, because of judicial interpretations, limits the status and activities of the SDF. Just as importantly, Article 9 frustrates efforts by the Japanese right to return their country to “normal country” status among states.

The post is actually about an intermediate step that would likely be necessary to get to Article 9 revision: a change to Article 96 of the constitution, which sets a two-thirds vote in the Diet followed by a referendum as the threshold for constitutional revision. The right apparently doesn’t have two-thirds for Article 9 revision, so some are seeking support to change Article 96 to allow a simple majority to trigger a referendum.

So as you can see, if Toby is right, the constitutional revision issue is an opportunity for Prime Minister Abe to play to the conservative base of the Liberal Democratic Party without the likelihood of success. It’s something Abe or other LDP leaders could do periodically to placate the far right, and in that sense is perhaps a welcome alternative (from the perspective of the left, or of China and Korea) to former Prime Minister Koizumi’s annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. And as he writes of the crumbled opposition, “Defending the constitution may be one of the few areas in which the Japanese left is still be able to mobilize citizens.”

So follow Observing Japan for regional issues, Abenomics, and whatever else comes up in Japanese politics. (And anyone is welcome to correct me, if I’ve bungled details on constitutional revision here.)

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How China’s government escalates warnings before military action

The government of the People’s Republic of China has displayed a fairly consistent pattern of escalating signals followed by deterrent military deployments before engaging in a hot conflict, argues a new report [pdf] from the U.S. National Defense University. Reviewing each instance of armed conflict since 1949, as well as several cases that never made it that far, the authors suggest that the Chinese government has used evolving but similar signals, including statements by leaders and official publications, to indicate the degree of its resolve on a given issue.

The authors, Paul H.B. Godwin and Alice L. Miller, are experienced analysts of Chinese military and strategic history. Miller offers a framework for ranking the authoritativeness of various statements by leaders or in official media, one very similar to her account that was the basis of a post I did over at 88-Bar.

Godwin and Miller offer perhaps the clearest available review of the circumstances and signals that led up to China’s military engagements. For this alone, the paper is worth a read. They argue that China’s use of military force should be understood as divided between Taiwan-related and non-Taiwan-related cases. Non-Taiwan cases include the Korean War (from 1950), the 1962 border war with India, the 1963-75 deployment in North Vietnam, and the 1979 attack on Vietnam (as its ties to the USSR grew stronger). They are similarly thorough on confrontations over maritime claims, making this an essential read for those watching today’s events unfold.

Some interpretations are perhaps too confident in attributing intent to actions observed from afar. The accounts tend to assume a sort of Realist calculus undergirds decisions on each side and pushes for greater and more refined attention to Chinese signals in such situations. The result is a very strong framework for evaluating signals, one that fits the history presented in almost every case. It can be understood as a strong model fit to moderately jagged data.

Will past patterns continue?

Though the report does not claim to predict the future, there is a strong implication that the Chinese government’s signaling and deterrence patterns can be expected to continue. As the authors repeatedly note, however, China’s strength has increased, reshaping the playing field. They argue in part:

  • There are “indicators suggesting that changes in China’s security environment have reduced rather than increased the possibilities for military confrontation with the United States. Moreover, within PLA doctrinal development, increasing capabilities are as much related to deterrence as they are to offensive operations.”
  • There is enormous potential for damage to “China’s economic future and security” if the country is perceived as disruptive or aggressive.
  • “[T]he chances of a cross-strait military confrontation are now among the lowest they have been since 1949.”
  • It is improbable that China would strike first. If China escalated warnings and deployments, the United States would likely move more military force into the region, making a strike a losing proposition for China. A surprise attack, they argue, is unlikely as well.
  • In sum, military confrontation with the United States is unlikely on each of the potential triggers.

In the context of the report, these arguments assume a generally status quo scenario for signaling and deterrence. Left under-considered is the possibility that increased capabilities would be accompanied by a new pattern of signaling, deterrence, or offensive action. Indeed, the current situation in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, the India borderlands, the cybersecurity area, etc., could be viewed as an “all-fronts” increase in activity. Are these all understood to be deterrent? If so, what new threats or challenges have they responded to? Did the external environment really turn that sour all at once?

The authors, I believe, would argue that these actions amount to a deterrent targeted at the United States, akin to efforts to prevent U.S. control of North Korea or North Vietnam. Of course, the U.S. government’s goals in the South China Sea and the western Pacific are very different than they was in those conflicts. But the fact of the matter is that there is an overall increase in Chinese deployments in the country’s maritime periphery. In the past, the report suggests, increased deployments were designed to deter specific actions by potential adversaries. Things are different today, and time will tell whether the signaling-deterrence pattern identified here holds.

A process-tracing media analyst’s treasure

The paper concludes with a remarkable compilation of Chinese government signals, ranked by authoritativeness, in three chronologies: the 1978–1979 Sino-Vietnamese border crisis; the 1961–1962 Sino-Indian border crisis; and signaling over Taiwan in 1991, 1995, 1999, and 2003–2004. Whatever happens in the future, these appendices are treasures for historians and the curious.

The following table (p. 32) outlines the report’s hierarchy of authoritativeness, by which the authors suggest observers should rate signals from the leadership, government bodies, and the People’s Daily.

Screen Shot 2013-05-27 at 6.00.01 PM

The appendices apply this framework and classify each signal to portray the incremental increase in authority of those delivering statements. Meanwhile, there is a corresponding “ascending order of threat,” included below:

■ X is “playing with fire” and may “get burned”
■ Beijing so far has “exercised the greatest restraint and forbearance” but this “should not be taken as weakness and submissiveness”
■ Do “not turn a deaf ear to China’s warnings”; China “cannot stand idly by”
■ “How far will you go? We shall wait and see”
■ “China’s forbearance has limits”; X is “deluding itself in thinking we are weak and can be bullied”
■ If X does not cease its behavior, it “will meet the punishment it deserves”
■ “Do not complain later that we did not give you clear warning in advance”
■ We have been “driven beyond forbearance” and are “forced to counterattack”; our “restraint was regarded as an invitation to bullying”; our “warnings fell on deaf ears”
■ “We will not attack if we are not attacked; if we are attacked, we will certainly counterattack.”

Regardless of the overall analysis’s  validity in the future, these are very useful guides for assessing signals. Add to this increasing transparency (at least in the form of rumors online) that might allow more detailed analysis of decision-making within the regime, and increased official and Track II contact between the Chinese and U.S. political leadership, and we might just have a recipe for better understanding.

This is my second or third attempt at an informal review, for a general-if-nerdy audience, of recently published academic and policy writing. Comments are very welcome below or by e-mail at mail // at // gwbstr // dot // com.

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Among China expats today, echoes of Orwell’s time in Burma?

At the recommendation of a friend in Beijing, I’ve been reading George Orwell’s Burmese Days. Coincidentally, Jane Perlez of The New York Times recently traveled to the real town Orwell was stationed in that inspires the novel’s setting. She calls the book “a scathing portrait of the imperious attitudes of the British, from this former colonial outpost on the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy River.” Some of those imperious attitudes sound strikingly similar to, if far more strident than, the complaints and judgments of some expatriates in Beijing.

NYT picture of the house Orwell lived in. Click for story and full size.

NYT picture of the house Orwell lived in. Click for story and full size.


One of the central tensions of the novel, which I haven’t finished (and so neither did I read the end of Perlez’s story, where she got back to the plot), is that one Englishman, named Flory, is unusually sympathetic to the Burmese, while the rest of the European population is savagely racist and dismissive. This passage pretty much sums it up.

There was an uneasiness between them, ill-defined and yet often verging upon quarrels. When two people, one of whom has lived long in the country while the other is a newcomer, are thrown together, it is inevitable that the first should act as cicerone to the second. Elizabeth, during these days, was making her first acquaintance with Burma; it was Flory, naturally, who acted as her interpreter, explaining this, commenting upon that. And the things he said, or the way he said them, provoked in her a vague yet deep disagreement. For she perceived that Flory, when he spoke of the ‘natives’, spoke nearly always in favour of them. He was forever praising Burmese customs and the Burmese character; he even went so far as to contrast them favourably with the English. It disquieted her. After all, natives were natives—interesting, no doubt, but finally only a ‘subject’ people, an inferior people with black faces. His attitude was a little too tolerant. Nor had he grasped, yet, in what way he was antagonising her. He so wanted her to love Burma as he loved it, not to look at it with the dull, incurious eyes of a memsahib! He had forgotten that most people can be at ease in a foreign country only when they are disparaging the inhabitants.

The life of an American or European expatriate in Beijing is categorically different. We are not colonial authorities, nor is urban China so terribly exotic compared to other global cities. But the tension is real between people who seek only to complain and disparage, and those who seek to understand and engage. That tension can frequently be recognized even within individuals. What today’s reality in Beijing shares with Orwell’s account is a language of separation.

In this second passage, Orwell laments the assault on a European’s own dignity that occurs when he or she is bound by colonial social norms. In the plot, Flory had decided to betray a non-European friend, because to stand with him would have led to great problems for him among the Europeans.

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs‘ [a term for Europeans as a ruling class in the British empire] code.

Again, things are very different. But is there a degree of groupthink among China watchers? Are there times when taking the side of the Chinese people or government in a political argument is a kind of taboo? I think so.

Back to the novel.

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Evaluating 3 key recommendations of the Blair-Huntsman IP Commission report

The U.S. government needs to do more to stop the theft of U.S. intellectual property (IP), mostly by China, according to a new report produced by a group of political and business leaders under the leadership of Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence under Obama and former commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, and Jon Huntsman, former U.S. ambassador to China and former governor of Utah.

The report endorses the claim that recent developments in online IP theft represent “the greatest transfer of wealth in history” and names actors in China as responsible for “between 50% and 80% of the problem,” with India and Russia as secondary concerns. Further, the report  pushes for at least some IP theft to be prioritized as a matter of national security, not merely economic welfare.

Who’s behind the report? The “Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property” has the sound of a government-backed group; instead, it was backed by the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) and its new Slade Gorton International Policy Center*, named for one of the commission’s members, former Senator Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) — who was a member of the official 9-11 Commission. The rest of the membership is well qualified and, when politically affiliated, well balanced between Democrats and Republicans.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the individuals gathered independently over 11 months to produce a report on this particular problem. Thus, we should perhaps not be surprised to learn that they believe “the American response to date of hectoring governments and prosecuting individuals has been utterly inadequate to deal with the problem.” The resulting report is nonetheless carefully done, and it will be provocative both in the U.S. policy environment and in the ongoing trade and economic discussions between the United States and China.

Some will argue the measures recommended in the report don’t go far enough. Indeed, the commissioners explicitly do not recommend legalizing aggressive cyber attacks in retaliation for incursions. Meanwhile, some specific recommendations and the focus on China will add to ongoing concerns among Chinese investors that they face an unfair playing field when seeking investment opportunities in the United States. Finally, they note but do not evaluate the “sense that IP theft is justified by a playing field that benefits developed countries”—a real point of disagreement, especially when “fairness” in competition is a central goal.

In the remainder of this post, I evaluate three of the specific recommendations for underlying implications and potential successes or pitfalls.

Recommendation: “Designate the national security advisor as the principal policy coordinator for all actions on the protection of American IP.”

As the first recommendation and one that comes closest to calling for personal involvement on the part of the U.S. president, this statement deserves special attention. Specifically, the authors have clearly been careful about the extent to which they wish to declare IP protection a national security issue. “The theft of American IP poses enormous challenges to national security and the welfare of the nation,” the report states. It continues: “Although it is certainly true that not all problems rise to a national security challenge, the means by which IP is stolen (including foreign government involvement) and the recent assertion by the president’s national security advisor that the U.S. government must take action to safeguard American companies in response to massive cyber and other attacks demonstrate that IP theft is a national security priority.”

I’ve added emphasis to illustrate the tightrope walk being performed here. The authors are calling for IP theft to be coordinated by the president’s top national security advisor, but they are careful to qualify that not all instances constitute a challenge to national security. Meanwhile, the word “threat” is pointedly absent. This recommendation recognizes the important distinction between IP thefts that are obviously national security–related (for instance targeting military contractors) and those that are more of an economic or commercial challenge (for instance counterfeiting U.S. clothing brands).

Though the authors make the distinction between national security challenges and broader challenges, this boundary deserves a great amount of attention in policy and even ethical analysis. It is a boundary often blurred in journalism or think tank reports on the increasingly discussed cybersecurity issue. And it is a crucial distinction when establishing rules and policies for retaliation, whether commercial or otherwise. In any case, the elevation of the issue to top levels of government would mirror the perceived importance of the issue in U.S.–China relations over the past year.

Recommendation: “Empower the secretary of the treasury, on the recommendation of the secretary of commerce, to deny the use of the American banking system to foreign companies that repeatedly use or benefit from the theft of American IP.”

There are two elements worth noting here, in addition to the way in which the recommendation involves two more top officers of the U.S. executive branch.

First, denying access to the U.S. banking system is similar to sanctions we see elsewhere, including, for example, those targeting companies that do business with Iran contrary to international sanctions. Existing U.S. legislation has been used to name firms, including some from China, as ineligible to use the U.S. banking system. The recommendation here implicitly targets another major element of the financial system, too: listing on U.S. exchanges. Chinese companies are already on shaky ground in the United States exchanges due to regulatory conflicts regarding transparency and auditing. This could make the prospect of continued listing even more uncertain for Chinese firms, depending on what kind of process would lead to a ban. The question for the U.S. government and market is whether it would see a drastic decrease of Chinese listings in U.S. exchanges as a detriment. Some argue that keeping firms listed in the U.S. could help pressure them to engage in more internationally trusted accounting practices.

This leads to the second point: how determination of violations would be made. The report trusts that the Departments of Commerce and Treasury would be able to handle this well. However, without a transparent, responsive process, foreign firms including those from China may view a wide variety of transactions with the United States as highly risky. This has the potential for a real chilling effect on U.S.–China commercial activity.

Similarly, under a different recommendation advocating for quicker seizures (“sequester”) of suspected IP-violating goods being imported into the United States, the commission backs a “probable cause” standard for placing this hold, after which the exporting entity would have to prove that the goods were not IP-violating. I’m not a lawyer, but the combination of probable cause and the requirement to prove a negative seems ripe for abuse. (I stand willing to be schooled if U.S. case law would call for strict standards and transparency in such a policy.)

The commercial relations between the United States and China have been called the ballast of the bilateral relationship, without which the stormy seas of the 21st century would pose a greater risk of conflict or instability. Recently, the U.S. business community is increasingly concerned with IP theft and unfair practices. If the U.S. response to these concerns further sours  bilateral commercial ties by angering Chinese firms or triggering retaliation, rough waters may indeed be ahead.

Recommendation: “Consider the degree of protection afforded to American companies’ IP a criterion for approving major foreign investments in the United States under the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. process.”

This recommendation is perhaps the most likely to raise eyebrows among Chinese policymakers and investors. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) is already a major point of concern for many Chinese who would wish to invest in the United States. The inter-agency body has the responsibility for evaluating foreign acquisitions and investments for national security concerns. For instance, if a Russian firm wanted to buy Boeing, CFIUS might reasonably seek to block the transaction, because aviation and aerospace is an important national security industry. Less clear-cut examples include the recently blocked acquisition by a Chinese firm of a wind farm in Oregon.

Some Chinese investors are nervous about the extent to which investment efforts might be arbitrarily rejected through the CFIUS process. U.S. experts including Dan Rosen of the Rhodium Group have argued that the CFIUS process is largely appropriate and not much of a barrier. Others in the U.S. argue that China itself restricts foreign control in a litany of sensitive industries, much broader than the areas covered by CFIUS. But adding a “strength of IP protection” criterion to the CFIUS process could be a drastic increase of the committee’s purview.

The authors are walking another tightrope: “As demonstrated by the flood of counterfeit parts discussed in chapter 1, as well as by widespread cyber infiltrations discussed in chapters 1 and 5, the Commission assesses that the theft of American intellectual property has direct implications for national security. Given that CFIUS has a large amount of flexibility in evaluating potential transactions, it seems appropriate for CFIUS to factor into its judgment the degree to which the foreign actor protects intellectual property” [emphasis added]. From this wording, we could take a less proactive reading: that CFIUS need not be given a new mandate, and indeed that it should already be considering IP insofar as it is a national security issue. The obvious question is whether the committee is already taking IP protection into account. (I have no idea, but others probably do.)

No matter the interpretation, this call for greater scrutiny by CFIUS will likely be of significant concern for Chinese investors and some in the Chinese government.

Conclusion

In summary, “The IP Commission Report” is an excellent resource, and it should be understood as moderately hawkish on IP protection issues, at least on China. It includes a specific list of policy measures that the authors believe would go too far. But it makes bold calls for action and tends toward the generous assessment of how much money and how many jobs are lost because of IP theft. Ultimately, the economic impact of IP theft is nearly impossible to estimate, though I could imagine a methodology that came in significantly lower than the “hundreds of billions of dollars a year” estimate.

The scope of the report is such that it does not evaluate how appropriate the IP laws and concepts of fairness being discussed are. Needless to say, many have faulted the copyright system for unduly empowering large copyright holders in book and music publishing, and many have questioned the ethical value of a patent on a life-saving drug that makes medicating patients prohibitively expensive. The issue of fairness is central here, and the Chinese (or broader developing economy) views of fairness deserve real attention. The reality of the world market is that it exists across legal regimes, ethical views, and enforcement capacities. New policies need to be based firmly in that reality.

 

*Disclosure: I briefly worked in communications strategy with NBR and interviewed Gorton for its website. I had no involvement with this report, nor did I know it was coming until this week.

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Review: ‘How New and Assertive is China’s New Assertiveness’ by Alastair Iain Johnston, Spring 2013

[This review is part of a new experiment. I have read for general impressions, main points, and potentially useful material for myself and others. This is not a detailed methodological or theoretical examination, nor is it a conscientious summary. I have tried to consider both specialist and generalist audiences. Comments are very welcome, as I hope to be doing this more often. -Graham]

Under Review

Johnston, Alastair Iain. “How New and Assertive Is China’s New Assertiveness?” International Security 37:4 (2013): 7–48.

Review

isec.2013.37.issue-4.largecoverIain Johnston’s recent article in International Security recalls one of my favorite teaching pieces, which Johnston co-authored with Sheena Chestnut: “Is China Rising?” In that piece, Johnston and Chestnut asked the title question at a time when scholars, journalists, and pundits were instead asking about the implications of China’s rise. The new piece takes a similar tack, arguing that while “the new assertiveness meme has ‘gone viral,’” the evidence does not bear out a clear “assertive” turn in Chinese foreign policy.

Focusing on 2010, Johnston lays out seven areas in which China is supposed to have been more assertive and concludes that in most cases, a perception of new assertiveness is produced by one of a few mistakes. One is the classic cherry-picking problem (“selecting on the dependent variable”), in which arguments are based on instances that appear to support the assertiveness claim without examining those that might indicate cooperation. But the best of the argument comes in the one-by-one examination of seven major areas of supposed assertiveness, each of which has its problems. Johnston summarizes:

These seven major events in Chinese foreign policy in 2012 represent a mixture of new assertiveness (South China Sea); old assertiveness with a twist (the threat to sanction U.S. arms manufacturers that sell to Taiwan); reduced assertiveness (the Dalai Lama visit); probably predictable responses to exogenous shocks (Senkaku/Diaoyudao incident); the continuation of reactive/passive policies in the face of changed and less-hospitable diplomatic circumstances (Copenhagen, DPRK policy); and in one case, empirical inaccuracy (the South China Sea as a core interest claim). In toto, the differences across these cases suggest that there was no across-the-board new assertiveness in Chinese diplomacy in 2010 (31–32).

These points are generally well-made, and readers interested in any part of that laundry list might wish to engage with the details in the article. The article also examines four common explanations of the supposed new assertiveness (under “Problematic Causal Arguments”): change in the distribution of power; rising Chinese nationalism; the politics of leadership transition; and the power of the PLA.

Hidden Treasure

I think two parts of the paper deserve highlighting as valuable regardless of the overall argument.

  • In the section on “The Power of the PLA” as a causal argument for the supposed new assertiveness, Johnston provides an excellent reading of the landscape of Chinese foreign policy and PLA commentary (39–45, but especially 43–44). Johnston argues that official PLA commentary tracks over-all CPC commentary fairly closely, but that greater space for individual opinions has opened, especially for the “more nationalistic and militaristic voices.” A key assertion for those who have watched retired Chinese generals issue strident opinions in recent years is this: “[I]n the new media environment in China, these PLA authors (especially the quasi-and fully retired once) may sometimes represent only themselves.” Look at this section for a good, though by no means complete, rundown of voices out there and some of their stances over time.
  • Another nice kernel is this list of examples of Chinese behavior we might see as cooperative, rather than assertive, in 2010: “the continued growth of U.S. exports to China during the year; the continued high congruence in U.S. and Chinese voting in the UN Security Council; Chinese support for UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which imposed tougher sanctions on the Iranian regime—a move appreciated by the Obama administration; Beijing’s abiding by its 2009 agreement with the United States to hold talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama; a Chinese decision to continue the appreciation of the renminbi prior to the Group of Twenty meeting in Toronto in June 2010; Hu Jintao’s decision to attend the U.S.-hosted nuclear summit in April 2010 (in the wake of the January 2010 Taiwan arms sales decision, the Chinese had hinted that Hu would not attend the summit); a Chinese decision to pressure the Sudan government to exercise restraint should South Sudan declare independence, and China’s more constructive cross-strait policies, in the wake of Ma Ying-jeou’s 2008 election as president of the Republic of China…” (32–33). Phew.

A Swing and a Miss

The only response I had seen to this paper was from Daniel W. Drezner, the Tufts professor and Foreign Policy blogger. Drezner seized on passing references in Johnston’s introduction and conclusion, in which he speculates that this mistaken “new assertiveness” meme results from “a new, but poorly understood, factor in international relations—namely, the speed with which new conventional wisdoms are created, at least within the public sphere, by the interaction of the internet-based traditional media and the blogosphere” (46–47). An interesting thought.

Though Johnston marshals a few references in support of this notion, he really doesn’t make the case. As Drezner writes: “What’s ironic about this is that in the article, Johnston properly takes a lot of the conventional wisdom to task for ahistoricism and problematic causal arguments in assessing Chinese behavior after 2008.  I’d wager, however, that Johnston has done the exact same thing with respect to the foreign policy blogosphere.”

This is a fair critique, as far as the text concerned goes. At very least, if Johnston is right, he has not made a very solid case and has not provided solid comparisons with the past. But this is a bit of a sideshow, given that the speed-of-groupthink argument subsumes a total of three paragraphs out of 41 pages. I’d like to see more recent work on this point, work I’m sure is out there or in progress.

Who Should Read This

Johnston has written a rare work of international relations scholarship that can serve as a direct intervention in foreign policy discourse outside academia. Sure, a 1,500-word version might be more digestible, but general international politics readers should have no trouble following.

For U.S.–China relations scholars or practitioners, the paper is at least a required skim. For those interested in discourse on U.S.–China relations and the shape of ongoing debates, it’s a required read.

Journalists, too, should give this one a read. Just like the “rise of China,” “China’s new assertiveness” comes easily to the keyboard. It also comes out of sources’ lips frequently. This article reviews one big idea and several small ideas that deserve a follow-up or qualification.

Other References

Chestnut, Sheena and Alastair Iain Johnston. “Is China Rising?”  In Global Giants: Is China Changing the Rules of the Game?, edited by Eva Paus, Jon Western, and Penelope Prime, 237–259. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009. (Updated version here.)

Drezner, Daniel W. “Are blogs to blame for Sino-American misperceptions?“ Foreign Policy blog, April 17, 2013.

Disclosure

I feel compelled by the norms of journalism, though not the norms of scholarship, to note that Johnston was my professor one semester in grad school. We don’t always agree with our teachers, but they do help form our views, so take this all with whatever grain of salt you like.

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Updated: Did the Chinese government really call Diaoyu/Senkaku a ‘core interest’?

The Japanese news wire Kyodo News last week reported that the Chinese government called the Senkaku/Diaoyu island issue a ‘core interest.’

“The Diaoyu Islands are about sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of course, it’s China’s core interest,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a press conference, using China’s name for the Japanese-administered isles in the East China Sea. …

Hua made the comment after Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told NHK in Tokyo that Chinese officials repeatedly told him during his visit to Beijing earlier in the week that the Senkakus are “one of China’s core interests.”

This report has gained a fair amount of attention. My attempt to follow up on Dempsey’s remarks to NHK is currently coming up dry. Though Google returns a search result on the story, the link is broken, Google’s cache provides nothing, and a search for the full sentence reveals no copies.

Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 3.29.29 PM

[UPDATE May 2 11:08 in Beijing—This Japanese-language NHK story includes video of Dempsey saying, "They did use the word "core interests" several times, and I know that's really their phraseology for issues of sovereign importance." It is left to the announcer and the written report to make the connection between "core interests" and the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue. My translation of the relevant passage of the print version: "During the interview, Chairman Dempsey said of his meetings with Chinese government officials on his recent trip to China, 'In the meetings, the Chinese side, on the topic of the Senkaku Islands, used the word "core interests" many times.' On the topic of Okinawa Prefecture's Senkaku Islands, China repeatedly clarified that the islands are an non-negotiable 'core interest.'" What did Dempsey really say in full? I can't tell.]

Another Japanese source, Asahi Shimbun, has a different phrasing from the Foreign Ministry:

“It is an issue about China’s territory and sovereignty, and therefore a matter of ‘core interest,’ ” said Hua Chunying, spokeswoman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, at a regular news conference.

Meanwhile, the situation from the official Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website brings Hua’s quote into question. The MoFA reports [en] [zh]:

Q: In a recent interview with the Japanese media, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin E. Dempsey said that during his visit to China, the Chinese side repeatedly stressed that territorial sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands is part of China’s core interests. Is this China’s official position?

A: China’s Peaceful Development, the white paper released by China’s State Council Information Office in September 2011, made it clear that China firmly safeguards its core national interests, including national sovereignty, national security and territorial integrity.

The Diaoyu Islands issue concerns China’s territorial sovereignty.

问:美军参谋长联席会议主席邓普西日前接受日本媒体采访时称,中方在其访华期间多次强调维护钓鱼岛领土主权是中国核心利益之一。这是中国官方立场吗?

答:中国国务院新闻办公室2011年9月发表的《中国的和平发展》白皮书明确表示,中国坚决维护国家核心利益,包括国家主权,国家安全,领土完整等。

钓鱼岛问题涉及中国领土主权。

A comment signed Iain Johnston (I’ve e-mailed to confirm it’s really him [UPDATE: confirmed.]) on the Japan Times version of the Kyodo story says in part:

… It is possible that the PRC spokesperson strayed a bit from the official position. The official record reflects official policy. This particular formulation — “touches on territorial sovereignty” – probably reflects a dilemma the PRC government faces. It cannot say the Diaoyudao/Senkaku are not a core interest. This would create domestic problems for the regime. But it cannot say explicitly that the islands are a core interest, because this could constrain any future space for negotiation. A critical piece of evidence will be whether or not the PRC drops the demand for negotiations with Japan over the islands. If it does, then this would be consistent with an official declaration that the islands are a core interest. If it continues to demand negotiations, this would be consistent with the official position of not (yet) directly stating the islands are a core interest.

[UPDATE: In comments below, Johnston provides a link to the relevant video of Hua Chunying's statement, in which she says what the Japanese reports say she said.]

Chinese press seem relatively quiet on this statement, with the links I’m seeing in Weibo conversations leading to articles sourced from Japanese publications. For instance see this Sina News story (in Chinese).

Meanwhile at ChinaFile, Susan Shirk takes the statement as a strong, overt move by the Chinese government.

Last week the Chinese government and military officially declared that the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands constitute a “core interest” of the country. …

To make sure the message came through loud and clear, top military officials first informed General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff who was visiting China. On the next day, it was announced from the podium of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The Diaoyu Islands are about sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of course, it’s China’s core interest,” said Hua Chunying, the ministry spokesperson.

You can be sure that the decision to call the Diaoyu Islands a “core interest” was thoroughly vetted by the key civilian decision-makers—Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and the other five leaders in the CCP Politburo, as well as the People’s Liberation Army leaders. It’s a considered act by a highly insecure CCP leadership willing to engage in international brinksmanship to maintain domestic support.

Shirk argues that this is in contrast to the 2010 incident in which some Chinese representatives reportedly started referring to South China Sea claims as representing a “core interest.” Though top U.S. officials later said the most provocative supposed mention of the South China Sea as a “core interest” had never happened, Shirk views that event as a clear roll-back.

The South China Sea [in 2010] had not been the focus of much attention from the Chinese public; it wasn’t a hot button issue of nationalism like Taiwan or Japan. The impetus for China’s increasingly assertive actions in the region came from the bureaucratic interest groups operating with little effective restraint from the top and using the media to arouse popular excitement. Because the Chinese government had never made a public and authoritative declaration that the South China Sea was a “core interest,” it was able to climb back from the brink without paying any domestic price for formally saying that this claim wasn’t a “core interest.”

Shirk’s comment points above to probably the most useful piece on the “core interests” issue in recent years, from Michael Swaine at the China Leadership Monitor in 2011.

So, what’s going on here?

The official version of the Foreign Ministry statement, following Dempsey’s public statement that he had heard this language, would seem to either represent a careful escalation of rhetoric or, just as likely, an awkward negotiated middle ground after conflicting messages had already been sent. If indeed the messages were coordinated in talks with Dempsey and in the Foreign Ministry press conference, then it would seem reasonable to suspect this represents a well-coordinated, high-level decision. On the other hand, it’s always an open question just how well signals are coordinated between the Foreign Ministry and the military.

Even if it was clear how fully approved the statement is, it is unclear what this means. For now, there we are.

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Is the China-Japan confrontation Xi’s inside political play, or part of a broader move?

Is China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, flexing military muscle with Japan to solidify rule within the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army, or is the heightened dispute with Japan best viewed in a broader context?

At Foreign PolicyJohn Garnaut examines the relationship between Xi and the PLA. The article is worth a read, but the thrust of it can be captured in this passage, speculating that the Chinese agitation on islands claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan is the result of an effort by Xi to shore up internal power.

The dizzying display of hard power is sending fear and awe throughout the Asia-Pacific region. But Xi, it seems, is unconvinced that all this shiny hardware can be effectively deployed by an organization that was designed for civil war and adapted in recent decades as a political force to ensure the party’s grip on power.

That’s where China’s rapidly escalating territorial showdown with Japan, its largest trading partner and still the world’s third-largest economy, comes in. In September, the Japanese government bought the disputed Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu Islands as they are known in China, from private owners to prevent them from falling into the hands of Tokyo’s governor at the time, a hawkish nationalist provocateur. But China responded with fury. It launched a propaganda blitz against Japan, facilitated protests and riots across China, and escalated its maritime and air patrols of the disputed area. For Xi, according to his close family friend, the otherwise baffling diplomatic crisis that resulted has offered a priceless opportunity to “sort the horses from the mules” and mobilize willing generals around him. Claims that Xi has exploited or even orchestrated the brinkmanship with Japan might seem preposterous to outside observers, given that a miscalculation could lead to war. But the logic is compelling for those who have grown up near the center of China’s endless and unforgiving internal struggles.

This claim should be taken with a grain of salt. It is, after all, an anonymous source coming out of the highly opaque world of Chinese elite politics. On the other hand, Garnaut’s sources in recent months have seemed quite good. Either way, the idea is worth discussion.

What if the current surge of Sino-Japanese confrontation over the islands really are in large part the result of internal political plays?

Though all-out war is unlikely, the risk of accident or miscalculation is significant whenever military or civilian law enforcement vessels or planes are put in proximity with those they believe to be adversaries. If Xi Jinping has calculated that this risk is worth taking, we might assume he is deeply insecure in his new position. Perhaps he sees the danger of a PLA outside his close command as greater than that of accidental violence or escalation with Japan—an outcome that could cause untold damage to commerce and the largest decline in China’s international status since at least 1989. Of course, a military out of control could cause its own violence, but this is no small gambit.

As Garnaut notes, there is also a real possibility that in a full-scale conflict Japan’s highly modern, well-trained forces would defeat China’s modernizing, untested military. If Xi is worried about the strength of his rule, this potential outcome would be devastating. For a new leader to lose a battle (a war?) to a great historical adversary at the center of China’s so-called “century of humiliation” could very well be crippling.

An alternative: What if the Japan initiative is no mere internal play, but also aligns with a broader strategy of pushing China’s maritime claims now that it has stronger forces?

China’s increased military and Maritime Surveillance (armed civilian law enforcement) activity in the East China Sea, where the dispute with Japan is centered, should not be viewed in isolation. Though it’s possible the logic of the Japan dispute is independent, Chinese forces and diplomatic staff have recently taken a harder line with maritime neighbors in the South China Sea. Especially with the Philippines and Vietnam, China’s official statements and deployments reflect a renewed assertion of ill-defined territorial claims. The Philippines has brought a seemingly well-crafted case under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which both states are party, and the Chinese government has not sent anyone to participate in the arbitration process so far. Meanwhile, regular Chinese patrols are reported by state media, and active development is under way on one island under the banner of a new city called Sansha, which supposedly administers a wide swath of South China Sea territory under Chinese law.

There are significant parallels between the South China Sea and East China Sea situations. The Philippines and Japan are both treaty allies of the United States. (Vietnam is not, though Vietnamese-U.S. dialogue and coordination appear to have increased along with this dispute.) In each case, Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessels have been the most visible, though some PLA presence is involved. Why not view these initiatives as parallel?

One reason to differentiate the South China Sea mobilization from the China-Japan dispute is that the former predates Xi’s rise to power, while the latter seems to be developing largely under his watch. But it’s equally possible to view the rise in island disputes as part of a broader flexing of Chinese military muscle, perhaps also including a recent increase in action on the China-India border dispute.

As always, it could likely be a combination of both. But while it’s worth taking seriously the internal political intrigue that may drive international events, broader trends must be kept in view. Missing from this account is potential competition for resources and action between different military commands in China. Though it’s often disputed which came first—the U.S. rebalance to the Asia Pacific or China’s increased assertiveness on maritime disputes—the two moves have emerged at similar times. And perhaps in each case the strategic logic has been the same all along, but people making decisions in China have decided that now is the time to start pushing, either because military strength has risen sufficiently or because they believe long-term claims need periodic renewal. While it would be a neat narrative, and a pleasingly dramatic one, to root these events in one man’s struggle to establish control, the reality is far less pleasingly simple. Garnaut’s coverage of elite politics is invaluable, but it should be taken as one part of a broader picture.

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Why one might think the US government sees China as threat no. 1

In recent weeks, a series of U.S. government statements, leaks, and policy changes could leave you with the impression that policymakers see China as the biggest threat to U.S. security.

My guess is that even if top officials in the Obama administration believe this, they would rather temper that impression. On the other hand, take a look, and consider what impression you would get from the last month:

2013-02-11

Someone leaked at least part of a classified U.S. intelligence document to the Washington Post, which wrote: “The National Intelligence Estimate identifies China as the country most aggressively seeking to penetrate the computer systems of American businesses and institutions to gain access to data that could be used for economic gain.”

2013-02-12

President Obama, in his State of the Union speech, made a thinly veiled reference to Chinese hacking—the only substantial China-related statement:

America must also face the rapidly growing threat from cyber-attacks. We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mail. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.

2013-02-18

The New York Times reported on a study released by the private computer security company Mandiant, asserting that the People’s Liberation Army is behind attacks on U.S. businesses, national security institutions, and critical infrastructure.

On the record, a National Security Council spokesman said: “We have repeatedly raised our concerns at the highest levels about cybertheft with senior Chinese officials, including in the military, and we will continue to do so.” That sounds reasonable, even though a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman called the Mandiant allegations “irresponsible and unprofessional.”

But here’s what unnamed U.S. sources told the Times:

  • “There are huge diplomatic sensitivities here,” said one intelligence official, with frustration in his voice.
  • “In the cold war, we were focused every day on the nuclear command centers around Moscow,” one senior defense official said recently. “Today, it’s fair to say that we worry as much about the computer servers in Shanghai.”

OK, now we have a direct Cold War comparison, framing Chinese actions as taking the place of the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union.

2013-02-20

The White House released its “Strategy to Mitigate the Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets.” The document does not name China in the body text, but six of the seven concrete examples of theft in sidebars mention China explicitly. An attached Department of Justice list of “economic espionage and trade secret criminal cases” since 2009 includes 20 examples, 17 of which involve China.

2013-02-25

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein said the Mandiant report accusing the PLA of specific actions is “essentially correct.” And House Intelligence Committe Chairman Mike Rogers said the Chinese government and military are behind attacks on U.S. companies “beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

2013-02-27

A report from the Department of Homeland Security outlined a six-month effort to target U.S. natural gas pipeline operators, and press reports such as this one from the Christian Science Monitor said the attack signatures indicate ties to Chinese attacks. The link to China comes from information newly released by the DHS. Whether the motive of an attacker would be to compromise gas pipelines, to steal technology to run them, or both, is left an open question.

2013-03-11

After a slight lull in action, filled nonetheless with plenty of commentary, U.S. National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon gave one of the administrations most thorough recent speeches on Asia and the Pacific region. The speech has some new material and plenty of small adjustments, but the press angle was clear: “U.S. Demands China Block Cyberattacks and Agree to Rules.”

Importantly, the China section comes in contrast to kind words about “emerging powers” in India and Indonesia. Although a “constructive” relationship with China is framed as its own pillar in the administration’s Asia Pacific strategy, little is new here other than a drastically higher billing for cybersecurity concerns:

Both countries face risks when it comes to protecting personal data and communications, financial transactions, critical infrastructure, or the intellectual property and trade secrets that are so vital to innovation and economic growth.

It is in this last category that our concerns have moved to the forefront of our agenda. I am not talking about ordinary cybercrime or hacking. And, this is not solely a national security concern or a concern of the U.S. government. Increasingly, U.S. businesses are speaking out about their serious concerns about sophisticated, targeted theft of confidential business information and proprietary technologies through cyber intrusions emanating from China on an unprecedented scale. The international community cannot afford to tolerate such activity from any country. As the President said in the State of the Union, we will take action to protect our economy against cyber-threats.

From the President on down, this has become a key point of concern and discussion with China at all levels of our governments. And it will continue to be. The United States will do all it must to protect our national networks, critical infrastructure, and our valuable public and private sector property. But, specifically with respect to the issue of cyber-enabled theft, we seek three things from the Chinese side. First, we need a recognition of the urgency and scope of this problem and the risk it poses—to international trade, to the reputation of Chinese industry and to our overall relations. Second, Beijing should take serious steps to investigate and put a stop to these activities. Finally, we need China to engage with us in a constructive direct dialogue to establish acceptable norms of behavior in cyberspace.

2013-03-12 – The reporting goes overboard?

The top U.S. intelligence official “suggested that [cyber] attacks now pose the most dangerous immediate threat to the United States, even more pressing than an attack by global terrorist networks,” according to The New York Times. That official, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, also said there was only a “‘remote chance’ in the next two years of a major computer attack on the United States, which he defined as an operation that ‘would result in long-term, wide-scale disruption of services, such as a regional power outage.’”

The Times assertion that Clapper suggested cyber attacks could be more of a risk than terrorism seems to be based on the fact that Clapper discussed them first, so it is to be taken with a grain of salt. The full text of his statement for the record is available online. His remarks as delivered are online too. I haven’t found a transcript of the Q&A yet, but I just watched most of it, and the direct comparison of cyber attacks to terrorist attacks does not seem to be there.

So the reporting here may be a bit much, but the 2012 statement listed terrorism and proliferation above “cyber threats,” whereas the 20032013 document puts “cyber” ahead of those two.

So, how does this all sound?

Especially if you read Clapper’s list order as indicative, these developments and statements as a whole sure could look like a concerted effort to escalate U.S. attention to one kind of threat posed by Chinese military operations. Meanwhile, the difference between stealing secrets and threatening military systems or life-supporting infrastructure is often glossed over, allowing fear of economic espionage to bleed into fear of military battle. Meanwhile, for obvious reasons, the government sources are not disclosing the U.S. military and NSA’s own cybersecurity capabilities and activities, except to announce greater efforts. Though other countries are sometimes mentioned, China is always held up as a marquee threat.

To at least some in the Chinese government, this is going to look like a move toward an aggressive and adversarial stance.

Is this the impression the Obama administration wants?

It is quite clear that the Obama administration has moved to bring greater pressure on the Chinese government over the issue of computer-enabled espionage and even sabotage. It is also clear that the issue is real, even if some elements of the story are being fudged in the press or by private contrators looking for a piece of the pie.

But it is less clear that this level of escalation is in the best interest of U.S.–China ties. As Donilon said in his speech (before emphasizing the cybersecurity demands), “Taken together, China’s leadership transition and the President’s re-election mark a new phase in U.S.-China relations—with new opportunities.” An agressive stance, however, might undermine the opportunities for renewed contact.

At worst, it could trigger a retrenchment in Chinese officials’ willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue with the U.S. leadership. At best, pressure on this issue could produce results and bring a major irritant into the open in bilateral dialogue. One potential good sign came from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, where a spokeswoman said Tuesday “Cyberspace needs rules and cooperation, not wars. China is willing to have constructive dialogue and cooperation with the global community, including the United States.”

Meanwhile, I hope the U.S. government will take into account the media amplification effects that come from their increased frankness in public in this particular direction. If more people in the U.S. start seeing China as a Cold War-like enemy, they may find themselves fulfilling their own prophesy, an outcome far worse than the loss of corporate secrets.

Coda

Nothing in this post should be taken to suggest I view cybersecurity as unimportant or as an argument that all sides in the Chinese government are innocent. Indeed, military and critical infrastructure security are absolutely critical to national security, and not just in the United States. Minimizing the theft of corporate secrets is a reasonable economic interest of the United States, and even more so an interest of the corporations. I support scrutiny of this issue and increased efforts by government and private sector organizations. But piggy-backing fear of the unknown in cyber threats and fear of the unknown in the field of a potential “China threat” presents a risk of simplification and harmful cascades. China is not the only element of the cybersecurity issue, and cybersecurity is not the only element of the U.S. relationship with China.

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