Tag Archives: China-U.S.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Fighting 'the myth of unitary control' in China cybersecurity politics

My latest for Al Jazeera English asks for more recognition of pluralism and ambiguity when governments and firms accuse “China” or the “Chinese government” of hacking. Check it out!

For fun, my first piece for Al Jazeera fought the notion of a “cyber cold war” between the United States and China. In 2011.

[Crossposted on gwbstr.com]