The United States is asking China to be more open about its use of cyberattacks, as well as the elements of the People’s Liberation Army behind the attacks.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is engaging China along these lines during his visit to the Asia-Pacific region. Hagel held a press conference alongside Chinese Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan on April 8 in Beijing, in which they outlined a private discussion held that morning.
Hagel said he raised the point of cybersecurity during the meetings, and emphasized the need for greater transparency.
“Greater openness about cyber reduces the risks that misunderstanding and misperception could lead to miscalculation,” he said, meaning that the United States and China need to communicate better about their cyberoperations to prevent real-world conflicts.
The Pentagon held a closed-door meeting with the Chinese regime leading up to the trip, which according to Hagel “for the first time ever, provided the representatives of the Chinese government a briefing on [the Department of Defense’s] doctrine governing the use of its cyber capabilities.”
The hope of the United States was that the Chinese regime would reciprocate the gesture, and also explain its frequent use of hackers in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to launch attacks against the U.S. government and U.S. businesses.
Hagel said, “We’ve urged China to do the same. It’s in both of our interests to continue to follow this path.”
One question presented to Cheng was whether China is prepared to share with the United States its policy on how its military operates in the cybersecurity realm.
Chang’s answer was an unconvincing short speech of nonspecific platitudes, such as “China adheres to the principle of peace, security, openness, and cooperation,” and “The defense activity of the PLA in cyberspace abides by the domestic law and the universally recognized law.”
He then added that the PLA’s cyberattacks “will not pose a threat to others,” while claiming China is ready to “deepen the communication with the U.S. side and together.”
Spying and Theft
U.S. efforts to pressure Chinese authorities about the use of cyberattacks to steal intellectual property have been stunted by documents leaked from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Snowden released the documents just prior to a June 2013 meeting between President Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, head of the Chinese Communist Party. A large focus of the meeting was going to be on Chinese cyberespionage, yet Snowden gave China a way to dodge blame.
The discussion was again stunted by Snowden, with recent reports claiming the United States is spying on Chinese officials and Chinese telecom Huawei.
Officials from the Chinese regime, and from Huawei, have been milking Snowden’s claim for all it’s worth—calling U.S. criticism hypocritical, while using the stage to deny U.S. accusations of China’s spying campaigns.
Of course, cyberattacks are frequently traced back to China, including in a February 2013 report from security company Mandiant, which traced several major cyberespionage campaigns to the Chinese military.
What is often missed from the discussions, however, is that while Chinese authorities try to draw equivalence between NSA spying and the Chinese spying, U.S. concerns are not specifically about Chinese spying. The United States is concerned about China using cyberattacks for economic gain by stealing intellectual property.
Hagel made only a brief reference to this point, stating, “The United States has been forthright in our concerns about Chinese use of networks to perpetrate commercial espionage and intellectual property theft.”
He said, “Here in the Asia-Pacific and around the world, the United States believes in maintaining a stable, rules-based order built on free and open access to sea lanes and air space, and now, cyberspace.”