Can the U.S. and China Be Friends on Cyberwarfare?

Here’s an interesting headline from the New York Times: “U.S. Tries Candor to Assure China on Cyberattacks.” Yes, that’s right: The American government has been telling the Chinese government about its cyber-hacking efforts against China, in hopes that the Chinese will be okay with it--even as the Chinese, of course, continue to hack us.   

We’ve all heard about “covert espionage.”  But this is overt espionage. Does such publicized spying make a lot of sense?   

Well, actually, maybe sometimes it does. If the U.S. is gathering intelligence on someone, and everyone knows that we’re doing it, maybe it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge that we’re doing it--at least in an overall sense.  As in, the US saying, “Sure, we have surveillance satellites high over your country.”  But does it make any sense then to volunteer a more detailed briefing, specifically to the country that’s being targeted?

It’s worth noting, once again, that this article did not appear in the Onion; it appeared in the Times, under the byline of its well-connected intelligence correspondent, David Sanger. As the Times explained, the Obama administration offered its briefing in the hope that the the Chinese would return the favor: 

The idea was to allay Chinese concerns about plans to more than triple the number of American cyberwarriors to 6,000 by the end of 2016, a force that will include new teams the Pentagon plans to deploy to each military combatant command around the world. But the hope was to prompt the Chinese to give Washington a similar briefing about the many People’s Liberation Army units that are believed to be behind the escalating attacks on American corporations and government networks.

As the Times put it, “So far, the Chinese have not reciprocated.” In other words, we showed them ours, and they didn’t show us theirs. Oops.   

And for those who might be curious, no, Edward Snowden was not involved in the briefing effort, although the renegade American, now in the hands of the Russians, has already leaked documents on the US effort against China.  

In the meantime, our attempt to improve relations with China seems not to have borne fruit.    

As one sharp-tongued commenter on the Times site observed, “We are neither feared nor trusted in the foreign arena, and therefore are looked at as unworthy of a reply.”  

So here the US sits: a strange headline in the Times, and nothing to show for it. Meanwhile, we must wonder: Who else might get a briefing on US cyberwarfare efforts against them? How about our traditional allies, starting with Canada, the United Kingdom, and Israel? And how about the NATO countries? And the European Union? Or do they they have to wait for Snowden to spill everything?  

And oh yes, how about the American people? Do we get to know what’s being done in our name? And what’s being done to us? Should the Koch Brothers, for example, or the Tea Party have special reason to worry?   Or should we all, too, wait for news from Snowden?   

One could say that there’s the germ of a good idea in the Obama administration effort: China is a powerful country, which could rival, if not overtake, the U.S. in overall economic clout in the coming decades. So it might make sense to develop some sort of a new relationship with the Chinese, based on the cold realization that we, the two dominant powers, are stuck with each other on this finite planet.   

Indeed, in the past, the U.S. and the former Soviet Union created a special hotline to keep misunderstandings from flaring up into major conflagrations, and that worked well enough. So yes, maybe we need something like that now, suitably updated, to avoid a catastrophic conflict with China.    

So perhaps the idea of sharing intelligence information, even on cyberwarfare, is a good one.   

Perhaps.  

But we can say this: If the U.S. gives away its secrets, at least some of them, and the Chinese don’t do likewise, that’s not a good sign. Someone on our side is badly misreading the tea leaves.  


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