The Obama Administration has been building up to the visit of Chinese unelected president Xi Jinping by talking tough about cyber-espionage.
Every week has brought another story about someone in the White House, State Department, or intelligence apparatus muttering that China could be facing tough, humiliating sanctions over its hacker attacks – particularly the epochal cyber-looting of the Office of Personnel Management, which was one of the most devastating blows ever struck against American intel operations.
But the reality behind this tough talk is that Obama will likely let China off the hook for their past actions, and allow China to posture as the world’s firmest enemy of cyber espionage.
Of course, Obama’s cyber-surrender could be accompanied by a few face-saving token sanctions against Chinese entities, perhaps to be selected by China’s leaders.
Obama is the architect the Iranian nuclear sellout, and any claim that he would stand tall and firm against tough China has always been implausible… especially because China’s cyber espionage is far more deniable than Iran’s nuclear ambitions and support for terrorism.
That Iran-sellout raises the question of whether China will bamboozle a willing Obama into another damaging deal, for example, a supposed international ban on cyber-espionage.
American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Austin argues at RealClearPolitics that a cyber-security pact would be disastrous for the United States, even though it would surely be “hailed as evidence that Beijing and Washington can forge an adult, working relationship on a critical security issue.”
That, of course, is how China and its state-run media already portray the idea of a cyber-security pact between Obama and Xi. They’ve laid the groundwork for portraying an agreement as Obama’s official concession that China is blameless for cyber-espionage and dropping all accusations to the contrary.
But Austin says “the very need to negotiate such a pact reveals the failure of America’s decades-long China policy and the inability of the U.S. government to understand China’s evolving threat to U.S. interests.”
As he puts it, inking a deal to forbid using militarized Chinese hacker squads to knock out critical American infrastructure during peacetime, and vice versa, implies that “peacetime” might not be actually peaceful. Responsible great powers don’t feel any urges to forswear destroying each other’s economic foundations in peacetime.
Worse, Austin sees any deal as a whitewash of China’s existing garish espionage. “A sweeping pact of this kind avoiding mutually assured economic destruction would not, apparently, prevent the manifold cyber aggression already practiced by China against the United States, such as the theft of tens of millions of Americans’ personal identification and the siphoning off of billions of dollars of industrial secrets,” he writes.
“This [potential] agreement, both startling in its apocalyptic nature and toothless in the face of actual cyber theft and mischief, is the worst of both worlds.”
Perhaps events during President Xi’s visit will surprise us, but from here it looks very unlikely that China will agree to admit what it has done. We’ve already had Cyber Pearl Harbor with the OPM hack. Even if China signs a no-hacking pledge and lives up to it, they’ve already pocketed electronic intelligence advantages that will last for years. They would be calling the game after scoring multiple unanswered touchdowns.
Austin provocatively sees the current state of affairs with China as the result of a foreign policy failure that reaches all the way back to President Nixon’s fabled opening to China.
For decades the West has helped build China’s economy and political stature, believing not only that a prosperous China would make a profitable trade partner. That plan, supposedly, was that prosperity would erode Chinese authoritarianism, leaving Beijing a better fit for the Western idea of liberated nations living peacefully together in a global marketplace. That’s… not quite how it worked out.
Austin says there’s been too much carrot and not enough stick – too much indulgence of Chinese misbehavior, too obvious an appetite for a piece of that growing Chinese economic pie.
“The result? A China that feels no compunctions about rampant spying on American private business and citizens. A China that increases its military budget every year for a quarter-century, building weapons designed specifically to attack U.S. forces. A China that bullies and coerces neighbors over disputed maritime territory and builds islands to extend its power projection capabilities… yet the U.S. president continues to act as though it is business as usual with a China whose troubling behavior grows commensurate with its objective strength.”
It’s true the West finds itself in a difficult position for dealing with China, because “no sane observer wants conflict to break out between China and the United States,” said Austin.
China aggressively exploits that situation for advantage, confident it can bluff and bully its way out of anything less than the dreadful conflict nobody in the Western world wishes to provoke, while simultaneously signaling their willingness to fight and win every sort of war – economic, electronic, or even naval in the seas between China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan.
Austin compares a prospective U.S.-China cyberspace treaty to last century’s Kellogg-Briand Pact, a “noble gesture that optimistically ignored reality and trusted in the goodwill of those whose actions undermined the security we sought to protect in the first place.”
The Kellogg-Briand Pact ostensibly outlawed war. It was signed in 1928, so you can see how well that worked out. Some argue that in practice, the Pact made the incredible carnage of the Second World War more likely, because it prevented sincere and naive signatories from recognizing and responding to aggression. In everything from international treaties to gun-control legislation, we can see how laws against aggression tend to bind the peaceful, and thus give genuine aggressors easier prey.
One other thing about trusting the “goodwill” of a nation like China: they understand that goodwill, like any other commodity, becomes more precious when the supply is short.
Everything China has done throughout this first, undeclared cyber war, along with its posture in real-world conflict areas, sends the message that their goodwill is scarce, and thus commands a high price. Conversely, no-one worries much about making Obama’s United States angry any more. Who wins face-offs in this lopsided competition?