Analysis: US tries policy of ‘shame’ to stem Chinese cyber-hacking

The United States' international policy and China's actions examined through a critical lens.

China (yen)  (photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Lee)
China (yen)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Lee)
Have US actions, for the first time ever, to indict in US courts five members of the Chinese military for criminally conducting economic cyber-espionage against American companies, altered international policy and China’s actions on the issue? On the one-hand, the very public and in-your-face May indictment announced by US Attorney-General Eric Holder against People’s Liberation Army officers Wang Dong, Sun Kailiang, Wen Xinyu, Huang Zhenyu, and Gu Chunhui was viewed as signaling a new tactic – to get China to rein-in its cyber-hacking for commercial espionage by shaming it publicly.
The indictment, with China easily taking offense, was followed by Canada making similar charges about two weeks ago. Canada accused Su Bin, a Canadian immigrant, of masterminding a cyber-hacking operation into US fighter-jet secrets.
Notably, Canada also loudly accused China of spying on its computer systems at the National Research Council.
These shaming actions followed after a range of attempts to cooperatively and openly improve relations on the issue failed.
US President Barack Obama has on numerous occasions confronted Chinese President Xi Jinping over commercial cyber espionage. In the US narrative, while the US is famous for spying on its rivals and allies relating to critical national security issues, it never spies for commercial gain.
China has disputed this distinction as irrelevant in the current globalized age of massive corporations, which mixes the public and private sectors.
It has also called the US a liar and a hypocrite following revelations from Edward Snowden which have either disproved the idea that the US does not do commercial cyber-hacking, or at least have shown that, on occasion, the US has pushed the envelope on how it interprets that distinction.
While the shaming tactic is an admission that trying to reach understandings of what should be off limits has failed, it also means abandoning an until-now ironclad policy by the US, Israel, other countries and corporations of never admitting officially to getting cyber-hacked.
The non-admission policy is, among other things, designed to not allow rivals to confirm what they have accomplished and to forestall any public panic in the adequacy of cyber-defense capabilities.
Despite Canada following the US’s tactic, it is not at all clear that shaming is working.
Israel has clearly not followed the US and Canada, recently having its main defense companies issue typical ambiguous and convoluted denials of being hacked by China regarding Iron Dome’s designs.
Reading between the lines of past similar announcements, it is possible to understand that some hacking by China of Israel’s Iron Dome designs did take place at some point.
China has retaliated against Canada and the US, with reactions suggesting that the shaming tactic may only go so far. Last week, China detained Kevin and Julia Garratt, Canadians who run a coffee shop in China and send humanitarian aid to North Korea, for allegedly stealing military and defense research secrets.
As to the US, China not only ended mutual cooperation on a bilateral cyber task-force between the countries, it also has criticized or taken various actions, including some economic bans, against major US companies such as Microsoft, Symantec, and Apple.
Many have interpreted China’s harsh response as a bid to make it clear to the US and Canada that shaming will not work and will carry a heavy cost.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry struck a conciliatory tone with China over tensions between the countries that have recently erupted relating to border disputes in Asia between China and US allies.
The tone was not only conciliatory, but made no mention of confronting China on cyber issues, and it is unclear whether the US will do anything more with the shaming tactic other than eventually convicting the five Chinese officials with a symbolic verdict that it could never enforce without Chinese agreement (which would never come.)