The New York Times headline from National Security Adviser Tom Donilon's speech yesterday on Obama's Asia strategy was uncompromising: "U.S. Demands Chinese Block Cyberattacks." And it is true, in the sense that Donilon's speech did include some tough language on cybersecurity:
"Another such issue is cyber-security, which has become a growing challenge to our economic relationship as well. Economies as large as the United States and China have a tremendous shared stake in ensuring that the Internet remains open, interoperable, secure, reliable, and stable. 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."
But a demand implies "or else." What is the "or else"? Donilon understandably did not spell it out in any detail beyond "we will take action to protect our economy against cyber-threats." In backgrounding the speech, the White House told the NYT that Donilon did not get more detailed because they wanted to motivate China to act without engaging in "finger-pointing."
Finger-pointing, however, was precisely what Donilon was doing in the speech, and rightly so. Finger-pointing goes by another name, "naming and shaming," and it is an accepted early stage of diplomacy when dealing with core national interest conflicts. China has an understandable national interest in stealing as much as they can from the United States and the United States has an understandable national interest in preventing this. Those interests are in conflict, and one way to resolve it peacefully is to raise the costs to the Chinese of engaging in this behavior so they will end up in a different place in their own internal cost-benefit calculation. A peaceful way of raising those costs is to name and shame the Chinese for their activities.
However, naming and shaming only goes so far and, in this case, the Chinese preemptive response has been predictable: We deny we are doing this but tu quoque, you are engaged in cyber-espionage, Mr. Obama, and so we are not ashamed.
That means that naming and shaming alone is unlikely to resolve the underlying conflict. The Obama administration may soon face a tougher choice: continue to live with the waves of cyber-attacks from the Chinese or escalate to some form of retaliation beyond naming and shaming in the hopes of raising the costs to the Chinese beyond what they are willing to pay. Donilon's speech gave little insight into what the administration would do when confronted with that choice.
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Much of the initial commentary on Julian Assange's surprise bid for political asylum in Ecuador has centered on the question of, why Ecuador? After all, Assange has fashioned himself as a paladin of free speech and government transparency, even as Ecuador's radical populist president Rafael Correa's campaign of intimidation against his own country's free press has been assailed around the world, including his $40 million lawsuit against a leading newspaper and his systematic shuttering of news outlets that don't display an appropriate sympathy for the government line.
Yet if one understands Assange not as a paragon of freedom of expression, but simply as an angry, maladjusted individual who has sought to damage the United States, not because of its alleged lack of openness, but because he sees it as the guarantor of an international system from which he is completely alienated, then his bid for asylum in Ecuador makes perfect sense.
Indeed, he certainly would find a home in Ecuador.
For his part, President Correa appears to have his own psychological tics about the United States. Although he received his PhD in economics here, his father was also jailed here for drug trafficking. He has also consistently railed about the "neo-liberal" world economic order, evidently resenting his country's relatively powerless role in it and its relation to Ecuador's recent history of political instability.
Thus, his presidency has been one of conflict with established international institutions and practices of that order, as well as pretending that the traditional determinants of international power and influence no longer apply. He's all South and no North.
In fact, the quixotic, anti-"system" campaigns of Assange and Correa recently converged when the two sat down together for a fawning satellite interview over the news outlet RT TV (funded by the Kremlin). It was a veritable anti-American love-fest, with Correa telling Assange, "Welcome to the club of those who are persecuted!"
So far, the only response from the Obama administration on Assange's Ecuador asylum bid has been a passive statement from the State Department, saying that it was "a matter between Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Ecuador."
That may be an appropriate public response, but privately the administration ought to make it clear to the Correa government that there will be serious repercussions if asylum is granted to Assange. The temptation to grant it will be great for Correa, who will bask in the global attention it would bring, as well as further burnishing his radical credentials. So far, his anti-"system" posturing and preening has come at no cost to him. It's time he learned there are limits to such behavior.
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Like father, like son.
Two Syrian dictators, both named al-Assad, brutally attacked their own people. Both started their campaigns of violence in the central Syrian city of Hama. Both caused Syrian deaths. Both followed protests calling for reform and opportunity.
That's where the similarities end. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad's military killed at least 10,000 Syrians, according to conservative estimates. Neither Syria's neighbors, the United Nations, nor the world's democracies protested, barely uttering a sound in reaction to the state-sponsored violence. With its borders tightly controlled, foreign media denied access and Syrian state media complicit in the cover-up, the world was in the dark.
Fast forward almost 30 years. Bashar al-Assad, doing what dictators do, responded to calls for political freedoms with the indiscriminate force of his military. The United Nations estimates as many as 2,700 civilian deaths, although the violence continues. But, unlike his father, the younger Assad earned wide-spread condemnation from world leaders.
The French foreign minister denounced the "extreme violence." European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek bluntly demanded "no more killing, no more torture, no more arbitrary arrests." In the U.S., President Obama condemned the "outrageous use of violence," and Secretary of State Clinton urged a ban on Syrian oil and gas.
To be sure, numerous factors contribute to the difference in international reaction, but one of the most critical is social media. Unlike their counterparts 30 years ago, today's Syrian reformers have new media technologies that enable them to organize and tell the outside world.
The world learned of Bashar al-Assad's atrocities not from international media but first-hand accounts relayed in real time. The first glimpse was through a camera phone photo that rapidly spread on the Internet last March followed by amateur video on Facebook and YouTube.
For Assad and his kindred autocrats, social media threatens their iron-clad control over information, ideas and opinion. Accustomed to disseminating what they want, when they want through state organs, social media equalizes the power to inform, persuade and mobilize. It's power to the people in a modern setting.
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With exquisite timing, the Pentagon released its annual China military report on Wednesday just as Chinese state television broadcast a documentary trumpeting the PLA's cyberwarfare capabilities. For those following security issues in Asia, there was nothing particularly new in the Pentagon report. It noted the challenges posed by China's new doctrine of maritime power projection, plans for multiple aircraft carriers, the new J-20 stealth fighter, and PLA interest in cyberwarfare (exclamation point helpfully provided by CCTV). Nor was there any real news in the delay of the report, which is also an annual event because of the tedious but necessary bureaucratic process of ensuring the contents are credibly presented.
The fact that the PLA is aggressively pursuing cyberwarfare is also not news, though CCTV's bravado about it did catch some analysts by surprise (visitors to Beijing should make a point of watching CCTV-7, the PLA channel, which provides a steady stream of military propaganda, uniformed game shows, and gorgeous singing colonels in jackboots). Many of us in the national security or Asia fields receive repeat "visits" from Chinese-based hackers. Sometimes these come in the form of crashing Google accounts or targeted "phishing" attacks -- seemingly from other colleagues' email addresses with attached reports on "PLA modernization" or the "Hu-Obama Summit" that contain malware. I have also enjoyed démarches from Chinese officials expressing concern about travel plans to Dharamsala (seat of the exile Tibetan government) or Taiwan. My stern but courteous callers were generally better informed about my itinerary than my own travel agent and made little effort to conceal their knowledge. A Chinese academic friend confided to me a few years back that one of his former students is working with 20,000 other tech-savvy youth for the Ministry of State Security -- and that was just the unit in charge of domestic surveillance. It is hard to maintain operational security when the operation is that massive and the PLA propaganda machine is openly encouraging a culture of aggressive defense of China's "core interests."
The administration refrain is that we must have more military-to-military transparency with the PLA. This may be necessary, but it is hardly sufficient and it carries some negative consequences. For one thing, the administration seems fixated on sustaining mil-to-mil dialogue with Beijing to the point that it is distorting decision-making on arms sales to Taiwan (this because the PLA will routinely cut off military-to-military dialogue in retaliation for the sales). The other problem with a focus on mil-to-mil transparency is that it exacerbates the larger problem of PLA autonomy within the Chinese system. Yes, the Central Military Commission (CMC) ensures that the "Party controls the gun" and the chair and vice chair are Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, respectively. But every other member of the CMC is uniformed military, and Hu and Xi have no independent sources of oversight or expertise on the operational practices of the PLA (particularly the PLA Navy). By pushing for more mil-mil dialogue with the PLA, we risk reinforcing PLA autonomy and further weakening civilian control. Instead, we should put the priority on working collectively with other states to insist that China's leaders be held accountable for the actions of the PLA and that the PLA be held accountable to the leadership. This burden will have to be carried by the president and other leaders since the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is too weak to make a difference on its own.
The China military report and the CCTV cyberattack documentary should also cause U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to begin making the case for reversing the administration's planned cuts in defense spending. Mil-to-mil dialogue is no substitute for necessary recapitalization of our air and naval forces in the Pacific.
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One year ago, who could have imagined that the most significant international gesture of the year on behalf of freedom in China would come not from the United Nations, the United States, or another government, but from an internet search company? Such was Google's principled decision this week to follow through on its earlier threat and withdraw from China rather than acquiesce in continued Chinese government control. Beijing reacted with predictable bluster, but I suspect the Politburo leaders were stunned when Google called their bluff and chose to lose access to the most potentially lucrative emerging market in the world rather than keep censoring itself. Google's concern was not just China's restrictions on its search results but, more ominously as my FP colleague Blake Hounshell highlighted, the co-opting of Google technology to use in surveillance and entrapment of political dissidents (not to mention from a commercial standpoint the potential theft of sensitive intellectual property). No longer was Google just complicit in restricted information flow; it was now potentially a new tool for the persecution of Chinese activists.
This recalls another recent landmark moment in the turbulent encounter between Chinese state capitalism and Western technology companies, but with a less happy outcome. The Chinese Government's overconfident posture towards Google likely drew inspiration from Yahoo's shameful capitulation to the Public Security Bureau in 2004 by turning over Chinese dissident Shi Tao, whose only "crime" was using his Yahoo email account to communicate with overseas Chinese democracy activists. Shi Tao is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence.
Yahoo publicly admitted its role in late 2005. I was working at the National Security Council at the time, and shortly after Shi Tao's arrest, some NSC colleagues and I met with a senior Yahoo executive to get their side of the story. It was a thoroughly disillusioning meeting. The Yahoo exec maintained a defiant, defensive posture, clinging to the talking points that Yahoo was just following the local laws in the country it was working in, couldn't get involved in a "political case" like this, and besides didn't U.S. Government policy encourage economic engagement with China? To which we reminded him that U.S. policy also encouraged human rights and free speech in China, which Yahoo's actions directly undermined. Perhaps even more distressing was that the Yahoo exec made clear that his company felt no obligation, even in private, to remonstrate with the Chinese authorities over the arrest or to do anything to assist Shi Tao or his family. It was not an auspicious moment for the argument that Western technology companies will inevitably bring freedom to China. Following months of bad publicity and Congressional pressure, Yahoo eventually reversed course and expressed remorse.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.