The Internet is now a battlefield. China is not only militarizing cyberspace -- it is also deploying its cyberwarriors against the United States and other countries to conduct corporate espionage, hack think tanks, and engage in retaliatory harassment of news organizations.
These attacks are another dimension of the ongoing strategic competition between the United States and China -- a competition playing out in the waters of the East and South China seas, in Iran and Syria, across the Taiwan Strait, and in outer space. With a number of recent high-profile attacks in cyberspace traced to the Chinese government, the cybercompetition seems particularly pressing. It is time for Washington to develop a clear, concerted strategy to deter cyberwar, theft of intellectual property, espionage, and digital harassment. Simply put, the United States must make China pay for conducting these activities, in addition to defending cybernetworks and critical infrastructure such as power stations and cell towers. The U.S. government needs to go on the offensive and enact a set of diplomatic, security, and legal measures designed to impose serious costs on China for its flagrant violations of the law and to deter a conflict in the cybersphere.
Fashioning an adequate response to this challenge requires understanding that China places clear value on the cyber military capability. During the wars of the last two decades, China was terrified by the U.S. military's joint, highly networked capabilities. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) began paying attention to the role of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) assets in the conduct of war. But the PLA also concluded that the seeds of weakness were planted within this new way of war that allowed the United States to find, fix, and kill targets quickly and precisely -- an overdependence on information networks.
Consider what might happen in a broader U.S.-China conflict. The PLA could conduct major efforts to disable critical U.S. military information systems (it already demonstrates these capabilities for purposes of deterrence). Even more ominously, PLA cyberwarriors could turn their attention to strategic attacks on critical infrastructure in America. This may be a highly risky option, but the PLA may view cyber-escalation as justified if, for example, the United States struck military targets on Chinese soil.
China is, of course, using attacks in cyberspace to achieve other strategic goals as well, from stealing trade secrets to advance its wish for a more innovative economy to harassing organizations and individuals who criticize its officials or policies.
Barack Obama's administration has begun to fight back. On Feb. 20, the White House announced enhanced efforts to fight the theft of American trade secrets through several initiatives: building a program of cooperative diplomacy with like-minded nations to press leaders of "countries of concern," enhancing domestic investigation and prosecution of theft, promoting intelligence sharing, and improving current legislation that would enable these initiatives. These largely defensive measures are important but should be paired with more initiatives that start to play offense.
This article was crossposted on foreignpolicy.com. Read the rest of the article here.
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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.