We Wuz Robbed

Facing up to China in cyberspace

We Wuz Robbed

“A colloquial expression for instances in which one has been tricked or outsmarted, often used in a sports context.”

Judging from the media reports, this might be a good way to describe last week’s discussions with China. Chinese intelligence agencies had just purloined security records for 14 million federal employees and yet not only did cybersecurity not make it on to the long laundry list of items agreed at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the United States managed to agree to hold discussions on cybersecurity norms, which the Chinese are spinning as American willingness to work on the code of conduct they’ve already written with Russia.

Let’s contrast that with France’s reaction to the leak that the United States had spied on successive French presidents, a leak designed to undercut NATO and harm the United States President Hollande had two emergency meetings, one with his cabinet and one with legislators. He called in the U.S. ambassador to explain himself. President Obama had to call to mollify Hollande and say it would never happen again. This is all public. For the OPM hack, the United States hemmed and hawed on who did what, there was no announcement that the Chinese ambassador had been called in, and no call from President Xi to explain.

It may be that behind the scenes there were protests from Washington, but why the secrecy? Part of the kabuki of espionage is the public outrage, which sends a message to the other side about where there are lines it should not cross. Or the administration may have just given up on reaching agreement – there is certainly anger against China - but then why pursue talks? The United States certainly doesn’t want to endorse China’s code of conduct, which undercuts human rights and expands government control over the internet, but the Chinese will want us to negotiate from their text.

This comes after a week of adamant opposition in the UN by China to recognizing that self defence and human rights apply in cyberspace. The only part of international law the Chinese (along with the Russians) want to accept is the dominance of state sovereignty and “non-intervention in internal affairs.” They have a very different view of how the world should work and are intentionally abrading the post war order.

China says that it can’t accept rules for cyber conflict since this will legitimize the militarization of cyberspace. Privately, the Chinese fear that acknowledging the right to self defense could let the United States retaliate for events like OPM. China also hopes to keep its own cyber capabilities secret. This is not unusual – for years, China stoutly condemned the United States for the militarization of space, up until the day it tested its own anti-satellite weapon – but it means China will keep hacking until something changes their minds about risk.

Some pundits worry that the United States has tripped over its own rhetoric, as it has repeatedly told the Chinese that it did not expect them to stop traditional political-military espionage, which all great powers do, only their rampant economic espionage, which violates trade commitments. Thus, it is said, we really can’t criticize China for OPM. But the context here is the logic of power, not courts or classrooms. If a great power meekly accepts espionage, it damages all of its interests and influence. Evan Osnos has written about a debate in China on whether the United States is in decline and can be ignored with impunity. Those Chinese who hold this position have likely been encouraged by our response to OPM.

But, you say, the United States has other equities, maritime disputes, an investment treaty, and fair treatment for U.S. companies: these are higher priorities than cybersecurity. But there is no evidence of reciprocity and it is a mistake to assume that we can safely sign business deals in the front of the house while the back is being pillaged. The day after the S&ED ended, China announced plans to move ahead with its controversial national security law, which imposes damaging and unfair restrictions on foreign companies. In diplomacy, this is called a “rebuff.”

The United States needs a different approach to negotiation that doesn’t assume we are partners. China, Russia, and other "BRICs" (who met two weeks ago in Moscow to coordinate their strategy on cybersecurity) are not our friends and don't want to be our partners. If the United States calculates as it has in the past, that economic gain outweighs China’s transgressions, it is not taking into account a very different situation with a more assertive China that wants to play the game in cyberspace and elsewhere by its own rules. A majority in China might welcome greater cooperation, but powerful institutions like the PLA and the Party see the United States as their main opponent. In these situations, it is important not to be the demandeur or to make concessions without reciprocity.

China may be making the same mistake the Soviets made in the 1970s. Seeing the United States weakened by disastrous foreign interventions and political convulsions, the Soviets concluded that they had the advantage, giving them license to do as they wished. This did not work out so well for them. China’s actions are leading it down the same path. All of the BRICs are vulnerable, China in particular with its weak economy. Chinese interlocutors routinely call for a “win-win” approach in bilateral relations. What this really reflects is a belief that they are in a “zero sum” game, where for China to win, the United States must lose. China must abandon zero sum for the give and take that is normal in international relations if it is to repair the situation. The upcoming summit gives China a chance to reverse downward trends and to put relations on a better course with this administration and the next.

This is not a new Cold War, it does not call for containment, deterrence or any of the other forms of ancestor worship that still shape American strategy, but we have entered a period of confrontation. We don’t have to be enemies, but we will not be friends. This means U.S. thinking must change. It means playing hardball, but that's the game we’re in.

James Andrew Lewis is a senior fellow and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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James Andrew Lewis
Senior Vice President; Pritzker Chair; and Director, Strategic Technologies Program