State visits are usually a time to talk about peace and cooperation, but new reports that the United States is weighing sanctions against China and Russia over a rash of alleged hacking and cybersecurity breaches is casting a shadow over the upcoming visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping this month.
First reported by The Washington Post , the Obama administration is apparently considering an escalating series of actions, including economic sanctions and restrictions against doing business in the United States, to punish China and other nations they blame for a string of high-profile and embarrassing hacks into government and private cyber security capabilities. These attacks include a break into the White House Office of Personnel Management that released a trove of personal data on government employees. U.S. officials said they suspect the attack was linked to China, but Chinese officials have denied any involvement and say they too, have been victim to cyber attacks.
"The United States, as we all know, has sharp disagreements with China over its actions in cyber space," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters. "We have remained deeply concerned about Chinese Government-sponsored cyber-enabled theft of confidential business information and proprietary technology from U.S. companies."
Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai said that "unfounded accusations or megaphone diplomacy will be nothing but counterproductive." He is correct. Sanctions against China or Chinese entities, at this juncture, would be incredibly unwise. U.S. officials seem to forget the embarrassing revelations of National Security Agency (NSA) analyst Edward Snowden in 2013 that show the broad, invasive and illegal surveillance tactics used by the NSA on many countries, including China. And the timing of the proposed sanctions, right before Xi's much-anticipated visit, seem designed to inflame tensions and cast a shadow over international cooperation.
"Megaphone diplomacy is exactly what we are getting," Rosita Dellios, an associate international relations professor at Bond University, told Bloomberg News. "It looks like they are trying to prime Xi into being receptive and playing a role with the United States in trying to establish some sort of cyber norms. But it is also unnecessarily disruptive just before Xi's trip."
If the Obama administration thinks they can strong-arm China into cracking down on crimes in cyberspace, they are doing it in completely the wrong way. Accusations and threats of sanctions simply put the Chinese on the defense, and create no middle ground of shared interests. Does the administration think China is a monolith, with such control that the state government is behind every hacking attempt on a U.S. organization?
Every industrialized country faces two threats on cybersecurity. One comes in the form of global espionage. Every country spies, but James Bond 007 doesn't carry a gun anymore, he carries a laptop. The second threat to digital security comes in the form of anarchist hackers like the group Anonymous. Its members hack for sport or political ideals and have no loyalty or patriotism to speak of.
Instead of going on the offense, the United States should strengthen its defense. Stronger cyber borders would help deflect attacks and give the United States the protection it needs. Make no mistake--this information does need to be protected. The kind of information being stolen is high risk. It is nuclear power plant designs, military secrets and the like. It is easy to imagine the panic U.S. officials have over losing control over launch codes and power grids.
A hard line against China, though, will not achieve the goal of protection. It will merely incite more misunderstandings. Sanctions will not stop hacking.
If sanctions are imposed, "I'd say the chances of Chinese retaliation are high," Jeffrey A. Bader, Obama's principal adviser on Asia from 2009 to 2011, told The Washington Post . But, he said, "if a Chinese company was a beneficiary of stolen intellectual property from an American company, and the evidence is clear cut, then actions or sanctions against that Chinese company strike me as appropriate."
This type of individualized indictments, with clear evidence, is best done in cooperation with the Chinese Government. Both countries have claimed to be victims in the growing cyber war, and by seeing each other as partners, rather than enemies, both sides can work together on isolating and eliminating hackers.
Both sides have made statements that they want dialogue and cooperation on cybersecurity, so why abandon a diplomatic approach now? As Xi readies for his visit, it is time to find reasons to collaborate. The United States has an opportunity to build bridges, not to set up roadblocks.
The European Union has quite a collaborative approach on cybersecurity with China with a joint research project called OpenChina-ICT. The project organizes conferences, roadmap surveys and identifies current and emerging research on cybersecurity defense. Why then, cannot the United States build on collaboration like the Strategic and Economic Dialogue series to focus on the new threat of cyberhacking?
By their very nature, electronic networks are vulnerable. The more connected we are, the more information cannot be fully secured. Realizing this does not mean we stop trying to protect sensitive data--it means we change how we approach cybersecurity. Not everything needs to be on the Internet, and a low-tech solution may be the antidote to our hi-tech problems. Placing the blame on China does nothing but inflame political tensions.
What is the outcome of imposing a strict and punitive line against China? Where could it end? Will America's reliance on China to manufacture its electronic goods play a role? Our economies, our politics, and our development are inextricably linked. To take a step backward is akin to attempting to untie a complicated knot. No matter how much you try to cut the threads we are still holding together.
As we start the presidential election cycle in the United States, be prepared to hear a lot about China. Most likely it will be a portrait of China as threatening U.S. manufacturing, stealing jobs and resources, imposing a growing military threat and stealing our electronic secrets. It's a tactic that plays well with voters who have little experience with China other than what they see in movies and TV. By creating an external "bad guy," voters have someone to blame when they feel life isn't going their way. A politician who comes along and promises to "punish" and "stand up" to this enemy is seen as a hero. It's a cheap tactic and disingenuous. Americans deserve the truth, as complicated as it may be.
The author is a contributing writer to Beijing Review , living in New York City