U.S. President Barack Obama's trip to China has a dirty little secret: cyberwarfare. It is an issue Beijing refuses to acknowledge exists, but it has the potential to torpedo military relations between the two nations. Almost every other conceivable area of disagreement between China and the U.S. will have been raised during Obama's visit by one side or the other even such highly sensitive issues as human rights and the unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang province. But even if U.S. officials try to raise the issue of what they believe is a constant and growing campaign by China to infiltrate U.S. networks, steal secrets and hone Beijing's ability to wreak havoc in case of military conflict, the likelihood is that Chinese officials will simply deny that the problem exists, as they have done with great success in the past. From the American point of view, there's unfortunately currently little Washington can do to change that state of affairs.
"At a fundamental level, the Chinese view cyberwar as an overt tool of national power in a very different way from the United States," says James Mulvenon, a Washington-based specialist on the Chinese military. "The U.S. is still uncomfortable exercising that power, but the Chinese and the Russians are very comfortable with the deniability and using proxies, even though the actions of those proxies could have enormous strategic consequences."
Mulvenon and other analysts say China employs a constantly shifting mix of official and civilian or semicivilian groups (such as so-called patriotic hacker associations) as the foot soldiers the "proxies" in its cyberwar armies. The technological challenges of tracing attacks on U.S. government and private-corporation computers are so enormous that Beijing can simply deny that any of the problems have originated in China. So far, the Chinese have been able to get away with it, despite the fact that not just the U.S. is complaining. In the past few years, sources ranging from the German Chancellor's office to government mainframes as far afield as New Zealand and Belgium have made loud public allegations that they had been the subject of cyberinfiltration from China, all to no avail.
"The scope and scale of the attacks has not abated despite the international opprobrium and outcry," Mulvenon says. "It's a serious problem that at the moment we don't have a solution to, because our inability to attribute the source of the attack fundamentally undermines our efforts at deterrence. If you can't identify the attacker, you can't deter them."
That's a troubling situation for China's potential adversaries to find themselves in, particularly as, unlike in conventional military training, what China's hackers are doing is the real thing, not make-believe. "The skill sets needed to penetrate a network for intelligence-gathering purposes in peacetime are the same skills necessary to penetrate that network for offensive action during wartime," notes a recent congressional report on China's alleged clandestine cyberattacks in the U.S. According to the report, released in October by the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, that means that "if Chinese operators are, indeed, responsible for even some of the current exploitation efforts targeting U.S. government and commercial networks, then they may have already demonstrated that they possess a mature and operationally proficient CNO [computer network operations, or cyberwarfare] capability."
But even if Obama had raised this tricky issue with his Chinese counterpart, it is unlikely that his efforts would have brought about any change. As the congressional report notes, the heavy emphasis on cyberwarfare is a key component in the Chinese military's strategic vision for defeating the technologically superior U.S. in any future conflict. That means conducting so-called asymmetrical warfare, aimed at using the U.S.'s dependence on technology as a weapon: for example, targeting America's network of space satellites or developing missiles that could sink U.S. aircraft carriers. For China's generals, though, of all the asymmetrical methods of attack available to them, cyberwar presents a uniquely effective and cost-effective means of neutralizing the U.S advantage. "They recognized the importance as far back as the early '90s," says Mulvenon, "and they now have a major advantage, a weapon like no other that allows them to reach out and touch right into the continental United States."