Originally Published 2013-08-09 12:38:24 Published on Aug 09, 2013
Cyber security has taken a front seat in the U.S.-China relations, as seen in the last two high level bilateral meetings. The California summit in June 2013 and the recently held U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) V in July 2013 were dominated by cyber issues.
US-China cyber talks
"Cyber security has taken a front seat in the U.S.-China relations, as seen in the last two high level bilateral meetings. The California summit in June 2013 and the recently held U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) V in July 2013 were dominated by cyber issues. Until the revelations by ex NSA employee Edward Snowden, U.S. portrayed itself as a victim of cyber attacks, with most of them originating in China. Beijing meanwhile, consistently denied any involvement in these attacks and maintained that it too was a victim of cyber attacks. However, the revelations of the U.S. snooping on its own citizens, its close allies as well as other nations altered the cyber dynamics between Washington and Beijing. The Snowden leaks documented American cyber attacks on China, prompting Beijing to take the high moral ground. This article reviews the cyber arguments between the two nations in the new context and their effort to find common ground in the search for a "new type of great power relations". Until recently, the U.S. stopped short of accusing the Chinese government of deliberate attacks. However, in the Pentagon's 2013 annual report to the Congress on Chinese military capabilities, Washington took a step further and accused the Chinese government and military of cyber intrusions 1. The report explained that the intrusions were focused on "exfiltrating information" and collecting intelligence on U.S. diplomatic, economic and Defence industries which could be used during a "crisis". Responding to the report, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that China "opposed" the report and warned the U.S. that such accusation may harm mutual trust and cooperation, adding "Unwarranted accusations and hyping will do nothing but undermine our joint efforts for dialogue and poison the atmosphere"2 The divergence on cyber security inevitably came to the top of the agenda as Washington sought to engage the new Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the California summit in June 2013. The 'informal' summit was meant to provide Obama and Xi an opportunity to "build a personal relationship" and the chance to get off on a "good constructive footing"3. After the two day summit at the Sunnylands retreat at California, the U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon described the meeting as "unique, positive and constructive"4. He also added that Obama raised the "issue of cyber-enabled economic theft ...by entities based in China". Obama apparently "asked the Chinese government engage on this issue and understand that ... if it continues to be this direct theft of United States' property, this was going to be a very difficult problem in the economic relationship and was going to be an inhibitor to the relationship really reaching its full potential". In response, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi remarked that China pointed out it "objects to any form of hacker and cyber attacks"5,adding that, "Instead of being a source of mutual suspicion and friction between China and America, cyber security should be a new highlight in the bilateral cooperation". The two sides have now decided to engage in a dialogue on negotiating norms and rules in cyber space. At the end of the discussions, the presidents ordered the setting up of the new cyber working group within the U.S.-China S&ED. In the closing remarks, President Xi mentioned that this would give "China and the U.S. to work with each other in a pragmatic way"6. As Washington expressed its concerns about cyber enabled theft and warned China of such actions that may undermine their potential, reports surfaced of a NSA program that collected the phone records of millions of Americans7. The Guardian, published a news report based on leaked documents that a programme codenamed "PRISM" gave the National Security Agency (NSA) direct access to data held by companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook and other internet giants. What started as revelations over the U.S. government's access to private data on its citizens was to take the world by storm and disclose further information about the U.S. spying on its allies and hacking into computers- including those of China, As the California summit came to an end, Obama defended the NSA program saying that the administration ensured to "protect people's privacy"8. In response Beijing retorted that 'taking a double standard on cyber security does not help solve the issue"9. Snowden revealed in an interview with the South China Morning Post, that the NSA has been hacking into computers in Hong Kong and China for years10. This drew sharp criticism from the Chinese media for accusing China of hacking into American systems and built public pressure to provide asylum to the whistle blower. The anger against the NSA revelations was apparent in the Chinese media and in the growing support for Snowden. A commentary in the Global Times titled "China deserves explanation of PRISM" opined that "Snowden's exposure... has demonstrated the US' hypocrisy and arrogance. Besides Snowden's disclosure, it is still unknown what else the US, a country which once condemned China for cyber attacks, has done to China"11. Even the People's Liberation Army (PLA) lashed out by calling the revelations "frightening" and accused the U.S. of being "habitual offenders with regards to network monitoring and espionage"12. Washington soon after, filed espionage charges against Snowden and requested Hong Kong to detain him for extradition. However, Snowden left Hong Kong the following day on June 23 to Moscow, evading capture and trial in America. The Hong Kong government released a statement saying that the "documents provided by the US Government did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law" and they did not have a "legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong"13. The fact that Snowden was able to leave Hong Kong a day after U.S. filed espionage charges on him was a setback on the U.S.-China bilateral cooperation. Washington expressed its disappointment with Beijing and warned against actions that would undermine the relationship. Patrick Ventrell, the White House Press Office director, said that "...We are deeply disappointed by the decision of the authorities in Hong Kong to permit Mr. Snowden to flee despite a legally valid U.S. request to arrest him for purposes of his extradition under the U.S.-Hong Kong Surrender Agreement... and we've noted that such behavior is detrimental to U.S.-Hong Kong and U.S.-China bilateral relations"14. The Snowden affair affected the U.S.-China relationship even further with reports suggesting that Snowden was a spy for China. Dick Cheney, former vice-president called the whistle blower a "traitor" and questioned his connection with China. He said that "I'm suspicious because he went to China. That's not a place where you would ordinarily want to go if you are interested in freedom, liberty and so forth," adding: "It raises questions whether or not he had that kind of connection before he did this."15 The Chinese Government was quick to respond to these reports calling them "groundless"16. The difference over cyber issues was apparent even at the S&ED on July 10-11 between the two countries when the first cyber working group met within the framework. While the Chinese side seemed confident addressing cyber concerns, Washington expressed its disappointment about letting Snowden leave. Deputy Secretary of State, William Burns said that the decision to let Snowden go "undermined" the cooperation efforts between the two countries. In response, Chinese State Councillor Yang said that "The Hong Kong SAR government has handled the Snowden case in accordance with law and its approach is beyond reproach"17 The PRISM affair has undermined Washington's appeal to draw boundaries in the cyber realm as well as its reports on Chinese intrusions. The NSA programme sparked debates on the extent to which a state can violate or breach online privacy rights of citizens to conduct surveillance for national security reasons. The revelation on the programme has also been detrimental to the American image within the international community and has added on to the trust deficit between Beijing and Washington. The most important thing underlined through this episode is the need to draw redlines supplemented by a legally binding document to promote good behaviour or restrict unacceptable behaviour in cyberspace. There is a need to develop international cyber rules to help uphold cyber security in all countries. Although divided over their concerns regarding cyber security, the two sides would have to now cooperate given that Washington no longer enjoys propaganda advantage on the issue. The two countries should also cooperate as there is a need to come to a mutual understanding of redlines that should not be crossed by either party. As the U.S. and China embark on the road to improve their ties and realise the potential of this cooperation, there is an urgent need to resolve their differences over cyber security. Both nations have realised the need to accept and address this difference in their relationship. Washington should be willing to accommodate China into the new world order and Beijing must keep in mind its mantra of 'peaceful rising'. As cyber space does not restrict itself to the security domain and has implications on other spheres too, cooperation is imperative. However it is yet to be seen how the two "great powers" will overcome their differences and whether they will be able to come together for a negotiation on a rule based cyber domain. (Darshana M. Baruah is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi) 1.    Annual Report to Congress, "Military and Security developments involving the People's republic of China", U.S. Department of Defence, 2013, 2.    Annual Report to Congress, "Military and Security developments involving the People's republic of China", U.S. Department of Defence, 2013, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/xwfw/s2510/2511/t1038551.shtml 3.    Xinhua, "Xi-Obama summit to focus on big picture of China-U.S. ties" People's Daily, Available at: http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90883/8275405.html and Chen Weihua, "Big expectations for laid back meeting", China Daily, available at: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2013xivisit/2013-06/06/content_16573310.htm 4.    The White House, "Press Briefing By National Security Advisor Tom Donilon", June 8, 2013, available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/08/press-briefing-national-security-advisor-tom-donilonon 5.    Foreign Ministry of People's Republic of China, "Yang Jiechi's Remarks on the Results of the Presidential Meeting between Xi Jinping and Obama at the Annenberg Estate", June 9, 2013, available at: http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx/t1049263.shtml 6.    The White House, "Remarks by President Obama and President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China After Bilateral Meeting", June 8, 2013, available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/08/remarks-president-obama-and-president-xi-jinping-peoples-republic-china- 7.    Guardian Staff, "Edward Snowden and the NSA files-timeline", The Guardian, available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/23/edward-snowden-nsa-files-timeline, 8.    The White House, "Remarks by President Obama and President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China After Bilateral Meeting", June 8, 2013, available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/08/remarks-president-obama-and-president-xi-jinping-peoples-republic-china- 9.    Foreign Ministry People's Republic of China, Regular Press Conference, June 13, 2013, available at : http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/xwfw/s2510/2511/t1050375.shtml 10.    Lana Lam, "Edward Snowden: US government has been hacking Hong Kong and China for years", South China Morning Post, June 14, 2013, available at: http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1259508/edward-snowden-us-government-has-been-hacking-hong-kong-and-china?page=all 11.    Global Times, "China deserves explanation of PRISM", Global Times, June 14, 2013, available at: http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/788734.shtml#.Ub66g-emjko, 12.    Shanghai Daily, "PLA hits out at US spying program", China.cn.org, June 17, 2013, available at: http://www.china.org.cn/china/2013-06/17/content_29138008.htm 13.    Government of Hong Kong Specially Administered Region, "HKSAR Government issues statement on Edward Snowden", June 23, 2013, available at: http://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/201306/23/P201306230476.htm, 14.    U.S. Department of State, Daily Press Briefing, June 24, 2013, available at: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2013/06/211081.htm#SNOWDEN 15.    Matt Williams, "Edward Snowden is a 'traitor' and possible spy for China - Dick Cheney", The Guardian, June 16, 2013, available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/16/nsa-whistleblower-edward-snowden-traitor-cheney 16.    Foreign Ministry People's Republic of China, Regular Press Conference, June 18, 2013, available at: http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/xwfw/s2510/2511/t1051299.shtml 17.    U.S Department of State, "The U.S.-China Closing Statements for U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue", July 11, 2013, available at: http://www.state.gov/s/d/2013/211850.htm Courtesy : ORF Cyber Monitor "
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