Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. A generous donor is matching all donations of $100 or more! So please donate now to double your punch!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

China, Cyberespionage and Cyberwarfare

Evan Osnos is the China columnist for the New Yorker.

My impression is that he usually covers the social issues/human rights/dissident beat.

However, yesterday, riffing off the news about organized Chinese hacking of US government and private websites, he veered off into counter-proliferation black ops:

The fact is that the United States government has already shown signs of an energetic capacity for cyber war, as in the case of Stuxnet, the software worm that the U.S., working with Israel, is believed to have used to disrupt Iran’s uranium-enrichment program. Coincidentally, I happened to ask some North Korea experts last week if Pyongyang’s latest round of nuclear tests might make it a prime target for a Stuxnet-style intervention. “The only time I heard anything along such lines recently was suspicion that the April launch failure may have resulted from cyber attack—but that was in the realm of conspiracy theory,” John Delury, of Yonsei University, in Seoul, told me.

As long as it’s in the realm of the theoretical, here’s another twist: given China’s vocal frustration with its erstwhile allies in Pyongyang, and China’s fondness for cyber adventures, any chance that China might try a Stuxnet approach to slow down a headache on its northeast border? From what I gathered, the chances were slim, in part because of operational differences between Iran and North Korea. “Do the Chinese know which industrial-control systems are in place?” Adam Segal, of the Council on Foreign Relations, asked. “Could they deliver the malware to a system that is most likely ‘air gapped’ and not connected to the Internet? Could they be sure that the infection wouldn’t spread—back to China or to U.S. or others? Do D.P.R.K. nuclear scientists travel? Is it possible to leave thumb drives around with no one noticing?”

On a couple of levels I am gobsmacked by Olnos’ blithe presumption.

I will set aside for the time being his rather fanciful view of the dynamics underlying PRC-DPRK relations.  Suffice to say that Beijing’s vision for sustaining its rather precarious economic and political sway over the northern half of the Korean peninsula do not involve sabotaging Pyongyang’s most cherished strategic initiative.

But as to the casual attitude toward a “Stuxnet approach”, Stuxnet was an act of war.  Full stop.  If the PRC or anybody else did that to us, they would face the prospect of direct, escalating retaliation.

If one is looking for an explanation for why cyberwarfare has become an obsession of the Department of Defense, with the planned addition of thousands of specialists to “Cyber Command”, and why President Obama raised the spectre of cyberwarfare in his State of the Union address, look no further than Stuxnet.

I believe the stories of massive hacking effort condoned and directed by the PRC government, and the significant value of the intellectual property and secrets extracted.

But for the sake of clarity, let’s call it “cyberespionage”.

Cyberwarfare—the destruction of military, industrial, or infrastructure facilities i.e. acts of war—is qualitatively different.

I also believe that the reason that that the reason that Chinese cyberespionage is hyped today (and conflated into the “cyberwarfare” category) is to distract attention from the US complicity in an irrevocable escalation of cyberwarfare, and to prepare public opinion against the day when this weapon is turned against us.

In the same article that Osnos advances the narrative of the dire character of  Chinese hacking (After years of warnings that Chinese hacking was a rising threat, the Mandiant study, and the willingness of U.S. officials to confirm many of its findings, signal a blunt new American counteroffensive against the era of Chinese cyber attacks), he proposes that the PRC might engage in a Stuxnet-type exploit of cross-border military sabotage.

There’s a qualitative difference in what the PRC has been accused of in the past, and what the US did with Stuxnet.

That’s not because the PRC is run by wonderful, peace-loving people–or because the PRC has not developed any cyberwar weapons (for one thing, I expect the PRC’s computer scientists have been interested and involved participants in Iran’s struggles with Stuxnet).

It’s because the PRC is extremely careful to avoid cycles of escalation with US power, preferring to counterpunch asymmetrically.

In defense matters, the asymetric doctrine is embodied in “non-interference in the affairs of sovereign states” as a bedrock value, one that provides China with a ready, if ever-eroding, bulwark against US “pre-emption” and “R2P” doctrines which leverage US military and technological superiority across national borders, and the ability for unmatchable escalation that is at the heart of the American game.

That isn’t a diplomatic and strategic shield to be abandoned lightly for the transient pleasures of fucking with North Korea’s nuclear program, or other cyberwarfare shenanigans, for that matter.

So I found Osnos’ speculation rather clueless, both in the matter of his understanding of the PRC security mindset and in the matter of his apparent utter gormlessness as to the significance of the Stuxnet exploit.

I will speculate that Olnos’ level of comfort with the “Stuxnet approach” has a lot to do with the fact that “we did it first, so it must be OK.”

Well, it’s not OK, and President Obama realizes it and the Pentagon realizes it, as can be seen from the attached piece.

But if Evan Osnos thinks it’s OK, and his ignorance is contagious, we’re closer to the day when US cyberaggression against China can be excused and advocated as “less than war” and any Chinese retaliation will, inevitably, be condemned as “an act of war”.

So Evan, if there’s a war with China…it’s your fault!

Peter Lee edits China Matters. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org.

More articles by:

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

October 22, 2018
Henry Giroux
Neoliberalism in the Age of Pedagogical Terrorism
Melvin Goodman
Washington’s Latest Cold War Maneuver: Pulling Out of the INF
David Mattson
Basket of Deplorables Revisited: Grizzly Bears at the Mercy of Wyoming
Michelle Renee Matisons
Hurricane War Zone Further Immiserates Florida Panhandle, Panama City
Tom Gill
A Storm is Brewing in Europe: Italy and Its Public Finances Are at the Center of It
Suyapa Portillo Villeda
An Illegitimate, US-Backed Regime is Fueling the Honduran Refugee Crisis
Christopher Brauchli
The Liars’ Bench
Gary Leupp
Will Trump Split the World by Endorsing a Bold-Faced Lie?
Michael Howard
The New York Times’ Animal Cruelty Fetish
Alice Slater
Time Out for Nukes!
Geoff Dutton
Yes, Virginia, There are Conspiracies—I Think
Daniel Warner
Davos in the Desert: To Attend or Not, That is Not the Question
Priti Gulati Cox – Stan Cox
Mothers of Exiles: For Many, the Child-Separation Ordeal May Never End
Manuel E. Yepe
Pence v. China: Cold War 2.0 May Have Just Begun
Raouf Halaby
Of Pith Helmets and Sartorial Colonialism
Dan Carey
Aspirational Goals  
Wim Laven
Intentional or Incompetence—Voter Suppression Where We Live
Weekend Edition
October 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jason Hirthler
The Pieties of the Liberal Class
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Day in My Life at CounterPunch
Paul Street
“Male Energy,” Authoritarian Whiteness and Creeping Fascism in the Age of Trump
Nick Pemberton
Reflections on Chomsky’s Voting Strategy: Why The Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved
John Davis
The Last History of the United States
Yigal Bronner
The Road to Khan al-Akhmar
Robert Hunziker
The Negan Syndrome
Andrew Levine
Democrats Ahead: Progressives Beware
Rannie Amiri
There is No “Proxy War” in Yemen
David Rosen
America’s Lost Souls: the 21st Century Lumpen-Proletariat?
Joseph Natoli
The Age of Misrepresentations
Ron Jacobs
History Is Not Kind
John Laforge
White House Radiation: Weakened Regulations Would Save Industry Billions
Ramzy Baroud
The UN ‘Sheriff’: Nikki Haley Elevated Israel, Damaged US Standing
Robert Fantina
Trump, Human Rights and the Middle East
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
NAFTA 2.0 Will Help Corporations More Than Farmers
Jill Richardson
Identity Crisis: Elizabeth Warren’s Claims Cherokee Heritage
Sam Husseini
The Most Strategic Midterm Race: Elder Challenges Hoyer
Maria Foscarinis – John Tharp
The Criminalization of Homelessness
Robert Fisk
The Story of the Armenian Legion: a Dark Tale of Anger and Revenge
Jacques R. Pauwels
Dinner With Marx in the House of the Swan
Dave Lindorff
US ‘Outrage’ over Slaying of US Residents Depends on the Nation Responsible
Ricardo Vaz
How Many Yemenis is a DC Pundit Worth?
Elliot Sperber
Build More Gardens, Phase out Cars
Chris Gilbert
In the Wake of Nepal’s Incomplete Revolution: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian 
Muhammad Othman
Let Us Bray
Gerry Brown
Are Chinese Municipal $6 Trillion (40 Trillion Yuan) Hidden Debts Posing Titanic Risks?
Rev. William Alberts
Judge Kavanaugh’s Defenders Doth Protest Too Much
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail