FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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.  

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
December 06, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Eat an Impeachment
Matthew Hoh
Authorizations for Madness; The Effects and Consequences of Congress’ Endless Permissions for War
Jefferson Morley
Why the Douma Chemical Attack Wasn’t a ‘Managed Massacre’
Andrew Levine
Whatever Happened to the Obama Coalition?
Paul Street
The Dismal Dollar Dems and the Subversion of Democracy
Dave Lindorff
Conviction and Removal Aren’t the Issue; It’s Impeachment of Trump That is Essential
Ron Jacobs
Law Seminar in the Hearing Room: Impeachment Day Six
Linda Pentz Gunter
Why Do We Punish the Peacemakers?
Louis Proyect
Michael Bloomberg and Me
Robert Hunziker
Permafrost Hits a Grim Threshold
Joseph Natoli
What We Must Do
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Global Poison Spring
Robert Fantina
Is Kashmir India’s Palestine?
Charles McKelvey
A Theory of Truth From the South
Walden Bello
How the Battle of Seattle Made the Truth About Globalization True
Evan Jones
BNP Before a French Court
Norman Solomon
Kerry’s Endorsement of Biden Fits: Two Deceptive Supporters of the Iraq War
Torsten Bewernitz – Gabriel Kuhn
Syndicalism for the Twenty-First Century: From Unionism to Class-Struggle Militancy
Matthew Stevenson
Across the Balkans: From Banja Luka to Sarajevo
Thomas Knapp
NATO is a Brain Dead, Obsolete, Rabid Dog. Euthanize It.
Forrest Hylton
Bolivia’s Coup Government: a Far-Right Horror Show
M. G. Piety
A Lesson From the Danes on Immigration
Ellen Isaacs
The Audacity of Hypocrisy
Monika Zgustova
Chernobyl, Lies and Messianism in Russia
Manuel García, Jr.
From Caesar’s Last Breath to Ours
Binoy Kampmark
Going to the ICJ: Myanmar, Genocide and Aung San Suu Kyi’s Gamble
Jill Richardson
Marijuana and the Myth of the “Gateway Drug”
Muzamil Bhat
Srinagar’s Shikaras: Still Waters Run Deep Losses
Gaither Stewart
War and Betrayal: Change and Transformation
Farzana Versey
What Religion is Your Nationalism?
Clark T. Scott
The Focus on Trump Reveals the Democrat Model
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Do Bernie’s Supporters Know What “Not Me, Us” Means? Does Bernie?
Peter Harley
Aldo Leopold, Revisited
Winslow Myers
A Presidential Speech the World Needs to Hear
Christopher Brauchli
The Chosen One
Jim Britell
Misconceptions About Lobbying Representatives and Agencies
Ted Rall
Trump Gets Away with Stuff Because He Does
Mel Gurtov
Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the Insecurity of China’s Leadership
Nicky Reid
Dennis Kucinich, Tulsi Gabbard and the Slow Death of the Democratic Delusion
Tom H. Hastings
Cross-Generational Power to Change
John Kendall Hawkins
1619: The Mighty Whitey Arrives
Julian Rose
Why I Don’t Have a Mobile Phone
David Yearsley
Parasitic Sounds
Elliot Sperber
Class War is Chemical War
December 05, 2019
Colin Todhunter
Don’t Look, Don’t See: Time for Honest Media Reporting on Impacts of Pesticides
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail