A report by the cyber security firm Mandiant reprised in the New York Times appears to confirm what everyone with even a passing familiarity with cyber issues knows: we are at war with China. This report is but the latest in a series that makes it clear that China is engaged in a massive, organized and orchestrated campaign of cyber espionage, preparation of the battlefield and actual attacks on U.S. and allied networks and computers. Last fall, the bipartisan U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, in its annual report to Congress, declared China to be “the most threatening actor in cyberspace.” The Department of Defense published a report in 2012 that accused China of attacking U.S. military computers and warned that it was “the world’s most active and persistent perpetrators of economic espionage.” Representative Mike Rogers, Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, summed up the situation this way: “We are in a cyber war. Most Americans don’t know it … and at this point, we’re losing.”
The Pollyannas in Washington would have us believe that conflict with China not only is unlikely but it is impossible. They argue that we are too dependent on one another economically, China holds too much of our debt and they have too many pressing domestic problems. None of these arguments square with China’s ongoing military buildup fueled by more than a decade of double-digit budget increases or its development, testing and deployment of an anti-ship ballistic missile intended for only one purpose, to hold at risk U.S. aircraft carriers, or its aggressive behavior in recent years with respect to territorial disputes with most of its neighbors. Perhaps one could claim that these actions are merely expressions of the Middle Kingdom’s growing pains as it moves onto the world stage as certainly a regional and perhaps even a global superpower.
Even if it were possible to wave away China’s growing military power and its threatening behavior towards its neighbors, how does one explain what is clearly not just an officially sanctioned program of cyber espionage but cyber warfare at the direction of, if not conducted by, the Chinese military? It was easier when we could pretend that such attacks were only a minor nuisance, were largely the work of individual hackers or were simply in the furtherance of commercial espionage. This is no longer the case.
It is time to ask this basic question: what does Beijing’s cyber war against the United States portend for future relations between the world’s two great powers? China has continued its cyber campaign even when repeatedly called out by official U.S. sources. It’s not because the U.S. lacks the proverbial smoking gun, although we may be reluctant to reveal how much we actually know about what China is doing in cyber space. Beijing appears to believe that at least in the near-term, the combination of economic interests and war weariness will prevent the U.S. from responding to their attacks. This behavior is reminiscent of the period that preceded World War II. Hitler repeatedly bet that the combination of Germany’s growing military power, economic interdependencies and the unwillingness of the other Great Powers to risk a shooting war would allow him to get away with aggression. He was wrong only once, in Poland.