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Lincoln Davidson is a research associate for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. You can follow him on Twitter @.
Last Saturday, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration has decided to retaliate for the theft of millions of personnel records from the databases of the Office of Personnel Management. While administration officials are still debating what measures can be taken without risking escalation, one response reportedly being considered is breaching the Great Firewall.
Adam’s post earlier this week explained in detail why this wouldn’t work. Regardless of how ineffectual such efforts might be, that hasn’t stopped the Chinese press from responding with outrage that the United States might respond at all to the OPM breach. Below, I’ve collected some of the articles to give a sense of the Chinese perspective on the situation
The United States is using the "China threat" to justify expanding cyber capabilities
In this op-ed, Chinese cybersecurity expert Qin An argues that the United States has repeatedly used the threat of Chinese hackers to justify expanding military cyber forces. The United States consistently fails to provide evidence to back up their accusations, Qin writes, because their goal is simply to expand their capabilities. “When Americans pressure us on cybersecurity issues, we should instead push back by significantly strengthening our cyber capabilities … the result of the so-called American ‘retaliation’ will be speeding up the creation of a strong Chinese cyber army,” Qin concludes. Qin makes a similar argument in this article in response to questions from the Global Times, and Xinhua argues that it’s hypocritical for the United States to criticize other countries for developing cyber capabilities that threaten critical infrastructure while simultaneously increasing funding for U.S. Cyber Command.
The United States government hasn’t released any evidence that China is behind the OPM breach
“Hyping that China is conducting cyberattacks on the United States and turning the United States into a victim is a habitual ploy of the United States government,” this article by state-owned press agency Xinhua declares. The article reminds readers about the Snowden revelations and that “China has long been the world’s primary victim of cyberattacks,” and encourages the United States government to stop creating “imaginary enemies.” An article from the China News Service quotes China Information Security Research Institute deputy director Zuo Xiaodong as saying that the United States government’s basic assumption that the attacks are coming from a nation-state is based on “false logic.” This article from Xinhua’s Washington bureau focuses on the difficulty of attributing attacks in cyberspace. “What’s really thought-provoking is that, on the one hand, the United States government won’t publicly call out China for this hacker operation, but on the other hand, is beating the drum of retaliation against China.”
Retaliation risks escalation
In that same article, the author argues that strengthening cybersecurity is in the shared interests of China and the United States, and that retaliating without providing evidence would reveal the “Internet hegemony” of the United States. In this article from the Beijing News, Fudan University cybersecurity expert Shen Yi says that the two sides should sit down for talks rather than threaten each other. China Daily writes that the United States risks setting a “dangerous precedent” if it moves against China, and Xinhua reports that the United States is “building momentum for a cyberwar.” Speaking to the Global Times, Fang Xingdong, founder of Internet policy think tank ChinaLabs, argues that a counterattack in response to the OPM breach would be a “lose-lose situation that would hurt global cyberspace.” In a separate interview with the China News Service, Fang reminds readers that “the consequences of cyberwar could be even more grave than a conventional war.”
There are good reasons the U.S. might retaliate for the OPM breach
Despite its alarming title ("A U.S.-China cyberwar could happen at any moment"), this article actually takes a more conciliatory tone, arguing that there are multiple complex reasons the United States might put pressure on China. Strategic apprehension, a military doctrine that focuses on “preventive defense,” and domestic political considerations all play in to the Obama administration’s decision to retaliate for the OPM hack, the article argues.