A new report by an arm of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence confirms what officials have privately lamented for several years: the United States is the target of a vast array of cyber attacks, many focused on stealing intellectual property, originating in China. The report highlights the costs that worry American officials and corporate leaders, including the loss of expensive technology, the theft of military applications, and the undermining of the information-intensive U.S. economy. Indeed, vast economic espionage, conducted largely through cyber-operations, can diminish the United States’ strategic competitiveness. But there’s a flip side to Beijing’s cyber offensive – the strategic costs it imposes on China itself.
To be sure, China isn’t a solitary actor, and Russia and other countries are routinely fingered as major sources of online intrusions and hacking. But in recent years, a multitude of U.S. corporations, universities, government agencies, and other institutions – to say nothing of their counterparts in places like Japan, South Korea, and Europe – have suffered cyber attacks alleged to have originated in China. Indeed, the new report calls Chinese actors “the world’s most active and persistent perpetrators of economic espionage.”
It’s easy to see how this pattern of behavior fits into Beijing’s oft-expressed desire to ascend quickly to global power status. Beijing, as the DNI report notes, is driven by a longstanding desire to attain the levels of economic prosperity enjoyed by the Western powers. This policy motivates many of China’s attempts at online malfeasance, including its efforts to acquire foreign technology, research plans, and proprietary intellectual property.
But this very approach challenges the core of China’s aspirations to a peaceful rise, and may have the effect of increasing the external constraints to that rise.
While a few years ago debate over China oscillated between those seeking to engage Beijing and those wishing to contain it, Washington has settled into a rough consensus on China policy that resembles closely the approach adopted by most Asian nations: deep economic and diplomatic engagement coupled with a strategy to hedge against the possibility of future Chinese aggression. As the United States and a number of Asian nations hedge, they are building up their own or each other’s militaries, deepening their pattern of security cooperation, and expanding their economic linkages. The result is an emerging power web that supplements the traditional hub-and-spoke American alliance system, with the virtual effect of Lilliputians tying down Gulliver.