South China Sea Spat goes Cyber

As the dispute between China and the Philippines rumbles on, Chinese cyber warriors are taking up the cause.

China continues to raise the heat in its dispute with the Philippines over the sovereignty of Scarborough Shoal/Huangyan Island. On Monday, He Jia, an anchor on China’s state-run CCTV, mistakenly declared that “China has unquestionable sovereignty over the Philippines” rather than just over the disputed island. On Tuesday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying warned a Philippine diplomat that China was fully prepared to do anything to respond to escalationDeep-water drilling has begun near islands in the South China Sea and Chinese travel agencies have reportedly suspended tours to the Philippines. Chinese netizens are fully in support of the claims, and have in many instances criticized the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for not taking more assertive action.

As with previous territorial disputes in East Asia these days (see China-Vietnam, China-Japan, and Korea-Japan), the political, diplomatic, and military maneuvering has a cyber component. On April 20, Chinese hackers attacked the website of the University of the Philippines. The next day, Filipino hackers struck back with the defacement of Chinese websites. On the 23rd and 24th, the two sides again traded tit-for-tat attacks (a very useful timeline up until April 30 can be found here). Attacks have continued over the last week; attackers have also pasted the Chinese flag on the website of the Philippines News Agency.

From almost the beginning of the attacks, the Philippines government has called for both sides to stop. On April 22, a Philippines government spokesperson said, “We call on citizens, including ours, to exercise civil temperance.” On April 25, the Philippines’ Department of Science and Technology and Information and Communications Technology Office declared that the attacks were neither sanctioned nor condoned, and on May 10 a spokesman went further in warning that such attacks “will not benefit anyone and could possibly lead to bigger problems in the future for the Philippines and China and escalate the already tense situation at Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal).” This is not a misplaced worry as freelance attacks could make it much more difficult for the two sides to communicate and signal intentions.

Unfortunately, there has been silence from Beijing on the issue. China’s leaders seem to be embracing the conflict, or at least the prospect of conflict, as a welcome distraction from the problems of Chen Guangcheng and Bo Xilai. As Michael Yip and Craig Weber argue, the Chinese government – after years of enrolling students in patriotic education that stresses a history of national humiliation – needs to align itself with and divert away from nationalistic responses to real and perceived slights. Political hacking acts as a diversion – venting resentment away from the regime, focusing web users’ ire on outside actors, and maintaining the government’s nationalistic credentials.

When China’s Minister of Defense General Liang Guanglie was at the Pentagon this week, he talked about how China wanted to work to improve cybersecurity. Beijing could gain a great deal of credibility by doing what the Philippines has done: call on both sides to stop the attacks.

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Adam Segal is the Ira A. Lipman Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared. Follow him on Twitter @adschina.