Washington’s decision to indict officers of China’s People’s Liberation Army over alleged state-sponsored industrial espionage marks an important change in Washington’s relations with Beijing. The move highlights growing concerns over intellectual property rights and industrial spying, but it also shows the intensified attention being paid to the challenges that state-to-state competition in the cyber domain creates.
Indictments have real consequences. Washington did not place largely unenforceable sanctions on individuals or bring a lawsuit to an international body that would take years to resolve, and those indicted risk extradition if they travel to a country with extradition treaties with the United States. A step such as this is not frequently taken in minor diplomatic spats, particularly between such important countries.
Washington has specifically accused the indicted officers of industrial espionage. The move follows warnings made by US President Barack Obama during his State of the Union address regarding state-backed cyber-espionage and intellectual property theft.
However, it speaks to a much deeper issue: the management of international relations in cyberspace, from espionage to sabotage to warfare. The discussion inside China already equates actions in cyberspace as potential weapons of mass destruction, on par with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. There are concerns that hostile actors could use cyberspace to sabotage power grids; trigger industrial equipment to operate outside of its parameters and break down, perhaps catastrophically; or even trigger explosions or a meltdown at conventional and nuclear power plants.
In standard military action and in more traditional forms of espionage, there are commonly shared rules—but no such standards govern cyber-espionage. Furthermore, it is difficult to distinguish between lone actors carrying out some form of protest or defacement, those engaged in commercial industrial espionage or state-led espionage and cyber activities that are directed toward a more concrete and sinister end, such as sabotage or the destruction of critical infrastructure. Cyberspace is not just a domain where information can be stolen—it is a place where sabotage and disruption could be geared toward a strategic end.
This is a concern in the United States and in other countries, including China. Determining the perpetrator’s identity and intent is next to impossible, and the initial actions of thrill-seeking hackers and strategic saboteurs are similar or even identical. This leaves little time to determine the most effective counter and how far to take it. In some ways, this is not entirely unique to the cyber domain—debate persists over whether cyberspace really is its own domain as air, sea, land and space are. States often act through proxies to instigate or facilitate spying, infiltration, disruption and destruction. But the cyber domain has several unique characteristics, including the ability to work from a distance, to deploy large numbers of individuals on discreet missions, and the ability (at least in theory) to spy, destabilize and disable without physical risk to the operatives.
By offering the ability to operate from a distance, the cyber domain allows for a much greater use of human resources against a target that would not be vulnerable to traditional espionage techniques. Regimes and individuals have also always sought plausible deniability—the ability to dissociate oneself from a hostile action—and the cyber domain allows a deeper level of anonymity. This has altered the balance between risk and reward. In traditional espionage, the risk is always high, so the reward needs to be high as well. Cyber-espionage is low risk, so operatives can seek lower-level rewards, increasing the frequency of action and making the target set too broad to effectively defend. If states can increase the potential cost of action, the target set should shrink, thus enabling states to concentrate their resources to defend their most critical assets.
An attempt to set the rules
By prosecuting a case that targets specific Chinese officials, the United States is trying to break the element of plausible deniability and increase the amount of risk involved in cyber-espionage. Washington is also removing the veil that covers government involvement in cyber-espionage, disruptions and sabotage. The Chinese have reacted sharply, declaring a cessation of talks with the United States on the management of cyberspace issues. And the United States clearly knew such a reaction was not just possible but likely. Yet Washington not only made the indictment but also warned that numerous others would follow.
In part this is about US competitiveness, as statements attached to the indictments assert. But it may also be a way to force China into a more serious discussion of the rules of the cyber domain, or at least to lay out the rules the United States wants to impose. Until now, China has deflected criticism by claiming that since the United States has a Cyber Command and the Chinese do not, Washington is alone in owning state-sponsored cyberwarfare capabilities. Now that accusations and leaks from investigations are being backed up with prosecutorial evidence, that defense, from Washington’s point of view, is tossed aside.
Beijing will probably issue a strong response. The Chinese government is likely to arrest or deport individuals it has identified as involved in espionage in China, or even those in the business sphere that fall within China’s ambiguous regulations on corporate espionage. Beijing will probably also appeal to global public opinion by repeating information revealed in the Snowden leaks, distracting from the issue by shifting attention to US cyber activities. But for the United States, this is more than just an attempt to briefly influence Chinese behavior. It is part of a broader reassessment of the strategic issues surrounding the question of cyber activities and of the general rules of conduct in the offense-defense balance, and it is an effort to find ways to avoid significant strategic miscalculations.
Republishing by The Manila Times of this analysis is with the express permission of STRATFOR.