Visible to the public Cyber Scene #54 - US-China: Cyber Syndrome or War of the Worlds?Conflict Detection Enabled

Cyber Scene #54 -

US-China: Cyber Syndrome or War of the Worlds?

This month's Cyber Scene will exclusively focus, as promised last month, on US-China relations bearing strongly on cyber security. The backdrop to this selection is the jumpstart "diplomacy dime versus military dollar" approach of the new US Administration in its dealings with China. This approach does not exclude other tools of statecraft, to include economics (inextricably linked to the tech world) and information/intelligence (also linked to the tech world). Nor does it underestimate enduring and long-term timelines and cyber-linked military issues, as a podcast referenced later may demonstrate to this readership.

The choice of China versus Russia was simple. True, it was Russia cast as "guilty as charged" in recent disclosures of 2020 US elections while China was held far less culpable, as they "backed off" per a New York Times (NYT) 17 March article by Julian Barnes "The Intelligence on Russia was Clear." Three days later, NYT's David Sanger article "That was Fast: Blowups with China and Russia in Biden's First 60 Days" cited former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Robert Gates as saying to David Ignatius of the Washington Post that if Putin remains, Russia may be the most dangerous challenge. However, Sanger leads with a cyber-based opening volley. He opines, "It may look like the bad old days of the Cold War, but today's bitter superpower competition is about technology, cyberconflict and influence operations." Sanger's discussion of Russia vs China as leading challenger reflects not only the 2020 recent intelligence assessment on foreign interference in US 2020 elections but also the 19 March US-China meeting in Alaska between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart. This follows a 2-hour phone call between President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Secretary Blinken summarized the US strategy with China, as reported succinctly by Barrons on 22 March, as follows: "The U.S. relationship with China will be competitive where it should be, collaborative where it can be, and adversarial where it must be." Blinken had offered an expansion of this approach in an earlier Bloomberg piece on 3 March by Nick Wadhams: entitled: "Blinken Says Only China Can Truly Challenge Global System." This speech was a preview of U.S. diplomacy to be carried out, per Secretary Blinken, via this "interim strategic guidance" from President Biden. The Secretary concluded by saying: "Diplomacy, not military action, will always come first. We've seen how they've often come at far too high a cost, both to us and to others."

The Associated Press characterized these two-day talks as contentious: "The U.S. accused the Chinese delegation of 'grandstanding' and Beijing fired back, saying there was a "strong smell of gunpower and drama" that was entirely the fault of the Americans." Given the tenor of the Alaska discussions, Alaskan ice fields may have receded even more, but then again, climate change is the leading example of a prospect of some collaboration between China and the U.S. as it is an issue the two superpowers share in a positive way. Perhaps this may be the diplomatic toe in the door Secretary Blinken will need.

But Sino-US agreement on cyber? Not so much. In the Sanger article cited above, Robert Gates also notes that US cyber capabilities should be more aggressive. Sanger closes in summary by: "The risk, of course, is one familiar from the Cold War: escalation."

That may be inevitable. In the wake of two major hacks into U.S. systems by Russia and China, per NYT 14 March, the White House and Congress are considering a new cybersecurity approach. "When not one but two cyberhacks have gone undetected by the federal government in such a short period of time, it's hard to say we don't have a problem," stated US House Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI) who sits on the - Cyberspace Solarium Commission. The above article, authored by Sanger, Barnes and Nicole Perlroth, explained that intelligence agencies whose mandate is limited to foreign activity, like the CIA and National Security Agency, are prohibited from working on domestic hacks such as these recent ones on Amazon and GoDaddy. However, FBI, Homeland Security and some others do have a domestic responsibility. Congress and the Administration are looking at how a closer relationship between domestic-focused US agencies, and private sector cybersecurity companies (two of whom caught the referenced hacks) could be bolstered. This in turn could result in timely tip offs to those agencies focused on foreign interference. Per the authors, there is no interest by either the Administration nor the Congress to change the authorities of foreign versus domestic intelligence agencies, but rather improve communication where possible between public and private sector players.

Stepping back from the here and now, rather harkening back to the Biden/Blinken strategic approach to relations with China as discussed above, China is of course taking steady steps toward its strategic 2050 plan. The Economist reports on 11 March on China's strategy: "Five-year plan: The big target," explains that China wants to ratify and implement its plan carefully and completely. Leader Xi quips "It's not like back in the day, when we were still bumpkins." To remind readers of China specialist David Lampton's comment, "China says it has had a few bad centuries but is making a comeback." Classic understatement on both counts. The article goes on to underscore that competing against the US "looms large in China's strategies." It projects research and development increasing 7% over each of the coming five years and reach an 18% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2025 (again, one if only one, US-China point of overlap). The article considers these figures also likely to be exceeded. The principal elements of China's existing "Made in China 2025" continue but have not been directly cited. It does call out quantum computing, semiconductors and artificial intelligence as some of seven frontier technologies vital to national security and development. This is all under the umbrella of at least nominal insulation from the rest of the world.

"The fallout from Hong Kong: How to deal with China" goes on to delve into the struggle between autocratic and liberal democratic approaches that reach far and wide of political theories. The article calls out the financial boom in Hong Kong while rife with turbulence. Investors include Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Apple, Starbucks, Siemens and many others. The Economist then looks at why China has 18% of the world GDP--innovation, great financial returns, consumer trend expertise, etc. And while out of favor now, Jack Ma's empire is still worth over $500B.

It also looks at where America has failed to match China's success. Huawei is one such example that this readership understands has been problematic for the U.S. The Economist observes, "Of the 170 countries that use its products, only a dozen or so have banned it. Meanwhile, the number of Chinese tech firms worth over $50bn has risen from 7 to 15." This is an example of why the Western liberal democracies are called upon to "...start with building up the West's defences. Institutions and supply chains must be buttressed against Chinese state interference, including universities, the cloud and energy systems."

As China focuses increasingly on its domestic work, while nevertheless playing a leading role economic movement worldwide, the Economist notes that "...isolation tends to strengthen the grip of autocratic governments." And how to avoid appeasement - while engaging China is a challenge that faces the West, and particularly the new Biden Administration. The conclusion is an unfiltered warning: "China's rulers believe they have found a way to marry autocracy with technocracy, opacity with openness and brutality with commercial need to muster a response--and to prepare their defences for the long struggle ahead." Secretary Blinken had cautioned to expect a multi-administration approach.

Finally, the Harvard/Brookings Lawfareblog offers a view of the US-China future, in a podcast . The interview host is LTC Alexander Vindman (USA, ret.) who is Pritzker's first Military Fellow, completing a dissertation and book at Lawfare following his departure from the National Security Council staff. The guests are the co-authors of "2034: A Novel of the Next World War." ADM. James Stavridis (USN, ret) has served in three 4-star postings prior to retirement to serve for five years as Dean of Tuft University's Fletcher School of Diplomacy. This is his 10th book. His co-author is journalist, award-winning novelist and highly decorated US Marine, Elliot Ackerman. They discuss the impact of hubris, miscalculation and escalation in advancing to a China sea war footing, in part due to not "upping our game in cyber." The use of Twitter plays role in spreading the battle cry. The overreliance on technology is a major issue against the Chinese--China having a "supreme cyber capability;" the US has shortcomings in quantum computing as well as with cyber and AI which plays a role as well in this cautionary tale. The authors underscore the importance of crafting a Plan B and the danger of "sleepwalking into a war" without a strategy.