According to a recent report in the Washington Post, Internet sites in China are targeting computer systems in the Pentagon and other US agencies, successfully breaching hundreds of unclassified networks. This hasn't so far compromised classified (secret) systems, but the US authorities are concerned about where it is all going.
"Analysts are divided over whether the attacks constitute a coordinated Chinese government campaign to penetrate US networks. Some in the Pentagon are convinced of official Chinese involvement; others suspect other hackers using Chinese networks to disguise the origins of the attacks," the Post report said.
It is hard to believe that a large-scale targeting of official US sites from the Chinese side can happen without the knowledge, encouragement and, possibly, involvement of the Chinese authorities. It is a country where the regime is continuously updating its systems to control its Internet users, and such "lapses" like the targeting of US Pentagon networks would surely not have gone undetected.
It is said that "more attempts to scan [US] Defense Department systems come from China, where there are 119 million Internet users, than from any other country." It is absurd, therefore, to imagine that the authorities in China are oblivious to it.
It might be argued that since the breaches involve unclassified networks, they are not much use to the Chinese authorities. Hence, their culpability is perhaps over-stated. But, as a US official reportedly pointed out, "even seemingly innocuous information collected from different sources can provide useful intelligence to an opponent."
More importantly, "The scope of this thing is surprisingly big," going back three years. It is interesting that the responsibility for managing the Pentagon's computer networks was assigned last year to the new joint task force for global network operations under the US Strategic Command.
Which brings us to the military significance of the hacking operations. One doesn't have to be an Einstein to understand that in any future warfare scenario electronic measures to disable the US' military and technological superiority will figure prominently in Beijing's calculations. An important strategy will be to let loose an army of trained hackers to do the damage. The leaking of the information about the targeting of networks is indicative of US worries on this account.
Obviously, China is no match for the US in military terms. As Gerald Segal wrote in Foreign Affairs, "At best, China is a second-rank middle power that has mastered the art of diplomatic theater."
And this disparity in their relative military power is likely to persist for the foreseeable future. But China is in a hurry to become a superpower. The easiest way would be for the US to facilitate and accommodate China's emergence into that role, particularly in Asia.
The US, though, is not that obliging. It is even standing in the way of letting China incorporate Taiwan. Without that, US-China relations are likely to be in an adversarial mode.
Taiwan aside, the US is determined not to let any other power challenge its global supremacy. It is part of its strategic doctrine. China, on the other hand, is working to establish its paramountcy in Asia. As Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro wrote in Foreign Affairs a while ago, "China's goal of achieving paramount status in Asia conflicts with an established American objective: preventing any single country from gaining overwhelming power in Asia."
That being the case, "Actual military conflict between the United States and China, provoked, for example, by a Chinese attempt to seize Taiwan by force ? is always possible, particularly as China's military strength continues to grow."
But, being militarily weak, China can't afford this luxury at the present time. It doesn't, however, mean it cannot practice brinkmanship. The deployment of missiles targeted at Taiwan is part of it. Another menacing tactic was the threat of nuking the US if it got involved militarily in any conflict with Taiwan, as voiced by Major-General Zhu Chenghu (朱成虎) earlier this year.
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But they still wanted the bomb, notwithstanding its "paper tiger" attributes. Although Zhu has been the most crass in threatening its use against the US, there have been hints now and then that it was not outside the realm of possibility in a military conflict over Taiwan.
It is not that Beijing would be that stupid to rain nuclear weapons on the US. (Officially, Beijing professes a policy of no first-use of nuclear weapons.) There is, however, a belief that the US' threshold for nuclear punishment is very low or non-existent. It might, therefore, be coerced into keeping out of any military conflict over Taiwan, if the nuclear threat could somehow be made credible. But it is not working.
Beijing is determined to annex Taiwan. But it is thwarted by the US. Faced with the US commitment to Taiwan, "China has stepped up its efforts to acquire two capabilities: a credible Taiwan invasion force and the capacity to sink American aircraft carriers should the US interfere militarily in the China-Taiwan issue."
It is known that China is continuing its missile build-up targeting Taiwan. It is also building up its naval force, including submarines. It is reasonable to assume that any invasion of Taiwan will seek to keep foreign navies out of the operational zone and surrounding waters, making the Taiwan Strait, in effect, China's territorial lake.
But it didn't work in 1996 when the US dispatched two aircraft carriers in that direction. Beijing had to back off. Although China is now more powerful politically and militarily than in the mid-nineties, there is nothing to suggest that, in military terms, the situation has changed significantly to warrant risking a military conflict with the US.
It would seem that China's options remain two-fold. The first is to increase its military deterrence to a level where it becomes pretty risky for the US to become involved in a military conflict over Taiwan. To this end, Beijing keeps upping the ante over Taiwan to test the US resolve. So far it hasn't found it wanting.
At the same time, it is changing the political contours of the Asia-Pacific region in its favor. The most telling example is the exclusion of the US from the East Asia summit in Kuala Lumpur in December. Even though the US has friends and allies in the region, an increasing number are not willing to stand up to China. The US needs to correct this political imbalance, which gives China an undue illusion of power.
But returning to the Washington Post report, China is still seeking ways and means of countering US military power in other ways. The hacking of Pentagon and other US computer systems is part of it.
Sushil Seth is a writer based in Australia.
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