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What Briefing Chinese Officials on Cyber Really Accomplishes

by Adam Segal
April 7, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and China's President Xi Jinping talk during a family photo at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague March 25, 2014. (Doug Mills/Courtesy Reuters) U.S. President Barack Obama, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and China's President Xi Jinping talk during a family photo at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague March 25, 2014. (Doug Mills/Courtesy Reuters)

David Sanger wrote an interesting article in the New York Times about Washington’s efforts to prevent escalating cyberattacks with Beijing. According to Sanger, U.S. officials have tried to allay the concerns of their Chinese counterparts about the buildup of Pentagon capabilities through greater transparency. They have briefed them on the “emerging doctrine for defending against cyberattacks against the United States—and for using its cybertechnology against adversaries, including the Chinese.” We should, however, be clear about their real purpose. These briefings have more to do with deterring China than assuring it.

The ideas on assurance found in the Sanger article build on comments made about ten days ago by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at the retirement ceremony for General Keith Alexander, director of the NSA and commander of U.S. Cyber Command. Hagel tried to reassure other countries that despite the build up of personnel at Cyber Command and rising funding for cyber capabilities, “the United States does not seek to militarize cyberspace,” and, “DOD will maintain an approach of restraint to any cyber operations outside the U.S. government networks.” There is little reason to believe that these public statements will have any effect on Beijing or anyone else. The Snowden revelations have made it significantly more difficult for the United States to lecture others about cyberattacks. In addition, as Sanger points out, the distinction the United States makes between the operations it conducts for national security reasons and those China is said to support for economic motivations is not meaningful to Chinese officials.

Chinese defense planners, like their counterparts in the Pentagon, will be looking at capabilities more than stated intentions. Moreover, as my colleague Micah Zenko pointed out to me, there is often a disconnect between what policymakers and warfighters say. At the same retirement event, Admiral Cecil D. Haney, head of U. S. Strategic Command, spoke of the U.S. “capability to protect the asymmetric advantages we have by operating in cyberspace and giving us that assured access and the ability to deny others its use.” Denying others use and access to cyberspace does not sound reassuring to China.

The Sanger article notes American frustration that the Chinese have not been more transparent about their own cyber capabilities. That is not surprising; there is a long, disappointing history of calling for more transparency from the Chinese military. The United States’ primary complaint has been about reciprocity. Reuters calls Secretary Hagel’s visit today to the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning an “an unprecedented opening by normally secretive Beijing ” because it stands out from so many previous tours by visiting U.S. military officials to the same People’s Liberation Army bases to look at outdated equipment. Visiting Chinese, by contrast, are often flown to U.S. carriers and other warships.

There is also a long history of suspicion of the motivations for calls for greater transparency from Beijing. From the Chinese perspective, the stronger party often uses transparency to deter and threaten the weaker party by showing its superior capabilities. In the cyber relationship, Beijing sees itself as at a disadvantage to the United States, and so greater secrecy is required to maintain tactical advantage and create ambiguity in the mind of a potential adversary. Beijing also sees calls for greater transparency as bullying and an effort to delegitimize Chinese security concerns. A few years ago, in response to a call for more transparency in Chinese defense spending, one spokesperson revealed some of Beijing’s frustration: “If someone always tears through your clothes and even wants to lift open your underwear, saying ‘Let me see what’s inside’, how would you feel? Would you want to call the police?”

This is not to say that the briefings are a bad idea. The two sides need to agree on some rules of the road for cyberspace. It is good if both sides have a better understanding of what their capabilities are, what the red lines might be, and how they might respond to a cyberattack. The briefings might bring some greater crisis stability, but they will do little to reassure China and prevent a cyber arms race.

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