Hunter Gross is an intern for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Just as U.S. president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping were set to meet in The Hague, documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency installed backdoors in the computer networks of the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei. Despite extensive U.S. media coverage and angry reactions from Chinese news sources such as Xinhua and the Global Times, this revelation follows the pattern of previous cyber-related disclosures; the issue first flares up, and then quickly fades until the next disclosure. Why does such a divisive issue neither strain U.S.-China relations or trigger significant actions to address the problem?
First, neither country can or wants to push the issue. Following a report by Mandiant, a cybersecurity firm, that connected attacks in the United States to the Chinese military, Washington seemed intent to directly address the issue of Chinese cyber espionage; however, the leaks put the United States on the defensive. The Snowden revelations greatly diminished U.S. credibility on cyber-related issues and continue to frustrate U.S. diplomatic efforts to confront China. The Huawei case, in particular, makes it more difficult for Washington to justify its distinction between national security programs and acts of economic espionage. From the Chinese perspective, if Beijing takes an excessively tough position against the United States, it could cause many examples of Chinese cyberattacks to resurface in the media. Prominent examples include the attacks on Google, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Beijing would prefer instances of Chinese cyberattacks to remain in the background, while the Snowden revelations take center stage in the global media and continue to erode U.S. soft power.
Second, China has no immediate economic incentive to address the issue. Reports of U.S. spying incite fear and distrust of U.S. companies in China; this provides Beijing with a convenient excuse to encourage the purchase of domestic Chinese technology. In the United States, suspicion of Huawei’s connection to the Chinese military led the U.S. Congress to ban Huawei from obtaining U.S. government contracts, effectively restricting the company from entering the U.S. market. Ironically, it was this suspicion that led the U.S. government to infiltrate Huawei in the first place.
Third, the countries have more immediate bilateral concerns. While Washington declared cybersecurity a top priority in its relationship with Beijing, U.S.-China trade, the U.S. “pivot to Asia,” China’s conventional military buildup, North Korea’s nuclear program, and territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas remain higher on the list of concerns. During the recent visit by American officials to China, U.S. deputy secretary of state William J. Burns named the maritime disputes and North Korea’s antagonistic behavior as the two most serious security concerns in Asia. For the time being, cybersecurity will remain overshadowed by more immediate issues.
Finally, the Chinese were already suspicious of U.S. intentions and skeptical of its reassurances, and so the revelations came as no surprise. Previous to the Snowden affair, Beijing already claimed the majority of cyberattacks against China originated in the United States and described U.S. cyber capabilities as part of America’s “hegemonic” strategy. Therefore, the recent disclosures serve more to provide Beijing with evidence of U.S. espionage than to spark any dramatic change in bilateral relations.
Despite almost a year of fiery political rhetoric and widespread media coverage, revelations of U.S. spying have not precipitated significant changes in U.S.-China relations. While U.S. defense secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit aboard China’s aircraft carrier symbolizes closer U.S.-China military relations, the divide on cybersecurity remains wide. During the visit, U.S. efforts to increase cybersecurity transparency did little to move Chinese defense officials. Absent a large cyber-related crisis, future releases of documents detailing U.S. intelligence programs will likely have little effect on U.S.-China bilateral relations.
Still, cybersecurity is a very serious issue, and a major crisis should not be the threshold at which Washington and Beijing begin significant cooperation. Now that there is evidence of both countries spying, perhaps the environment is more conducive to productive cooperation. Complete cooperation and resolution of this issue is unlikely. Still, through the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue and back-room negotiations, the United States and China can work to address cybersecurity issues. Rather than symbolic recognition and the repetition of familiar tropes of concern and reassurance, an increase in communication and a concerted effort from both sides to make tangible progress toward resolving the issue can help to increase trust between the two governments.