U.S.-China Cyber War Scenario in the Eyes of a Chinese Student

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by Ella Chou

This winter, I cut my European trip short to be back in snow-covered Boston for an intensive course at Harvard Kennedy School on cyber security, taught by Richard Clarke and Eric Rosenbach. I loved this course because for one, Mr. Clarke, former anti-terrorism czar for Bush I, Clinton and Bush II, gave us the course-book -- his Cyber War -- for free. More importantly, I was in the company of a very diverse group of students, many of whom have courageously served the country in two wars and have a much better real-world understanding of the security issues than I would ever have. I have studied international law and taken courses on international affairs, but cyber war is an entirely new and different subject.

Roughly a third of the class time was devoted to the "China threat". Being the only Chinese student in the room, I can't help but oppose that perspective, even though I'm in no way an expert.

So I asked some Chinese experts in the cyber security industry for their insights and described to them a scenario that is considered very likely in Mr. Clarke's book: The date is February 10, 2011. China has infiltrated U.S. power grids, exfiltrated crucial military information, and laid trapdoors in U.S. defense systems that will compromise United States' conventional military power. The experts from China said: "Are you kidding, Ella?! This, coming from a country that developed and used Stuxnet?"

Stuxnet is a computer worm that gained notoriety in 2010 as it took down about one fifty of Iran's nuclear centrifuges. The New York Times describes it as may be "the most sophisticated cyberweapon ever deployed". Many experts believe that it was developed by either the United States or Israel. And the official Chinese media asserted that Stuxnet is a joint U.S.-Israel project. (Interestingly, to lend itself credibility, one news report from the leading Chinese news agency is entitled "New York Times Confirms U.S.-Israel Development of Computer Worm Targeted at Iran".)

Does the United States' (possible) active use of cyber weapons legitimize their use by other countries? And more pertinent to my concern, is China's insistence on the United States' involvement in Stuxnet a sign of Beijing's intention to capitalize on the legitimacy conferred by Stuxnet?

The China Cyber War Threat

Cyber attacks from China have been going on for more than a decade. The high-profile Titan Rain and Operation Aurora made it clear that networks belonging to the U.S. government, the defense industry, and other companies have suffered large-scale, sustained and highly sophisticated cyber attacks from computers located in China, though Beijing has denied any involvement. As with Stuxnet, the nature of cyber attacks makes it hard to trace to their origin, and even if an origin is found, there is no international legal authority that could hold the state responsible for the cyber activities of its individuals. The states can plead "plausible deniability" which is what makes it possible for many cyber attackers to operate with impunity, as seen in the case of Russian attacks on Estonia.

Regarding the China threat, many American security experts worry that in a dispute over Taiwan, China would disable and exploit U.S. computer networks. But some, like James Mulvenon, Deputy Director of Defense Group and a specialist on the Chinese military, go further to say that he observed a potential expansion of the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) intrusion set. He argues that the list of targets for both computer network exploitation and attack activities would encompass a wide range of countries and regions, including the East and South China Seas.

Moreover, experts point to China's systematic training of its cyber warriors and its recruitment strategy. The cyber warriors are firstly trained in military institutions such as the PLA National University of Defense Technology, which built the "Tianhe 1A" supercomputer that surpassed U.S.' Cray XT5 Jaguar as the world's fastest computer by a large margin at the end of last year. Second, the PLA has included computer network operations (CNOs) in its military exercises since 2005 and aims at disabling target networks with its first attacks, according to Dr. Zheng Dacheng, a Taiwanese expert on the Chinese military.

In addition to trained cyber warriors, China can fully utilize the talents of its civilians who require the kind of security clearance for which only about 20% of U.S. population would qualify if the same cyber missions were carried out by United States, according to Kevin G. Coleman, security technology expert at Technolytics Institute.

So why do I argue against the "China threat" thesis (other than out of my sophomoric impulse to contradict the professor)?

Threat = Capability × Intent (%)

In this equation, intent ranges from zero to 100% (100% meaning the country is willing to devote all capability to one mission). Even if China's capability in the cyber arena is increasing, it does not make it a threat to U.S. national security if China does not have the intent to use that capability in an attack against the United States. It would hardly be surprising to learn that China, like all countries with such capabilities, is engaged in cyber espionage. But real or threatened attacks against either U.S. military or the civilian infrastructure would not be in China's interests for a variety of reasons: the negative effects on trade which would have a direct impact on its volatile migrant labor population, the international backlash that would destroy its hard-earned position in the international organizations in which it has strong interests, not to mention the danger of confronting the full weight of U.S. military.

Intent: Internally, rather than Externally-Focused

China's efforts in cyber space have mainly been internally rather than externally focused. This would support the regime's main concern of domestic stability, rather than an intensified confrontation with a foreign entity.

Chinese citizens' limited access to foreign websites is often seen as one of the defenses China has in a future cyber war scenario. Aside from the infamous Great Firewall, China only has nine ports through which the Chinese Internet is connected to the foreign Internet (as last reported in 2008, after which all information on this is withheld). Therefore, it is conceivable that China could cut itself off the Internet and operate a de facto Intranet. However, it also means that in the case of a large-scale outbreak of domestic instability, the government can cut its people off from the outside world (as what happened in Egypt).

If the first use is the main purpose of China's cyber setup, then the defense effort would be severely undermined because the government and big state-owned-enterprises are whitelisted to have full and unrestricted access to foreign networks, and many big private firms use satellite or microwave connections which do not go through the state's control mechanism, thus they will not be effectively immune from a cyber attack.

The domestically-focused use of this cyber structure actually occurred in Xinjiang after the July 2009 riots when the Internet was shut down for 10 months. In fact, The National Defense Mobilization Law, enacted in July 2010, stipulates that the state has broad authority in times of national defense mobilization and can, according to Article 63(1), take control of the telecommunication industry, the media, the information networks, and the energy and the water supply systems, among other things.

Securing U.S. Systems

Perhaps most importantly, however, the United States is not vulnerable because of threats from China, but because it has done a poor job of building cyber-defenses. Recall the embarrassment when the Pentagon revealed last December that live video feeds from its $4.5 million Predator drones were hijacked using $26 software downloaded from the Internet. Regardless of what China does or intends to do, if United States does not take appropriate measures to defend itself, then it would continue to be exposed to threats from various state and non-state actors.

Currently, with Cyber Command protecting the military networks and DHS protecting the rest of the government, everyone else is left on their own, and America's critical infrastructures are not getting the best security technology this country has to offer. In China, however, cyber security has increasingly become a huge business. It has now contracted out the network security of the government and other crucial state-owned-enterprises to (semi-) private security firms: Venus Tech is responsible for the network security of the Ministry of Finance, National Grid, Civil Aviation Administration, etc.; NSFOCUS secures China Telecom, National People's Congress, etc.; Feitian is responsible for securing Bank of China, the State Secrets Bureau, Ministry of Commerce, Sinopec, etc.; and Zhonghangjiaxin develops security systems for part of the People's Liberation Army's General Staff Department and Headquarter of the Armed Police.

Wouldn't it be ironic if the United States cannot make full use of the market power to secure its critical systems?

Scholars at China's National Defense University pointed out in an article on the June 17, 2010 issue of People's Daily, that the danger of "cyber war" lies in the possibility of being used as an excuse to launch a conventional war. I think there is some truth to that assessment. Both United States and China should be cautious not to over-exaggerate the threat from the other, and the United States could benefit from trying to understand China's cyber strategy by analyzing Beijing's own political priorities. That would be a good first step towards working together on issues like cyber crime and copyright enforcement, and from there building norms of trust, transparency, and cooperation.

Ella Chou, who grew up in Hangzhou, China, is a graduate student in Regional Studies-East Asia at Harvard, studying law and comparative politics.


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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