Time to Retaliate Against China’s Cyber Espionage

“To my Chinese counterparts, I would remind them, increasingly you are as vulnerable as any other major industrialized nation state,” said Admiral Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency and the chief of US Cyber Command, on November 21st at the Halifax Security Forum. “The idea you can somehow exist outside the broader global cyber challenges I don’t think is workable.” 

That, in all probability, was not an observation. A year ago, it was inconceivable that an American four-star officer would talk like this—in other words, make a threat—in public. 

The temperature over cyber matters in the American capital has risen fast in recent weeks. If there has been any reason for the change in attitude, it may well be China’s not honoring its agreement, reached while President Xi Jinping was in Washington in September, to stop cyber attacks for commercial espionage purposes.

“We haven’t seen any indication in the private sector that anything has changed,” said William Evanina, America’s chief counterintelligence official, a few days before Rogers’s remarks. His assessment is consistent with various reports from the private sector, including one from the security firm CrowdStrike. 

Of course, it was never realistic for America to believe Beijing would, and the evident failure means American policymakers ought to take new steps. 

For Senator John McCain, the next step is to impose sanctions on Chinese hackers, which he urged the administration to do in a series of letters two weeks ago. “The theft of economic data means the United States is footing the bill for the research and development of our enemies to acquire tools to be used against us,” the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee noted“And this will continue until our adversaries understand that attacking and pilfering the United States in cyberspace is no longer a low-cost endeavor, but instead will carry real consequences, in the form of sanctions or otherwise.” 

The Obama administration, in the weeks before Xi’s September visit, had been thinking of imposing a series of sanctions on Chinese entities and individuals. The measures had been leaked to news organizations, but ultimately the White House sought cooperation with Beijing instead, reaching the agreement during the summit with the Chinese leader.

With the deal apparently in tatters, the administration will be forced to do something it had hoped to avoid: impose punitive measures severe enough to have an effect. Each year, cyber espionage costs US businesses about $400 billion, and China, responsible for most of that, will not turn the spigot off until the cost exceeds the benefit.

As Admiral Rogers said, “None of us wants behavior on either side that ends up accelerating or precipitating a crisis.” Yes, but for American businesses there already is a crisis, and each year Americans have 400 billion reasons to make sure the Chinese realize they are in one too.

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