Foreign Policy Blogs

James Fallows on China and Cyberwar

Over at The Atlantic, James Fallows has a great piece on China’s military and their cyberwar chops. The first segment is an excellent overview of the state of play on the US-China military rivalry in the real world. (Synopsis: USA! USA!)

Fallows then dives into his main point: that on a virtual battlefield, China has some real power.

A lot is the standard shadowy fearmongering: we are in a “pre-9/11 mindset,” a “large-scale public breakdown” will occur, all our information in the cloud could simply dematerialize, etc. Some of that is bunk – short of a global EMP burst that fries all our electronics concurrently, we aren’t going back to the stone age because Evil Hackers get inside the NYSE mainframes.

More usefully, Fallows notes that China’s disproporotionate threat is not due to having the most skilled hackers (they don’t) or most effective governmental coordination (he points at the French) but as pure numbers game, percentages of a 1.3 billion base.

The infinite regress of smoke-filled (and often firetrap) underground Internet cafes in which I played Starcraft were crammed to the gills with computer-fluent Chinese youth. Now that they’re grown up, some will be criminals, some will work for the government, most will stick with their videogame addictions – and some will turn against the government.

Which segues to a great point about Chinese Internet censorship vs offensive cybersecurity:

James Lewis, of CSIS, pointed out an “asymmetric handicap”: “For all the effort the Chinese put into cyber competition, external efforts”—against a potential foe like the United States—“are second priority. The primary priority is domestic control and regime survival. The external part is a side benefit.”

Censorship is expensive, difficult, and irritating to your people.

Other interesting points: cyber-espionage is largely corporate:

… the main damage done to date through cyberwar has involved not theft of military secrets nor acts of electronic sabotage but rather business-versus-business spying. … “You could think of it as taking a shortcut on the ‘D’ of R&D,” research and development, one former government official said.

And former NSA director Mike McConnell thinks China would benefit from global standards on computer and network security, and as such would have an interest in cooperating.

A nice idea. Good luck with that one, guys.