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Good timing

Ben KnightMay 20, 2014

China has accused Washington of hypocrisy after a US court pressed cyber warfare charges on five of its army officers. The diplomatic row erupted just as Vladimir Putin was in Shanghai to discuss new deals with China.

Symbolbild China Hackerangriff auf US Firmen 20.05.2014
Image: Reuters

It was seen as an unprecedented step for the US to take, but the timing enhanced the effect. On the day before (19.05.2014) Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Shanghai to watch his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping launch joint Chinese-Russian naval exercises and sign new trade deals, a US court filed criminal charges against five Chinese army officers for cyber-warfare.

For the first time ever, the US also released the names of individual cyber-war suspects. An old-fashioned FBI "Wanted" poster lists showed the faces of the five men - Wang Dong, Sun Kailiang, Wen Xinyu, Huang Zhenyu, and Gu Chunhui, all officers in the same unit of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) - along with six charges, including "Accessing a computer without authorization for the purpose of commercial advantage."

China Treffen von Xi Jinping und Wladimir Putin
Putin is in Shanghai to negotiate new agreementsImage: Reuters

The purpose of the alleged attacks, at least according to the US, was to gain information on five US companies - Westinghouse Electric, US Steel, Alcoa Inc, Allegheny Technologies, SolarWorld - that could be used by Chinese state-run rivals.

'Stealing the fruit of our labor'

John Carlin, head of the justice department's national security division, said, "While the men and women of our American businesses spent their business days innovating, creating, and developing strategies to compete in the global marketplace, these members of unit 61398 spent their business days in Shanghai stealing the fruits of our labor."

The Chinese government immediately summoned the US ambassador, and released an angry statement flinging counter-accusations back at Washington. "The US has for years possessed the technology and essential infrastructure needed to conduct large-scale systematic surveillance on foreign governments, businesses and individuals," the defense ministry statement said. "This is a fact the whole world knows."

USA Justizminister Eric Holder zu Wirtschaftsspionage aus China
The US sees industrial espionage as a direct threatImage: Reuters

"The US' deceitful nature and its practice of double standards when it comes to cyber security have long been exposed with Wikileaks and the Edward Snowden affair," the statement read.

Element of hypocrisy, perhaps?

The idea that the US government has taken such serious offense at the fact that a foreign government has spied on its interests might strike some as ironic. "The US has been on the back foot with regard to China ever since the Snowden allegations emerged," said Edward Schwarck, Asia research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. "I think the US has been struggling to gain the moral high-ground it once possessed against China."

"To some extent releasing the names of individuals involved in cyber operations is a clear step to make it more difficult for China to claim innocence and ignorance," he added.

Last year, the US made similarly aggressive allegations against China in a report published by US cyber security firm Mandiant, which said it had traced China's army hacking team. "That report was so close to official sources that it was clearly a proxy for the official stand," said François Godement, head of the Asia studies center at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "The problem is that it was immediately overshadowed by the Snowden case.

"But put it this way - spying happens generally among powers, but that doesn't prevent people from finding it and calling it when it happens," he added. "If you're talking about moral issues there may be some hypocrisy, but if you're talking concrete issues, that's the way people go at it."

Business is below the belt

The US has often made a moral distinction between national security espionage and economic espionage - and frequently accused China of the latter. "The US has consistently argued that its cyber capabilities have always been targeted against state institutions and actors," said Schwarck. "While they say that the Chinese are conducting cyber operations to benefit their commercial interests."

Fernsehinterview mit Edward Snowden (NDR)
Snowden told German TV that the NSA also engages in economic espionageImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But Snowden has claimed that the US National Security Agency is not above industrial espionage. "If there's information at Siemens that's beneficial to US national interests - even if it doesn't have anything to do with national security - then they'll take that information nevertheless," Snowden told German TV station ARD in January.

But what was the diplomatic motive behind the move? Schwarck is skeptical that the US deliberately chose Putin's visit as to launch its allegations. "It's easy to draw false conclusions on timings," he said.

But, he added, the wider concerns are obvious. "I think the US is concerned that China is now treading so aggressively against Vietnam," he said. "The message is we're going to act against both of them (China and Russia, the ed.), but by a somewhat indirect process, because they don't want to escalate conflict."