America, still not cyber mugged by reality


Article Highlights

  • A leaked report on Chinese cyber espionage shows just how dysfunctional the Sino-U.S. relationship is.

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  • To end the abuse in this relationship, America could end the charade of military-to-military exchanges.

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  • At a minimum, cyber espionage should be the No. 1 agenda item in Sino-U.S. relations.

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America's national security adviser and Pacific Fleet commander have been in China this week, bearing messages of goodwill and eagerness to deepen ties. Unfortunately, a leaked report on Chinese cyber espionage shows just how dysfunctional the Sino-U.S. relationship is. Washington needs to admit that it is in an abusive relationship, and then find the courage to protect itself against further mistreatment.

China's top military leader told U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon that Beijing wanted to create a "new type of major power relations." Apparently that new relationship entails robbing your partner blind of his most sensitive secrets, then welcoming him for tea while mouthing nostrums about good fellowship.

While President Obama's emissaries were getting the red-carpet treatment, military observers in Washington were learning that weapons systems compromised by cyber espionage include the F-35 stealth fighter, the F/A-18 fighter, the Global Hawk drone and the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, among others. China has also been stealing research on cutting-edge technologies from American labs, including directed energy, the Navy's rail gun, electronic warfare and composites for lightweight ballistic armor. As any child can tell you, shoplifting is one way to reduce your purchasing costs—even into the hundreds of billions of dollars, apparently.

In its weakness, the Obama administration is following the sorry example of the Clinton and Bush administrations, which also saw U.S. military secrets stolen by the terabyte and did nothing about it. In the 1990s, Beijing was shown to have stolen ballistic-missile technology that greatly aided their development of long-range missiles. During George W. Bush's presidency, China hacked the F-35 program, gaining access to code for America's most advanced fighter.

Given this record, one can't blame Beijing for its light-fingered approach to military modernization. After all, if your victim encourages your attacks by doing nothing in return, what's the risk?

Unfortunately, the risk falls on the men and women of the U.S. military, whose primary weapons systems may well be vulnerable to Chinese counterattacks. The long list of hacked programs gives no indication of how compromised they are, but at a minimum America's warriors may one day face Chinese knock-offs of their planes, drones, missiles and body armor. A second victim in all this cyber-skullduggery is the U.S. taxpayer, who has been unknowingly underwriting the massive growth of the Chinese military.

To end the abuse in this relationship, America could end the charade of military-to-military exchanges (except for intelligence-gathering purposes). No more cuddly visits of Chinese generals to America's military command centers. Second, any Chinese companies identified as trafficking in pilfered U.S. secrets should be sanctioned and barred from business in the U.S. In addition, Chinese businessmen and officials involved in weapons espionage should be named, shamed and barred from travel to the U.S.

It's also time to send some viruses back along the cyber routes that are worming into America's weapons labs and government offices. And Washington should rally its friends and allies who have been similarly hacked to form a common front against China's cyber-aggressors.

Unfortunately, the White House is busy touting next week's summit between Mr. Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. This confab will be all about dialogue, we're told, not about solutions. But before winging out to California, Mr. Obama should reflect that in China's case, actions speak louder than words. At a minimum, cyber espionage should be the No. 1 agenda item in Sino-U.S. relations. Otherwise, America's president will prove that the U.S. government forgets everything and learns nothing.

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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

    Follow Michael Auslin on Twitter.

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