On Tuesday, February 19th, a report was released by Mandiant, a US cyber security firm, detailing that thousands of ongoing electronic security breaches among US government offices and US private firms could be traced back to a section of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) operating in Shanghai. Responses to this dramatic report have varied. For many in Washington, unfamiliar with the specifics of China’s cyber policy, the report was viewed as a devastating indictment of Chinese intentions towards the US. For those within the American-based China analysis community, the report is largely being viewed as ratification of long held opinions based upon anecdotal evidence that the Chinese government has long sponsored hacking in the United States. Thus, the revelations found in the report are interesting, but nothing new and certainly not worth the talk of fundamentally redefining US-China relations.
There will be a great deal of debate regarding the report and China’s cyber strategy in Washington and throughout the US. This debate will almost assuredly revolve around China’s growing international presence and increasing martial abilities. That is the wrong debate to be having.
Sometime during the past decade two opinions about China became solidified among US thinkers. First, the Chinese Communist Party, learning from the mistakes of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, became an adaptive and co-opting institution. In short, the CCP learned how to be quasi-capitalists and developed the means to gain the loyalty of new social elements (i.e. the middle class) that arose in China. The second opinion that became conventional wisdom in Washington is that China aspires to global preeminence and has a strategy by which to achieve it. Thus, its actions in the East China Sea and South China Sea, not to mention its investment within the SCO and manipulation of ASEAN, are all seen as part of a larger strategy.
It is my argument that both of these conventional wisdoms about China are not rooted in fact. It is true that the CCP did try to adapt in order to integrate new social elements, but it is increasingly clear that these efforts did not work. Protests are ever-increasing in China, many of which are being led by middle class elements in relation to antiquated property laws, environment contamination, and government corruption. The CCP, for all its efforts at reforming itself, still follows many of the same patterns that defined it during the 1970s and 1980s.
China’s perceived strategy for global strength seems more the creation of individuals outside China still viewing the world through the Cold War instead of a position based upon reality. By and large, the past 5 years have been disastrous for Chinese foreign policy. It has managed to poison its relationship with much of East Asia due to its maritime claims. The SCO, once seen as a promising organization that would increase Chinese influence in Central Asia, remains largely underutilized. ASEAN, for all of China’s meddling, retains its independence and is increasingly suspicious of China’s intentions throughout Southeast Asia.
Beyond these problems, the Chinese hacking revelation simply draws attention to a basic reality – much of world’s technological power and cyber capability resides within the United States. This is not something that is likely to change anytime soon.
So, China has managed to increase tensions with its neighbors, failed to make strong inroads along its Western borders, and increased the suspicions of the world’s strongest nation. We should recognize China for what it is – a country with great potential that suffers from internal instability and global unfamiliarity.
Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.