China & America: Headed Towards a Dangerous Cyber Arms Race?

May 7, 2015 Topic: Defense Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaCyberArms Race

China & America: Headed Towards a Dangerous Cyber Arms Race?

A new cold cyberspace? 

Last week, a Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesman condemned the Pentagon’s new cybersecurity strategyGeng Yanshengnot only opposed the “groundless accusations” about Chinese cyber espionage contained  in the strategy, but also suggested it “will further escalate tensions and trigger an arms race in cyberspace.” Geng called on the United States to promote common security and mutual trust, rather than “seeking absolute security for itself.”

This week a scholar from the Chinese Academy of Military Science published a short critique of the strategy. Lu Jinghua summarizes the strategy in three words: deterrence, offense, and alliances. As did many U.S.-based analysts, Lu also stresses the importance of the shift to offense in the report. In contrast to analysts outside of China, Lu gives greater weight to the strategy’s emphasis on alliances, highlighting NATO and the Middle East but paying special attention to the revisions of the U.S.-Japan Security Guidelines.

Lu argues that while the document is intended to give strategic guidance, questions remain about implementation. First, Lu is skeptical about the DoD’s ability to deter attacks, raising the fact that attacks can come from state or non-state actors and questioning the U.S. ability to ascribe responsibility. This is another example of Chinese analysts doubting the U.S. ability to attribute attacks, despite U.S. insistence that attribution is getting easier. Second, Lu assumes that the offense always has the advantage, and the defense will always fail to keep the attacker out and so the defense will have to retaliate. But when? How closely does the retaliatory strike have to follow the attack to create deterrence? Third, given the lack of consensus on a code of conduct for cyberspace, Lu wonders under what legal basis U.S. offensive operations will be conducted. Finally, Lu notes the damage done to alliance relations by the Snowden revelations, especially the relationship with France and Germany. He wonders if there is enough trust among partners to exchange the sensitive information needed for network operations.

In the strategy, the Pentagon seems to acknowledge the possibility that building offensive capabilities could stoke a security dilemma and so “will always be attentive to the potential impact of defense policies on state and non-state actors’ behavior.” The official Chinese response has so far played up that angle, warning of an arms race. Lu’s analysis was reprinted online widely, but is only one voice, and we will have to wait to see how else China responds.

This piece first appeared courtesy of CFR here