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The gaping hole in Obama’s plan to stop Chinese hacking

Chinese leader Xi Jinping shakes hands with President Obama in the White House. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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The word "China" appears 120 times in the Obama administration's just-released report, "Administration Strategy on Mitigating the Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets," on combatting cyber-espionage against U.S. business. Of course, Chinese hacking is a threat to more than just American businesses: the Washington Post reports today that just about every powerful institution in the District, from federal agencies to think tanks to, yes, media organizations "have been penetrated by Chinese cyberspies."

The Obama administration's strategy, as Post cyber-security report Ellen Nakashima put it, has gotten "mixed reviews." There are a few reasons for that, but the big one has to do with the U.S. diplomatic relationship with China, which is by far the biggest offender on cyber-espionage against the U.S.

The administration's strategy places great emphasis on diplomacy, which would be central to any effort to actual stopping Chinese hacking rather than just playing a never-ending cat-and-mouse game against hackers in which the U.S. would inevitably win some rounds but lose others. But there's reason to think that, for reasons particular to the U.S.-China relationship, it might also be extraordinarily difficult, and in ways that the formal strategy doesn't really address.

If reports are accurate that the hacking is conducted by the Chinese military – and is thus incorporated into formal Chinese government policy – then the challenge becomes about more than just getting American officials to start using two-step password protection. It's about changing Beijing's calculus, about leading the Chinese government to decide on its own to change its behavior. That's never really been very easy for Washington, or any foreign government, to do.

The administration's report, to its credit, seems to understand this. The very first chapter, before the lengthy sections about cyber-security defenses and cooperation between U.S. law enforcement and business, is about diplomacy: in other words, convincing China to stop. But the very first sentence hints at how difficult this will be: "The Administration will continue to apply sustained and coordinated diplomatic pressure on other countries to discourage trade secret theft."

The key word there is "continue" – this is something the U.S. is already doing. The section is filled with verbs that suggest the U.S. will be returning to past strategies: "enhance efforts," "deepen cooperation," "enhance engagement." Was the problem really that engagement wasn't enhanced enough? To be clear, I don't mean to mock the administration's report, only to draw attention to the enormous, and still unsolved, diplomatic challenge at the heart of an effort that is otherwise about cyber security.

Why is it so hard to talk China out of hacking? Lots of reasons. Yes, one of them is the same cost-benefit calculus that every nation goes through when it decides to do something that will offend other countries; not so unlike, for example, the U.S.'s drone program. But a number of the reasons are also particular to China.

Part of it has to do with the complexity of the U.S.-China relationship, where both countries already have so many interests in the balance, and have worked so hard to get things back to someplace basically productive after a currency dispute made for some tense months in 2010. Elevating one issue, such as hacking, risks crowding out others; if that issue is particularly touchy, as this one likely would be (China officially denies it's responsible for the attacks), it could have disproportionately negative effects on other American priorities, from trade to preventing military escalation between China and its neighbors.

Part of the challenge comes from China's complicated view of itself. China as a state actor is, as many observers have noted, both insecure and bellicose; emboldened by its sense of itself as a great nation but also paranoid about its own perceived weakness compared to Western, and particularly American, power. China, in this thinking, must hack because of its disproportionate weakness. But it also must be able to hack because for other nations to tell it to stop would be an unacceptable insult.

Separately, an astute China scholar named Christopher Ford has argued that China's willingness to assert itself within other countries' borders (yes, I am aware that the U.S. also does this) comes from a new incarnation of a very old ideology: Sinocentrism, or the centrality of China. In this theory, China feels it has a right to control, manage or alter anything that directly effects China. Ford says, "Some of it may in fact grow out of a deeply-rooted conception of social order in which narrative control is inherently a strategic objective because it is assumed that status or role ascriptions and moral characterizations play a critical role in shaping the world they describe."

Henry Kissinger, whose book on China was not universally well received among China-watchers but which nevertheless presented some interesting insights, suggested a somewhat similar theory. Chinese diplomacy, he argued, is just not like other countries' diplomacy, in part because of the country's unique history. And that can make it especially difficult for countries to engage with China today in the sort of diplomacy through which states normally resolve disputes such as, for example, one country hacking the other more than it will accept.

For many centuries, China was by far the most powerful country in its neighborhood, so it didn't have to develop a tradition of diplomacy much more nuanced than accepting tribute. "Through many millennia of Chinese civilization, China was never obliged to deal with other countries or civilizations that were comparable to it in scale and sophistication," Kissinger writes. "China's splendid isolation nurtured a particular Chinese self-perception. Chinese elites grew accustomed to the notion that China was unique – not just 'a great civilization' among others, but civilization itself."

Then, Western imperialism flipped that dynamic upside down: China suddenly became very weak compared to the new arrivals, and didn't develop strong diplomatic practices because the European powers were going to carve up the country with or without its permission.

China never really developed diplomatic practices for thinking about itself as part of "the modern Western conception of international relations ... [as defined by] the concept of sovereignty and the legal equality of states," as Kissinger puts it, because China, perhaps alone among today's powerful nations, never had to. But that is nevertheless the system in which it finds itself today. And that is also the system through which the Obama administration is hoping to "deepen engagement" and "elevate concerns" and "work through international organizations" to stop Chinese hacking.

That's an important effort. But it also requires Washington to effect some pretty dramatic changes in Beijing's view of the world and its role there, something that no previous government, American or otherwise, has really succeeded at doing.