Vladimir Putin might be a 19th-century statesman, using old-fashioned muscle to get his way, but it has become clear that Chinese President Xi Jinping goes one step further, comfortably embracing both 19th- and 21st-century tactics.
Start with the 19th-century aspect: the huge Sino-Russian natural gas deal signed this week that is perfectly understandable in terms of realpolitik. Beijing has long sought secure energy supplies, and it places that vital interest above any desire to punish Russia for its annexation of Crimea or to strengthen global norms against aggression. In fact, the Chinese shrewdly recognized that the Russians, facing sanctions, were anxious to diversify away from their dependence on European customers. So Beijing got a good deal.
While the gas agreement has received all the attention, it’s also worth studying Xi’s speech in Shanghai, given the same day the deal was struck. The meeting was a gathering of an obscure Asian regional group, one that includes Turkey, Iran and Russia but not the United States. His message was that Asians should take care of their own security. He made a veiled threat to outsiders who try to meddle in the continent’s affairs. “Someone who tries to blow out another’s oil lamp will set his beard on fire,” Xi said. He presented the Chinese view of the region, which he calls Asia — not the preferred U.S. term, the Asia-Pacific. This implies that Washington, as an outside power, should not play a major role in the continent’s affairs. Xi also warned Asian countries not to “beef up a military alliance targeting a third party,” clearly a reference to countries such as the Philippines that are expanding their military cooperation with the United States.
That’s power politics. But this week we also saw a new world of great-power intrigue. The Justice Department filed formal charges against five officials in the Chinese military and detailed the economic espionage that they have allegedly conducted against U.S. companies for eight years. The action is unprecedented, especially since these officials are never going to be arrested — and will probably never leave China anyway.
Why did the United States do this? In remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday, former defense secretary Robert Gates speculated that the purpose was threefold — to signal to U.S. companies that they should be on the watch for cybertheft, to signal to the Chinese that Washington was getting increasingly frustrated with this problem and to signal to the American people that their government was taking this issue seriously.
The trouble is, no one believes it will make any difference. The Chinese have issued a blanket denial, going so far as to say that the Chinese military “never engaged in any cyberespionage activities,” which is impossible to believe. The officials listed are unlikely to face any kind of sanction; if anything, they might even regard being on this list as a badge of honor.
Some experts believe that the scale of China’s cyberespionage is off the charts. “It is the largest theft in human history,” Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution told me, pointing to one example. The United States will spend around $1 trillion developing the F-35 fighter, which will be its most advanced weapons system. “But we can now see clearly that elements of the F-35 have made their way into a similar Chinese plane. American investments that were meant to give it a 15-year battlefield advantage have been totally undermined,” Singer said. And he points out that China targets everyone from defense contractors down to furniture makers, whose chair designs get stolen and copied within a year.
Cyberattacks are part of a new, messy, chaotic world, fueled by globalization and the information revolution. In a wired, networked world, it is much harder to shut down activity that blurs the lines between governments and private citizens, national and international realms, theft and warfare. And it certainly will not be possible to do so using traditional mechanisms of national security. Notice that Washington is using a legal mechanism (which will be ineffective and largely symbolic) for what is really a national security issue.
The Sino-Russian gas deal reminds us that traditional geopolitics is alive and well. Washington knows how to work its way in that world with its own alliances and initiatives. But cyberespionage represents a new frontier, and no one really has the ideas, tools or strategies to properly address this challenge.