The new cyber axis

A Sino-US dialogue may alter the international discourse on cyber security

Last week, US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon pointed to the unacceptable frequency and intensity of Chinese cyber attacks on American corporations and called for a comprehensive dialogue with Beijing. Until now, the global debate on cyber security has focused on the challenges of controlling internet crime, coping with hostile attacks on critical infrastructure like electricity grids in one country by another, and developing legal norms to limit cyber conflicts among nations. Donilon's remarks at the Asia Society in New York last week helped draw international attention to the impact of cyber warfare on the global economy and the future of US-China commercial ties.

Donilon urged Beijing to recognise the dangers that the cyber theft of American intellectual property poses to the stability of the global economy, investigate and put an end to these attacks, and start negotiations on drafting a code of conduct. A few days before Donilon spoke, the US cyber security firm Mandiant published a report which traced most of the cyber attacks on the US corporations to a secret Chinese military unit, numbered 61398, located in a 12-story building in Shanghai.

That corporations spy on each other within and across nations is not a startling development. What is new is the Chinese military's decision to deploy its massive cyber resources against the US companies. The PLA's objective is widely seen as part of an effort to alter the strategic balance between China and the US by narrowing the gap between the two countries in the high technology sector. China's massive cyber efforts have begun to blur the distinction between commercial espionage and national security and the US is eager to work out a set of mutually acceptable constraints.

This outreach to Beijing complements Obama's determination to defend the US economy, critical national infrastructure and American corporations against cyber attacks originating from China and other external sources. Obama also met last week with the CEOs of 13 major US corporations to discuss collaboration between the government and business on strengthening America's cyber security.

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