Weathering Snowden

The drama underlines the absence of strategic trust between China and the US

The unfolding drama centered on Edward Snowden, a former computer systems administrator for the US National Security Agency (NSA), who leaked sensitive and damaging information on the United States's secret cyber surveillance programme called PRISM, continues to rivet the world. Much has been said about Snowden's motives, tactics, and the effects of his leaks on America's top-secret spying programme. But as his flight from American authorities continues, he is also helping stir up tensions among great powers. Just days ago, the US secretary of state John Kerry blasted China and Russia for not cooperating with Washington's request for detaining and extraditing Snowden.

It may be too early to say whether China or Russia will bear the brunt of America's ire. But at this stage, Washington has plenty to be upset about with China. Less than three weeks ago, President Barack Obama and Chinese Communist Party chief Xi Jinping had an informal relationship-building summit in California, an event that was supposed to ease tensions between the two countries. Unfortunately, with the intrusion of the Snowden Affair, US-China relations faced an unexpected test.

From the moment Snowden landed in Hong Kong, it was clear that China was going to benefit from his presence and the political embarrassment from his revelations about America's global cyber eavesdropping programme. Now that Snowden is no longer in the Chinese territory, it is worth taking a step back and analysing what China has got from this incident.

Of the most immediate interest to American authorities is the treasure trove of classified materials Snowden brought to Hong Kong — four laptop computers and a USB drive. There are conflicting reports in the press regarding whether Chinese intelligence agents were able to gain access to Snowden and his computer. Some claim that Chinese intelligence services have drained the hard drives on his computers. Others insist that Snowden was with his Hong Kong protectors all the time and had never been approached by Chinese intelligence agents. It is impossible to establish the truth at this point. Probably Snowden himself does not know. Chinese agents could have got into his room and copied his hard drive while he was asleep. It is unlikely that the Chinese would gladly let Snowden leave without having laid their hands on the secrets he brought with him.

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