US, allies’ toothless rebuke of Cyber Enemy No. 1 (Opinion)

NATO’s statement represents the first time the alliance has ever formally condemned China over its cyber attacks. It also involves the largest number of nations to go on the record against China’s cyber activities.

But while Monday’s statements add up to a potent international tongue-lashing, none of them suggest Beijing can expect any concrete punishment for its malignant activities. The world’s leading democracies still haven’t decided to treat Beijing as the international menace it has shown itself to be and to back up their words with determined action. Without serious sanctions and a roadmap detailing the kinds of reprisals that could await China’s continued intransigence, it stretches credulity that any of this will move Beijing.

Monday’s statements were carefully limited to condemning China’s cyber activities. Indeed the rebukes are noteworthy for their detail and specificity; the US and NATO have declined to issue similarly explicit and detailed condemnations of China’s clear violations of many other international norms — including human rights abuses, attacks on Hong Kong and aggressive territorial moves in the South China Sea and beyond–opting instead for more general, overarching reproaches. Clearly China needs to be taken to task in the same way on these other violations of international norms.

And while the joint statements on Monday made forceful assertions about holding China to account, the follow-up remarks by US allies were more measured.

In his statement on Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was clear: “The United States and countries around the world are holding the People’s Republic of China (PRC) accountable for its pattern of irresponsible, disruptive, and destabilizing behavior in cyberspace, which poses a major threat to our economic and national security,” he said. And he added that the US expected “responsible state behavior in cyberspace.”
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And after the NATO summit last month, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that China was “not an adversary,” observing that it will “soon be the biggest economy in the world [and] already has the second-largest defense budget, the biggest navy.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain observed that “when it comes to China, I don’t think anybody around the table today wants to descend into a new cold war.”
In March, the White House warned users of Microsoft’s exchange servers that a group of Chinese government hackers called “Hafnium” had been focusing on seizing data from infectious disease researchers, law firms, think tanks and a host of universities, with state and local government agencies also compromised in the attack. Tens of thousands of organizations may have been targeted, the White House said, in attacks that may have begun as long ago as December of last year. Microsoft issued a patch to fix the back door into these servers, but China’s activities continued, Microsoft’s security blog reported in March.
In a statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian denounced the joint statements and denied the attacks: “The United States has gathered its allies and made unreasonable accusations against China on cybersecurity issues. The action is groundless and calls black white. It is completely politically motivated smears and suppressions. China will never accept it. China firmly opposes and cracks down on cyber-attacks of any kind, let alone encourages, supports or indulge hacker attacks.”
The Biden administration has been seeking for some time to win international support for actions against China. At last month’s NATO summit, the resulting condemnation of China was somewhat vague, observing only that “China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together.” Even this statement was notably stronger than the one days earlier from the leaders of the G-7 at their Glasgow summit when it “called on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” but made no mention of cyber or other attacks.
Nobody seems to want to talk about a new cold war. Yet that seems to be precisely what many of China’s activities may be on the cusp of provoking. European nations have been reluctant to go too far in challenging a country whose markets are considered vital to European trade and industry, yet which may still also be in serious violation of human rights. Now, though, the gloves could be coming off. And not a moment too soon. It’s beyond time for the alliance and the United States to put some real muscle behind these remarks.

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