Latest US move against China shows new look: working with allies

Key Points
  • The United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand joined Washington on Thursday in condemning Chinese cyber-espionage.
  • The fact that the campaign was executed as a united front is significant, said one expert.
  • China's Foreign Ministry has rejected the accusations, calling them "slanderous."
Justice Department charges Chinese nationals for ‘extensive’ global hacking campaign

A coordinated offensive against Chinese cyber-espionage from the United States and its allies shows a different approach to countering what they call theft of commercial and government secrets.

The United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand joined Washington on Thursday in condemning cyber-espionage on the same day that Washington indicted two Chinese nationals, Zhu Hua and Zhang Shilong, for participating in a 12-year global hacking campaign in conjunction with the Chinese government.

China's Foreign Ministry has rejected the accusations, calling them "slanderous."

The fact that Thursday's offensive was executed as a united front is significant, Abigail Grace, research associate in the Asia-Pacific security program at the Center for New American Security said in a tweet.

"Incredibly significant that this action was rolled out in conjunction with U.S. allies and partners. Multilateralism demonstrates that these are not U.S. standards or Western norms we're requesting China abide by--the international community demands that China does better."

Through trade and foreign policy actions, U.S. President Donald Trump has chastised China for side-stepping international standards for its own economical, technological and military benefit.

While the U.S.— both under Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama — has long been publicly critical of Beijing's cyber wrongdoing, until recently, the other countries have not so vocal about their stance. Nations such as Australia have warned of specific state-based threats in recent years but shied away from publicly naming China until now.

All five countries involved are part of an intelligence alliance known as the Five Eyes that shares classified information about China's foreign activities.

More tension between China and Canada

Canada's involvement is especially notable as it is in the middle of a diplomatic crisis with Xi's government, which has detained three Canadian citizens. Some believe the detentions are linked to the recent arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who is on bail in Canada while awaiting trial on charges of fraud. Washington has called for the extradition of Meng on grounds she violated U.S. sanctions against Iran.

In the wake of Thursday's news, European Union members such as Holland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark also called on Beijing to respect international digital norms.

It's possible Trump's administration may benefit from the campaign as he wages a trade war against Beijing, said Chong Ja Ian, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore. "It's an opportune time for Trump to get political mileage out of this."

But the offensive is more a reflection of global frustration with China's unwillingness to act on the numerous hacking incidents that are attributed to its army and intelligence agencies, Chong Ja continued. Security officials in each of the five countries have their respective worries over Chinese espionage, he said, especially in the wake of the Huawei case.

We're likely to see more cyberattacks from China: Expert

The Five Eyes nations recently excluded the Chinese tech giant from participating in their respective 5G roll-outs amid national security concerns. Western countries are worried that China's government uses Huawei for spying even though the Shenzhen-based firm has repeatedly insisted that isn't influenced by Beijing.

China's flagship Belt and Road Initiative is also feared to be a platform for the country's electronic surveillance. Xi's government wants to build fiber optic cables, international trunk passageways, mobile structures and e-commerce links in BRI countries, but these technologies may have backdoor mechanisms that enable Chinese intelligence operations, researchers have warned.

China's navigation satellite system known as Beidou is also expanding to BRI routes, the New York Times reported this week, which could allow Beijing to develop global surveillance systems.