It is precisely the absence of a constraining political
framework around cyber warfare that makes cyberspace
so attractive as a place in which to pursue aggressively
cultural, religious, economic, social and even – paradoxically – political goals.
– From the executive summary of ‘On Cyber Warfare‘
New details emerged today of the cyber attacks on the email accounts of hundreds of US and other Asian government officials, Chinese political activists, military personnel and journalists. Google said the relatively simple phishing attempts, which involved leading the target to a fake login page to obtain the user’s login information, have been taking place for months. The GMail provider also pinpointed the source of the attacks as Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province and host of the regional military command center.
These attacks are not the first time Google has accused Chinese hackers of spying on the users of its GMail service. In 2009 it traced attacks on Chinese human rights activists to an IP address at Lanxiang Senior Technical School in Jinan, according to The Telegraph. These latest attacks come in the midst of a cyber security review in both the UK and US. BBC recently reported that the Ministry of Defence in the UK plans to employ hundreds of experts to help improve the UK government’s electronic defenses. A cyber attack on major US defense contractor Lockheed Martin further emphasized the rapidly increasing need for robust cyber defense mechanisms. The US earlier this week announced that cyber attacks sponsored by another country can constitute an act of war and reserved the right to use military actions as a result of such attacks. Washington plans to issue a more detailed statement regarding its cyber warfare policies later this month.
This most recent round of Chinese cyber attacks underline what is quickly becoming a major theme in modern political engagement: the cyber threat. As Stars and Stuxnet ravage Iranian nuclear facilities and fears of a potential equally powerful but less specifically-targeted virus raise concerns over the security of infrastructure ranging from power plants to telecommunications, leaders around the world are having to scramble to bolster defenses on a new front of vulnerability. As noted in the Chatham House paper quoted above, this new cyber front is the perfect platform for asymmetric warfare where traditional military might is all but meaningless. This notion of a whole new dimension of threats engaging in asymmetric warfare should certainly weigh heavily in American military commanders’ and policy-makers’ minds; the US has struggled with two other types of asymmetric engagements in recent years: terrorism and insurgency.
The countries presenting two of America’s biggest diplomatic challenges have been trading ballistic missile technology according to a new UN report leaked to the media. The trans-shipment occurred through ‘a neighboring third-party country’ the report says. Some diplomats identified that country as China and notably the paper, which represents the findings of an international panel, lacks the signature of the Chinese expert assigned to the panel. While there has long been speculation about illegal trade between the two countries, this report represents the latest official allegation of a violation of UN sanctions.
Importantly, the developments further complicate matters involving diplomatic efforts to convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program and increase pressure on Tehran to avoid pursuing one. Russia and China, two permanent members of the UN Security Council, have traditionally proven reluctant to enforce sanctions on Iran and North Korea and have recently stifled the publication of UN expert reports on the two countries. The unofficial word that China served as a transfer point is sure to embarrass Beijing and no doubt lent weight to the decision of the Chinese expert to remain unsupportive of his panel’s findings. According to UNSC diplomats, China was unlikely to allow the report to be published. Nonetheless, the findings will add further evidence to inefficacy of the current sanctions against North Korea and the need to reestablish negotiations surrounding its nuclear program. And while Iran remains, by all accounts, at least a few years from a nuclear test, the report should also serve as a reminder of the need to keep diplomatic pressure on Tehran from continuing down the path towards a weapon.