Give diplomacy a chance in cyber conflicts

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 May, 2015, 2:25am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 May, 2015, 2:25am

It's a truism in diplomacy that when you accuse your rival of doing something naughty, it's almost certain that you yourself have been doing it on an even grander scale.

In the past decade, the United States has accused China of all sorts of aggressive actions in cyberspace against American companies and government agencies. Most often, they involve theft of intellectual properties in high-tech industries. But the revelations by US National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden about pervasive cybersurveillance and spying against both foreigners and American citizens completely knocked the wind out of Washington's diplomatic onslaught.

Now, the Pentagon is ready to regain the initiative by releasing a 33-page cyberwarfare strategy. Essentially, it warns other countries that hope to launch cyberattacks against US interests to expect a militarised response. That would include, but not be restricted to, a retaliatory strike in cyberspace. After the document's public release, US defence secretary Ashton Carter singled out China, Russia, Iran and North Korea as the US' worst cyber adversaries.

Fair enough. If someone attacks you, you have the right to respond in kind. But the US is no pussy when it comes to cyberwarfare. To date, many independent experts believe that the super-worm Stuxnet, engineered to attack Iran's nuclear facilities in 2009 and 2010, was designed by government agencies from Israel and the US. It is believed to be one of the few overt cyberattacks by sovereign states against another.

China has been a victim of American cyberaggression too. In just the first half of 2013, the National Computer Network Emergency Response Technical Team/Coordination Centre of China reported 13,408 overseas trojan horses or bot control servers - two popular hacking tools - had hijacked around 5.63 million mainframes on the mainland. Of those, 4,062 US-based control servers hijacked 2.91 million Chinese mainframes. Such attacks included among its victims 249 Chinese public bodies, including government departments. The US is the No 1 source of attacks and spying against Chinese networks and servers.

To date, China has tried to play down such attacks. Not so the US. Yet, it's hard to believe anyone is innocent in this cat-and-mouse game. Like any other fights, this can be resolved through diplomacy or open (cyber)war. It's clear which option will be less costly and less dangerous.