China-US relations

Will allegations of Chinese hacking derail efforts to end trade war?

  • US and allies in Five Eyes alliance are working together to form consolidated front against China, observers say
  • Beijing describes Washington’s move as ‘vicious in nature, severely violating the basic norms governing international relations’
PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 9:36pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 11:25pm

China has hit back at accusations by the United States and its allies’ that it engaged in state-sponsored cyber hacking targeting government departments and private enterprise overseas, in a fresh row that could derail efforts to find a solution to the trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

Analysts said that Washington’s claims suggest it wants to forge a frontline coalition against China, especially among members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.

On Thursday, the US Justice Department announced criminal charges against Zhu Hua and Zhang Shilong, who it said acted on behalf of the Chinese Ministry of State Security in coordinating espionage activity through a hacking group known as APT10 – Advanced Persistent Threat 10 – to steal trade secrets and technologies from at least 12 countries.

APT10: What do we know about the alleged Chinese hacking group?

According to the indictment, filed in a federal court in New York, the group has been conducting extensive campaigns of global intrusions into computer systems since at least 2006.

Zhu and Zhang worked for Huaying Haitai Science and Technology Development Company in the north China city of Tianjin, and acted on behalf of the security ministry’s bureau there, US deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein said.

In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying delivered a stern rejection of the allegations.

“The US move is vicious in nature, severely violating the basic norms governing international relations and damaging cooperation between the two countries,” she said. “China resolutely opposes such accusations and has lodged solemn representations to the US side.”

US’ cyber hacking claims fabricated, says Beijing as Chinese duo face charges

But the United States was not alone in accusing China of staging a sustained and wide-ranging hacking campaign to steal trade secrets and technologies, with Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Britain all echoing the allegations.

In Tokyo, foreign ministry press secretary Takeshi Osuga said: “Japan has identified continuous attacks by the group known as APT10 on various domestic targets … and expresses resolute condemnation of such attacks.”

Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden were also expected to issue statements criticising China’s alleged hacking activities, Reuters reported, citing a source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In China, analysts expressed concern that the latest feud would deal a blow to the trade negotiations expected to take place next month in a bid to ease trade war tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Members of the Five Eyes alliance – the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada – are reported to have increased cooperation on exchanging classified information about China.

Japan condemns China-based cyberattacks, urges Beijing to take ‘responsible’ action

“The real question is whether the Five Eyes group will deliver a coordinated response,” said Zhang Baohui, a professor of political science and director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University.

“We need to wait and see if other members of the group [aside from the US] take measures against China.

“It is reported that they have discussed the threats posed by Huawei’s 5G technologies. In the eyes of China, there has been a coordinated effort by the Five Eyes group to contain its hi-tech development,” he said in reference to the Chinese firm that is seeking to lead the world in 5G technology.

Yuan Zheng, an expert in China-US relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Washington was using the charges against Zhu and Zhang as a bargaining chip for the upcoming trade talks.

“To accuse China of hacking is a tactic to put pressure on Beijing during the 90-day grace period,” he said, referring to the trade war truce agreed by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Donald Trump on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Argentina at the start of the month.

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Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the accusations made by the US and other countries might have been born out of a general suspicion of China’s political system.

“The system in China is vastly different to those in the West, with the central government enjoying a very high level of control over the nation’s private sector,” he said.

“So if a company acts in a dubious manner, there will always be the suspicion that the Chinese government was involved.”