The United States and its allies on Monday accused China of global cyber espionage, convening an unusually wide alliance of nations to publicly call on Beijing to carry out hacking attacks.
The United States, along with NATO, the European Union, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, and New Zealand, condemned espionage, and US Secretary of State Anthony Brinken called it “a major threat to our economy and national security.”
At the same time, the U.S. Department of Justice accused four Chinese citizens—three security officials and a contract hacker—of targeting dozens of companies, universities, and government agencies in the United States and abroad.
Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, called the accusations against China “irresponsible.”
“The Chinese government and relevant personnel have never engaged in cyber attacks or cyber theft,” Liu said in a statement.
In an event related to the government’s infrastructure plan, US President Joe Biden told reporters: “My understanding is that the Chinese government is different from the Russian government. They have not done this themselves, but are protecting those who are doing it. It may even be tolerant of them being able to do this.”
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki was later asked in the daily briefing why Biden did not directly blame the Chinese government when answering reporters’ questions.
“This is not his intention to try to project. He takes malicious network activity very seriously,” Psaki said.
Psaki also stated that the White House does not distinguish between Russia and China in terms of cyber attacks.
“We are not backing down, we do not allow any economic situation or consideration to prevent us from taking action… We also reserve the option of taking additional actions,” she said.
Although the series of statements by Western powers represent a broad alliance, cyber experts say it is obvious that there are no consequences for China other than the US prosecution. Just a month ago, a statement at the summit of the Group of Seven and NATO warned China that it was a threat to the international order.
Adam Siegel, a cybersecurity expert at the New York Council on Foreign Relations, said Monday’s statement was “successful in getting friends and allies to attribute this action to Beijing, but it would be of little use without any specific follow-up actions.”
Some prudent statements
Some of Monday’s statements even seemed boring. Although Washington and its close allies, Britain and Canada, believe that the Chinese government is directly responsible for hacking attacks, other countries are more cautious.
NATO only stated that its members “recognized” the charges against Beijing by the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The EU stated that it is urging Chinese officials to control “malicious cyber activities on its territory”-a statement that opens up the possibility that the Chinese government itself does not direct espionage.
The United States is more specific and officially blamed hackers under the Ministry of National Security of China for intrusions that affected servers running Microsoft Exchange earlier this year. Microsoft has already attributed the blame to China.
US officials stated that they were surprised by the scope and scale of the hacking attacks blamed on China, and the use of “criminal contract hackers” by China. Brinken said these hackers carried out state-sponsored activities and cybercrimes for their own economic interests.
A senior government official said that the U.S. security and intelligence agency outlined more than 50 technologies and procedures used by “Chinese state-sponsored actors” on U.S. networks.
Washington has accused Russian hackers of launching a series of ransomware attacks in the United States in recent months.
The senior government official said that the United States has raised concerns about China’s cyber activities to senior Chinese officials and does not rule out taking further actions to hold China accountable.
The United States and China have disputes over trade, China’s military buildup, the South China Sea dispute, the suppression of Hong Kong’s democratic activists, and the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Blinken cited the Justice Department’s indictment as an example of how the United States will impose consequences.
The indictment alleges that the defendant and officials of the Hainan Provincial National Security Bureau tried to use front companies to cover up the role of the Chinese government in information theft.
The U.S. Department of Justice stated that the event targets trade secrets in industries such as aviation, defense, education, government, healthcare, biopharmaceuticals, and maritime affairs.
The victims came from Austria, Cambodia, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.
US Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a statement: “These criminal charges once again highlight China’s continued use of cyber attacks to steal the results of other countries, and flagrant disregard of its bilateral and multilateral commitments.”
© Thomson Reuters 2021