U.S. and Australian officials have decided to include cooperation on cyber security as part of their defense treaty, marking the first time the Obama administration has formally carved out that kind of partnership with a country outside NATO.
The agreement is particularly critical considering the ongoing cyber threat emanating from the Pacific region, especially China and North Korea. It also reflects the Obama administration's stated goals earlier this year to work aggressively with other nations to combat cyber crime, improve law enforcement cooperation against cyber terrorists and hackers, and create broad international policies to help make the Internet more secure.
"Cyber is the battlefield of the future," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday. "We are all going to have to work very hard not only to defend against cyber attacks, but to be aggressive with regards to cyber attacks as well."
The best way to accomplish that goal is to work with allies such as Australia, Panetta told reporters traveling with to California. Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were to meet Thursday in San Francisco with their Australian counterparts for their annual talks on security cooperation.
Cyber security is just one element of the efforts by U.S. and Australian officials to expand their defense cooperation in the tumultuous Pacific region, where both China and North Korea have moved aggressively to increase their military posture.
Officials expect to announce the expanded cooperation during the bilateral meetings.
U.S. and Australian leaders are also expected to make progress on an agreement to allow the United States to expand its military presence in Australia, including positioning U.S. equipment there, increasing American access to bases, and conducting more joint exercises and training. The plan could allow the U.S. to use port facilities.
U.S. officials said they are not looking to establish any American bases in Australia, but instead want increased military access and cooperation that will allow the U.S. to broaden its posture in the restive region.
The decision to add cyber space to the two nations' bilateral treaty, along with every other warfighting domain, would clarify that the two allies will work together in the event of a computer-related attack.
A senior defense official said the move would underscore that the existing security cooperation between the U.S. and Australia would apply in a digital attack, just as it would in a bombing or other kinetic assault. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision has not yet been announced.
NATO allies have already included cyber space in their security framework.
While the problem of cyber threats from China is not new, the Pentagon's 2010 report on the state of Beijing's military publicly laid out those worries in greater detail. It said that numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the U.S. government, continued to be the target of intrusions that appear to have originated within the People's Republic of China.
Those attacks, the report said, "focused on exfiltrating information, some of which could be of strategic or military utility." It warned that the Chinese military is using civilian computer experts in clandestine cyber attacks aimed at American companies and government agencies.
Cyber security experts, meanwhile, have said that North Korea or its sympathizers were likely responsible for a cyber attack against South Korean government and banking websites earlier this year.
An analysis by computer security software maker McAfee Inc. concluded that the attack that targeted more than two dozen sites in South Korea was a type of reconnaissance mission to see how quickly South Korea's government detected the problem and recovered from it.
The McAfee report also said the attack appears to have been linked to the massive computer-based assault in 2009 that brought down U.S. government Internet sites
Cyber criminals, unfriendly nation states and terrorists are routinely using the Internet to steal money, ferret out classified secrets and technology, and attempt to disturb or destroy critical networks. Officials say they must work more closely together to protect government and corporate networks, including those that control critical infrastructure, ranging from the electrical grid and telecommunications networks to nuclear power plants and transportation systems.
The White House released its international cyber security strategy in May, as part of an effort to improve cooperation on global cyber crime and set guidelines for Internet oversight.
Cyber security experts have argued that the Internet cannot become a safer place until nations implement international agreements that better define and regulate cyber crime, provide oversight of the Internet, and set out new standards and rules for industry as it increasingly moves its business into the largely ungoverned online world.