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BEIJING – While the very public accusation of systematic cyber espionage by Chinese hackers may come as a surprise to many, the recent allegations follow a pattern set by the Obama administration: Call attention to and then publicly shame China for hacking and corporate espionage.
Over the last several years, the U.S. has rolled out a series of hearings and reports about Chinese hacking in order to raise public awareness about the vulnerabilities in national and corporate cyber defenses.
A report early last year by Virginia-based computer security firm Mandiant Corp. declared that since 2006, China may have been behind at least 141 incidents of corporate hacking.
The Pentagon’s 2013 annual white paper on China’s military capabilities noted that many of its computer systems around the world were being hacked -- some of which, it said, could be attributed “directly to the Chinese government and military.”
“What the U.S. is saying it strongly objects to is the use of these kinds of resources against commercial civilian targets to extract unfair and unreasonable advantage."
Last year, it seemed the U.S. was firmly on the moral high ground on the issue, winning in the court of international opinion and poised to make a very public stand. And then Edward Snowden came along.
The former National Security Agency analyst dropped the bombshell that the U.S. was carrying out extensive surveillance on its own citizens and across the world’s political offices and corporate boardrooms.
In particular, news that the NSA had been hacking into Chinese computers since at least 2009 flipped the tables and gave the Chinese a surprising public relations victory on what was once a thorny subject for Beijing.
In the year since Snowden’s revelations, Washington has been struggling to re-position itself and regain the moral high ground on the issue of state-sponsored hacking. The latest talking point is that the U.S. only targets legitimate state targets and doesn’t pass on secrets to corporate America.
“What the U.S. is saying it strongly objects to is the use of these kinds of resources against commercial civilian targets to extract unfair and unreasonable advantage,” said Rod Wye, associate fellow in the Asia Program at London-based think tank Chatham House.
“I think the point is the U.S. is expecting and encouraging China to be a fully engaged member of the international community and this kind of behavior, from the U.S. perspective, is not playing the game,” Wye said.
And with China a much more significant economic entity than it was before, the stakes are higher than ever.
While the reaction from China is probably not what the U.S. hoped for, it’s not exactly unexpected.
“The reaction from China is utterly predictable, and will make the political relationship a bit more difficult,” said Wye.
But Wye added that both countries are still trying to figure out the rules of the road.
“Behind all this is this problem that all governments are struggling with –and that is the regulation of the cyber realm … and what are the new rules of the game.”
If the rules mean governments don’t spy on corporations, the U.S. lost some ground when it was revealed in March that the NSA was in fact hacking Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.
The move was an attempt to not only ascertain if Huawei had ties to the People’s Liberation Army, but to also discover how to better infiltrate China’s cyber infrastructure which is built heavily on Huawei technology.
That is not to say that China’s now well-documented hacking of American military and commercial interests should go excused. While the U.S. may have lost its perch from which it could speak with moral authority on the issue of hacking, it does not dismiss the real technological and financial theft incurred on American companies by Chinese hackers and the potential job losses for every-day Americans that have resulted from it.
But this latest tit-for-tat over who is spying on whom will likely not be the last.
NBC’s F. Brinley Bruton contributed from London.