The United States and Western allies on Monday unanimously condemned the Beijing regime for behind-the-scenes manipulation of “malicious” cyber attacks, unambiguously blaming the cyber theft launched against Microsoft’s exchange servers in March on behind-the-scenes operations by Beijing authorities. This is a rare approach that cuts to the chase and leaves no room for error.
The United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia each issued notices urging Beijing to take immediate and responsible action to stop criminal cyber hacking.
The choice of words varies, but there is no doubt that this is the largest joint Western condemnation of China’s cyber “malicious activities. The rhetoric was overwhelming, the language harsh, and the posture unambiguous, though not accompanied by actual sanctions.
The U.S. tone was the harshest, leaving no room for improvement in the already bad U.S.-China relationship. President Joe Biden bluntly accused Chinese authorities of “sheltering” cyberattack criminals and even giving them “the means to act.
Secretary of State John Blinken added that China’s actions were irresponsible and disruptive, undermining cybersecurity and posing a threat to the economic sentiments of the United States and its allies.
Britain was equally stern, with British Foreign Secretary Raab saying, “The Chinese government must end its systematic cyberattack operations and will be seen as responsible if it fails to do so.”
NATO’s statement was relatively mild, calling on all countries, including China, to abide by their international commitments and obligations, including in the cyber domain.
The EU issued a statement on Monday noting that malicious cyber activity targeting government agencies, political organizations and key industries in twenty-seven EU member states with significant impact was carried out from China’s territory to steal intellectual property and engage in espionage.
Why is the West so unanimous in pointing to China as the operator behind the cyber attacks? According to Washington, the Chinese government “summoned cybercriminals” to launch attacks on global networks.
The U.S. justice system on Monday simultaneously indicted four Chinese hackers, three of whom were “employees of China’s Ministry of State Security,” and accused Chinese agents of tapping into corporate, university and government cyber systems from 2011-2018 to steal information and technical processes.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the information stolen by the Chinese involved multiple countries, including Germany and Indonesia, and may have involved automated locomotive designs, chemical formulas and genetic screening techniques.
The U.S. says Chinese hackers are not only known for stealing industrial secrets, but that they sometimes conduct cyberattacks for “personal gain,” including online extortion, mining hijacking and theft of property, and that their victims are worldwide. A senior U.S. Justice Department official cited intelligence that cyberattacks directed by Chinese Communist authorities have sometimes demanded ransoms of up to millions of dollars from private companies, and that some U.S. companies have recently fallen victim to such extortion operations. In the past, U.S. experts have typically blamed such actions on Russian hackers.
Washington, London and the European Union clearly identified China in their respective statements as the country that directed hackers to launch an attack against Microsoft exchange servers in March that claimed more than 25 accounts worldwide. EU diplomats pointed out that Chinese hackers have until now been exploiting our security vulnerabilities to commit theft, which not only threatens EU security but also causes significant economic losses to the EU.
In a rare case of the U.S. and Europe directly singling out the Chinese government as the culprit behind the hacking attacks, one expert argued that a joint international action to condemn Beijing’s actions is good, but after the accusations, if the Chinese government is to be made to change its demeanor, it had better be accompanied by consequences.
In response to China’s cyber provocations, a top U.S. official said Washington and its allies would not rule out “additional actions” to “hold China accountable.
Why is the Western condemnation of China so strong and so clear this time? There are several reasons: First, the scale and extent of Chinese hacking has reached an appalling level, plagiarizing and stealing intelligence, technology secrets, government information, congressional developments, and even taking advantage of the opportunity to “seek personal gain” and extort ransom; second, the U.S. relationship with China has deteriorated to the point of no return, and The U.S. side does not see much hope for improving bilateral relations. Finally, the position of the EU countries has changed considerably, as the EU used to take into account the “dialogue” with China and the economic and trade interests of the Chinese market. The EU’s disillusionment with China is strong, judging from the EU’s increasingly assertive attitude toward China.