China Criticizes Pentagon’s Cyberattack Accusations

The Department of Defense issued a report on China’s military, which broke new ground by directly accusing the People’s Liberation Army of launching cyberattacks against U.S. government interests, the first time the U.S. government has made such a direct claim. In February, when information security firm Mandiant released a report linking the People’s Liberation Army to an active hacker group, the White House spoke out against, “cyberintrusions emanating from China,” without directly accusing the government. From the New York Times:

While some recent estimates have more than 90 percent of cyberespionage in the United States originating in China, the accusations relayed in the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on Chinese military capabilities were remarkable in their directness. Until now the administration avoided directly accusing both the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army of using cyberweapons against the United States in a deliberate, government-developed strategy to steal intellectual property and gain strategic advantage.

“In 2012, numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the U.S. government, continued to be targeted for intrusions, some of which appear to be attributable directly to the Chinese government and military,” the nearly 100-page report said.

The report, released Monday, described China’s primary goal as stealing industrial technology, but said many intrusions also seemed aimed at obtaining insights into American policy makers’ thinking. It warned that the same information-gathering could easily be used for “building a picture of U.S. network defense networks, logistics, and related military capabilities that could be exploited during a crisis.”

It was unclear why the administration chose the Pentagon report to make assertions that it has long declined to make at the White House. A White House official declined to say at what level the report was cleared. A senior defense official said “this was a thoroughly coordinated report,” but did not elaborate.

In a blog post for Council on Foreign Relations, Adam Segal lists three interesting points from the report, all relating to the cyberattack accusations. In his final point, he is not optimistic about prospects for reconciliation between China and the U.S. on this issue:

[..D]espite the announcement of a U.S.-China working group on cybersecurity during Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to China, and General Fang Fenghui’s declaration that China was willing to set up a cyberserurity “mechanism” during a meeting with chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, the report does not give much reason for optimism that the two sides will find common ground on the rules of the road. For the first time, the report calls China out for playing a “disruptive role in multilateral efforts to establish transparency and confidence building measures in international fora such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, and the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts.”

Indeed, for its part, the Chinese government reacted angrily to the report, calling the accusations “groundless.” From the Los Angeles Times:

Responding to the Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military, released a day earlier, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman insisted that Beijing was “strongly against any form of hacking activities,” and said China was willing to start a “rational and constructive dialog” with the United States on Internet security issues.

“This kind of baseless accusations and endless finger-pointing would only hurt the efforts and environment for such a dialog,” said the spokeswoman, Hua Chunying.

Beijing’s stiff reaction was expected as it has repeatedly denied charges of cyber-espionage, which has become a growing concern in Washington. U.S. officials have recently stepped up complaints about Chinese cyber-warfare as more large-scale hacking attacks have been traced to China.

Yet some observers warned that by focusing all attention in the cyberbattle on China, the U.S. government may risk missing other important developments. And while the cyber accusations got the lion’s share of press attention, the Wall Street Journal points out that a number of other interesting revelations came to light in the report:

Perhaps the DoD report’s single greatest advancement of public knowledge concerns China’s nuclear submarine programs. It states that China’s three already-operational Type 094 Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) may be joined by “as many as two more in various stages of construction.” The Type 094, the report says, “will give the PLA Navy its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent” once its JL-2 – a submarine-launched ballistic missile with a range in excess of 7,400 km – is deployed effectively. “After a round of successful testing in 2012, the JL-2 appears ready to reach initial operational capability in 2013,” DoD asserts. “JIN-class SSBNs based at Hainan Island in the South China Sea would then be able to conduct nuclear deterrence patrols.”

Meanwhile, China’s two already-deployed Type 093 Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarines will be joined by four improved variants under construction, according to the report. Within 10 years, the DoD projects, “China will likely construct the Type 095 guided-missile attack submarine, which may enable a submarine-based land-attack capability.” The Type 095 will “likely incorporat[e] better quieting technologies” and “fulfill traditional anti-ship roles with the incorporation of torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles.” As for conventional attack submarines, DoD states that the Yuan-class (Type 039A), of which China may build as many as twenty, “includes an air-independent power system.”