Since news broke this week that Chinese hackers, allegedly part of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA), had hacked into US, British, and German government computers to access defense and foreign-policy-related information, analysts have begun to speculate that the West may be moving into something of a new age cold war stand-off with China.
The Financial Times was the first to report on Monday that supposed PLA hackers had broken into computers at the Pentagon in June, in addition to German and British government systems, and disrupted operations. The cyber-spies managed to access the computer system that served US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel also reported that Chinese hackers, presumably also from the PLA, had accessed computer systems within the German government.
The PLA regularly probes US military networks – and the Pentagon is widely assumed to scan Chinese networks – but US officials said the penetration in June raised concerns to a new level because of fears that China had shown it could disrupt systems at critical times.
"The PLA has demonstrated the ability to conduct attacks that disable our system...and the ability in a conflict situation to re-enter and disrupt on a very large scale," said a former official, who said the PLA had penetrated the networks of US defence companies and think-tanks.
Hackers from numerous locations in China spent several months probing the Pentagon system before overcoming its defences, according to people familiar with the matter.
An anonymous British intelligence source told The Times of London that high-tech espionage like hacking had replaced "old-fashioned" spying. He said that "China is engaged in hostile intelligence activities, and instead of using the old-fashioned methods [recruiting agents and stealing blueprints], they are focusing on electronic means to hack into systems to discover Britain's defense and foreign-policy secrets, and they are technologically pretty advanced and adept at it."
For its part, China has denied the cyberattacks, calling them "groundless" and a reflection of a "cold war mentality." One Chinese expert said that hackers could have used unsecured Chinese computers to disguise themselves and pin the blame on the Communist nation, reports the China Daily. Chinese officials contest that hacking is an international problem and that China is ready to "strengthen cooperation with other countries, including the US, in countering Internet crimes," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu.
"China is a responsible country and we never do this kind of despicable things," said Yang Yi, director of the Institute of Strategic Studies under the National Defense University.
"As a matter of fact, China has never had so called military hackers," he said, reacting to allegations against the Chinese army.
According to an annual report issued by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, titled "Military Power of the People's Republic of China 2007," the PLA has developed a systemized, albeit unofficial method of using cyberattacks as part of any major military operation.
The PLA is investing in electronic countermeasures, defenses against electronic attack (e.g., electronic and infrared decoys, angle reflectors, and false target generators), and computer network operations (CNO). China's CNO concepts include computer network attack, computer network defense, and computer network exploitation. The PLA sees CNO as critical to achieving "electromagnetic dominance" early in a conflict. Although there is no evidence of a formal Chinese CNO doctrine, PLA theorists have coined the term "Integrated Network Electronic Warfare" to prescribe the use of electronic warfare, CNO, and kinetic strikes to disrupt battlefield network information systems.
The PLA has established information warfare units to develop viruses to attack enemy computer systems and networks, and tactics and measures to protect friendly computer systems and networks. In 2005, the PLA began to incorporate offensive CNO into its exercises, primarily in first strikes against enemy networks.
US President George W. Bush has signaled that he may confront Chinese President Hu Jintao about the alleged electronic espionage, commenting that the US relationship with China is "complex." Meanwhile, as China's military has recently seen the "unprecedented expansion and modernization of its military," Australia, which is currently hosting the leaders of both the US and China for the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Forum, has expressed concerns that its computer systems may also be a target for PLA hackers, reports The Sydney Morning Herald.
Last night, the former senior official with responsibility for the Pine Gap spy station near Alice Springs, Ron Huisken, warned the claimed hacking by the Chinese military into sensitive US defence computer systems could be repeated in Australia.
Dr Huisken said having an ability to enter the computerised defence systems of others and disable them in the event of conflict had become a "holy grail".
"The Chinese are open in recognising it as a force multiplier," he said.
Beijing-based freelance journalist and Guardian blogger Chris Dalby indicates that the PLA's most recent hacking escapades may have been part of a bid to win additional funding from the Chinese government. While China's top politicians have made an effort to actively engage the diplomatic community to better facilitate the nation's rise, Mr. Dalby argues that the PLA has embraced "Cardinal Richelieu's ideology of pursuing foreign objectives motivated by national interests alone."
The principal reason may well lie with the People's Liberation Army, China's all-powerful war machine, which has been accused by the Pentagon of carrying out these attacks. The secretive Communist party is putting the final touches on its upcoming 17th party congress, and the PLA is jockeying for position to ensure its formidable power is not threatened. Throwing the odd US or German state secret on the table will not do them any harm. Had they been able to make this move undetected, showing that the billions of yuan poured into shaping the PLA into a modern "informationised armed force" had been well-invested, then this might have been a master political coup.
However, having their attacks not only detected but then publicised across world headlines will not play well at home or abroad. It may cement opinions that China is fully-equipped to wage modern cyber-wars but it will do little else beyond fuelling mistrust of the Beijing government.
The current standoff between China and the West has taken a far different shape than the one between the East and the West during the cold war, reports The Independent. While a nuclear arms race dominated the last diplomatic conflict, this one is marked by a war for information. Chinese cyber-spies operating largely out of the city of Guangzhou reportedly aim to steal everything from classified military materials to industrial trade secrets.
It's hard to believe in the 30-degree-plus heat of Guangzhou, but this city has been named one of the epicentres of the Cold Cyber War. Instead of missiles pointing at capital cities, and huge standing armies facing each other across ideological divides and barbed-wire fences, the only weapons in this secret war are keyboards, some sharp minds and a lot of caffeine pills.
The experts tell of how cyber spies breach supposedly unbreachable firewalls as smoothly as a skilled jewel thief, before swooping on a hard drive, snatching the secret files, and sending them to a third country, usually somewhere in Asia such as South Korea or Hong Kong. Then they make good their escape, often leaving no trace of the raid.
The secret agents and operatives are bleary-eyed computer whizzkids, cranked on cigarettes and coffee as they snoop through computer networks at Western military bases, armaments companies and aerospace giants. They hang out in online chatrooms rather than barrack rooms or smoky bars in communist enclaves, but they are just as hard to track as their Cold War counterparts.