In US-China talks on cyber conflict, a top Chinese general owns to dangers

At a press briefing in Beijing with Martin Dempsey, chairman of US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Fang Fenghui offered some agreement on the damage of cyberattacks, a 'friction point' in US-China relations.

Andy Wong/AP
US Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey (l.) shakes hands with Chinese counterpart Gen. Fang Fenghui during their press briefing at the Bayi Building in Beijing on Monday. At the briefing, Fang opened the door to setting up 'a mechanism to enhance coordination and cooperation on cybersecurity.'

Whenever US officials visit China these days, they come with a high-priority mission: to emphasize how much damage China-based cyberattacks are doing to the relationship between the two nations.

So, is China finally coming around to America’s point of view?

Visiting China for the first time as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey arrived at the Chinese Defense Ministry Monday for a closed-door meeting with his People's Liberation Army (PLA) counterpart. Their talk lasted an hour longer than expected, an encouraging sign potentially signaling a substantive dialogue, senior US military officials said.

Cyberattacks figured prominently on the agenda. In an interview Sunday, Dempsey called it a “friction point” between the countries. 

In discussing Dempsey’s visit to China, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, for his part, called cyberattacks “the greatest threat to our security – economic security, political security, diplomatic security, military security – that confronts us.” 

On Monday, a top Chinese military officer, Gen. Fang Fenghui, offered some agreement on that point, saying of cyber insecurity that “the damaging consequences it causes may be as serious as a nuclear bomb.” 

Fang also offered some support for the idea of a working group to discuss cybersecurity, suggested by Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to China earlier this month. 

“I believe that it is important to set up the idea that we should jointly work on this issue and set up a mechanism to enhance coordination and cooperation on cybersecurity,” Fang said during a press conference after the meetings. 

Dempsey's visit this week, considered relatively long at three-plus days, comes on the heels of a report released in February from a cybersecurity firm that charges that a special dedicated cell of China’s People's Liberation Army, housed in a building in downtown Beijing, is waging cyberattacks on the United States.

“At a very particular building in China, a group of individuals has undertaken systematic exfiltration of a variety of materials related to the defense of the United States, among other things, over a substantial period of time,” is how FBI Director Robert Mueller described the report in a hearing on Capitol Hill earlier this month. 

Recently, the US military has begun to respond to such intrusions in part by advertising its own talents in cyberoffense – long a highly secret topic for the Pentagon – in the hopes it would prove to be a deterrent, in the way veiled threats sometimes are. 

The US Air Force, for example, now has a line item in its budget for cyberoffense, including “exfiltration of information while operating within adversary operating systems.” The force will spend more than twice on offensive cyber research what it will on research for cyberdefense next year, according to the same budget documents. 

Senior US officials, increasingly arguing that the nation needs it, say they are particularly concerned about China’s economic cyber-espionage, which includes the sort of “exfiltration of information” mentioned in the new defense budget as a cyberoffensive skill that US forces would like to hone.

On that point, US military officials are hoping that America’s cyber enemies see an implicit quid pro quo link. 

Dempsey emphasized some links during his trip, as well. Though the US is currently the top economy in the world, “they’re closing,” he said of China, adding that “at some point” the Chinese may “find themselves in the preeminent” economic position. 

In that case, they may have a greater interest in coming to an agreement on cyber.   

“Cyber threatens our economy and their economy,” Dempsey said of the attacks. “The time to try to resolve those issues is now.”

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