As Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrives in the United States, he could be forgiven for concluding that the Obama administration’s policy on cyber-security – and specifically, fighting China’s own hacking – is in complete disarray, and that the attacks his government has fostered on U.S. business targets can continue with impunity. That’s the price America will be paying for the foreseeable future to a president who keeps ignoring the dangers of speaking loudly and carrying a small stick.
The president has certainly been talking a tough game lately. In a speech to the Business Roundtable in Washington last Wednesday, the president declared that not only is the United States “preparing a number of measures that will indicate to the Chinese that this is not just a matter of us being mildly upset, but is something that will put significant strains on the bilateral relationship if not resolved, and that we are prepared to some countervailing actions in order to get their attention.” He also claimed that “frankly, although the Chinese and Russians are close, we’re still the best at this. And if we wanted to go on offense, a whole bunch of countries would have some significant problems.”
At National Security Agency headquarters outside Washington last Friday, Mr. Obama similarly warned China, “we can choose to make this an area of competition — which I guarantee you we’ll win if we have to — or, alternatively, we can come to an agreement in which we say: ‘This isn’t helping anybody. Let’s instead try to have some basic rules of the road in terms of how we operate.’ ”
But according to news reports, the president has acted instead like a a leader who doesn’t actually have these options – at least not to the degree that permits confidence that America would emerge from cyber battles in much better shape than any adversary (confidence that’s essential to ensure that more aggressive U.S. cyber policies would actually make sense). Instead, he’s acted like a leader who believes both his outgoing senior-most military adviser and his current intelligence chief, both of whom have indicated in the strongest possible terms recently that the United States lacks the kind of cyber-war superiority that could adequately protect the country from foreign retaliation.
Specifically, at least until Xi is on his way back to Beijing, the president has apparently decided not to impose on accused Chinese hackers even the kind of limited sanctions that could easily signal American weakness – reportedly for fear of ruffling the Chinese leader’s feathers. Although these sanctions apparently remain on the U.S. policy table in principle, the kinds of concessions (and I use the word advisedly) extracted by the administration in return strongly suggest that these moves have been ruled out in fact. For China can drag out for years the kinds of talks on cyber-space rules to which is has reportedly agreed. And administration officials clearly have spread the word to the press corps that at the end of his summit with Xi, Mr. Obama will settle for a vaguely worded statement announcing some type of equally vague agreement on the subject.
Yet even though China’s cyber power might rule out American electronic retaliation for Chinese hacking, Washington is anything but powerless to meet Beijing’s cyber challenge. Throughout the decades in which China has been rising toward great power status, America has maintained vast superiority over the Chinese in every other dimension of economic and military might imaginable. Nowadays, moreover, China’s recent spell of economic weakness – which shows no signs of fading anytime soon – gives the United States greater leverage still. If Mr. Obama is serious about stopping Chinese hacking, he’ll start using this leverage. His failure to do so thus far can only send Xi the message that he’s not – and unavoidably reinforce the idea in Beijing that American timidity is by no means confined to the digital realm.