The Pentagon this week issued its most direct acknowledgment to date of the serious threat that Chinese hackers pose to American security and industry. The new report details the systematic thievery of trade and technology secrets and even hints that the Chinese government and its People’s Liberation Army are behind most cyber attacks on US interests. And it lays bare what is truly at stake: America’s capacity to innovate and, in turn, its economic competitive advantage. A coordinated effort both to put pressure on China to end cyber espionage and protect US networks must be pursued.
Chinese officials have denied any state policy of industrial espionage, suggesting they are as much victims as the United States. The Obama administration has rightfully pushed back against such claims, and officials have traveled to Beijing to press the message that the White House is running out of patience.
The time to discuss more punitive actions is here. The American military can’t ask China to stop developing cyber weaponry because it is quietly racing to build similar capacity itself; but it can keep beefing up its defense. Stealing American intellectual property is another matter. The Justice Department has signaled it will step up the investigation and prosecution of cyber thefts. There is also talk of denying visas to anyone found to be stealing trade secrets. Both should be done immediately.
If problems persist, the United States should consider trade restrictions and, in the worst case scenario, offensive action by the military Cyber Command. Meanwhile, the House and Senate must find middle ground to address the languishing cyber security bill. Yes, a compromise that adequately respects online privacy is important, but easing the ability of government agencies to share classified cyber-threat information with vulnerable corporations is long overdue. Economic piracy needn’t be tolerated as the cost of doing business with China.