National Security & Defense

American Passivity in the Face of Beijing’s Cyberattack Encourages More Chinese Aggression

President Obama and Chinese prime minister Jinping in Beijing. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty)

Two news stories out this week highlight just how weak the Obama administration’s policy toward China remains. A month after the Office of Personnel Management cyberattack, in which up to 25 million (and maybe more) Americans had their information stolen, including fingerprints, financial history, and other sensitive data, the White House has formally decided not to publicly blame China for the attack. This is despite apparently overwhelming evidence that hackers from China were behind the devastating breach, the worst penetration to date (as far as we know) of U.S. government information. Worse, according to the news reports, is that China will get off scot-free, as the administration quails from retaliating in any way. In fact, the White House went ahead and held the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue with China in Washington just weeks after the OPM attack was revealed. The two parties sat across the table from each other while the Americans pretended that relations should go on as normal.

The usual Washington gobbledygook explanations for the failure to act are on full display in the Washington Post article linked above, including the desire to protect intelligence sources and methods — the perennial excuse for failing to respond to anything involving classified information. It does not take much imagination to come up with a different response that, first of all, publicly blames China without revealing sensitive methods, and second, imposes some type of cost for the action, be it a canceled summit or meeting, or (heaven forbid) actual sanctions that may have a bite. After six years in office and having suffered repeated Chinese cyberaggression against the U.S. government and private corporations, the Obama administration’s message is clear: There will be absolutely no price to pay for your offenses. One can only conclude that such a message is welcomed in Beijing and that it encourages further and more outrageous behavior. (And, even if we are practicing the same cyber-chicanery against them, there’s still no reason not to retaliate, given the scale and scope of the latest attack.)

RELATED: How the U.S. Should Respond to the Latest Chinese Hack

In contrast to America’s kid-glove approach toward Beijing, Great Britain has taken up the cudgel of human rights and democracy in China. U.K. foreign secretary Philip Hammond called on Beijing and the Hong Kong government to restart talks on constitutional reform to ensure free elections in the former colony. Hammond stated unambiguously that “universal suffrage is the best way to guarantee Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity.” Recently criticized, including by the Obama administration, for placing trade issues above political considerations in relation to China, the British government appears to have decided that it must take a stand on liberalization, given China’s increasing repression at home, including in Hong Kong. London was largely silent during last year’s massive student protests against the Hong Kong government’s decision not to allow free elections for the island’s next chief executive. After Hong Kong opposition legislators defeated the limited elections proposal of the government last month, however, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office changed its approach and stepped into the fray.

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Hammond’s call is largely rhetorical, and it is almost inconceivable that London would actually contemplate any steps that might put at risk its trade with China. Yet it is important, nonetheless, as a first step toward putting international pressure on Beijing and its proxies to uphold their commitments (in this case, the 1984 Joint Declaration setting out how Hong Kong would be ruled after China took over). Perhaps even more important, Hammond has put democracy and rights on center stage, something that the Obama administration has been notoriously loath to do. Then–secretary of state Hillary Clinton epitomized the Obama approach in 2009 when she famously declared that human-rights abuses by China would not be allowed to “interfere” with making progress on other crisis issues.

Such a calculation by Obama and Clinton might have been justified if Beijing had indeed cooperated and made progress on those crisis issues in the years since. Yet giving China a free pass on its behavior at home and abroad has resulted in Beijing’s becoming less cooperative, not more. Bitter experience has shown that Beijing is an obstacle to solving problems such as North Korea, Iran, territorial disputes in Asia, and of course cyberattacks. It takes Great Britain now to state what Washington should be repeating regularly, and indeed should be putting at the center of its relations with Beijing: Behavior and actions matter.

#related#It is unlikely that any U.S. policy could have prevented China from acting like rising powers often do — testing the strength of the status quo hegemon. But our repeated failure to respond, starting with the administration of George H.W. Bush, has resulted only in a China that is bolder and more aggressive. Whether building islands in contested territory or conducting brazen cyberattacks, China has shown that it is dissatisfied with the balance of power today, and that it will seek to destabilize and then reshape regional and global norms. It has eschewed cooperation except when it’s clearly in its own interest. Silence in the face of such a challenge only ensures that we are further weakening the rules-based order we have built and defended in the decades since World War II.

It is time to change course and take a tougher line with the one country that poses the greatest long-term challenge to American power and influence. The reason to do so is not to precipitate a crisis, let alone a war, but rather to prevent one. Only when Beijing understands that it cannot cross certain lines will its actions change. Otherwise, our own weakness may wind up thrusting us into a crisis where we feel we must act aggressively. When that happens, it will signal a failure of U.S. policy, not a success.

— Michael Auslin is a frequent contributor to National Review Online.

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