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23 May, 2014 09:26

​China v America’s cyber-hegemony

​China v America’s cyber-hegemony

This week’s indictment by a US grand jury of five Chinese military officials on charges of cyber espionage is both revealing and hypocritical. After all, the US, along Israel, is the world’s leading purveyor of cyber espionage, warfare and subversion.

Moreover, these latest charges should be understood against the broader backdrop of Washington’s ‘pivot to Asia’, including the much-touted corporate monopoly ‘free trade’ of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Seen in this context, the charges brought against Chinese military officials are more about protecting corporate interests and US hegemony than about protecting national security.

Emperor has no clothes

The indictment against the Chinese military officials is particularly noteworthy for the fact that it is the first time hacking and ‘cyber espionage’ charges have been brought against a state in this manner. Furthermore, it is critical to note that the United States has engaged in exactly the same sort of activity for years, directed against many different corporations and nations. This fact, known by all but still acknowledged by only some, paints these most recent charges in a very different light.

The Western District of Pennsylvania grand jury that indicted the five Chinese military officials did so on behalf of major US corporations such as Westinghouse Electric, US Steel, Alcoa, and a handful of other corporations and entities. Painting these corporations, collectively worth hundreds of billions of dollars, as victims, and the Chinese as unrestrained aggressors, the United States government once again serves as the attack dog for corporate America.

Never mind the hypocrisy of corporations such as these that have shut down US factories and moved much of their operations to China in search of ‘better business conditions’. Never mind the fact that these same corporations have no problem exploiting cheap Chinese labor and technical expertise in search of bigger and bigger profits.

But such obvious hypocrisy only begins to scratch the surface of the issue. The proverbial elephant in the room is the fact that it is the United States itself which has engaged in some of the most blatantly illegal and utterly dishonest military and corporate cyber espionage in recent years.

In discussing the indictment and allegations, US Attorney General Eric Holder stated, “The range of trade secrets and other sensitive business information stolen in this case is significant and demands an aggressive response. Success in the global marketplace should be based solely on a company’s ability to innovate and compete, not on a sponsor government’s ability to spy and steal business secrets. This administration will not tolerate actions by any nation that seeks to illegally sabotage American companies and undermine the integrity of fair competition in the operation of the free market.”

Undoubtedly, Holder would be loath to admit that the United States has been engaged in precisely this sort of activity for years, “undermining the integrity of fair competition” when it suits its economic and geopolitical purposes. As the Edward Snowden revelations demonstrated clearly, the US intelligence and surveillance apparatus works directly with US corporate interests to give them an unfair advantage. One particularly egregious case that has had negative political ramifications is the case of Brazilian oil company Petrobras.

National Security Agency.(Reuters / Handout via Reuters)

As revealed by the Guardian and Glenn Greenwald, the US National Security Agency (NSA) has for a long time been spying on Petrobras. One of the world’s largest companies and majority owned by the Brazilian state, Petrobras is of particular interest to both the corporate and intelligence communities as it is at the forefront of some of the most important oil discoveries of the century. However, Petrobras was not alone. The information revealed by Snowden made public the so called ‘Blackpearl’ program, which did, on a far greater scale, precisely what the US government is now accusing Beijing of doing: using electronic surveillance and cyber espionage to steal valuable information from private networks of various corporations and other entities.

As reported in the Guardian, “Petrobras is among several targets for the agency's Blackpearl program, which extricates data from private networks. Titled ‘Private networks are important’, the slide [provided by Edward Snowden] names Petrobras along with the Swift network for global bank transfers, the French Foreign Ministry and Google...It presented a ‘network exploitation’ document from Britain's GCHQ, which works closely with the NSA, that affirms the importance of targeting companies in strategic industries. One slide, headed ‘Results – what do we find?’, notes that private network traffic is collected from energy companies, financial organizations and airlines, as well as foreign governments.”

Trade secrets, financial records, and confidential communications have all been swept up in the NSA’s Blackpearl dragnet. Naturally, it raises serious questions about how many other surveillance and espionage programs besides Blackpearl have been (and continue to be) employed by US intelligence. It should be added that, far from merely stealing technical information (as has been alleged of the Chinese military), the NSA program has provided the intelligence and corporate community insights into the inner workings of powerful corporations, their decision-making processes, and much more.

In effect, the US program is far more detailed and comprehensive than what the Chinese have allegedly been doing. And the US does it all under the auspices of ‘national security’.

It would seem then that the rhetoric of senior US officials is more than hypocrisy; it is deliberate distortion of reality. US Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Carlin expressed the kind of sanctimonious indignation that has become a hallmark of the Obama administration when he exclaimed, “State actors engaged in cyber espionage for economic advantage are not immune from the law just because they hack under the shadow of their country’s flag.” Perhaps Carlin is unaware of the fact that the NSA, among other agencies, has used precisely the same “shadow of their country’s flag” to justify their blatantly illegal espionage and surveillance. Or, as is more likely, perhaps Carlin believes that ‘American exceptionalism’ extends to national and international law?

Making war in cyberspace

One of the most strikingly hypocritical aspects of US foreign policy for decades has been the fact that Washington postures as the force for nuclear disarmament, accusing countries all over the world of ‘nuclear ambitions’ and aggression, while remaining the only nation in the history of the world to have ever actually used nuclear weapons. The same is true for cyber weapons, as the United States and Israel remain the only countries to have been documented as using such weapons.

Named Stuxnet by security analysts, the weapon was a form of malware designed to infiltrate and damage the computer systems of Iranian oil and nuclear facilities. Though the classified program was initiated under the Bush administration, it was continued and expanded by Obama. As the Washington Post reported in 2012, “Even after software security companies discovered Stuxnet loose on the internet in 2010, causing concern among US officials, Obama secretly ordered the operation continued and authorized the use of several variations of the computer virus... The National Security Agency developed the cyber weapon with help of Israel.”

So just to be clear, the administration crying foul over alleged Chinese corporate espionage is the same one which authorized the expanded use of an incredibly destructive cyber weapon without any oversight, legal proceedings or international authorization. In other words, the US and Israel committed what should be rightly be considered an act of war in cyberspace, while acting as if only Chinese hands are dirty. However, had it only been Stuxnet, then US hypocrisy would be, relatively speaking, tolerable. Of course, Stuxnet was not alone.

Reuters / Tobias Schwarz

The Washington Post also revealed in 2012 that a collaboration between the NSA, CIA and Israeli military produced the Flame virus, a sophisticated computer virus which “collected intelligence in preparation for cyber-espionage.” The report noted that Flame was a “massive piece of malware [that] secretly mapped and monitored Iran’s computer networks, sending back a steady stream of intelligence to prepare for a cyber-warfare campaign.”

Even if one were to believe in the doomsday prognostications of neocons regarding Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, the inescapable fact is that these cyber weapons were not solely relegated to the nuclear program’s computer systems. In fact, both Stuxnet and Flame, targeted a wide range of computer networks involved in everything from managing oil refineries to handling financial transactions and personal and industrial secrets.

Additionally, Stuxnet and Flame’s cousin, nicknamed ‘Gauss’ expanded further the espionage capabilities of the US and Israel in the Middle East. As Kaspersky Labs, the privately-owned Russian cyber security firm, explained upon their discovery of the virus, “Gauss is a complex, nation-state sponsored cyber-espionage toolkit designed to steal sensitive data, with a specific focus on browser passwords, online banking account credentials, cookies, and specific configurations of infected machines...The online banking Trojan functionality found in Gauss is a unique characteristic that was not found in any previously known cyber-weapons.”

Essentially then, the current administrations in both Washington and Tel Aviv are directly responsible for unleashing no less than three separate cyber weapons in the Middle East, each having significant impacts on a wide variety of commercial, military, and other critical systems. Had such aggressive (and illegal) actions been carried out by any other nations, they would immediately be denounced as threats to global peace. Once again it seems ‘American exceptionalism’ means that it is the exception to the international rule of law.

Protecting corporate America

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the charges brought against the Chinese military officials is the recent history of allegations against China, specifically those making the allegations and their close ties to vested interests. One of the most highly-publicized allegations of corporate espionage and wrongdoing by China comes from former CIA and NSA head General Michael Hayden in an interview with the Australian Financial Review, in which he charged that China’s telecom giant Huawei has engaged in espionage on behalf of Beijing.

While the international press ran with the story, using the opportunity to once again accuse China of wrongdoing without ever having presented any hard evidence, they conveniently omitted one rather important aspect of the story: Hayden serves on the board of directors of Motorola Solutions, one of the principal competitors of Huawei. It would seem then that the interests of the US political and corporate establishments conveniently aligned in the demonization of Huawei and, by extension, Beijing. In fact, Huawei was banned from bidding on a number of lucrative contracts in Australia and elsewhere precisely due to these and other, similar allegations.

Another instructive example is the Chinese partly state-owned computer manufacturer Lenovo, which has been banned from lucrative US government contracts with the CIA, in addition to UK’s MI5 and MI6 and a number of other international intelligence agencies. The somewhat embarrassing fact here again is that there remains zero hard evidence of any ‘backdoors’ and other security risks built into Lenovo’s hardware, as has been repeatedly alleged. It would seem then that, rather than any threat to national security, Lenovo was seen as a threat to the security of the profits of its competitors.

AFP Photo / Jeff Swensen

While the list of such examples could be quite exhaustive, they should all be understood in the context of US foreign and trade policy. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a wide-reaching so called ‘free trade’ deal between the United States and a number of Asian countries (with the notable exception of China), would cement corporate power in ways hitherto unimaginable.

As renowned activists and co-directors of It’s Our Economy, Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese, noted on Truthout, “The TPP is less about trade and more about entrenching corporate property rights. It will establish a judicial system that gives corporations greater power than sovereign nations and bypasses the democratic process. The TPP will affect the global economy so that corporations control all aspects of our lives from wages, food safety, the price of medications and our rights to clean water and air to internet freedom and more.”

Beyond the corporate control over individual rights, the TPP is a crucial aspect of the US attempt to contain China’s economic development by establishing a corporate-controlled framework of trade in the Asia-Pacific region that systematically cuts out China, thereby cementing the hegemony of US and Western corporations in the region. Obama’s ‘pivot’ strategy is fundamentally based on this line of reasoning. More than simply shuffling around naval forces and showing military strength in Asia-Pacific, the ‘pivot’ is a focusing of all forms of both hard and soft power (military, corporate-financial, economic, cultural, etc.) at the ‘enemy’ in Beijing.

With the inking of a massive energy deal between Moscow and Beijing, and the growing consensus internationally that US attempts to isolate Russia have backfired by promoting Sino-Russian cooperation on a number of key issues relating to military, political, and economic cooperation, this week has been a decidedly bad one for the US political establishment.

It would seem then that the indictment against the Chinese military officials is a miscalculation of just how far Washington might be able to push Beijing. The sort of intimidation tactics that the US is accustomed to using in its dealings with China and other nations might now be a relic of the past.

Perhaps this is the ultimate benefit of a more multi-polar world. It might just take a little time before officials in Washington choose to accept this reality.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.