WASHINGTON - In the months before US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel's arrival in Beijing yesterday, the Obama administration quietly briefed the Chinese military leadership on a subject rarely discussed in public: the Pentagon's emerging doctrine for defending against cyber attacks - and for using its cyber technology against adversaries, including the Chinese.
The idea was to allay Chinese concerns about plans to more than triple the number of American cyber warriors to 6,000 by the end of 2016, a force that will include new teams the Pentagon plans to deploy to each military combatant command around the world.
But the hope was to prompt the Chinese to give Washington a similar briefing about the many People's Liberation Army (PLA) units that are believed to be behind the escalating attacks on US corporations and government networks.
So far, the Chinese have not reciprocated - a point Mr Hagel plans to make in a speech at the PLA's National Defence University today.
The effort, Pentagon officials say, is to head off what Mr Hagel and his advisers fear is the growing possibility of a fast-escalating series of cyber attacks and counter-attacks between the US and China. This is a concern especially at a time of mounting tensions over China's expanding claims of control over what it argues are exclusive territories in the East and South China Seas, and over a new air defence zone.
"Think of this in terms of the Cuban missile crisis," one Pentagon official said. While the US "suffers attacks every day", he said, "the last thing we would want to do is misinterpret an attack and escalate to a real conflict".
Mr Hagel's concern is spurred by the fact that in the year since US President Barack Obama explicitly brought up the barrage of Chinese-origin attacks on the US with his newly installed counterpart, President Xi Jinping, the pace of those attacks has increased.
Most continue to be aimed at stealing technology and other intellectual property from Silicon Valley, military contractors and energy firms. Many are believed to be linked to cyber warfare units of the PLA acting on behalf of state-owned, or state-affiliated, Chinese companies.
"To the Chinese, this isn't first and foremost a military weapon, it's an economic weapon," said Ms Laura Galante, a former Defence Intelligence Agency cyber specialist.
Administration officials acknowledge that Mr Hagel, on his first trip to China as Defence Secretary, has a very difficult case to make.
The Pentagon plans to spend US$26 billion (S$32.7 billion) on cyber technology over the next five years - much of it for defence of the military's networks, but billions for developing offensive weapons.
Moreover, disclosures about the United States' own cyber weaponry - including US-led attacks on Iran's nuclear infrastructure and National Security Agency documents revealed by Edward Snowden, the former agency contractor - detail how much the United States has engaged in what the intelligence world calls "cyber exploitation" of targets in China.
Mr Obama told the Chinese President that the US, unlike China, did not steal corporate data and give it to its own companies.
Its spying, one of Mr Obama's aides later told reporters, is solely for "national security priorities".
But to the Chinese, for whom national and economic security are one, that argument carries little weight.
NEW YORK TIMES