US, allies to condemn China for economic espionage

The US Justice Department is expected to unveil criminal charges against hackers affiliated with China's main intelligence service for an alleged cyber-spying campaign targeting US and other countries' networks.
The US Justice Department is expected to unveil criminal charges against hackers affiliated with China's main intelligence service for an alleged cyber-spying campaign targeting US and other countries' networks.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - The Trump administration and more than a dozen international allies are expected to call out Beijing on Thursday (Dec 20) for what they say are China's persistent efforts to steal other countries' trade secrets and advanced technologies and to compromise sensitive government and corporate computers, according to Western officials.

The unprecedented mass condemnation marks a significant effort to hold China to account for its alleged malign acts. It represents a growing consensus that Beijing is flouting international norms of fair play to become the world's predominant economic and technological power.

The action comes as the US Justice Department is expected to unveil criminal charges against hackers affiliated with China's main intelligence service who allegedly took part in a long-running cyber spying campaign targeting US and other countries' networks.

Sanctions related to the cyber economic espionage effort also are expected to be announced.

Presidents and prime ministers around the globe led their Cabinets to this decision, said one Western official.

The united front against Chinese economic espionage marks a rare diplomatic success for an "America First" President who has taken a unilateral course to many of his trade goals.

"This appears to be significant and underscores the degree of concern about Chinese economic espionage across a number of countries," said Dr Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. "Multilateral efforts have better prospects for producing results than unilateral moves."

The countries taking part in the joint announcement include Britain, Australia, Canada, Japan and Germany.

All were targeted in a long-running espionage campaign in which Chinese spies hacked companies in several countries that provide cyber security and information technology services to government agencies and major firms.

Mounting intelligence shows a sustained Chinese hacking effort devoted to acquiring sophisticated American technologies of all stripes.

Top Justice Department officials are expected to announce indictments of the alleged Chinese hackers, who are affiliated with the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China's intelligence and security agency.

The MSS has in recent years greatly increased its cyber intrusions into US targets as China's military hackers have dialled back their activity.

Also known as APT10, the hacking group broke into so-called "managed service providers" in the United States, Britain, Japan, Canada, Australia, Brazil, France, Switzerland and South Korea, among other countries.

The goal: to worm their way into the networks of the service providers' clients to gain access to their intellectual property and sensitive data.

Also expected is a condemnation by Trump administration officials of China for allegedly violating a landmark 2015 pact to refrain from hacking for commercial gain. Taking part in the administration's actions are the State and Homeland Security departments.

The actions are part of an intensifying push by the United States and allies in Europe and Asia to confront China over its alleged aggression in the economic and military spheres.

They come at a fraught time, as Canada has arrested a Chinese telecommunications executive at the United States' request on a charge related to violating sanctions against Iran.

The allied condemnation adds to Chinese President Xi Jinping's worries at a time when many economists say that China's economy is slowing more sharply than official statistics acknowledge.

Policymakers in Beijing are trying to wean the economy from a dependence upon rising levels of debt, while coping with the consequences of President Trump's tariffs on more than US$250 billion (S$342.58 billion) in Chinese products.

Still, some administration allies were sceptical that Thursday's announcement would alter China's behaviour.

"Just as when the Obama administration did it, indicting a handful of Chinese agents out of the tens of thousands involved in economic espionage is necessary but not important," Mr Derek Scissors, a China analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said via e-mail. "International denouncements may irritate Xi, but they place no real pressure on him."

Mr Scissors said it would be more effective for the United States to hit high-profile Chinese companies with financial sanctions, including potential bans on their ability to do business with American companies. "The rest is sound and fury, signifying little," he added.

The condemnations also pose a potentially complicating factor as Mr Trump and Mr Xi seek to negotiate a trade deal.

Over dinner in Buenos Aires earlier this month, the two leaders agreed to a truce in their months-long tariff war.

Talks between US and Chinese diplomats are expected to begin early next month.

The Trump administration is seeking a deal that would involve structural changes in China's state-led economic model, greater Chinese purchases of American farm and industrial products and a halt to what the United States says are coercive joint-venture licensing terms.