Shadow Government

Naming and shaming is a start but what comes next?

The New York Times headline from National Security Adviser Tom Donilon’s speech yesterday on Obama’s Asia strategy was uncompromising: "U.S. Demands Chinese Block Cyberattacks." And it is true, in the sense that Donilon’s speech did include some tough language on cybersecurity: "Another such issue is cyber-security, which has become a growing challenge to our economic ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The New York Times headline from National Security Adviser Tom Donilon’s speech yesterday on Obama’s Asia strategy was uncompromising: "U.S. Demands Chinese Block Cyberattacks." And it is true, in the sense that Donilon’s speech did include some tough language on cybersecurity:

"Another such issue is cyber-security, which has become a growing challenge to our economic relationship as well. Economies as large as the United States and China have a tremendous shared stake in ensuring that the Internet remains open, interoperable, secure, reliable, and stable. Both countries face risks when it comes to protecting personal data and communications, financial transactions, critical infrastructure, or the intellectual property and trade secrets that are so vital to innovation and economic growth.

It is in this last category that our concerns have moved to the forefront of our agenda. I am not talking about ordinary cybercrime or hacking. And, this is not solely a national security concern or a concern of the U.S. government. Increasingly, U.S. businesses are speaking out about their serious concerns about sophisticated, targeted theft of confidential business information and proprietary technologies through cyber intrusions emanating from China on an unprecedented scale. The international community cannot afford to tolerate such activity from any country. As the President said in the State of the Union, we will take action to protect our economy against cyber-threats. 

From the President on down, this has become a key point of concern and discussion with China at all levels of our governments. And it will continue to be. The United States will do all it must to protect our national networks, critical infrastructure, and our valuable public and private sector property. But, specifically with respect to the issue of cyber-enabled theft, we seek three things from the Chinese side. First, we need a recognition of the urgency and scope of this problem and the risk it poses-to international trade, to the reputation of Chinese industry and to our overall relations. Second, Beijing should take serious steps to investigate and put a stop to these activities. Finally, we need China to engage with us in a constructive direct dialogue to establish acceptable norms of behavior in cyberspace."

But a demand implies "or else." What is the "or else"? Donilon understandably did not spell it out in any detail beyond "we will take action to protect our economy against cyber-threats." In backgrounding the speech, the White House told the NYT that Donilon did not get more detailed because they wanted to motivate China to act without engaging in "finger-pointing."

Finger-pointing, however, was precisely what Donilon was doing in the speech, and rightly so. Finger-pointing goes by another name, "naming and shaming," and it is an accepted early stage of diplomacy when dealing with core national interest conflicts. China has an understandable national interest in stealing as much as they can from the United States and the United States has an understandable national interest in preventing this. Those interests are in conflict, and one way to resolve it peacefully is to raise the costs to the Chinese of engaging in this behavior so they will end up in a different place in their own internal cost-benefit calculation. A peaceful way of raising those costs is to name and shame the Chinese for their activities.

However, naming and shaming only goes so far and, in this case, the Chinese preemptive response has been predictable: We deny we are doing this but tu quoque, you are engaged in cyber-espionage, Mr. Obama, and so we are not ashamed. 

That means that naming and shaming alone is unlikely to resolve the underlying conflict. The Obama administration may soon face a tougher choice: continue to live with the waves of cyber-attacks from the Chinese or escalate to some form of retaliation beyond naming and shaming in the hopes of raising the costs to the Chinese beyond what they are willing to pay. Donilon’s speech gave little insight into what the administration would do when confronted with that choice.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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