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On cyberwarfare, do we need PLA transparency or accountability?

With exquisite timing, the Pentagon released its annual China military report on Wednesday just as Chinese state television broadcast a documentary trumpeting the PLA’s cyberwarfare capabilities. For those following security issues in Asia, there was nothing particularly new in the Pentagon report. It noted the challenges posed by China’s new doctrine of maritime power projection, ...

By , the CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

With exquisite timing, the Pentagon released its annual China military report on Wednesday just as Chinese state television broadcast a documentary trumpeting the PLA's cyberwarfare capabilities. For those following security issues in Asia, there was nothing particularly new in the Pentagon report. It noted the challenges posed by China's new doctrine of maritime power projection, plans for multiple aircraft carriers, the new J-20 stealth fighter, and PLA interest in cyberwarfare (exclamation point helpfully provided by CCTV). Nor was there any real news in the delay of the report, which is also an annual event because of the tedious but necessary bureaucratic process of ensuring the contents are credibly presented.

The fact that the PLA is aggressively pursuing cyberwarfare is also not news, though CCTV's bravado about it did catch some analysts by surprise (visitors to Beijing should make a point of watching CCTV-7, the PLA channel, which provides a steady stream of military propaganda, uniformed game shows, and gorgeous singing colonels in jackboots). Many of us in the national security or Asia fields receive repeat "visits" from Chinese-based hackers. Sometimes these come in the form of crashing Google accounts or targeted "phishing" attacks -- seemingly from other colleagues' email addresses with attached reports on "PLA modernization" or the "Hu-Obama Summit" that contain malware. I have also enjoyed démarches from Chinese officials expressing concern about travel plans to Dharamsala (seat of the exile Tibetan government) or Taiwan. My stern but courteous callers were generally better informed about my itinerary than my own travel agent and made little effort to conceal their knowledge. A Chinese academic friend confided to me a few years back that one of his former students is working with 20,000 other tech-savvy youth for the Ministry of State Security -- and that was just the unit in charge of domestic surveillance. It is hard to maintain operational security when the operation is that massive and the PLA propaganda machine is openly encouraging a culture of aggressive defense of China's "core interests."

The administration refrain is that we must have more military-to-military transparency with the PLA. This may be necessary, but it is hardly sufficient and it carries some negative consequences. For one thing, the administration seems fixated on sustaining mil-to-mil dialogue with Beijing to the point that it is distorting decision-making on arms sales to Taiwan (this because the PLA will routinely cut off military-to-military dialogue in retaliation for the sales). The other problem with a focus on mil-to-mil transparency is that it exacerbates the larger problem of PLA autonomy within the Chinese system. Yes, the Central Military Commission (CMC) ensures that the "Party controls the gun" and the chair and vice chair are Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, respectively. But every other member of the CMC is uniformed military, and Hu and Xi have no independent sources of oversight or expertise on the operational practices of the PLA (particularly the PLA Navy). By pushing for more mil-mil dialogue with the PLA, we risk reinforcing PLA autonomy and further weakening civilian control. Instead, we should put the priority on working collectively with other states to insist that China's leaders be held accountable for the actions of the PLA and that the PLA be held accountable to the leadership. This burden will have to be carried by the president and other leaders since the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is too weak to make a difference on its own.

With exquisite timing, the Pentagon released its annual China military report on Wednesday just as Chinese state television broadcast a documentary trumpeting the PLA’s cyberwarfare capabilities. For those following security issues in Asia, there was nothing particularly new in the Pentagon report. It noted the challenges posed by China’s new doctrine of maritime power projection, plans for multiple aircraft carriers, the new J-20 stealth fighter, and PLA interest in cyberwarfare (exclamation point helpfully provided by CCTV). Nor was there any real news in the delay of the report, which is also an annual event because of the tedious but necessary bureaucratic process of ensuring the contents are credibly presented.

The fact that the PLA is aggressively pursuing cyberwarfare is also not news, though CCTV’s bravado about it did catch some analysts by surprise (visitors to Beijing should make a point of watching CCTV-7, the PLA channel, which provides a steady stream of military propaganda, uniformed game shows, and gorgeous singing colonels in jackboots). Many of us in the national security or Asia fields receive repeat "visits" from Chinese-based hackers. Sometimes these come in the form of crashing Google accounts or targeted "phishing" attacks — seemingly from other colleagues’ email addresses with attached reports on "PLA modernization" or the "Hu-Obama Summit" that contain malware. I have also enjoyed démarches from Chinese officials expressing concern about travel plans to Dharamsala (seat of the exile Tibetan government) or Taiwan. My stern but courteous callers were generally better informed about my itinerary than my own travel agent and made little effort to conceal their knowledge. A Chinese academic friend confided to me a few years back that one of his former students is working with 20,000 other tech-savvy youth for the Ministry of State Security — and that was just the unit in charge of domestic surveillance. It is hard to maintain operational security when the operation is that massive and the PLA propaganda machine is openly encouraging a culture of aggressive defense of China’s "core interests."

The administration refrain is that we must have more military-to-military transparency with the PLA. This may be necessary, but it is hardly sufficient and it carries some negative consequences. For one thing, the administration seems fixated on sustaining mil-to-mil dialogue with Beijing to the point that it is distorting decision-making on arms sales to Taiwan (this because the PLA will routinely cut off military-to-military dialogue in retaliation for the sales). The other problem with a focus on mil-to-mil transparency is that it exacerbates the larger problem of PLA autonomy within the Chinese system. Yes, the Central Military Commission (CMC) ensures that the "Party controls the gun" and the chair and vice chair are Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, respectively. But every other member of the CMC is uniformed military, and Hu and Xi have no independent sources of oversight or expertise on the operational practices of the PLA (particularly the PLA Navy). By pushing for more mil-mil dialogue with the PLA, we risk reinforcing PLA autonomy and further weakening civilian control. Instead, we should put the priority on working collectively with other states to insist that China’s leaders be held accountable for the actions of the PLA and that the PLA be held accountable to the leadership. This burden will have to be carried by the president and other leaders since the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is too weak to make a difference on its own.

The China military report and the CCTV cyberattack documentary should also cause U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to begin making the case for reversing the administration’s planned cuts in defense spending. Mil-to-mil dialogue is no substitute for necessary recapitalization of our air and naval forces in the Pacific.

Michael J. Green is the CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a distinguished scholar at the Asia Pacific Institute in Tokyo, and a former senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @DrMichaelJGreen

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