On Saturday, July 4th, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at a New Hampshire campaign event blasted China for recent computer hacks and urged vigilance over China’s rise. There have been several highly publicized incidents such as the OPM hack though the Obama administration has yet to publicly identify the culprits. Many though in the government have alluded to the role of China. In its defense, China has denied its role in the hacks and has sought to downplay Clinton’s accusation. Regardless, the issue of China and cyber warfare are increasingly becoming prominent issues in the U.S. which should be seen as a good thing.
Clinton at the campaign event spoke of China and other foreign policy issues; something that she has shied away from before in her campaign. Calling the rise of China ‘the story of the 21st century” she then proceeded to launch an attack against China. “They’re trying to hack into everything that doesn’t move in America — stealing commercial secrets, blueprints from defense contractors, stealing huge amounts of government information — all looking for an advantage.” Clinton’s comments come three months after the government learned of the data breach at OPM which saw highly sensitive information compromised.
Concerning China’s rise and advances in its military, Clinton argued that the U.S. must be “fully vigilant”. She added, “China’s military is growing very quickly, they’re establishing military installations that again threaten countries we have treaties with, like the Philippines because they are building on contested property.” This would refer to China’s island building in the South China Sea which has caused concern in the region. The Philippines as Clinton said do have a treaty with the U.S., the Mutual Defense Treaty which dictates that either nation would come to each other’s aid if attacked by an external power.
This is not the first time this year that Clinton and China have clashed. Earlier this year in April, Clinton tweeted “The detention of women’s activists in #China must end. This is inexcusable. #FreeBeijing20Five.” Linked from the tweet was an article in the NYTimes about women activists in China who had been detained over their activities in protesting gender inequality. China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded, “China is a country ruled by law. Relevant departments will handle the relevant case according to law. We hope that public figures in other countries can respect China’s judicial sovereignty and independence.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua in response to Clinton’s comments countered the allegations. In a regular news briefing Hua stated, “China and the U.S. have taken a constructive spirit and approach to strengthening dialog and cooperation to jointly face various challenges in line with the interests of both sides in a way that is conducive to peace and prosperity in the region and the world.” The official Chinese response to the comments is somewhat subdued though it is possible they see Clinton’s comments more as campaign talk than government policy.
In the past China has been a bit harsher in its rebuttals when accused by U.S. officials of hacking. Most recently was China’s response over the OPM hack. Then Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei in response to allegations that China was responsible told NBC News “Without the thorough investigation, you jump to a conclusion so quickly. We think it is not scientific and is irresponsible.”
Regarding the government position on China against cyber warfare he added “We are very firm on this.” Furthermore he said, “We hope the United States side could discard this kind of suspicion and stop groundless accusations. We would like to see more trust and cooperation from the U.S.”
China and Hacking
The most recent highly publicized hack concerns the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Millions of federal workers’ personal data has been stolen and compromised including highly sensitive security clearance information which have been hacked six times since April 2013. Just a few days ago, the FBI warned companies about malicious software found in the OPM breach that may be tied to Chinese hackers. The malicious software is known as Sakula malware and is known to be a favorite of a prominent Chinese hacking group. Fallout continues since the OPM breach was made public a month ago and later this week it is expected that the tally of those affected by the OPM breach will rise as new information comes to light.
China has been repeatedly accused of its role in not only hacking the federal government but also U.S. companies and defense contractors have not been spared. It is widely believed that the designs of the F-35 fighter were stolen by China. While the Pentagon has admitted that hackers targeted sensitive data on defense projects such as the F-35, they have refused to blame China or admit the extant of the data stolen. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden though paint a different picture and reveal that China gained radar designs, engine schematics, and more. Indeed, China’s newest stealth fighter, the Shenyang J-31 bears a striking resemblance to the F-35 which has led military experts to speculate that the Chinese design is highly influenced by stolen designs.
China has been accused in the past of hacking U.S. databases though the OPM hack which was publicly revealed this year has brought the issue to the forefront. While the U.S. government restrains itself from pointing its finger at China, many high ranking former government officials especially from the intelligence community have no qualms about blaming China. Hacking of U.S. government databases such as in the case of OPM have resulted in the loss of critical security information concerning millions, information that can be used against the U.S. Furthermore, hacking of U.S. companies has resulted in intellectual property theft with external groups stealing designs and blueprints. Clinton was right to accuse China and she is not alone. Candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have been doing so for some time and if anything, this will only increase.