While the US indictment of five Chinese military officers for commercial espionage has surprised many, it should not. The US has been moving toward this kind of legal, if not symbolic, action for some time.
One of the first game-changing events in the timeline was Google’s discovery in 2010 that it suffered “a highly sophisticated and targeted attack” from China that “resulted in the theft of intellectual property”.
Since then, the cyber issue has only grown among Washington’s elite.
US President Barack Obama raised the issue with President Xi Jinping during the so-called shirtsleeves summit in Sunnylands, California, in June 2013, following the revelation – with the help of US firm Mandiant – that the People’s Liberation Army had accessed the internal computers of The New York Times.
At the time US Attorney-General Eric Holder said protecting US intellectual property was “a top priority” for the White House, when apparently the US was already building a legal case.
Since the indictment this week of the five Chinese military officers for allegedly stealing trade data from industrial companies, China has wasted no time in responding.
It has rejected the allegations and summoned US ambassador Max Baucus to explain them. Beijing has also suspended co-operation with the US on a joint cyber-security working group set up last year.
China’s State Internet Information Office even said 2077 Trojan Horse networks in the US “directly controlled” 1.18 million host computers in China, while the US was behind 14,000 phishing operations.
The US indictments “are believed to be the biggest challenge to bilateral relations” since the Sunnylands summit, an editorial in China Daily said.
Such is the fury of China’s officials that they have threatened further retaliation. Yet the $US560 billion ($600 billion) China-US trade relationship is too valuable to both sides for the indictments of the officers to derail things.
Likewise, the importance of the relationship explains the frustration in the US over how far out of bounds of normal espionage China has acted with its hacking.
And yet, what is “normal” – for the US policy elite, the division between political and economic goals – are behaviours that would have been in place during the Cold War. A lot has changed. Particularly with the rise of a China under a political party that sees economic growth as a needed condition for stability, if not legitimacy.
Earlier this year the Pentagon took the unprecedented turn of disclosing its emerging cyber-doctrine to China and urged China to do the same.
While in China, it would be impossible to view the indictments as anything but the White House using courts for a political stunt to change the global conversation on hacking in light of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, the US would not likely file the long-shot charges if it didn’t have a chance of winning the case.
“We don't bring criminal cases, we don't ask grand juries to indict if we don't have the evidence,” said FBI director James Comey.
There is precedent in this area too. In 2011, US federal agents arrested Chinese national Xiang Li for selling pirated US software from China by luring him to the Pacific Island of Saipan. Li was sentenced to 12 years in June.
While there is little hope of seeing the five People's Liberation Army officers appear in court in Pittsburgh, the indictments can be seen as another dent to China-US ties.
How China responds will say a lot, not just about its modern diplomacy but also its ability to drive innovation at home.
There is too much at stake for Beijing and Washington for either side to shrug off the issue.
The story US-China cyber-espionage indictments a long time in the making first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.