Table of Contents

In this conclusion, we will not attempt to summarize the preceding chapters or the discussions between our two groups. Rather, we briefly present here the essence of U.S. and Chinese perspectives on issues related to public attribution, as we have understood them through our discussions. This unavoidably is interpretive and oversimplified; we hope it gives readers a quick sense of key issues.

Perhaps more importantly, our dialogue and improved understanding of the different interests and perspectives of actors in the two countries have led us to make shared recommendations of steps that could be taken to reduce the tensions emanating from cyber operations and reactions to them. These seven recommendations appear at the end of this chapter.

Observations

The United States and China view cyber operations conducted by the other as one of the most serious—and most stubbornly persistent—threats to their national security. Contesting such operations is made difficult by the lack of enforceable international laws or widely supported norms that clearly define what types of cyber activities should be considered unacceptable. Major states have divergent views on key categories of cyber behavior and have different interpretations of even the handful of norms supported by the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts. Even if they did agree on behavioral standards, they would find it difficult to monitor and enforce them. The United States itself has resisted efforts to broadly prohibit some types of cyber intrusions and potential attacks. For now, espionage is not illegal and states increasingly use digital tools and networks to spy on each other. Cyber operations to conduct sabotage or military attacks are also on the rise and becoming more likely. Moreover, the dividing lines between cyber espionage and more offensive forms of cyber actions are so blurred that they are difficult to delineate and enforce.

Thus, the international community—including the United States and China—is closer to the beginning than to the conclusion of efforts to clarify, at least bilaterally, what types of cyber behavior should be deemed illegitimate or irresponsible.

Seeing no real progress in defining and agreeing on standards of cyber behavior or in greatly reducing such threats in the foreseeable future, U.S. leaders have come to rely on modest, readily available tools like public attribution to shape actors’ behaviors. American officials are particularly inclined to make public accusations when they feel the counterpart government has not responded constructively to private communications. They hope that a long-term campaign of public attribution—ideally undertaken with allies and combined with other actions like sanctions, indictments, and cyber-forward engagement and counterstrikes—might help to deter some cyber operations and rally the support of domestic and global audiences.

George Perkovich
Perkovich works primarily on nuclear strategy and nonproliferation issues; cyberconflict; and new approaches to international public-private management of strategic technologies.
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While concrete results may be hard to prove, the risks of public attribution often seem even lower to U.S. officials. Thus, Washington has used public attribution more and more frequently, including with allies. In some cases, the United States has done this in response to alleged Chinese cyber operations that harm U.S. interests but don’t necessarily violate any international laws, norms, or commitments. Stealing intellectual property for commercial purposes (which China, the United States, and the rest of the G20 have agreed not to do) is particularly unacceptable to Washington. Sloppy, indiscriminate cyber espionage is also unacceptable, because it leaves back doors and other vulnerabilities open for criminals to exploit. The United States seeks to use public attribution inter alia to try to motivate others to diminish such activities.

Chinese officials, experts, and media submit that many U.S. allegations of Chinese cyber actions are plain wrong. They imply that the United States interprets the 2015 understanding between Chinese President Xi Jinping and then U.S. president Barack Obama differently than China. Chinese officials and observers see hypocrisy, double standards, and a lack of legal basis for many U.S. public attributions. This reinforces the feeling that this so-called issue is simply part of the U.S. effort to contain China and undermine its government. The United States is almost always the accuser and China almost always the accused. In this position, China will naturally be more sensitive to any flaws, limitations, or harms of public attribution.

Chinese officials invoke international law to position the United States as the wrongful actor. They say that U.S. public statements fail to provide sufficient evidence to prove Chinese guilt. Nor does the United States provide sufficient evidence and legal basis to hold the Chinese government responsible for cyber operations that allegedly emanate from Chinese territory or fingertips on keyboards. When a state accuses another of cyber aggression and establishes a basis for potential countermeasures, the international community should demand public evidence of wrongdoing by the accused state. Chinese observers submit that the United States rarely provides much evidence; instead, it makes “ill-substantiated” attributions that are ineffective and destabilizing. Chinese experts further argue that China has thus far largely refrained from engaging in public attribution because its attribution capabilities were inferior to the United States and they were reluctant to make unsubstantiated allegations, notwithstanding their conviction that the United States is aggressively engaged in cyber actions against China.

Of course, there are major technical challenges in identifying who authorized a detected cyber operation and legal challenges in defining the circumstances in which a government should be held legally accountable for such actions. But, according to China, the United States avoids these issues because its main motivation is to politically oppose China.

Lu Chuanying
Lu Chuanying is the director of and a senior fellow at the Research Center for Global Cyberspace Governance, SIIS.

U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies, in particular, may issue public attributions without due heed to the diplomatic fallout. Chinese experts further submit that some private U.S. companies are even more reckless, publishing shaky allegations either because they are doing the U.S. government’s bidding or are seeking to attract money and attention. (However, Chinese cybersecurity companies have recently begun publicly accusing others of operations against China, which suggests the quality and role of cybersecurity businesses in this area is becoming more widely accepted.)

Against this background, Chinese experts submit that China is bound to dismiss unsubstantiated U.S. allegations of irresponsible or illegitimate Chinese cyber actions. This skepticism and resistance will intensify if Washington refuses to reassure China that the United States will abstain from cyber operations that threaten the core apparatus of the Chinese state and military command and control. Moreover, Chinese observers argue that public attributions have been ineffective: case in point, cyber attacks continue. Worse than being ineffective, public attribution inflames relations between the accuser and the accused. This reduces the prospects for constructive diplomacy on cyber issues and raises the risk of retaliatory cyber operations by the accused state. The United States would be better off focusing its energy on improving its own cybersecurity while working collaboratively with China and others to tackle international challenges like ransomware.

Americans might respond that the Chinese government controls its cyberspace well enough to know the truthfulness of U.S. accusations, even if the Chinese media and public do not. And Chinese officials understand that no country would give up its best sources and methods of intelligence in another country. Moreover, the gravity and record of major cybersecurity businesses such as Microsoft, Mandiant, and CrowdStrike should sufficiently justify why they must warn their clients and others of threats to their systems so that they can update them and take further steps to enhance cybersecurity. Thus, the United States finds much of China’s argumentation to be an attempt to evade responsibility and redirect blame to the United States.

Yet so long as the United States is making accusations outside of the international legal system and without sufficient evidence to hold the Chinese government accountable, Chinese observers will question the United States’ intention in launching unilateral accusations: Are they to warn against cyber operations? To simply point fingers at China? Or to ease domestic pressure? This further highlights the need for both states to strengthen communication and cooperation in public attribution. Only by figuring out “what kind of cyber action is unacceptable, what kind of evidence is convincing, what kind of signal can clarify intentions” can public attribution strengthen the two states’ cyberspace relationship rather than destabilize it.

One area that seems especially critical for the two parties to discuss is the distinction between intelligence collection operations (whose goal is data exfiltration) and operations that are designed to affect the performance of systems or data. While some of the former could still be contentious (based on their intended purpose and modalities) the latter hold the greatest prospect for triggering unintended escalation.

Looking ahead, it seems that, if left unattended, the festering frictions between the United States and China in general and cyberspace in particular are more than likely to worsen. They may even contain the seeds of serious potential for unintended escalation. This holds especially true when both parties seem bent on expanding their competing activities in other domains including maritime, space, nuclear, and conventional force projection. Unless and until they acknowledge each other’s concerns—privately at high levels or publicly—and establish agreed-upon processes for addressing them, tensions over cyber operations and public attribution of responsibility will grow.

Recommendations

From these analyses and arguments, we propose seven recommendations.

All participants in our discussions recognize that relations between China and the United States are now so strained that neither side is eager to take bold steps to establish mutual limits on their competition. Therefore, we have developed modest initiatives that would not require either side to redefine or change their core interests, but which could indicate both sides’ willingness to collaborate on matters where it is mutually beneficial to do so. Taking such steps could build confidence not only between China and the United States but also between the rest of the world and these two major digital powers.

To ease the way toward implementing the recommendations below, it would be beneficial if the U.S. and Chinese governments conducted sustained high-level dialogue that could build on the 2015 Xi-Obama understanding and clarify standards of behavior that both would follow. Both sides should study and discuss events that have transpired since then.

1. Clarify Behavior Standards in Cyberspace

As a general norm, countries should be clearer and more explicit in characterizing the standards they are accusing others of violating in any given instance. Is it international law? An agreed (or desirable) international norm? A bilateral agreement? Or is it an attempt to punish the other for undermining a core national interest?

U.S. officials and others might resist such clarifications for a variety of reasons. Some factions hold little regard for international law and do not want to affirm its importance. Many want to retain the widest freedom of action for the United States in this domain and do not want to buttress standards that could be used by China or anyone else against the United States in the future. However, there are good reasons to think that both counties as digital economic superpowers would have more to lose from the absence of any rules or standards than from increased clarity on them. Indeed, the United States intensely seeks to make China adhere to its previous political commitment against stealing intellectual property for commercial purposes, for example, while China wants more assurances that the United States won’t use cyber tools to interfere in its internal affairs or undermine its national security. Perhaps some common ground could be found in espousing a bilateral norm that prohibits both sides from employing covert means to undermine each other’s political order.

2. Improve Cyber Attribution Capabilities

In the same vein, countries would benefit from improving their governments’ and businesses’ capabilities to attribute intrusions and other operations so that they can more specifically hold each other to account for alleged violations of standards or rules that their leaders would then need to respect themselves. For example, improved attribution capabilities could facilitate more useful dialogue between U.S. and Chinese officials in specific cases and more broadly in developing shared standards of responsible or irresponsible behavior. The growth of Chinese cybersecurity companies and recent reporting of alleged foreign cyber operations in the Chinese press suggest the potential here.1

3. Sustained Dialogue, Dispute Management, and Confidence-Building Measures

With a clearer understanding of each side’s expectation of what standards of behavior the other will follow and more balanced capacity to credibly attribute alleged violations of such standards, the United States and China would have a better basis for sustained dialogue, dispute management, and confidence-building measures. These objectives would be served well by U.S. officials refraining from using harsh language to publicly criticize China’s cyber conduct, especially when it relates to espionage and other activities that the United States itself conducts or wishes to retain the freedom to carry out.

Without moralizing, Washington can still “complain” about or “protest” the fact of adversary cyber operations, even if these don’t violate a standard the United States would apply to itself. Washington generally believes its adversaries are strategic aggressors and the United States is a noble victim, so the United States only hacks because the bad guys first threatened U.S. security. The U.S. government is free to use cyber attributions as part of that larger public argument, but it might be more credible, more diplomatically effective, and less destabilizing to forgo protesting when no wider standard of behavior has been violated.

Alternatively, the United States could do as some other countries and many cybersecurity businesses have done and announce that an observed intrusion or an attack was state-sponsored and that it is confident it knows which state. The United States could say further that it has taken or will take action in response, without publicly declaring the name of the state. This would not stop media and other nongovernmental actors from naming the alleged country, but Chinese authorities and audiences need to understand that the state does not have the monopoly on “truth” or its disclosure in democracies. If, over time, Chinese officials did not engage constructively on these issues and unacceptable operations against the United States continued unabated, Washington could resume more explicit public attribution.

From China’s point of view, the United States has gained superior cyber powers that far surpass China’s. In contrast to China’s professed defensive cyber strategy, the United States is believed to have become increasingly offensive, with its declared policies of “persistent engagement” and “defending forward.” Judging from current cyber relations between the two states, China sees itself as weaker and less secure in cyberspace. So it is hard for China to understand why the stronger United States insists on singling China out as the top adversary undermining its cybersecurity. China is still willing to sign a binding agreement with the United States to restrain from carrying out cyber attacks against each other. But China perceives that the United States is unwilling to accept Beijing’s proposal. This gives China reason to suspect that Washington’s aggressive public attribution strategy is not to address cybersecurity but to sensationalize the issue for political ends.

4. Define Norms of Responsible Cyber Tradecraft

To build on and reinforce all the points above, the United States and China, bilaterally and/or multilaterally, could be more realistic and constructive if they sought to define norms of responsible (or irresponsible) cyber tradecraft. Diplomats and others focus on norms to prohibit actions, but it’s at least as important to recognize that some forms of espionage and defense preparation will continue or even intensify. Norms for responsible (or irresponsible) conduct could help reduce the risk of unintended effects on targeted networks and beyond, minimize collateral damage, and minimize opportunities for cyber criminals to exploit tools, among other benefits.

To develop and agree to such norms, cyber operators from both countries would need to be involved. Senior leaders would need to be more informed about technical details of offensive operations (for espionage and potential military conflict) than is often the case. Reflecting the analytic processes that occur when a state is characterizing an intrusion or attack, norms would be based on the recklessness one ascribes to what was targeted, the effects that resulted, or the modalities that were used (such as how easily they could propagate).

5. Explore Alternative Approaches

Recognizing that public attribution has not significantly reduced the problem of cyber intrusions (as seen from the United States) but has created other problems (as seen from China), the two could explore an alternative approach. The objecting state could convey that it would share objections privately to officials of the suspected state if there was an agreement that officials of the suspected state would then investigate and report back to the objecting state the results, along with steps that have been taken to prevent similar future operations.

Such communications could be made through a designated official channel or new non-official channels that are acknowledged by the relevant government leaderships. This could involve the suspected state taking corrective (and, if warranted, punitive) actions that would assuage the objector’s concerns in ways that could be observed using its national technical means. States would expect reciprocity, of course. If a buffer period of private consultation did not demonstrate good will in a specified amount of time, the suspected state should not be surprised if the objecting state then went public. However, the objecting state should provide evidence proportionate to the severity of the retaliatory actions it plans to take. Viewed from Washington, it seems unrealistic to expect the United States to desist from public attribution and instead adopt such an alternative approach without credible assurances that its privately communicated expressions of concerns would be heeded by China.

6. Identify Consequences for Unsubstantiated Countermeasures

Nationally, bilaterally, and multilaterally, more thought and discussion should be devoted to the question of what consequences an accusing state should face if it carries out countermeasures against a state on the basis of allegations that are not substantiated. (Similar discussion would be warranted regarding consequences the accused state would be liable to face if the allegations against it are substantiated and it fails to take appropriate actions to stop such actions forthwith.) The papers and discussions in this project highlight the great difficulties of creating a formal mechanism for international attribution when states, understandably, will not be willing to reveal sources and methods beyond cyber forensics. The difficulties of proving attribution to an international audience need not preclude a state from taking countermeasures or acting in self-defense, but the rest of the world has a legitimate interest in discouraging mistaken reprisals and the escalation of instability.

7. Establish an International Coordination Mechanism Against Ransomware

As an early confidence-building measure, the United States and China could establish an international coordination mechanism to combat ransomware attacks. Ransomware is among the most serious cyber challenges that both countries face but is not a major source of bilateral friction, so it is a logical starting point for early cooperation. A counter-ransomware effort could be narrowly tailored, so that neither side feels its participation is legitimizing other objectionable aspects of its counterparts’ cyber strategy and behavior. Such cooperation might yield tangible benefits with little costs, help to build bilateral confidence in the cyber domain, and encourage other countries to take stronger action against ransomware as well.

Notes

1 Emilio Iasiello, “Chinese Company Outs U.S. Cyber Espionage and Sends a Message,” OODA Loop, March 2, 2022, https://www.oodaloop.com/archive/2022/03/02/chinese-company-outs-u-s-cyber-espionage-and-sends-a-message/; and Pierluigi Paganini, “CIA Hacking Unit APT-C-39 Hit China Since 2008,” Security Affairs, March 4, 2020, http://securityaffairs.co/wordpress/98885/apt/cia-hacking-china.html.