The Biden administration on Monday formally accused the Chinese government of hacking Microsoft email systems and supporting criminal organizations that engage in ransomware attacks extorting millions of dollars. A welcome rebuke of Chinese-sanctioned cybercrime that has been a long time in coming.
Most importantly, the U.S. issued a joint condemnation with Australia, Britain, Canada, the European Union, Japan, New Zealand and its NATO allies — some of whom had been reluctant to openly criticize Beijing in the past.
More than 60,000 Microsoft Exchange server users globally — including small businesses, military contractors, and local and state governments — were affected in the hack, first discovered in January.
China has denied the charges, calling the claims “fabricated,” but this is not the first time it’s been caught.
Starting in 2013, Chinese hackers breached the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, exposing the information of more than 20 million current and former federal workers, including those with high-level security clearance.
Last year, the U.S. Justice Department charged four members of the Chinese military with the 2017 attack on credit bureau Equifax, which affected millions of Americans. On Monday, three Chinese security officials also were accused of running a hacking operation targeting companies, universities and government agencies in several countries.
The denunciation of Chinese actions by such a broad group of allies sends a clear warning to Beijing, said David Bachman, professor of international studies at the University of Washington.
“China understands that if it happens again, it will be a red flag,” he said. Even so, it is unlikely the Chinese government will back down.
No sanctions were tied to the announcement, however, which points to the difficulty of fully holding China accountable, a situation that will only grow more complex as it races to become the world’s largest economy. Already, China is the principal trade partner for almost twice as many countries as the U.S., including the European Union.
The idea that engaging with China would lead to its adoption of U.S.-style norms is long dead — buried beneath that government’s human-rights abuses, sweeping claims over the South China Sea and looming threat over Taiwan — but the Biden administration must stay away from unproductive us-or-them Cold War rhetoric.
Instead, it must continue its focus of working with allies and expanding U.S. influence, including through sharing vaccines in COVID-19 hot spots and offering an alternative to developing countries tempted by China’s global infrastructure Belt and Road Initiative. America must also engage more directly with Asia through a new version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
Only through broad international engagement can the U.S. work to curtail China’s worst impulses.