My latest: Alleged Chinese hack calls for ‘active defense,’ not sanctions

My latest piece for Nikkei Asian Review builds on last week’s U.S.–China Week and argues that sanctions are not the answer for the Obama administration as it weighs a response the hacking of U.S. government personnel data, allegedly by the Chinese government. Read the whole piece, but here are some highlights:

Given that primary defense has failed, however, widespread calls for retaliation are not surprising. One option is sanctions. In April, President Barack Obama issued an executive order threatening foreign individuals and entities with sanctions in response to “malicious cyber-enabled activities” that constitute a threat to “the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States.” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said June 12 sanctions were a “newly available option … that is on the table” in response to the OPM hacks.

Levying economic sanctions against China in response to its efforts to gain access to a “legitimate foreign intelligence target,” however, would be misguided. To do so would invite economic retaliation not just from China but from other countries that are targets of similar U.S. efforts. It was never a secret that the U.S. government spies on foreign governments online, but Edward Snowden and other leakers have exposed those efforts in unprecedented detail.

But the loss of important government secrets calls for a different range of policy options. The best responses might be considered “active defense.” For instance, if a breach is detected while the intruders are still working, security officials might break into the intruders’ own systems to destroy or distort the stolen data. They might also target the same intruder’s other systems for disruption as a deterrent.

This kind of “active defense” is called for and expected in the world of espionage. Given news reports that the government only discovered the OPM intrusions after weeks or months, it seems less likely these measures would be effective. Unfortunately, the most realistic response now is to minimize the harm to those affected, increase accountability for maintaining secure systems, and more effectively compartmentalize data. [more]

My contribution to ChinaFile: The rise of fatalism in U.S.–China ties, and the need for reality-based strategy

The following is my contribution to this week’s Conversation from Asia Society’s ChinaFile. See the full conversation for entries by Hugh White, Mary Kay Magistad, Zha Daojiong, Vanessa Home, and Chen Weihua.

Three years ago, when the scholars Wang Jisi and Kenneth Lieberthal published a joint study of mutual distrust between the United States and China, they identified a frustrating reality faced by those working toward stable U.S.–China relations. Despite good faith efforts, many American and Chinese thinkers and negotiators were having a very hard time trusting one another. Three years later, it’s not just distrust but a new kind of fatalism that is surging in both countries—a Cold War–inspired notion that different interests and political systems inevitably will lead to rivalry and armed confrontation. Clearly change is necessary.

Some recent U.S. policy has been tactically clever. On several issues, the Obama administration has reached into the legal toolbox to put pressure on China—for instance through indictments of accused PLA hackers, arrests of commercial spies, and support for the Philippine arbitration case brought against China under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. These efforts can be dialed up or down: Sanctions could be levied, for instance, and freedom of navigation operations could be intensified or dropped. Meanwhile, notwithstanding modest investments as part of the “rebalance,” the U.S. government has avoided a more confrontational military build-up. These legal approaches, however, may never bear fruit in stopping objectionable moves online and in the South China Sea.

Engagement also has been relatively strong. Summits between the two presidents have galvanized their nations’ bureaucracies to reach agreements that might otherwise have languished. If negotiations toward a bilateral investment treaty go well, the benefits for both economies and bilateral ties could be great. The Obama-Xi agreement to push for real action at this year’s Paris climate summit also could pay off. But these affirmative efforts also could fail.

None of this has prevented the rise of a new fatalism. To turn that tide, the primary challenge for U.S. policy toward China is to develop a government-wide strategy and enforce discipline across the diplomatic, military, economic, and other areas of engagement. This means developing a coherent plan to advocate for U.S. interests affected by either disagreement or cooperation with China, and a move away from a reactive, “Whack-a-Mole” approach to strategic challenges. Developing such a strategy and making parts of it public could increase confidence on both sides of the relationship and undermine fatalism by helping ensure that the United States will push its interests without letting slip the dogs of war—even the dogs of cold war.

The foundation of this kind of thinking is a realistic assessment of the limits to the considerable power the United States possesses. Strategists should take David M. Lampton’s advice and abandon the pursuit of “primacy” in favor of discussing realistic objectives with an understanding that the U.S. government can’t always get what it wants. They should follow Michael Swaine in seeking a pragmatic balance in the South China Sea. Efforts to counter Chinese initiatives should be based on interests, not suspicions. Pushing for a reckoning on cybersecurity, for example, makes sense; opposing China’s efforts to play an international role (see the AIIB) does not. At root, the U.S. government must pick its battles and work in a coordinated fashion based on a sober assessment of U.S. interests and capabilities.

My latest: Advances and challenges in U.S.–Japan cybersecurity cooperation

New from me yesterday at Nikkei Asian Review:

When the U.S. and Japanese governments announced new bilateral defense guidelines in April, they brought the alliance firmly into the 21st century.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Japanese Minister of Defense Gen Nakatani sealed their commitment to coordinate cybersecurity efforts in Singapore on May 30, with the U.S. pledging to come to Japan’s aid in a cyber emergency. But the challenges facing cyberspace security and policy are only starting to be addressed by the alliance.

Japan and the U.S. have come a long way. It was only in 2013 that the two governments announced a working group to coordinate cyberdefense that ultimately led to some of this year’s revisions to U.S.-Japan defense guidelines and to April’s wide-ranging announcement on cybersecurity cooperation during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Washington. [keep reading]

Subscribe to my weekly U.S.–China newsletter

Today I launched an experiment in weekly writing, a short newsletter highlighting five major items on U.S.–China relations each week. They can be news stories, events, or pieces of commentary. The first newsletter went out today, and you can read it here. If you like it, or if you think it might develop into something valuable, please subscribe below or at this link. And please also send me any comments or criticisms by e-mail, or leave them in the comments here.

EDIT: I have replaced the newsletter sign-up here with an updated form. Only e-mail is required, but if you enter your name, there is less risk of the message being labeled as spam.

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Recent writing: Obama–Xi summit and picking your cyber fights

(1) Before President Barack Obama traveled to Beijing this month, I made a short contribution to a conversation at Asia Society’s ChinaFile, calling for President Xi Jinping and Obama to get down to the hard strategic questions. In part, I argue:

Xi and Obama should start by recognizing some facts. First, the rise of China is an important factor in changing global power dynamics, and this effect can’t be stopped or “contained.” Second, the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific promotes stability, and U.S. commitment to global norms and the security of its allies will not evaporate. Third, despite deep economic integration and strong common interests in peace and prosperity, a dangerous dynamic of political and military competition between China and the United States and U.S. allies is now evident in the region. [more]

(2) After Obama moved on from Beijing to Myanmar and Australia for other meetings, I gave a tentative but positive assessment of what Obama and Xi achieved in Beijing. Writing for the Nikkei Asian Review, I argued in part:

The U.S. and Chinese governments made a big splash this week with a joint announcement on efforts to combat climate change that surprised even the most optimistic observers. But the overall significance of President Barack Obama’s visit to Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and a state visit with President Xi Jinping is still in question — as is the outcome of Obama’s trip to the region.

The climate announcement and other new efforts produced an upbeat moment in U.S.-China relations at a time when mutual suspicion and negativity have been on the rise in both capitals. Now the question is what progress was made, and whether this will be enough to establish a “new normal” in bilateral relations. [more]

(3) Most provocatively, I argued in The Diplomat that the U.S. government has committed itself to the wrong cyber fight with China with its emphasis on commercial spying. Instead, I write, the United States and China urgently need to address the rising risk of strategic conflict online—and deal with commercial disputes in other forums.

Since 2013, the Obama administration has publicly pressed China on one particular cybersecurity problem: the alleged theft of U.S. trade secrets by units of the Chinese government for the benefit of Chinese firms. The pressure, which administration officials said will continue at this week’s Obama-Xi summit in Beijing, has produced no significant results and has stalled dialogue on a much more dangerous aspect of cybersecurity: the quiet arms race to develop the ability to disrupt critical computer systems, potentially leading to chaos and civilian deaths. [more]

Speaking 9/4 in NYC: How bad is the U.S.–China relationship?

I will be giving a talk in New York next Thursday, Sept. 4, hosted by the Institute for Contemporary Asian Studies of Temple University Japan. I hope those interested in the big question of “How bad are U.S.–China relations?” will consider attending.

Registration is required but free. Here are the details:

Host: Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies (ICAS), Temple University Japan Campus

Date: Thursday, September 4, 2014
Time: 20:00 (Door open at 19:30)
Speaker: Graham Webster (Senior Fellow, US–China Relations, The China Center, at Yale Law School)
Venue: NYC (details after registration)
Moderator: Robert Dujarric (ICAS Director)
Admissions: Free
Language: English
Registration: Required. Contact ICAS ( to register.
Facebook: Check out this event’s Facebook page for discussions.
—Yoshiko Tanaka-Shichinohe (in Sapporo)
—Nancy Yao Maasbach, Executive Director, Yale-China Association
—Robert Dujarric, Temple University Japan Campus, Tokyo
—Devin Stewart, Carnegie Council, New York City
—Mao (Nogawa) Nakai, New York City

A move to New Haven, an op-ed, and quotes in the South China Morning Post

A few items of news by way of links.

  1. Alongside the U.S.–China Strategic and Economic Dialogue last week, I offered my pessimistic assessment that little would come of this round of meetings in regard to cybersecurity. The issue, I argued, is seeing little progress but if left unaddressed will undermine strategic stability between the United States and China. This was my first contribution to the very lively new English-language publication Nikkei Asian Review, which has people spread around East Asia.
  2. South China Morning Post reporter Teddy Ng quoted me today on prospects for U.S.–China relations after the S&ED. The thrust of the story is one I largely agree with: that U.S.–China trust and cooperation is on a downslope. My quote, however, represents what I think is the reality of the situation: that security and economic fundamentals mean the two countries have huge common interests, but also that emerging factors such as cybersecurity risk undermining stability despite commonalities. My quote:

    Graham Webster, a Beijing-based senior fellow at the China Centre at Yale Law School, said both countries had compelling reasons to resolve their differences. “The US and China have far more common interests than conflicting ones. Both countries need a peaceful Asia-Pacific region and a stable world economy if they want to thrive.”

    He said there was a looming risk of escalation if the two nations failed to develop confidence over cybersecurity.

    The joint cybersecurity working group was suspended following the US indictment of five Chinese military officers for hacking into US companies. “A crisis of [large] scale is unlikely in the short term, but without real effort, it could become a real risk in coming years,” Webster said. [read more]

  3. I am presently in the process of moving my home base from Beijing, where I have been based as a fellow for the Yale Law School China Center for two years, to New Haven, where I will be setting up shop as a senior fellow at the same center. My Track II work will continue, and so will my frequent trips between the United States and China, but I am delighted to dig into the Yale community and its libraries, as well as some new research projects.

Quoted by AFP on Biden visit, which I (barely) witnessed

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's motorcade drives west for his meetings with President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec. 4, 2013.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s motorcade drives west for his meetings with President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec. 4, 2013. (Photo: Graham Webster)

As U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visits East Asia, a lot of the media focus has centered around the recent Chinese announcement of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, a move apparently directed at Japan and the two countries’ territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. In an AFP story yesterday by Carol Huang, I am quoted cautioning that this long-planned Biden visit is not just about the most recent flare up.

Biden and Chinese leaders — he is also expected to meet Xi and Premier Li Keqiang — were unlikely to let ADIZ friction derail broader efforts to strengthen relations, said Graham Webster, a Beijing-based fellow at the Yale Law School China Centre specialising in US-Chinese ties.

“I don’t think it will be the main topic of conversation on this trip despite the recent news,” he said.

The overarching goal from such senior meetings was “about continuing the spirit of high-level cooperation and bilateral work in the common interest”, he added. [Full Story]

I was also an attendee at the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) conference in Beijing this week (where Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said alliances in the Asia-Pacific—implying the U.S. hub-and-spoke relationships with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines,  Australia, etc.—are “an outdated concept in international relations”).

On the way out of the conference, I noticed a police presence that was, it turned out, preparing for Biden himself to cruise by (above).

Obama’s missed Asia trip is no disaster—if he follows up strong (my latest)

In my latest piece for China-US Focus, I look at the impact of Obama’s decision to cancel planned travel to Asia and suggest that he can make up for missed opportunities.

Obama’s Missed Asia Trip Is No Disaster—If He Follows Up Strong

As the financial crisis gripped the United States in September 2008, Senator John McCain “suspended” his campaign for president to return to Washington and attend to Senate business. His opponent, Senator Barack Obama, refused to follow suit, saying “I think that it is going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once.”

President Obama’s cancellation of his trip to Asia this week indicates that the government shutdown and the possibility of a default on U.S. government debt in the coming days have, in a sense, “suspended” U.S. foreign policy. Canceling this trip does matter, but it does not nullify broader U.S. policy on Asia, including the rebalance to the Asia Pacific. Instead, the cancellation is an unwelcome reinforcement of the perception that the Obama administration is neglecting its Asia policy.

Most journalists and commentators have argued that Obama’s cancellation is either disastrous for U.S. Asia policy or not a big deal. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between. In the following four points, I argue that: the cancellation was unfortunate but not a disaster; the shutdown might be a disaster; and there are still good options for the Obama administration and U.S. relations with Asia and China.

[Continue reading at China-US Focus]

Real progress on U.S.–China cybersecurity means facing core differences

New at China-US Focus, I argue that there is real potential for progress on cybersecurity in the U.S.–China relationship, but basic differences in the way the governments and peoples view the Internet cannot be brushed aside.

Probe Deep Differences to Make Real Progress on Cybersecurity

In a U.S.–China relationship confronting numerous challenges, perhaps no topic is as hard to discuss as cybersecurity. Unlike other strategic challenges, such as minimizing the potential for inadvertent clashes at sea or in the air, smoothing bilateral economic investment regulations, or even reducing the severity and effects of climate change, cybersecurity cuts across policy areas with a blade of uncertainty and mutual suspicion. Some observers have suggested U.S.–China differences are so deep that dialogue is futile, but even if it doesn’t produce a swift resolution, a recent increase in public and private discussions on the topic can build a foundation of understanding.

[Continue reading.]