The US-China relationship is oft described as "the most important diplomatic relationship in the world." Whether true or not (Japan and Western Europe haven't vanished), it's important that Beijing and Washington communicate, and, where possible, collaborate."
Technology has a way of disrupting relationships--toddlers hurl mobile phones into commodes, teenagers "unfriend" each other on Facebook, and abrasive Twitter missives are preserved as cherished resentments, to be dragged out and hurled again during arguments. And now two great nations are needling once another over tech matters. Again.
This week, in the first legal action of its kind, US federal prosecutors charged five members of Chinese Army signals intelligence Unit 61398 with...digital malfeasance. Among the accusations: stealing intellectual property and transferring it to state-owned enterprises.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) even created a "Wanted" poster with pictures of the five men charged.
China retorted with a Xinhua report which claims the US hacked into Chinese systems using phishing attacks. A spokesperson for China's State Internet Information Office claimed "the US is the biggest attacker of China's cyber space...adding that the US charges of hacking against five Chinese military officers on Monday are 'groundless'," said Xinhua. The state-run media agency also said that "data from the National Computer Network Emergency Response Technical Team Coordination Center of China (NCNERTTCC) showed that from March 19 to May 18, a total of 2,077 Trojan horse networks or botnet servers in the US directly controlled 1.18 million host computers in China."
The two superpowers have been hurling accusations of Internet skullduggery for years. In October 2012, "a report by the US House of Representatives' Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said the possibility of ties between Huawei and ZTE and the Chinese government raised the danger of China using their gear to conduct electronic espionage," wrote tech journalist Stephen Lawson. "[The report] advised US companies not to buy equipment from the two companies," wrote Lawson.
But in the wake of whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations about the US National Security Agency (NSA), accusations of digital spying from US government agencies sound hypocritical to many global Netizens. "Both Germany and France are said to support a move by Deutsche Telekom to create a European system that would leave NSA unable to spy on phone and email conversations since they would not go through any US-based system that NSA can access," said a report on digitaljournal.com.
Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff addressed the UN General Assembly last year, lashing out at the National Security Agency's reported spying on Brazil, according to pbs.org. "Meddling in such a manner in the lives and affairs of other countries is a breach of international law and, as such, it is an affront to the principles that should otherwise govern relations among countries, especially among friendly nations," she said.
The USA and China are friendly nations, but in any complex economic and political relationship, issues arise. In the 80s, the Asian nation highest on the USA's aggravation parade was Japan, which was accused of skewing trade in everything from laptop screens to motorcycle engines. Nowadays, China's in the hot seat--and global interconnectivity has upped the ante.
Of course nations spy on each other, and have for centuries. Involving nation-specific law enforcement agencies in cross-border allegations seems a new wrinkle. I'm no expert, but wouldn't Interpol be a better fit than the FBI? If the FBI has concrete evidence, wouldn't they want to share it with an international crime-fighting body like Interpol? Or maybe, just maybe, could the "Wanted" poster be an important image for media-consumption? 2014 is, after all, an election year in the USA.
Discord of this sort is perennial, but I hope it won't affect China-US co-operation in areas--including technology. The two nations have much to learn from each other, and volumes of business to transact. Let's see both countries continue to spark innovation in the digital arena.