Both we and the Soviets understood the rules of the Cold War road. Espionage, as well as subornation of our allies, people and politicians, were the norm but military action was a rarity. The Arms Race, the Space Race and ending up with the missile defense race was part of the competition between freedom and slavery.
Russian President Vladimir Putin plays by his modernized version of the Soviet handbook adding military aggression to restore the Soviet Union’s former territories. Chinese President Xi Jinping is both subtler and more aggressive than Mr. Putin. Almost no one in Washington will admit the fact that China has been waging an almost one-sided New Cold War against us for decades. Mr. Xi is playing by his own modernized version of the Soviet playbook.
China has become a ubiquitous presence in our economy. Its aggression in the South China Sea is commonplace, its “Belt and Road Initiative” suborning many third-world countries. Its cyber espionage makes thousands of attempts to penetrate military, intelligence and commercial computer networks every day and continues to steal, by some estimates, roughly $600 billion worth of intellectual property per year.
Two unsurprising warnings came on July 6. In a joint press conference, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Ken McCallum, director-general of the British MI5 domestic security agency, warned that China’s state-directed cyber espionage campaign is using every tool at China’s disposal to steal Western technology and use it to dominate commercial markets.
That same day the National Counterintelligence and Security Center released a statement that China is seeking to influence U.S. policy at the federal, state and local levels through disinformation campaigns as well as coercive and criminal means, most of which are covert.
The release didn’t go as far as a report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service did last year. It said China was engaging in “…persistent and sophisticated state-sponsored threat activity targeting elections for many years now” with “a rise in its frequency and sophistication.”
We cannot doubt that China is already or will try to interfere in U.S. elections.
This, too, should come as no shock to us. The question is what are President Biden and his administration doing to counter these threats?
Mr. Biden and his administration don’t appear to be doing anything to counter China’s efforts to interfere in U.S. elections. On the contrary, Mr. Biden, by authorizing the sale to China of nearly one million gallons of oil from our Strategic Petroleum Reserve, is helping fuel Chinese aggressive conduct.
The U.S. government and industry combine to spend tens of billions of dollars each year to defend against cyberespionage and cyber sabotage of millions of our computer networks. But, as someone once said, the best defense is a good offense.
U.S. Cyber Command’s primary mission is to protect the Defense Department’s information networks. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump issued a National Security Presidential Memorandum authorizing Cyber Command to undertake offensive cyber operations against foreign threats.
In that order, Mr. Trump must have enabled the Defense Department to override State Department concerns and go forward with offensive cyber operations. We can gather from a Washington Post article published in May that Mr. Biden is reconsidering that DOD authority.
The Biden administration has not reportedly decided on the issue yet.
One of the questions that must be debated is what offensive cyber operations should be considered an act of war. There is no settled definition that draws a line between the two but cyber operations that take lives or interfere significantly with the functioning of government — as Russia’s against Estonia in 2007 did — are clearly acts of war. So would be any Chinese campaign to interfere with a U.S. election.
That doesn’t mean we would or should go to war against China in the normal sense or even undertake offensive cyber operations that would fit the above definition of an act of war. Any cyber operations undertaken to prevent interference in our elections — or even to protect defense, intelligence and commercial computer networks — would, arguably, be defensive.
But it does mean that, given the warnings our government has published, we should undertake offensive cyber operations aimed at defeating Chinese cyberattacks that would or could interfere with our elections and better defend our government and commercial computer networks.
Those offensive cyber operations could and should both include specific Chinese cyber networks involved in any attempt to interfere in a U.S. election and go beyond them to include Chinese cyberespionage networks.
Mr. Biden should trust Cyber Command to do its job in accordance with Mr. Trump’s 2018 guideline. Giving the State Department veto authority over DOD plans is a very bad idea.
Like the Soviet Union, China is building its military forces to prevent U.S. forces from entering contested areas. It has now launched its third aircraft carrier, the Fujian. It is not nuclear-powered, but it does have an electromagnetic launch system similar to the one on our newest carrier, the Gerald S. Ford. Did they develop it independently or is it a product of cyberespionage?
Mr. Biden, for all his claims to the contrary, has not been tough on China. Were he to give the green light to more and better offensive cyber ops, we would have to a better chance to win the New Cold War.
• Jed Babbin is a national security and foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Times and contributing editor for The American Spectator.
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