President Barack Obama’s administration is poised to make both financial sanctions and criminal indictments against Chinese citizens for cybercrime activity barely a few days before Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington.
The measures seek to deter the Chinese authorities from the continued sanctioning of cyber attacks on American companies, a practice that has led to the stealing of billions of dollars worth of trade secrets and classified government information.
Obama’s administration, in their strongest move against Chinese cyber criminals, is weighing both financial sanctions and indictments against guilty Chinese cyber hackers. The move towards criminal prosecution is an elevation in positioning and shows the U.S. is set to get tough on cyber activity that could lead to all out war.
Recent attacks, including a hack against the Office of Personnel Management, have been traced to China. However, Obama’s administration has thus far been dismal in their response, only relegated to blanket condemnations targeted at general groups.
Intelligence and law enforcement experts have come out to favor the aggressive modes of action to deter further online espionage activity by the Chinese.
However, both White House and State Department officials have chosen a more conservative approach, particularly since China’s president Xi Jinping is making a state visit this week.
U.S. officials in charge of relations between the two countries have confirmed the investigations on Chinese nationals ahead of a decision on whether to issue the indictments for cybercrime. The charges, criminal in nature, will target the individuals’ roles in stealing trade secrets and intellectual property worth billions.
The investigations follow an announcement by assistant attorney general for national security John Carlin who said last year, “We will continue to bring these types of cases. We would not stand idly by as people hauled away our wealth in trucks. Likewise, we cannot allow it to be sucked out through the Internet.”
Analysts have viewed the sanctions as a must-happen, citing that Obama’s lackluster anything-goes attitude with the Chinese has led to increased attacks on America’s online soil.
Scott Kennedy, a professor at Washington University, said “The Chinese figured out that the Obama administration had no red line and they would pay no cost for anything while Obama was still in office. And so they became much more assertive in the South China Seas and cyberspace and in a variety of different areas.”
An implementation of such sanctions would, however, be limited in two aspects.
One, they would only be symbolic as China would never allow the extradition of its citizens. The proposed measures would only show Obama’s administration as toughening up on Beijing, serving an incidental deterrent purpose.
Kennedy said, “They’re hoping that by at least pulling out the baseball bat they might not have to swing it.”
The second deterrent would be that China would surely react proportionately to such sanctions. If Obama sanctioned Chinese companies, Chinese authorities would do the same to U.S. companies in their communist territory. This would compromise U.S. companies already straining under tight operational leashes in the Chinese mainland.
Washington, very much aware of these realities, is nonetheless showing more readiness to implement the sanctions. According to Ken Lieberthal, senior at Brookings institution, “The president has made very clear privately and publicly a deep concern and anger over the massive theft of intellectual property from U.S. firms and the use of that information to the advantage of Chinese firms.”