by Stephen Bryen
China shifted its focus from spying on the countries around China to spying on Iraq according to cyber experts who follow Chinese hacking. Called “Deep Panda” it appears China’s leaders were trying to figure out what the United States was going to do about the Iraqi situation after ISIS seized over a third of Iraqi territory. To get answers, the Chinese Deep Panda folks targeted the top strategic think tanks in Washington to try and get answers.
It has long been the case that China’s “official” hackers targeted U.S. government organizations and institutions. But focusing on Think Tanks is something that is, apparently, new.
One presumes that the Chinese wanted to read the emails, texts and opinion pieces of the experts to try and estimate America’s strategic posture to Iraq. While we don’t know the Think Tanks the Chinese targeted, it is likely they chose the ones they feel are most closely aligned with the current administration because their experts would have close ties to Obama’s National Security Council, Pentagon, CIA, State Department and, possibly, to other “insiders” who use the Think Tanks as sounding boards.
Foreign governments with representation in Washington generally devote a lot of effort to gleaning policy information, and it is easier for them to talk to outsiders in Think Tanks then to get appointments with actual decision makers. China, like Russia, and all the friendlier countries (UK, Japan, Israel and many others) collect information and send it home.
But China opted for collecting information by hacking, than by meeting Think Tank specialists. Why?
By relying on a secret operation to steal information China’s leaders probably thought they might find out much more than Think Tank specialists were willing to tell them. China is not in good odor today, even with the liberal Think Tanks that support Obama. That’s is because China is a growing power and increasingly a threat to American interests, of course. But the bigger reason is that China’s increasingly poor track record on human rights and freedom is offensive both to liberal and conservative thinkers in Washington. If a Chinese official, even one who approaches a Think Tank as an ostensibly independent academic, seeking information is likely to find himself or herself accosted about complaints of China’s behavior against dissidents and minorities. From China’s perspective, this means low productivity in garnering needed information. Thus there is good reason to believe that China needs to steal information because it cannot get it through “normal” channels.
China almost certainly has been following the contacts of Think Tank experts with administration officials for years. China maintains a sophisticated cyber-hacking capability with all the latest technology. The incorrigible sloppiness of Americans toward their own security is certainly well known to the Chinese, and it goes without saying they exploit it. The blabbermouths on cellphones, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and everywhere else not only provides timely information on specific policy subjects to the Chinese, but they can very easily connect the dots and figure out who is connected to whom and which relationships are the most productive ones to follow. A Think Tank leader, therefore, will be known by much more than what he or she says; the Chinese will know his best connections, his reliability as a source, and his influence in decision making circles. The rapid shift of operational hacking resources to find out about Iraq, therefore, was quite easy for the Chinese, because they already previously mapped the network and only needed to probe more deeply and urgently to get answers to specific questions they had.
China is a relatively big industrial player in Iraq. Iraq is China’s fifth-largest overseas oil supplier, behind top producer Saudi Arabia, and China as an imported oil consumer is larger than the United States. Unlike the United States, however, China has no military capability of any significance in the Middle East and cannot assure either the stability of oil-supplying regimes nor can they protect the sea lines of communication (SLOC) that bring the oil to China’s refineries. Ironically, while China is in the midst of a significant military build up challenging U.S. interests in Asia, China is depending entirely on the U.S. for its vital oil supplies. While Americans don’t recognize it, a big part of our defense budget directly benefits China in this way while, at the same time, China is assiduously stealing American defense secrets in an unparalleled, brazen manner.
While China could live without Iraq’s oil, and can afford even to lose the $3 billion or so it has invested in Iraqi oil projects, the main Chinese interest is the risk that an out of control Iraq will lead to a general political collapse even beyond Iraq’s borders. A blow up in Saudi Arabia, for example, would create chaos in China and might well spell the end of China’s neo-Communist government.
This is the same threat that, naturally, concerns the U.S. and its European allies. But, if the Chinese have been listening carefully, as they have, they won’t be very happy with what they are hearing through their hacking channels. Right now any effective military response by the United States seems rather unlikely, and it is complicated even further by the foolish moves by the administration to try and use the Iranians and Syrians as proxies (along with Hezbollah) to bail them out of the ISIS onslaught. All this moronic move will achieve is to further frighten Saudi Arabia and push them into ISIS’s outstretched but wicked arms.
In short, China’s leaders have good reason to be depressed. America is not coming to their rescue on a white horse. And China has made almost all the wrong bets in the Middle East.