The indictment of five Chinese military hackers by a grand jury in the Western District of Pennsylvania illustrates the increasing importance of cyberspace in the great power relationship between the United States and China. It also shows that four years of talking about cyber-espionage, including at the presidential level, have lead nowhere. All five of the alleged offenders are purported to be members of the secretive Unit 61398 of the People’s Liberation Army in Shanghai. They are accused of computer hacking, economic espionage and other offenses targeting the U.S. private sector. According to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder: “This is a case alleging economic espionage by members of the Chinese military and represents the first ever charges against a state actor for this type of hacking.”
Any serious analysis on cyber-espionage has to be caveated with the fact that we have to evaluate evidence based on primarily open source intelligence, which does not provide us with an entirely accurate picture of the China-US cyber competition – much of it is happening in the shadows and outside the public’s view. However, it is evident that the Department of Justice indictment was partially announced to assuage the U.S. private sector and to demonstrate that the United States government is boosting its efforts to stop Chinese cyber attacks. Likewise, we can make a few additional deductions based on the history of China-US cyber relations.