In a recent column, I discussed three pressing national security concerns: nuclear proliferation, the stability of the world economy and energy sustainability. Today I will examine two equally urgent challenges: the rise of China and the growing risk of cyber attacks.
The ascent of China is one of the most phenomenal events of the 21st century, and the U.S. relationship with China has become our most consequential foreign policy relationship. Americans are rightly concerned about China’s growing power and what it means for our place in the world. A rising China inevitably impinges on the influence and prestige of the United States.
China has serious problems, however, both internally and externally. Whether China can emerge as a peaceful and productive stakeholder in the international system is one of the defining questions of this century.
China has moved at breakneck speed to grow its economy, the world’s second largest, and strengthen its military, by some measures the world’s largest. In many respects, it is unstable and often at risk of economic and political crises. After nearly three decades of double-digit expansion, it has entered a challenging transition to a slower pattern of economic growth. At the same time, its leaders are striving to sustain almost absolute authority even as many of the Chinese people are calling for more accountability and, especially, an end to corruption.
China wants to extend its power in the Pacific region, including its military presence in the South China Sea. This has led to tension with the United States. But I don’t think war with the other is on the agenda of either country. An outright conflict would be a disaster for both countries.
Instead, we must strive to manage this crucial relationship, and work to maintain a cooperative and comprehensive framework for resolving disagreements. That means we keep talking, focus on the things we have in common, minimize tensions and conflict, and cooperate as best we can.
We tend to think of the U.S. conflict with China in economic and military terms; but, increasingly, it plays out in the fields of technology and cybersecurity, with stealth attacks on U.S. cyber infrastructure coming from China as well as other nations, including Russia, Iran, and North Korea. In fact, if you ask our top national security officials to identify the gravest threat we confront, many – though not all — would say it is cyberattacks.
Today, advanced communication systems circle the globe, linking people and institutions in seamless networks that rely on powerful computers and high-tech equipment. This interconnectedness has contributed immensely to our prosperity and fostered peace and understanding. But it also creates vulnerabilities to criminal and state-sponsored cyber attacks which cause untold damage by stealing data and interfering with operations.
Governments and businesses spend billions of dollars to defend against these attacks. Recent directors of national intelligence have said the greatest long-term threat to our national security comes from cyber attacks targeting federal, state and local governments; military, academic and financial institutions; and critical infrastructure, including pipelines and the power grid.
This is not a conventional military conflict; rather, it’s an asymmetric threat involving disparate and unpredictable methods and strategies. Cyber capabilities are advancing rapidly, however, and defending against attacks is becoming more difficult.
We have to invest heavily as a nation in offensive as well as defensive cyber capabilities. And we need to do a much better job of educating Americans and American enterprises about how to defend themselves against cyber attacks.
Nuclear proliferation, the world economy, energy issues, the rise of China and cyber attacks may seem overwhelming, but they don’t exhaust the list of threats to our national security. The final column in this series will address additional threats, including terrorism and turmoil in the world’s trouble spots.
By Lee H. Hamilton