A new focus of tension has reopened between China and the West. Accusations by the United States, NATO and the European Union against Beijing over a global cyber-attack campaign allegedly orchestrated on Chinese territory come just three days after Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden jointly participated in the virtual meeting of the Economic Cooperation Forum of Asia-Pacific (Apec), on Friday, the first contact between the two since they met at the environmental summit promoted in April by the White House tenant. If three days earlier the smiles had multiplied by the spurts, this Monday both sides show their fists again, and in a decisive sector of the dispute between the superpowers.
The accusations of digital piracy against China are nothing new. Washington has for years denounced that Beijing is behind a series of cyber attacks against US federal agencies and companies, something the Xi government has consistently denied. As early as 2015, the Barack Obama Administration blamed China-backed hackers for hacking into computer systems of the US Office of Personnel Management, the human resources arm of the US Government, in an operation in which its perpetrators had access to up to two decades of personal data on federal officials.
So far, China has not officially responded to the allegations. But the state news agency Xinhua, through its Twitter account — a social network blocked in China — has distributed a cartoon in which it alludes to information about the spying that the United States carried out against Germany, one of its closest allies. “What is a good friend to the United States? Surveillance. When it comes to irresponsible, destructive and destabilizing behavior in cyberspace, the United States seems to be the best of all,” says Xinhua.
China usually responded that it is also a target of cyber attacks from abroad. But new accusations arise when relations between Beijing and the West, but especially between Beijing and Washington, are at their worst in decades. Biden’s arrival at the White House did improve moods a little, but contrary to what some had expected, it did not contribute to decisively softening a bilateral relationship that is exceptionally tense due to Trumpist trade war, technological competition and geopolitical rivalry, beyond the disputes over the human rights situation in Hong Kong and the Uighur ethnic group in Xinjiang.
In an editorial, the newspaper Global Times, belonging to the Communist Party of China and of nationalist line, he accuses the US of “stimulating new geopolitical disputes, transforming frictions over cyberspace into serious conflicts between countries”. “It is constantly trying to launch new accusations against China together with its allies, making China a symbol of the world’s ‘darkness’. As the United States has already imposed labels such as ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ on China, no new accusation surprises us”, the text continues.
There are no signs of improvement in relationships. After the disastrous meeting in Alaska between diplomacy officials from the two countries in March, last week Deputy Secretary of State for Asia, Wendy Sherman, avoided stopping in China during a tour of Asia. According to the newspaper Financial Times, Beijing offered him a meeting with Foreign Ministry number five, Xie Feng, rather than his counterpart, Le Yucheng. A similar situation exists in the military establishment: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sought a rapprochement earlier this year with General Xu Qiliang, head of the Central Military Commission, the body responsible for the Chinese armed forces; but the Chinese authorities offered him a meeting with Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe, who is ranked below the commission.
XI Jinping has repeatedly made it clear in his speeches that he is convinced that his country is experiencing a moment of ascension, and the US, of decay. And who doesn’t want to give in. In his July 1 speech in Tiananmen Square, on the occasion of the centenary of the founding of the CCP, he had already said that “we will never allow any foreign force to pressure us, oppress us or subjugate us. If he tries, he will violently crash into a great steel wall formed by 1.4 billion Chinese”.
While Xi insists on his willingness to confront the West if need be, he is moving forward in his efforts to present himself as a champion of the developing world. At the Apec Friday’s virtual summit, he emphasized the need for cooperation in the global vaccination campaign against covid-19 and for “sustained and inclusive development”, as “we live in a global village, in which countries will triumph, or they will fall together”.
The new confrontation finds China immersed, precisely, in a campaign to reinforce its cyber security. It is an action that affects some of the most important technology companies in the country, or at least the best known, starting with Didi Chuxing. This firm, considered the Chinese Uber, is undergoing inspection by seven departments and regulatory bodies, including the Ministries of Homeland Security and Public Security.
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