China and its Discontents

Archive for August, 2012

Was Iran Behind the Cyberattack on Saudi Aramco?

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I can’t believe I missed this major story earlier this month: “hacktivists” attacked Saudi Aramco’s 30,000 computer-network. What is surprising is the method–instead of the standard Denial of Service attack (DoS), they managed to introduce malware onto Aramco systems. Even more interestingly, however, was the statement released by the purported originators of the attack, “Cutting Sword of Justice”:

It said the company was the main source of income for the Saudi government, which it blamed for “crimes and atrocities” in several countries, including Syria and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain last year to back the gulf state’s Sunni Muslim rulers against Shiite-led protesters. Riyadh is also supporting Sunni rebels against the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The group blames Saudi Arabia for interfering in Bahrain and Syria. In a basic geopolitical analysis of the Middle East, who would be the only player angry at Saudi Arabia for those interventions? Iran and its client terrorist network, Hezbollah. They are the only actors who have something to lose when the Sunni monarchists in Bahrain hang onto power or if Bashar al-Assad falls from power.

Furthermore, Jeffrey Carr gave a stunning explanation at InfoSec Island on why it’s not only plausible but likely Hezbollah and the Iranians were behind the attack: the malware used in the Saudi Aramco attack, Shamoon, is likely a reverse engineering of the Wiper virus which hit the Iranian oil ministry in April. Only Iran and its attackers (likely Israel or the U.S.) had access to the Wiper Virus. In addition, Hezbollah reportedly has covert members embedded in Aramco as employees who could carry out such an attack. Finally, Carr notes, the Iranians have more obvious motives than revenge or religion as cited in the public “hacktivist” statements–Saudi Arabia supported the recent US-EU oil embargos on Iran and replaced oil imports from Iran with others.

This is a disturbing trend, and inevitable since U.S. and Israeli-sponsored cyberattacks on Iran came to light. Cyberattacks will continue to escalate among Iran, Russia, China, the West, Western allies, and unaffiliated groups, untouched by any sort of international legal regulatory framework. Such activity will become, and probably already is, the normal state of affairs. Given this situation, it is impossible to predict when a cyberattack will result in an “overt,” conventional military response, as one almost certainly will in the future. This is one of the biggest strategic uncertainties facing the future–and unfortunately, it doesn’t look like any actor wants to or can fix it.

UPDATE: Qatar’s RasGas has also just been a victim of cyberattack. It’s unclear at this point if any group has taken responsibility, or if it was the same virus. My bet is that Iran and/or Hezbollah are also responsible.

UPDATE 2: The Wall Street Journal confirms that the virus used in the RasGas cyberattack was also Shamoon.

Written by Will

August 30th, 2012 at 4:46 pm

New Sinica Podcast on The Great Wall is Fascinating and HILARIOUS

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The latest Sinica podcast features David Spindler, one of the world’s few Great Wall experts, talking about Ming Dynasty-era Great Walls and in particular a story of the “Twice-Scorned Mongol Woman.” A good portion of the story focuses on the Simatai section of the Great Wall, which I visited almost two years ago at this point. At the time I appreciated Simatai’s stunning beauty, but I was completely unaware of the fascinating backstory.

As a bonus, there are clips of Herman Cain near the beginning and at the very end–Herman Cain being one of the many participants in tours David Spindler has given of the Great Wall. It is HILARIOUS. Don’t read below if you want the full effect of listening to Cain:

But there were times during the course of the history of the Chinese people and China, that they tried a lot of other different things other than just fighting those that wanted to invade them and in fact, there was one point in time where they tried to even bribe the Mongols with money, goods, gold, etc. Well guess what? (in raised tone of voice) That didn’t last very long, because the bribes got greedy and wanted more from the bribers. You see, the Chinese, they wanted to be left alone. “Just leave us alone. So we got to give you a little bit of goods, we’ll do it.” But it didn’t last, because eventually the bribes get greedy.

It’s kind of like entitlement programs. Hmmm…

Written by Will

August 30th, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Last Train Home

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I just watched “Last Train Home,” a movie by Lixin Fan. It was incredible–encapsulating all of the themes of modern China into a simple story about a migrant couple working in Guangzhou and their children back at home in their rural village. This is a story about 留守儿童 (liushou ertong–left behind children) and their parents. First, there are the obvious themes of industrialization, globalization, and the ripping apart of traditional family norms in search of a better life. There’s also an indictment of American consumerism (represented by the ridiculous-looking stacks of jeans the parents and later their daughter make in Guangzhou–the factory manager also makes jokes about size-40 Americans). The movie goes one step further, however, in following through in the implications of a broken family life, which not only results in predictably rebellious and unstudious children, but also in its own form of mindless consumerism and despiritualization.

But what comes most clearly across is a sense of despair at being a cog in a giant machine. The movie’s most gripping scene is a depiction of the family struggling to get on the ‘last train home’ for the Chinese New Year, waiting for nearly a week amidst a crowd of thousands outside the train station. The paramilitary police step in to help the local police in riot control, erecting barricades and managing unrest in the crowd. At one point, a father attempts to climb the barricades, saying that his daughters are lost on the other side, but is stopped by the police. Upon being stopped, he tells the paramilitary policeman, “Today you work behind the fence. Tomorrow, you’ll be standing here in my shoes.”

Is there a better sentence that sums up modern Chinese life? The migrant workers fighting to get home and see their families are stuck in this machine that does little for them; the police officers are stuck in their positions and can likewise do little to affect the situation. One senses that there’s an invisible presence hovering over every scene of the movie–the Communist Party. The CCP isn’t mentioned once throughout the entire movie–not as the grandmother is describing her life during the Cultural Revolution, nor as the workers complain about the trains and their lot in life. This is probably a good thing, because the movie is after all really about the migrant worker family. But the CCP is there, standing behind that invisible fence.

China’s New Diplomatic Strategy: Divide and Conquer

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The Financial Times’ recent article on China, “Beijing Considers Stronger Foreign Ties,” was a fascinating peak into possible Chinese foreign policy strategies into the future. For the past thirty years China has chosen non-alignment and non-intervention in other states’ internal affairs, largely because China was still too weak for stronger engagement and was wary of other states intervening in China’s own internal affairs. But FT speculates that China’s latest ploy, involving Cambodia blocking a final statement from the latest ASEAN Summit at Beijing’s behest, represents a new Chinese foreign policy of stronger alliances. FT goes even further, throwing out the possibility that China will also seek stronger military alliances, quoting Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University:

“We live in an international order dominated by the US’ military alliances,” he said. “China is not offering its neighbours security guarantees, so as China is rising, fears are emerging among them as to what our intentions might be.”

Two problems arise out of the strategies detailed in the FT article. First, the Cambodia ploy is, in the words of State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, a “divide and conquer” strategy. Successful alliances that abide by international norms don’t generally consist of one-sided exploitative relationships that foil mediation in disputes and anger the rest of the international community.

Second, if China were to offer a string of “security guarantees,” to not only its next-door neighbors but to states as far away as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, or even in Africa, it would have to actually back them up militarily. This is troubling, because it represents a strong departure from traditional Chinese military doctrine and capabilities. The PLA’s historical mission and capabilities have been geared towards defending its own territory and a large swath of its maritime claims within the First Island Chain. To extend its reach, it would need to develop a forward-deployed navy similar to the U.S. Navy. This would be quite a threatening move, and would overturn many of the assumptions I made in my previous post on AirSea Battle.

Ultimately, the question the Chinese need to ask is: what’s the point? Who would China be protecting a state like Pakistan from? India? Does China really want to get that deeply involved in such a messy and dangerous relationship? What are China’s real interests? I would posit that China is/should be mainly concerned with commercial shipping and its growing energy requirements. And the type of China-bloc envisioned by FT and Yan Xuetong is simply unnecessary to guarantee those interests. Yes–China will probably increase its naval presence in the Indian Ocean in the coming decades; but it should focus on securing free trade and a strong international system, not on alliances with client states that will blow up in their faces.

Written by Will

August 18th, 2012 at 9:50 am

AirSea Battle Concept Lacks Strategy and Political Purpose

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Writing in The National Interest website, James Holmes gives a characteristically excellent explication of the still officially-undefined AirSea Battle Concept, the theory behind A2/AD, and U.S. and Chinese naval deficiencies. From a military perspective, Holmes is completely on point. I gripe, however, with some of the implications of his article if taken from a political perspective:

1) The title is “Preparing for a War with China” (subtle)

2) The off-handed throw-away line “From a political standpoint, war with China is neither inevitable nor all that likely.”

3) Holmes’ assumption that the PLAN wants or needs to operate in the far seas at the same level of the USN.

I gripe because at some point tactics have to be constrained by some sense of strategy and political purpose. I don’t see that happening with the developing AirSea Battle Concept. DoD should absolutely prepare for the worst-case scenario–to do otherwise would be folly. But don’t political considerations deserve more than a one-sentence dismissal?

According to the Defense Strategic Guidance released in January, U.S. interests lie in maintaining a “rules-based international order that ensures underlying stability and encourages the peaceful rise of new powers, economic dynamism, and constructive defense cooperation,” and protecting access to the global commons.

The official rhetoric coming from China is hardly that different. According to China’s most recent National Defense whitepaper published in 2010, China seeks to promote “economic development and regional stability” in the Asia-Pacific. Furthermore, the paper identifies China’s main national security interests as “preserving China’s territorial integrity and maritime rights and interests…” and “safeguarding national sovereignty.” Far-flung military excursions or humanitarian interventions are explicitly left off the table.

Should we put any stock in what the Chinese government says? We have to on some level. We can’t complain in the Defense Strategic Guidance that “the growth of China’’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region,” and then ignore when China attempts to clarify its strategic intentions.

Ultimately, China fighting a war with the U.S. is not in Chinese interests and would be completely counterproductive, undermining their economy and growth. China currently relies on the U.S. Navy to preserve its access to oil and commercial shipping in the Indian Ocean, and its economy would crumble without international trade. Economic warfare between China and the U.S. would leave both hobbled; the resulting “mutually assured destruction” of this era would be nearly as bad as the M.A.D. of the nuclear era.

It is also hard to believe that the Chinese have an interest in operating in the far seas anywhere near the capability of the USN. They have very little to gain from it. First, it currently has zero capability to engage in wars outside of its periphery. Second, such an aspiration contradicts the prime aspect of their foreign policy: non-intervention in other states’ internal affairs. The wars it has fought in the 20th century and will continue to fight in the future are about stability, integrity, and sovereignty (as the 2010 National Defense whitepaper acknowledges), fought close to China’s borders (historically, Korea, India, Vietnam, and in the future, countries around its maritime claims). The A2/AD strategy is to win a war in the South China Sea, not in the far seas. As even James Holmes notes, Chinese A2/AD capability is premised on China’s ability to whittle away at USN forces before they get close to China, using naval assets close to shore and numerous land-based jets, missiles, and other assets. The PLAN has conducted some operations away from the near seas recently (evacuation of Chinese citizens from Libya and participation in an international taskforce hunting Somali pirates), but it is not credible to assert that China has the desire or capabilities to move more aggressively into the far seas.

As Cheng Li and Kenneth Lieberthal note in their Brookings report “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust,” “[AirSea Battle/JOAC and China’s ‘securing the near seas’ concept] are increasingly being couched in terms that can easily justify escalating military expenditures as both militaries attempt to achieve basically unattainable levels of certainty.” They conclude that both sides will have to ask the uncomfortable question of “what array of military deployments and normal operations will permit China to defend its core security interests and at the same time allow America to continue to meet fully its obligations to its allies and friends in the region?” The primary solution to this deadlock, the two authors say, is “mutual restraint on new capabilities,”–involving new dialogues and direct governmental and military exchanges designed to prevent an arms race.

On the U.S. side, the rhetoric surrounding the AirSea Battle concept seems untempered by these very basic political and strategic considerations raised by Cheng Li and Kenneth Lieberthal. Echoing Thoreau, our rapidly developing military capabilities seem only to be “improved means to an unimproved end.” It is certainly not practical for the U.S. to restrain itself unilaterally–but DoD and State should be actively clarifying its intentions and working with the Chinese to restrain the potential for conflict, just as we demand that the PLA and MFA do the same.

The Chinese have also at times acted belligerently: the current situation in the South China Sea and the Diaoyu Islands—China pushing for complete territorial control against a number of states friendly to the U.S.—does not advance the stability China prioritizes. China’s strategic necessity to secure domestic sources of oil and natural gas to hedge against their current dependence on the Middle East is butting up against their other priority to maintain stability. This confused strategy must also be clarified.

The U.S. should, however, continue the rest of our “Pivot to Asia” agenda, including engagement in multilateral institutions and diplomatic, security, and economic partnerships, and other parts of the Defense Strategic Guidance, such as, “develop[ing] innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on exercises, rotational presence, and advisory capabilities.” These kinds of initiatives are less-threatening and appropriate measures in an era of fiscal restraint.

The PLA is developing PLAN, 2nd Artillery Corps, and space-based capabilities that should and do worry the U.S. government. In addition, the DoD should develop the requisite capabilities to secure our interests. But before this rising competition gets out of hand and evolves into something neither side wants, political leadership on both sides of the Pacific need to work out each country’s future position in relation to one another.

In another time and against a different competitor, George Kennan once said: “[the US-Soviet arms race] has no foundation in real interests–no foundation, in fact, but in fear, and in an essentially irrational fear at that. It is carried not by any reason to believe that the other side would, but only by a hypnotic fascination with the fact that it could. It is simply an institutionalized force of habit. If someone could suddenly make the two sides realize that it has no purpose and if they were then to desist, the world would presumably go on, in all important respects, just as it is going on today.” (ital original) What a country says ultimately determines how they act, and vice versa, how a country acts inevitably shapes the political discourse and constrains political choice. Preparing for a future war with China without clarifying our fundamentally peaceful aims makes war more inevitable. The U.S. needs to break that “inevitable cycle.”

Finally Some Straight Talk from the Global Times


The Global Times published an op-ed yesterday that “offered support” for the actions of Chinese activists landing on the Diaoyu Islands, but to my relief stated clearly that “Chinese need to be clear that China cannot retrieve the Islands now. This would mean a large-scale war, which is not in China’s interests,” and that declining to send PLAN ships to escort activists to the Diaoyu Islands does not indicate China’s weakness.

This rhetoric stands in sharp contrast to the overly nationalistic op-ed published a month ago (that I also commented on around the same time), which called on China to challenge Japan’s sovereignty over Okinawa as a psychological ploy to capture the Diaoyu Islands. It is encouraging that Chinese state media is explicitly acknowledging that going to war (of whatever magnitude) over a few piddling pieces of rock is not in their national interests.

I can only hope that they will extend this message to also include the various islands and shoals in the South China Sea. Certainly the strategic calculus is mostly the same–conflict with either Japan or any of the states surrounding the South China Sea would not only severely disrupt trade and shipping, but would also inevitably involve the United States.

Written by Will

August 17th, 2012 at 6:54 am