Dangerous Radio Silence between World Powers

The indictment against the Chinese cyberattacks shows the frustration of the U.S. over a failing dialogue with Beijing. Both sides know the indictment will not lead to anything. The conflict makes it apparent that mutually accepted rules and systems of justice are missing between these world powers — a problem with dangerous potential.

For years, Washington has been complaining that Chinese hackers have been stealing industry secrets from America. Beijing usually responds by suggesting the Americans start by providing proof. Now Beijing has proof — a detailed and thorough indictment by the U.S. Department of Justice against five members of the Chinese army and its hacking department in Shanghai.

In this case, facts will not contribute to objectivity. The indictment, brought by the attorney general himself, shows the frustrations of a government that is no longer able to reach Beijing through discreet channels. The Americans are resorting to public shaming and pillorying China. Beijing, on the other hand, is offended: Instead of denying the accusations, which is presumably impossible, China’s government has cancelled a planned cyberdialogue with Washington.

Naturally, the accused five should go before a court. The accusations are weighty and serious. An independent tribunal could verify the accusations and calculate the damage, listen to the accused and inquire as to whose orders they were following. It is undisputed that China excuses, and even encourages, large-scale theft of intellectual property and counterfeiting of merchandise by its businesses.

Cybercrime is a growing and dangerous evil. Both public and private agents believe they can get away with anything on the Internet — from the theft of valuable patents, through the invasion of others’ privacy, to sabotage and slander. In many places, including the U.S., the Department of Justice is making up for that which it has long neglected: It is preparing itself for this new, highly technological prosecution. Cases like those of the Shanghai troop can remind people worldwide that even Internet criminals must descend from their virtual worlds and face the very real, earthly justice system.

Beijing Will Not Extradite Its Hackers to the U.S.

That would certainly not resolve the controversy surrounding the five Chinese citizens. The U.S. wants to feel it is in the right because its justice system is, from a democratic point of view, superior to the Chinese one. Beijing, however, will not turn its hackers in, and Washington knows that the indictment will simply remain a type of publicity stunt. As with other conflicts between superpowers, there is no judge, no impartial authority respected by all parties.

Instead, and this cannot be a good thing, the U.S. has set about becoming an accuser, a judge, a suspect and a legislator all rolled into one. It is a suspect since the recent exposure by Edward Snowden that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been infiltrating the Chinese business network. All in all, the United States applies international law very selectively, from the U.N. prohibition on the use of force to rulings of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Simultaneously, the U.S. government is playing the role of legislator. It has founded a new doctrine: Espionage in the service of national security is acceptable, but espionage for economic reasons, on the other hand, is not. This doctrine has two weaknesses. Firstly, Beijing has not accepted it. From the Chinese point of view, technological and economic advancement is synonymous with national security. Secondly, the Americans are breaching their own doctrine when they eavesdrop on those with whom they are engaged in trade discussions or when the NSA investigated the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei [Technologies].

In the relationship between China and the U.S., the lack of mutually acknowledged rules, arbitrators and systems of justice is becoming a growing, potentially dangerous problem — especially if their militaries were to clash with each other anywhere. The last two superpowers feel they are too big for a higher justice to be able to restrain them.

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