From ISIS and terrorism in general to Russia to Iran, this country faces (and will continue to face) a series of serious foreign policy changes over the coming years. The next administration will certainly have its hands full on the world stage. However, the recent massive cyber attack on the federal government that hacked into the information of some 14 million federal employees has once again brought China back to the forefront. Writing at The Daily Beast, John Schindler noted the seriousness of the attack: “For American spies abroad, this can be a matter of life or death, and any personnel sent into countries where they could be targeted for kill or capture….” China’s saber rattling and cyber warfare tactics require that America pay greater attention to Asia and the Pacific.
As China continues to annually increase its military budget by double digits, it is also taking an offensive stance in the region. China’s new practice of constructing islands in the South China Sea in waters that are disputed by many nations has caused alarm, both in Washington and in the capitals of many of China’s rivals in the region. The islands contain a wide range of equipment and facilities, including radar stations, army barracks, and airfields, and are located in some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. US spy planes have also spotted artillery on the islands, while the Chinese Navy has also threatened US spy planes operating in the area.
Several countries have already raised the alarm. At least one of these nations, Vietnam, is now in need of American military equipment. Other countries raising concern include American allies such as The Philippines, which has seen the return of the United States Navy in recent months, Australia, and Japan, which has its own territorial disputes with China. Japan recently, for the first time, took part in joint US-Australian military exercises as part of the US’s effort to strengthen bonds between allies.
Apart from their saber rattling in the Pacific, the Chinese have engaged in war in cyberspace as well. This hasn’t been limited to the hacking of military and intelligence personnel information: the Chinese are also suspect of stealing and implementing new military technologies, including information on the F-35 stealth fighter. The F-35’s secrets were incorporated into China’s new J-20 stealth fighter, according to US officials and private analysts. The hacking of defense contractors gives information on their security clearances and the possible classified projects the contractors worked on. Just last year, the Justice Department charged five Chinese Army hackers “For Cyber Espionage Against U.S. Corporations and a Labor Organization for Commercial Advantage.” In other words, the hackers were stealing American intellectual property and secret business information in order to benefit Chinese firms.
In response to the recent hacking, Glenn Reynolds asked a question that, while it may seem laughable, is in fact quite serious: “What if Pearl Harbor happened and nobody noticed?” With the electrical power grid vulnerable, cyber warfare is something that cannot be ignored. The shutdown of the power grid would be a devastating blow to the country, especially if it was followed by a Chinese invasion of an American ally while we were crippled and unable to respond. Cyber warfare could, in the worst-case scenario, enable China or anybody else to hit the American government directly without launching an actual invasion of the US. As Reynolds put it, such an attacker could “strike directly at Americans in the government, all without launching a single missile.”
Even as all of these security threats mount, our fiscal obligations to China keep growing. In May, China once again became the top US foreign creditor, surpassing Japan. As of May ,China held $1.261 trillion of US debt. Owing China over $1 trillion is bad enough, but knowing that the money that is owed to China could be used to threaten American allies in the Pacific should be just another reason for Washington to get its fiscal house in order.
Between threatening our allies, being active in cyber warfare, and being the number one creditor of US debt, China poses many serious problems for the United States that need to be taken seriously. While the days of Mao Zedong may have come to end, China is still a police state. While American troops are not fighting the Chinese military on the Korean Peninsula, China is still a crucial threat to American national security. Although there are legitimate reasons to believe that the 21st century will not be the Chinese century, as some have predicted, to ignore China would be a futile foreign policy blunder.
Though the march of ISIS, Iran, and Russia have gotten much more media attention–perhaps because of active military actions the U.S. is taking against ISIS, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the ongoing debate over the nuclear deal with Iran–China has not gotten the same time in the media spotlight. However, both China’s neighbors and America’s allies in the Pacific are just as concerned with China as Eastern Europe is with Russia. The recent, massive cyber attack should cause Americans to see China for what it is: the latest national security threat and foreign policy challenge.