By Tim Marshall.
The Chinese and Americans are negotiating down to the wire in order to be able to announce a cyber treaty during the visit to Washington D.C. by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The two sides have spent months trying to agree on the details of an agreement that neither would be the first to launch a cyber-attack on the others critical civilian infrastructure. This would include attacks during peacetime on things such as the water, power, and banking systems, telephone network, and hospitals.
The deal would be based on UN guiding principles recently set out which say that no country should engage in activity that “intentionally damages critical infrastructure or otherwise impairs the use and operation of critical infrastructure to provide services to the public”.
Treaties such as these will be critical in the future to prevent wars. In 2009 the then head of the US Strategic Command, General Chilton, made it plain that America would ‘not be constrained’ in its response to a cyber-attack on critical infrastructure.
Recently one of China’s most senior intelligence officials, Meng Jianzhu, went to Washington to try and finalise the deal. The details are sketchy but
may not include such cyber activity as industrial espionage, or even hacking into government computers.
The US accuses China of hacking its Office of Personnel Management mainframe and stealing the details of millions of government employees. However the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, chose to describe the attack as ‘intelligence collection’. Given that the USA acknowledges it carries out the same type of activity it would be problematic to now include it in a cyber treaty with China. The Snowden files clearly showed that the NSA had attempted to breach the security at the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.
In the unlikely event this will be covered in the agreement it would be quite a breakthrough. But even a treaty on critical infrastructure ad cyber war is momentous. It will be the first of its kind and may pave the way for others including much needed agreements on the cyber aspects of modern warfare including the potential for war in space.