Communication Currents

Cyber-Warfare, Google, and U.S-Chinese Communication in an Age of Globalization

December 1, 2011
Intercultural Communication

Is bombing your enemy’s air defense headquarters with laser-guided missiles fired from F-16s different than planting a computer virus that cripples the facility’s operating software? If you are going to violate the airspace of an alleged ally—albeit one prone to double-crosses and strange dealings with terrorists—is it better to seek diplomatic license, or to sneak your fighters in, or to paralyze your ally’s air defenses with a cyber-attack? What are the lines demarcating conventional warfare from anti-terrorist operations from computer hacking? 

Such questions are all the rage in Washington, D.C. In fact, on October 18, 2011, the New York Times printed an exposé detailing recent Obama administration debates about the possible uses of cyber-warfare. A dramatic and elastic term, cyber-warfare is used to designate uses of computer hacking to steal corporate, university, and government secrets, to spy on dissidents, to illegally acquire military intelligence, and, in the most extreme form, to engage in war-related systems-jamming. For example, when planning the initial U.S. and NATO bombing raids in Libya, White House officials discussed launching “a cyber-offensive to disrupt and even disable the Qaddafi government’s air-defense system.” A similar debate preceded the U.S. mission to assassinate Osama bin Laden, when “military planners” debated the feasibility of using cyber-warfare to “prevent Pakistani radars from spotting helicopters carrying Navy Seal commandos” into Pakistani airspace. In the cases noted here, U.S. brass chose not to engage in cyber-warfare, for they feared, so the Times reports, “set[ting] a precedent for other nations . . . to carry out such offensives on their own.”

The concern over setting a “precedent” that might open the floodgates of a new era of cyber-warfare is misplaced, however, for the age of electronic warfare is already in full swing. Indeed, a global cyber-warfare controversy erupted on January 12, 2010, when David Drummond, Google’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Development and its Chief Legal Officer, posted a statement on the Google webpage titled “A New Approach to China.” Drummond announced that “in mid-December, we detected a highly-sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google.” Drummond also noted that “a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.” Google therefore accused China of trying to steal its intellectual property, compromising the security of its corporate infrastructure, and spying on Chinese dissidents. By naming China as the source of the attacks, and by declaring that it would no longer comply with China’s censorship policies, Google implied that it might cease its operations in the world’s fastest growing Internet market, where as many as 400 million consumers log-on each day. 

For global technophiles, the signal was clear: China was attacking Google in an attempt to quash what Guobin Yang has called the Internet-fueled and democracy-enhancing “communication revolution in contemporary China.” Google fed this narrative by portraying its actions as embedded within a fight over free speech in an age of globalization. No isolated incident, the Google affair unfolded amidst what was felt at the time to be a rapidly deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and China. In fact, Ian Bremmer, the political scientist and risk profiteer, warned that summer that “the growing list of grievances” between the two powers “raise[d] the specter of a new kind of cold war.”

By surveying the language driving that “new kind of cold war,” I have concluded that the tension between the U.S. and China hinges on four dominant forms of rhetoric. First, elite U.S. players deploy militaristic arguments wrapped within traditional versions of American exceptionalism, wherein the U.S. is portrayed as the world’s leading economic force, guiding moral light, and self-appointed enforcer. This narrative depicts Americans as be-knighted humanitarians obligated to spread enlightenment globally, hence making them belligerent humanitarians. Second, the Chinese Communist Party (hereafter CCP) has responded to this line of argument by producing its own version of militant nationalism. Because the CCP repeatedly combines the wounds of that nation’s history as a colonial victim with a new chest-thumping bravado, I argue that its rhetoric constitutes a form of traumatized nationalism. The world’s two most powerful nations appear, then, to have created a rhetorical pattern that amounts, as described by former U.S. Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski, to “escalating reciprocal demonization.”

I should temper these claims with a dose of market-driven realpolitik, for despite the dangerous rhetorical patterns noted here, by January 2011 the two nations were cooing over what President Obama was calling “the positive, constructive, cooperative U.S.-China relationship.” 

This new-found sense of partnership was based largely on the fact that China had agreed to a series of deals with U.S. firms reportedly valued at $45 billion. For the recession-ravaged U.S., it appears that cyber-attacks and human rights violations will be forgiven as long as the U.S. can access China’s turbo-charged market. We may therefore be witnessing the production of a dual strategy, where hostile rhetoric is deployed for populist political purposes at home, in both the U.S. and China, while the interests of market-driven realpolitik drive a more measured rhetoric at the highest levels of government.The fourth major strand of argumentation about U.S.-Chinese relations is driven by each nation’s military contractors, who are committed to creating a climate of fear regarding the other nation’s cyber-warfare capabilities and intentions. Whether produced by the CCP’s military brass or U.S. outfits such as the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission—which works directly with weapons manufacturing giant, Northrop Grumman—this fear-mongering and weapons-system-procuring rhetoric amounts to what I call warhawk hysteria. For an example, see Bryan Krekel, George Bakos, and Christopher Barnett, Capability of the People’s Republic of China to Conduct Cyber Warfare and Computer Network Exploitation.

The key question for anyone interested in Sino-American relations, issues of cyber-security, and the future of global markets, is how will the clash between belligerent humanitarianism and traumatized nationalism shape future political deliberations between the world’s two most powerful nations? And will those actors committed to avoiding war—of either the traditional shooting or postmodern cyber versions—be able to counter the warhawk hysteria of their respective military establishments? Moreover, given the vast power of global markets to shape political events, will the U.S.’s ongoing decline, China’s meteoric rise, and their entwined economic fates point toward a renewed discourse of prudence and partnership or accelerating hostility and competition? At the same time, will market-driven realpolitik lead the key U.S. players to backtrack on human rights claims in favor of pursuing continued economic riches? While these questions preclude simple answers, we can rest assured that our rhetorical choices will continue to shape U.S.-Chinese relations in this age of globalization and cyber-warfare.

About the author (s)

Stephen J. Hartnett

University of Colorado at Denver