Coming amid China’s extensive reclamation projects in disputed territory in the South China Sea, the news only adds to growing regional concerns about Beijing’s rise to superpower status.
The security bulletin from Kaspersky Lab identified a shadowy cyber-espionage group called Naikon as the source of “at least five years of high volume, high profile, geopolitical attack activity” – a concerted effort that has had a “high success rate in infiltrating national organisations in Asean countries”, plus Nepal and China itself.
“In the spring of 2014, we noticed an increase in the volume of attack activity by the Naikon. The attackers appeared to be Chinese-speaking and targeted mainly top-level government agencies and civil and military organisations in countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Singapore, Nepal, Thailand, Laos and China,” the Kaspersky bulletin read. (The small, oil-rich state of Brunei is the only member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations not included in the hacking.)
To be sure, China is hardly the only country involved in cyber-espionage. The revelations of whistle-blower Edward Snowden showed that the United States was actively monitoring even its own citizens’ telephone traffic. Last year, Germany objected to American cyber-surveillance after it was disclosed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s communications had been spied upon; this month, it was reported that Germany had its own cyber-espionage campaign – prompting other capitals to accuse Berlin of geopolitical hypocrisy.
It is only reasonable to conclude that governments with the capacity to hack into other governments’ computer systems are doing so. But the nature of the Naikon hacking is truly a matter of serious concern. Kaspersky Lab is not the only computer security firm that thinks Naikon and other “geopolitical intelligence-gathering” efforts are backed by the Chinese government itself. In particular, a country Kaspersky Lab studied but did not identify suffered widespread infiltration: Not just military units or legal departments were hacked, but even the offices of the Cabinet secretary and the president.
Would we be surprised if that country turned out to be the Philippines? While overall relations between Manila and Beijing continue to be robust, the dispute over competing maritime and territorial claims has reached a new level of intensity. Beijing has not yet dispatched an oil rig to Philippine waters, in the way it recklessly stoked tensions with Vietnam, but against the Philippines the emerging superpower must contend with a strong legal case filed before a UN arbitral tribunal.
It is possible that China’s aggressive land reclamation strategy was prompted by the Philippine case at the UN, at least in part, but the true cause of rising tensions is Beijing’s increasingly aggressive expansionism under new leader Xi Jinping. In the months leading up to Xi’s designation as new head of the Chinese Communist Party and the next president of China, the expansionist rhetoric was seen in the region as mere domestic posturing that would revert, after Xi had consolidated power, back to the old, effective policy of a “peaceful rise”. That policy placed a premium on earning the goodwill of China’s neighbours, by assuring them that Beijing’s inevitable rise to superpower status was a welcome, not an intimidating, development.
Now it seems that China has abandoned that policy. By most accounts, internal domestic pressure is likely the determining factor; a roaring capitalist economy run by a communist government has turned to nationalism, one fed by the waters of China’s so-called century of humiliation, as organising principle of both party and state. This is not to say that the search for new sources of oil, gas and minerals to feed the Chinese economy’s ravenous appetite is not part of the equation. But under Xi, nationalism has been used to justify China’s incursions in both cyberspace and the South China Sea.