Chinese hackers are so good at stealing U.S. military secrets that they're likely to ignore official American protests and continue breaking into classified networks run by both the Pentagon and its most important contractors, the top U.S. military officer in the Pacific told Foreign Policy.
The United States is carefully watching the growing cyber capabilities of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, Adm. Samuel Locklear, the chief of U.S. Pacific Command, said in an interview. But China has been the most effective at stealing U.S. secrets. The admiral did not cite specific examples, but it is known that Chinese hackers have stolen design data for warplanes like the F/A-18 and F-35 fighter jets, helicopters like the Black Hawk, and ballistic missile systems like the Navy's Aegis system. In remarkably candid comments, Locklear said China took advantage of holes in computer networks to steal secrets and stressed that Beijing doesn't much care about what Washington has to say about it.
"I think the sooner we come to the realization that if we expect the Chinese to behave... well as a nation in cyberspace just because we ask them to, it is not realistic," Locklear said. "I think we have to design into our own capabilities and our own systems things that protect our capabilities."
The comments come as senior White House officials including President Obama prepare to make a series of high-level visits to Asia in coming months as part of an effort to reassure jittery allies that the United States is still committed to the region's security and stability. Obama announced a so-called "pivot" to Asia several years ago, but the leaders of Japan, South Korea, and other American allies have voiced increasing alarm that Washington remains focused on the Middle East and isn't doing enough to deter China from taking increasingly aggressive steps throughout the region. In the past year alone, Beijing has unilaterally imposed an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea that requires commercial planes to maintain radio contact with Chinese authorities and taken steps to assert its sovereignty over disputed islands also claimed by Japan. Obama will visit China this fall in a trip certain to be closely watched throughout the region.
The hacking problem took center stage this month when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Beijing. U.S. defense officials acknowledged they had offered highly unusual unclassified briefings to Chinese military commanders to discuss the doctrine the Pentagon has under development to guide the United States' offensive and defensive cyber capabilities. U.S. officials wanted to ease Chinese fears about the U.S. increasing its number of military personnel engaged in cyber warfare to 6,000, but also get similar information from the Chinese. Thus far, it is not believed they have responded in kind.
Locklear said hackers were able to take advantage of the fact that an array of widely-used computer networks were built without adequate safeguards, making it easy for cyber thieves in China and elsewhere to tunnel in and steal information. Beijing has disputed that those thefts were sanctioned by the government and accused the United States of cyber-espionage, but Locklear said Chinese officials have also accused Washington of turning a blind eye to U.S.-based hacking by non-government groups.
The admiral, seen as a front-runner by some to eventually move to the Pentagon to a senior leadership position with the Joint Chiefs, has overseen Pacific Command since March 2012. He acknowledged there is skepticism at this point that a true pivot to the Pacific will occur, given continued hostilities in the Middle East and Africa. But he said the rise of China and India as world powers and a military buildup across the region will require American attention.
"I think it's a necessity," he said. "I think our children and our grandchildren, as you see the center of the global economic engine, you see where the rising populations in the world are. Yes, Africa as a continent has a population that is rising, but even in this century, it's projected that 7 of 10 people will live in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. And certainly that's where the larger power structures are."
China isn't the only regional challenge Locklear is dealing with. The Obama administration's main foreign policy success in the Pacific came after then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar in late 2011 and hailed its transition from decades of military rule to a civilian-run government. But conditions in Myanmar have deteriorated rapidly in recent months, as sectarian violence explodes and the government turns its back on a number of reforms its promised. That has complicated engagements between the United States and Myanmar because the United States is typically reticent to interact with governments with an abusive human rights record.
Locklear said the dilemma is a "bit of a two-edged sword" because when the Pentagon sends troops to interact with foreign militaries, it frequently leads to them maturing and reforming more quickly. But Myanmar has not yet reached a baseline where the Pentagon feels comfortable deploying troops there for training missions.
"You've kind of got a chicken-and-an-egg thing here," Locklear said. "You want them to demonstrate a good level of reform in the human rights area and accountability so that you can move forward with a mil-to-mil relationship that they desire that will help them reform faster. The problem is, they have to reach a certain benchmark of human rights before we will give them that opportunity, and that is still under review."
The admiral highlighted the Philippines as an example of how the Pentagon may grow its presence in the Pacific in the future without establishing new bases on foreign soil. Washington and Manila have not yet finalized a deal, but are working toward an agreement that would allow more U.S. troops to rotate through the Philippines on a temporary basis. The move aligns Manila more closely with the U.S. military in the face of China's rise and an ongoing dispute between the two countries over fishing rights at a tiny shoal in the South China Sea that has recently gone to an international tribunal.
"The Philippines will benefit by having a lot easier access for us to flow forces through there in a [disaster] event," Locklear said. "It will allow them, I think, to focus their defense spending on areas that I think really matter to them."
The admiral tries to remain "pragmatic" about the rise of China, saying Beijing is entitled to expand peacefully to address issues outside their borders, such as counter-piracy missions they perform in the Gulf of Aden. Chinese officials said in March that they will boost their already expanding military budget by 12.2 percent in 2014, to $131.6 billion. Some Capitol Hill lawmakers, including Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, have hammered the Obama administration for being asleep at the wheel as China's military power grows, but Locklear said China is entitled to expand peacefully. More concerning, however, is China's lack of transparency about its plans for the future and moves it has made to stifle movement in international waterways in the Pacific, Locklear said.
"If you take a look at our relationship as nations, I would say there is a majority of places where we converge with China on issues, the admiral said. "Not a vast majority, but a majority. But, there are a number of key areas where we diverge, and that divergence can potentially cause friction. And so the question is, how will that friction be managed."
Defense Department photo