THE BLOG

Will the NSA Revelations Harm US-China Relations?

The startling revelations about massive U.S. surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency emerged in early June just as President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping were about to begin their informal summit meeting where cyberespionage was high on the agenda.

While the Obama-Xi summit succeeded on several levels, the two leaders made no discernible progress on cyber issues beyond referring them for further discussion to a senior intergovernmental meeting in July.

So the critical question arises: Will the NSA revelations -- particularly the aggressive U.S. hacking of Chinese networks and the concerted U.S. efforts to prepare offensive cyberattacks against potential adversaries including China -- torpedo the progress made at the summit?

Though columnist Joe Nocera at the New York Times argues that "the existence of Prism will make it far more difficult to force the Chinese to get serious about stopping their own hacking," I respectfully disagree. I believe the NSA revelations will help the U.S. and China move forward in addressing cyberespionage issues and in so doing, strengthen their overall relations. Here's why.

To be effective, the diplomatic process for reducing tensions on security issues between Washington and Beijing must be grounded in reality -- in truthful and factual analysis of specific threats. Out of shared assessments of those threats, the two countries can develop measures that will improve their mutual security.

At the summit meeting in California, this is precisely how the U.S. and China strengthened their cooperation for dealing with the nuclear threat from North Korea. The two sides moved closer to a common assessment of the dangers posed by Pyongyang's weapon programs which then enlarged their overlapping interests and led to a pledge to work together on implementing joint security strategies.

The same can be said for the summit agreement on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) -- a particularly dangerous class of greenhouse gases -- where China embraced the U.S. view that the two countries need to cooperate more closely to mitigate the risk of global warming.

No such agreement on the divisive issue of cyberespionage was remotely possible at the summit because the policy discussion was not grounded in a realistic assessment of the threat. China denied it engaged in cyber-hacking and called itself a victim of extensive cyberattacks. The United States portrayed China as the leading aggressor in attacking U.S. cyber networks while minimizing and concealing American surveillance activities in cyberspace.

In essence, both countries used misleading rhetoric to conjure up false images of reality in order to protect their interests in pursuing cyberespionage. But the political consequences for the United States were worse. The recent revelations of NSA's surveillance activities validate Beijing's view of itself as equally victimized by cyberattacks and demolish the one-sided U.S. portrayal of China as the preeminent aggressor in this field.

We now know the reality that both countries engage in extensive cyber-hacking and are each victims of the other's attacks. Both Beijing and Washington seek to penetrate foreign companies, government agencies and military organizations to obtain industrial, military and political secrets in order to enhance their national security.

The good news is that just as in the case of North Korea and climate change, it has now become possible for the U.S. and China to develop a frank, realistic and shared analysis of the threat posed by cyberespionage -- enabling them to devise joint measures that curb those activities in their mutual best interests.

The revelations about NSA surveillance activities also potentially strengthen U.S.-China relations through their impact on public opinion in both countries.

In the United States, a recent Time magazine poll indicates a majority of Americans feel confessed leaker Edward Snowden did "a good thing" by revealing the NSA's massive surveillance activities. This positive view will be a powerful force in rectifying the widespread and false public perception of China as a singularly nefarious actor in cyberspace.

In time, the U.S. public will come to see massive surveillance and cyber-hacking as a particularly dangerous form of espionage because these activities heighten the risk of a "cyber Pearl Harbor" that could lead to a nuclear response and thus need to be regulated and controlled to the greatest extent possible through international arrangements in order to avoid destabilizing U.S. relations with China and other countries.

Americans are also likely to lend strong support to the view that "we desperately need to have a public discussion about the proper limits on NSA," in the words of Matthew M. Aid, a leading U.S. intelligence historian.

In China, the impact of the NSA revelations on public opinion is no less significant. The widely reported revelations have effectively empowered people to protest their own government's repressive internal security apparatus -- which relies heavily on monitoring phone calls and internet communications -- by inspiring citizens to stand up online and in social media for human rights and freedom of speech.

In Hong Kong, a "special administrative region" of the PRC, demonstrations against NSA surveillance are revitalizing the commitment of politicians, human rights lawyers and ordinary citizens to the unique civil rights protections they continue to hold following the reversion of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

These developments give good reason to believe that the U.S. and China will be able to tackle divisive cyberespionage issues in the foreseeable future as part of an ongoing process of mutual threat reduction, which has become increasingly critical to the security of both countries.

Donald Gross is senior associate at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a former White House and State Department official, and author of The China Fallacy: How the U.S. Can Benefit from China's Rise and Avoid Another Cold War (Bloomsbury, 2013).

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