03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

China's Google Scandal

Countries rarely like spy scandals. They're messy, and they get in the way of things like cooperation on Korea and Iran, or trade and recovery. Governments expect and tolerate some level of spying by other nations, but there are limits, unspoken, unwritten, that have to do with respect and security. Fifteen years ago a Director of Central Intelligence traveled to France to say: back off, less spying. He did not say stop, because no one will ever stop, but the limits had been crossed and he let the French know.

China has gotten a pass when it comes to espionage. The Chinese themselves would say that they are a poor country, oppressed for a century by European Imperialists and/or Japan, and so it is only payback. They'd also say that we do it to them, which is true, but not really a fair comparison. The focus of American spying is traditional statecraft -- arms sales, military capabilities and plans, political intentions. China's goals are very different.

The most important goal is the survival of the regime and the party. China has a huge intelligence apparatus, but most of it is focused domestically, against potential opponents or those bits of China's empire, the Uighers or Tibetans, that would like to pull away. China's Communist Party leadership saw what happened to the Soviet Union and their greatest fear is that it could happen to them.

This is where the Google story gets complicated. Google caught someone spying on them and more than 30 other companies. In retaliation, it says it will close up shop and stop self-censoring. It's the latter that may frighten Beijing the most -- free access to information could undercut the carefully crafted story that the Party is the linchpin of stability and growth. It makes the Google episode a political challenge, not just another spy story.

China's second most important goal is catching up to the West. This is not a plan for world domination, but a desire for the power and respect that China thinks it is due Since 1986, China has invested billions in education and infrastructure and has opened its economy to Western countries to gain both growth and technology (we've spent the time debating whether Darwin was right). Illicit acquisition of western technology is part of China's growth strategy -- debates over piracy and Intellectual property protection are the public face of this but espionage, including cyber-espionage, plays a central role.

The Chinese are not the only country that spies on us nor are they the best -- perhaps that is one reason why they have been caught. Their cyber spying has been going on for more than a decade, against the Departments of Defense, State and Energy and against high tech companies that make civil and military products. The U.S. has alternated between complaining quietly to itself and loud Cox Commission hysteria, but it has not been serious about improving its defenses or pushing back on the Chinese.

This Google episode may change that, by bringing the spotlight back onto the problem. Google is the administration's favorite child when it comes to technology and its complaints won't be ignored. Most companies don't go public when they've been hacked. By being open, Google has done us a favor. Now the U.S. has a decision to make -- sweep it under the rug or call the Chinese on it. The Chinese have a decision to make -- tough it out or back off a bit. The likely result is somewhere in between, but we could be in for a period of tension. Only prolonged attention and from the U.S. will get the Chinese to change their behavior. The worst thing we could do is try to smooth things over.

There is a precedent of sorts. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union has a massive espionage program to steal Western technology, run by a special KGB division -- Line X. A Russian Colonel gave the French the Soviet wish list, and the French shared it with the US and UK. A short time later, the two countries expelled dozens of Line X agents from Soviet Embassies in their capitols, rocking the collection program back on its heels. We can't expel cyber agents, but we need to find some equivalent to take countries to task when they cross espionage's unwritten lines.

We shouldn't expect the Chinese (or our other opponents) to do us any favors. Getting the high tech espionage problem under control is a major security problem for the US. This means better cyber defenses -- a complex task that the private sector cannot do (we don't ask airlines to take on MiGs; let's not expect Google to take on the PLA). It also means thinking about how to extend the rule of law into cyberspace, creating norms and making clear where national governments are responsible for their own actions and the actions of their citizens. If the Chinese have gotten a pass on espionage, we've given it to them and only we can change that. Calling them on Google is a good start.