Rivalry escalates amid concerns over trade, as warships nearly collide and an FBI trap angers Beijing
The US and China have shrugged off rules and constraints that have kept their 21st-century global rivalry in check, opening the way for an escalating conflict on many fronts that neither side appears willing or able to stop.
Chinese officials have accused Washington of starting a new cold war, but the jostling between the two powers has already shown its potential to turn hot through accident or miscalculation, if action is not taken to defuse tensions.
Within the past few weeks, as a trade war loomed between the two countries, US and Chinese warships came within yards of colliding in the South China Sea. And the FBI set a trap in Belgium for a senior Chinese intelligence official and had him extradited to the US, provoking fury in Beijing.
Washington has meanwhile significantly ramped up its bellicose rhetoric portraying China as a dangerous adversary. In a UN security council meeting last month Donald Trump accused Beijing without citing evidence of seeking to oust him through interference in US elections.
A few days later, his vice-president, Mike Pence, expanded on the accusation, saying China was pursuing a whole-of-government approach including coercive methods to interfere in US domestic politics to bring to power a different US president. Pence, like the president, did not supply evidence for the claim.
Most experts said that China though a leader in economic espionage that has sought to lobby against Trumps tariff policies was not trying to hack the US elections in the way Russia had meddled in the 2016 vote that brought Trump to Oval Office.
But the Chinese government has ended a cyber ceasefire agreed between the president, Xi Jinping, and Barack Obama in 2015, unleashing armies of hackers once more in pursuit of the trade secrets of US firms.
And Beijing has ordered its navy to use more far aggressive tactics to stop US and allied ships sailing near islands and reefs in the South China Sea it has claimed and turned into military outposts in order to assert control of strategic sea lanes.
The 2015 Xi-Obama cyber ceasefire did not halt cyber espionage by any means, but it did lead to a drastic reduction in the wholesale theft of intellectual property by the Chinese state for the competitive benefit of Chinese industry. That truce is now well and truly over, according to Dmitri Alperovitch, the co-founder of the CrowdStrike cybersecurity firm.
CrowdStrike can now confirm that China is back (after a big drop-off in activity in 2016) to being the predominant nation-state intrusion threat in terms of volume of activity against Western industry, Alperovitch said on Twitter.
A few months after the September 2015 Obama-Xi agreement, we witnessed about 90% drop in Chinese nation-state sponsored intrusions against Western commercial sector. They started to pick it back up in 2017 and the trend has only accelerated since then.
Christopher Painter, who was the top US cyber diplomat under the Obama administration, said that Beijing agreed to the 2015 cyber deal because they did not want the threat of sanctions to overshadow a state visit by Xi.
It was not seen just as a cyber issue but an economic and national security issue that affected the overall relationship, Painter, now a commissioner at the Global Commission for the Stability of Cyberspace, said. Certainly there was still hacking going on but it did have a substantial decrease.
If the reported increase is true, I would ascribe in part to this deterioration of the overall relationship, because thats what brought them to the table in the first place.
The US meanwhile has stepped up its counter-measures, moving from playing defence patching vulnerabilities and identifying Chinese cyber assailants to going on the offence.