The US and China have been discreetly engaging in “war games” amid rising anger in Washington over the scale and audacity of Beijing-co-ordinated cyber attacks on western governments and big business, the Guardian has learned.
State department and Pentagon officials, along with their Chinese counterparts, were involved in two war games last year that were designed to help prevent a sudden military escalation between the sides if either felt they were being targeted.
Another session is planned for May.Though the exercises have given the US a chance to vent its frustration at what appears to be state-sponsored espionage and theft on an industrial scale, China has been belligerent.
“China has come to the conclusion that the power relationship has changed, and it has changed in a way that favours them,” said Jim Lewis, a senior fellow and director at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) thinktank in Washington.
“The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] is very hostile. They see the US as a target. They feel they have justification for their actions. They think the US is in decline.”
The war games have been organised through the CSIS and a Beijing thinktank, the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. This has allowed government officials, and those from the US intelligence agencies, to have contact in a less formal environment.
Known as “Track 1.5” diplomacy, it is the closest governments can get in conflict management without full-blown talks.
“We co-ordinate the war games with the state department and department of defence,” said Lewis, who brokered the meetings, which took place in Beijing last June, and in Washington in December.
“The officials start out as observers and become participants. It is very much the same on the Chinese side. Because it is organised between two thinktanks they can speak more freely.”
During the first exercise, both sides had to describe what they would do if they were attacked by a sophisticated computer virus, such as Stuxnet, which disabled centrifuges in Iran’s nuclear programme.
In the second, they had to describe their reaction if the attack was known to have been launched from the other side.
“The two war games have been quite amazing,” said Lewis. “The first one went well, the second one not so well.
“The Chinese are very astute. They send knowledgeable people. We want to find ways to change their behaviour … [but] they can justify what they are doing. Their attitude is, they have experienced imperialism and they had a century of humiliation.” Lewis said the Chinese have a “sense that they have been treated unfairly”.