As Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen holds a historic meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday, the specter of strained Sino-American relations is looming over security experts in a way that may not be immediately apparent.
For context, when former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with Tsai in Taipei last year, the visit sparked a series of war games. China’s military has held live-fire drills just 80 miles from the island, while the communist leadership, which claims Taiwan as its own since the Nationalist armies fled in 1949, described Pelosi’s visit as a “major political provocation.”
Tensions rose, then cooled and resurfaced over spy balloon fiascos, encirclement allegations, trips to the Kremlin and Tsai’s Wednesday meeting at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
The meeting is widely believed to be aimed at bolstering Taiwan’s most important ally and its commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, something US President Joe Biden openly promised during a 60 Minutes interview last year. As expected, Tsai’s trip drew sharp warnings from Beijing and promises of a tough, though unspecified, response. Scheduled to return to Taipei on Thursday, Tsai, who has said that “the best way to avoid war is to make ourselves stronger,” faces a growing Chinese threat that U.S. Rear Adm. in every war zone.”
Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a “faster lift [China’s] armed forces to world-class standards,” a key component of Beijing’s 2027 goals, which observers often point to as the date when China intends to be militarily capable of occupying Taiwan.
And yet, for all the hype, historical thinking often suggests that if a conflict were to occur over Taiwan, it would likely involve incursions using aircraft and missiles, coupled with devastating, albeit regionally limited, cyber attacks.
That kind of thinking seems to be dying out.
“The target in Taiwan is not just Taiwan, it’s the United States, and their goal is to keep us out of war,” Gen. (Ret.) Keith Alexander, a briefed encryption expert and former director of the National Security Agency, said last week. Cyber Initiatives Group Spring Summit.
Alexander, who also oversaw U.S. Cyber Command, discussed the prospect of a much broader conflict, including cyber attacks against U.S. command and control systems, defense providers and critical infrastructure inside U.S. borders, should a conflict over Taiwan materialize; could bring home the effects of war in a way Americans haven’t experienced in a generation.
“[Chinese forces] they will monitor not only the defense industrial base, our logistics system, but also important infrastructures, energy and other things,” he said. “It’s something they’re going to constantly work to get better at.”
Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, also discussed the threat at an event at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in February, saying that such attacks “are designed to cause chaos and panic in our country and to limit our ability to exercise military might and citizen will. »
“In the case when [China goes] After Taiwan, they want to make sure that they affect the unity that has been built between the United States and our international partners.
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Meanwhile, as war rages in Ukraine, China appears to be paying attention. Experts note that the conflict serves as a kind of “proof” of the comparative conflict over Taiwan, which allows Chinese researchers to assess not only the determination of the West, but also the relative successes and failures of a hybrid war that combines military strategy with large-scale strategy. a series of cyber attacks. Disinformation campaigns, hypersonic missiles, and the use of Starlink satellites have all recently come into greater focus, they add, as a result of the Ukraine conflict.
“I think the Chinese are learning from it [war],” added General Alexander, who later warned at the same summit that America has “a lot more infrastructure that is susceptible to this kind of [cyber] attacks”.
And yet, in some ways, strikes are already happening.
Last year, Mandiant announced that it had discovered a group of state-sponsored hackers from China that had been secretly digging into US government and business networks. The tactic was later determined to be so secretive that Charles Karmakal, Mandiant’s chief technology officer, admitted that the scope of Chinese infiltration of US targets was likely wider than currently recognized.
His team, he added, had trouble identifying the full scope of those threats.
“Even with our hunting equipment, it’s hard for them to find it,” he said. An annual threat assessment by US intelligence officials expanded on those concerns, noting that China “poses the broadest, most active and persistent cyber espionage threat to US government and private sector networks”.
In that report, officials noted that “if Beijing feared a major conflict with the United States was imminent, it would almost certainly consider aggressive cyber operations against critical US homeland infrastructure and military assets around the world.” The report also describes how the attacks will likely focus on “obstructing US decision-making, causing public panic, and interfering with the deployment of US forces” while attempting to “disrupt critical infrastructure services in the United States, including against oil and gas.” pipelines and railway systems”.
And yet, security experts at the summit noted that there could indeed be a failure.
Just as an attack against Taiwan would likely be preceded by cyber strikes against US mainland targets, a successful repulse of those strikes could also prevent a wider war, effectively making Beijing think twice about proceeding with Taiwan.
“It would be better if [China] came upon us, and we overthrew it and said: “Don’t try that and don’t go after Taiwan,” General Alexander noted.
“We could have stopped the attack by defeating the cyber phase.”
By David Ariosto, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Cipher Brief
Cipher Brief Writer Ethan Masukol and Ainsley Brown contributed to this report
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