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Cyber Espionage Likely Supporting China’s Arctic Aspirations

There is little question that Beijing has seized the opportunity to capitalize on the United States’ internal division to implement its global agenda. Beijing has been more assertive, which was first seen in the March 2021 high-level meeting with the U.S. counterparts. While tensions ran high during the end of the previous U.S. administration with regards to tariffs and perceptions of China’s culpability in COVID, the meeting displayed an openly belligerent China. In the months following that contentious meeting, Beijing has relentlessly pursued its expansionist national interests.

Starting with its territorial disputes, Beijing has been actively militarizing artificial islands as well as increased pressure on its ongoing border dispute with India. Beijing continues to foster and develop its presence outside the region, notably Africa and Latin America where it escalates its diplomatic and economic engagement in a bid to increase its sway in the regions. And finally, with the United States’ evacuation from Afghanistan, China seeks to be the primary influencing agent with the Taliban, quickly establishing diplomatic relations in a strategically important country.

Clearly, U.S. domestic turmoil and negative perceptions of the United States on the world stage after its prompt Afghanistan evacuation has and continues to embolden Beijing in its goal of achieving its “Chinese Dream.” Simply, the United States’ lack of global leadership on issues like Afghanistan, pushing to uncover COVID origins, and the global ransomware scourge gives off the impression that the United States is not interested in being the leader but content to be one of many. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a leadership void, and given Beijing confidence to assert itself, like gaining the “upper hand” in verbal engagements with the U.S. President.

It is increasingly evident that China believes the timing is right for it to aggressively push its national interests. One area that often gets overlooked when looking at China’s expansionism is its interests in the Arctic. China’s interest in the area is not a secret, as it has promoted itself as a legitimate “Arctic State” as early as its 2011 Twelfth Five-Year Plan, and in its 2018 Arctic Policy. China has conducted several expeditions in the Arctic and established a research base there in 2003. Certainly, the Arctic offers many advantages that are in alignment with Beijing’s priorities to include scientific research, shipping routes, and resource exploration. More importantly, Beijing has invested heavily pouring money into nearly every country surrounding the Arctic, a tactic China has employed to support diplomatic efforts around the world.

China’s expansionist agenda requires a multi-pronged effort where it leverages economics, trade, diplomacy, and technology to get governments on its side under the banner of “mutual benefit.” However, as evidenced by the global cyber espionage campaign that it employs, Beijing does not rely on conventional state-on-state engagements, resorting to all types of data theft to supplement their visibility and insight. The complexities of the geopolitical landscape necessitate the acquisition of timely, accurate, and actionable information, and helps explain China’s diverse organizational and regional cyber operations. Considering this information, it is logical to presume that in positions where Beijing has a vested interest and may not have an influential hand in an outcome, it would engage in cyber espionage activities to gain an advantage ahead of any decisions.

Based on its cyberespionage history, as China tries to entrench itself further into Arctic matters, Beijing is likely engaging in similar types of intelligence collection against other Arctic states. Unfortunately, there is little open-source reporting that details cyber threat, no less cyber espionage, activities targeting the region. This is not to say that it is not happening; absence of evidence is not evidence of absence and given the breadth and expanse of Chinese cyber espionage, this lack of visibility is disconcerting. As a limited permanent observer nation, China lacks voting power reserved for the permanent eight-member Arctic Council, which means while it knows the concerns discussed by the Council, it has no authority to influence decisions or their outcomes. Key issues like climate change, maritime rights, fisheries, pollution, and oil/gas/mineral exploration are ones of great interest to Beijing, particularly with respect to its economic plans like the Polar Silk Road, as well as other natural resources efforts.

Despite U.S. Department of Justice indictments, unclassified government reports, and countless private cyber security vendors identifying Chinese cyber espionage activities, there is no indication that Beijing intends to stop using this tactic. That is because cyber espionage has proven itself an effective information collection medium for the Chinese who have honed the ability to obtain substantial amounts of data, aggregate, prioritize, and use the data to support it Chinese leadership’s decision-making and strategy. Recent reporting reveals that Beijing is responsible for two-thirds of hostile cyber activity attributed to state actors, according to one cyber security vendor report. More disconcerting, however, is the fact that despite the well-publicized nature of these campaigns, Chinese cyber espionage continues to succeed without significant interruption or substantial repercussion. States have not found a way to curb the volume of Chinese cyber espionage, no less deter it.

As Beijing makes moves to assert itself in the Arctic, it will be important for it to understand the strategic interests of countries that surround the area, what their priorities are, and where they are willing to compromise. Ascertaining Arctic Council state positions would give Beijing a decision-making advantage from which to negotiate with and or influence members or other states with observer status. That begins with targeting and exploiting the Arctic region leadership and the senior policymakers that support their respective heads of state and is exactly the kind of operation that an experienced and sophisticated cyber adversary like Beijing is adept at, and most likely currently, executing.

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Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello has nearly 20 years’ experience as a strategic cyber intelligence analyst, supporting US government civilian and military intelligence organizations, as well as the private sector. He has delivered cyber threat presentations to domestic and international audiences and has published extensively in such peer-reviewed journals as Parameters, Journal of Strategic Security, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and the Cyber Defense Review, among others. All comments and opinions expressed are solely his own.