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In China, Hagel Outlines U.S. Approach To Cybersecurity


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. The United States is trying to learn more about China's military and cyber capabilities. But the United States is trying an unusual approach, following the philosophy that in order to get something, you have to give something. The U.S. is revealing more about what America's cyber forces can do, hoping that China might reveal something too.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us in our studios now to explain what's going on here. Hi, Tom.


INSKEEP: OK. So Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is doing this, disclosing information in a speech to the Chinese. What's he saying and why is he saying it?

BOWMAN: Well, he's basically laying out what U.S. doctrine is for cyber warfare and Hagel said in speech he wants to start a discussion with the Chinese. He said he wants a new model in military to military relations. And basically, Steve, what he's doing is taking a page from the Cold War. Back then the U.S. and Soviet had discussions about nuclear weapons, the parameters for their use.

So at the height of the Cold War both sides understood the rules. And this of course led to the hotline, the red phone that they had. They want to do the same thing in cyber now. Cyber is a new and powerful weapon. Now they're trying to come out with rules so it doesn't spiral out of control.

INSKEEP: I'm reminded of that old diplomatic saying that if everybody knows what everybody else is doing, that's a stabilizing force. It's actually lack of information or fear that can lead to violence and misunderstandings and war.

BOWMAN: That's right. And here's the problem - both say we want more openness but both already are using different kinds of cyber attacks. Right now China is routinely hacking into U.S. businesses, basically stealing intellectual property. And the Pentagon just last year said for the first time the Chinese government was behind all this and called it a serious concern.

Hagel once again raised this concern in his speech. But listen, the U.S. doesn't have clean hands either. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden released documents showing the U.S. had hacked into China's telecom giant Huawei. And they're looking into other - probing other telecom companies as well. And beyond that, they're going to triple their cyber warriors to 6,000 next couple of years.

INSKEEP: So we know that both sides are doing this but you have Hagel in China delivering this speech and you've got a copy there on the desk in front of you. So what is Hagel saying that we didn't already know, that the public did not already know or that China did not already know about the United States and its capabilities?

BOWMAN: Well, basically, you know, they're going to triple the number of cyber warriors.

INSKEEP: That's the main thing.

BOWMAN: The doctrine, you know, how they're doing to use it, you know, and so forth. Not too much information. I mean clearly some of this is secret. And he's urging China to do the same thing. But here's the problem, Steve. You know, China likely sees cyber as an edge in a possible future war against the U.S. so why would they talk so much about it? And they've always been secretive about their military.

They don't even release much about their budget. So they're pretty secretive. So some people are saying why would they even have anything to say about their military edge?

INSKEEP: OK. So we'll find out if, in fact, China does disclose things over time. Let me ask you about one other thing, Tom Bowman. Earlier on this trip Hagel was warning China not to violate the sovereignty of its neighbors. What's he talking about there?

BOWMAN: Well, he's talking about Japan in particular and China has claims rights to certain islands...

INSKEEP: In the South China Sea we're talking about here.

BOWMAN: The East China Sea, right. And China' beefing up its military activities there, expanding far from its shores. So that's a real concern, and Hagel raised that again in Beijing today. He said, listen, all these disputes must be resolved diplomatically and that intimidation and coercion just won't work.

INSKEEP: A reminder here that we have two giant trading partners but they also have security conflicts and the U.S. has allies in the region that have conflicts with China.

BOWMAN: Exactly. And there's real concern about this at the Pentagon, that the problems between China and Japan in the East China Sea could escalate into a shooting war. They're really worried about that.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.