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In China, Hacker Allegations Seen as Omen, Opportunity

FILE - A cyber warfare expert who is chief technology officer of the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, a non-profit group that studies the impact of cyber threats, holds a notebook computer while posing for a portrait.
A U.S. cyber security company's allegation this week that the Chinese military is running cyber espionage operations from a high-rise complex in Shanghai appears to be turning into yet another thorn in the side of U.S.-China relations. Some Chinese analysts say the latest allegations could affect ties.

Part of the building of 'Unit 61398', a secretive Chinese military unit, is seen in the outskirts of Shanghai, February 19, 2013.
Part of the building of 'Unit 61398', a secretive Chinese military unit, is seen in the outskirts of Shanghai, February 19, 2013.
The report by cyber security firm Mandiant took direct aim at China's government. It says it can trace years of attacks on U.S. corporations to a specific division of the People's Liberation Army (Unit 61398).

Chinese authorities have rejected the allegations, while domestic media have alleged ulterior motives behind the report.

On Thursday, a China Daily editorial argued what it said was the real reason for the accusation - a beefing up of the Pentagon’s Cyber Command. The piece said that in recent weeks, U.S. media have reported plans to aggressively expand Cyber Command in the coming years.

It also noted that two years ago when the Pentagon set up its Cyber Command there were similar accusations.

Other Chinese publications dismissed the hacking allegations as baseless. The Chinese-language version of the Global Times mocked U.S. media coverage as hyping the report's findings.

Cyber threats are among the increasing number of challenges to relations between the U.S. and China. Economic disputes have long plagued ties. And over the past year, island disputes in the South China Sea or between Japan and China have also become more intense.

“We found that more and more tensions have happened in strategic affairs. This is not good," said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Beijing’s Renmin University of China. "It is almost a bad omen.”

Shen Dingli, a political scientist at Shanghai’s Fudan University, says that while the U.S. government has yet to back Mandiant's claim that the Shanghai building is the true source of the attacks, there is reason to be concerned about the situation.

“The situation looks bad and if China has done it, it is not appropriate. It would violate China’s own law. And this would make other countries' attacks on China kind of legitimate,” said Shen.

Shen said while the accusations in the Mandiant report are questionable, there is no doubt cyberspace has become a new field of competition for the two countries and that both are active in carrying out attacks.

“I think that China is probably doing it massively, a lot of attacks, and the U.S. is doing it more pointedly, to a particular place,” explained Shen.

Professor Shi says because of that, the two countries need to talk.

“At least this kind of claim and objection provides a chance that both China and the United States, both governments should face this kind of issue more directly and launch some dialogue and talks to discuss this,” stated Shen.

Chinese and U.S. officials have discussed cyber security issues and the two sides have held unofficial or “track two” talks as they are called. But analysts say that the engagement is not enough to meet the complexity of the challenges that come with cyber attacks.