Why Not Lead This Time From Behind

This week the Justice Department announced charges against 5 Chinese military officers. The charge, fraud by computer theft. The victims, major US companies and one labor union. The question, why now?

It has been long rumored that Chinese groups had been hacking into US computer networks. It was also reasonably well known that a number of individual Chinese living in the US had engaged in theft of US intellectual assets and then tried to smuggle them back to China.

So why these public charges and why now?

Intellectual property does not carry the same value in China and Korea as we are used to in the US. It is not unheard of for Chinese and Korean firms to buy blueprints from reputable sources in order to build a factory. Subsequently, they will replicate those factories without any compensation to the blueprint’s architect. In their ethical system, once intellectual property is in the public domain, it is free to be used. Hmmm.

But these Justice Department charges are different. These refer to official government employees acquiring information and transferring this know-how to quasi-private sector companies. The assumed goal of this theft appears to be to provide competitive advantage to Chinese companies. To the American psyche this is two against one, unfair.

The greater question about US action is why these indictments? There is no chance of ever arraigning these individuals. In the world public opinion court, the US complaint will fall on very deaf ears, thanks to the Snowden-NSA leaks. And in the real world, business in China does not follow the same rules as doing business in Pennsylvania.

(A short reflection on how the European Powers trampled over Chinese rights with forced trading agreements should provide some understanding on where the Chinese might be coming from.)

If in fact the Administration was just firing a shot across the bow, “knock it off” so to speak, the timing couldn’t have been worse. Russian President Putin arrived the next day for a State visit and will leave with a $400 billion energy deal. It would seem that if the US were trying to unite once again Russia and China, these charges were a step in the right direction. With China acting up in the South China Sea and Russia making moves against Eastern European lands, I would have expected a far more strategic move by the US. Divide and conquer would seem as relevant as ever.

On the other hand, what if these charges were highly influenced by domestic policy issues? What if pro-NSA factions within the US government wanted to turn attention away from the personal privacy issues raised by Edward Snowden? What if these Pro-NSA forces were just fine with a wedge between the US and Russia or China? What if pro-NSA fans wanted the spot light off NSA spying? In government, most things are not what they appear to be.

The beauty of these Justice Department charges are that they have legal merit even if they are impossible to press. While the news media ponders the greater impact upon US-China relations, the NSA-types smugly will go about their business as if Edward Snowdon had never existed.

What a situation for the President to lead from behind.

 

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