September 22, 2016
The sparsely populated Spratly Islands, a collection of hundreds of islands and reefs spread over roughly 165,000 square miles in the South China Sea, are very quickly becoming the center of one of the most contentious international disputes between world powers since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Alarmingly, the use of cyber attacks in this dispute suggests we might already be in the midst of a new Cold War playing out in cyberspace — where America’s advantage is not as clear as it is with conventional armies and navies.
The Spratly Islands are of economic and strategic importance. All of the countries in the region — including China, Vietnam and the Philippines — have made competing territorial claims to the region. In recent years, China has become increasingly aggressive in its claim, rapidly building artificial islands while also conducting military operations in the area.
Beyond this conventional military build up, however, are complex and brazen cyber attacks by China that are leaving America and its allies increasingly concerned.
A massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack knocked offline at least 68 Philippine government websites in July, apparently in response to an international court ruling that denied China’s territorial claims in the region. Just days later, Vietnam’s national airline and major airports were targeted in a series of attacks by the Chinese hacking group 1937CN.
Those are just the latest examples of China’s years long cyber campaign related to the Spratly Islands. (In another attack, the website of the aforementioned international court was infected with malware and taken offline last year.)
While these “nuisance” attacks — and continued cyber espionage by China — are serious, targeted Chinese cyber attacks designed to impact America’s physical military systems in the South China Sea are the most substantial evidence that we may be on the brink of a more tangible cyber threat to American military power.