Cyber Technology and Security Correspondent – Max Kobrak
China-Russia Cybersecurity Relationship Likely Political
06 April 2016
It is likely military cyber cooperation between China and Russia will not significantly improve China’s cyberwarfare capabilities. Russia trusts China less than the United States on cyber-related issues, even though China and Russia have made extensive cybersecurity agreements since 2009.[i] It is also likely China violated its most recent cybersecurity pact with Russia less than three months after it was made.[ii]
Official cybersecurity and information-sharing pacts between Russia and China have existed since 2009. In the most recent pact, they agreed to stop malicious technology, share cyber threat data and information technology, advocate for internet sovereignty, and cease mutual hacking activities.[iii] A majority of these provisions were already in existence between other countries.[iv]
More significantly, the U.S. announced its own cyber non-aggression pact with Russia. The U.S. also agreed to resume cyber cooperation activities, which halted during the annexation of Crimea.[v]
Russia identified a series of phishing emails that began in July, which targeted members of the Russian military.[vi] The emails used macros imbedded in word documents to download backdoors, which gave hackers access to Russian networks. Further investigation revealed Chinese-language tools facilitated the making of the macros and the emails ran through Chinese servers.[vii] China and Russia made a cyber cooperation pact and agreed not to hack each other only three months prior.[viii]
This is not the first time Russia has been given reason to mistrust China. Moscow drastically reduced the sale of arms to China in 2006 when it discovered Chinese defense contractors were selling reverse-engineered Russian weapons to other countries for lower prices.[ix]–[x] Russia is likely weary of exchanging cyber technology and methodologies, which may give it an edge over China.
China is also concerned that Russian defense contractors are selling arms to countries involved in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The Russian military is conducting exercises with some of those countries, most notably Vietnam and Indonesia.[xi]–[xii]
It is likely mutual mistrust between China and Russia will limit levels of cyber cooperation to low-risk and mutually beneficial areas. Although extensive, the actual details of the Sino-Russian cyber pacts are hardly more significant than common practices. It is unlikely that it will enhance China’s cyber capabilities, although the agreement may help improve cybersecurity between the two countries.
Analytic confidence for this assessment is medium. The analyst used Analysis of Competing Hypothesis for this project. Source reliability is high and all sources corroborated each other. The analyst’s expertise is low and the analyst worked alone with slight discussion with teammates. Subject complexity is high and the time available for the task was adequate.