Monday night’s announcement that China was behind large-scale cyber hacking activities worldwide was unprecedented for the size of the coalition that jointly made it.
Three Australian ministers Karen Andrews, Marise Payne and Peter Dutton  jointly issued a statement coordinated with the White House, NATO, the European Union, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Japan.
In it, they accused China of engaging in “malicious cyber activities”, in what was described as a “pattern of irresponsible, disruptive, and destabilising behaviour in cyberspace”.
But today, Beijing hit back hard and fast, claiming through state media that it was the victim of cyber warfare and alleging three specific attacks on China originating from the US.
The unusually detailed account of the alleged hacking campaigns came as China’s government accused Australia of hypocrisy and “parroting the rhetoric of the US”.
Beijing also accused Washington of “massive and indiscriminate eavesdropping on many countries”, labelling its accusations as “groundless”.
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The tit-for-tat war of words might appear routine in an era President Joe Biden has described as one of “extreme competition” between the superpowers.
But cybersecurity experts warn the online battlefield is intensifying and will only worsen the already fraught relationship between China and the West.
China operates ‘a distributed web of hackers’
The US announced charges against three Ministry of State security employees and a fourth person based on China’s southern holiday island of Hainan for their alleged role in hacking foreign governments, companies and universities. 
But the details of the attacks and commercial theft came as little surprise to those in the cybersecurity sector.
And it did not appear to surprise the Chinese government itself, which used its state media arms to deploy a counter-narrative within hours.
The Global Times, an unofficial Communist Party tabloid with a track record of stories about Western espionage against China, put out an article claiming three US-based hacking groups launched attacks last year.
“Multiple US hacking groups have exploited vulnerabilities and forcefully targeted important, sensitive websites and servers of Chinese government and Communist Party organisations, plus enterprises and education institutions,” the Global Times said.
The article claimed two separate US groups in October last year targeted almost 3,500 computers in China, including a car manufacturing company, a steel company, and multiple universities.
A third group launched a smaller attack mainly targeting Chinese educational institutions mid-last year, according to the report, which didn’t attribute the information.
“China tries to make it like for like, but in reality we have very different norms,” said Robert Potter, the Canberra-based head of cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0.
“When China hacks for the purpose of espionage, we might not be happy about it, but we don’t say they broke the rules.
“Whereas when they steal corporate secrets and confidential information, we call them out.”
Mr Potter said the Australian government was less affected in the attack exploiting a vulnerability in Microsoft Exchange servers than some other countries, but there were corporate victims. 
And he said the US allegation that China’s Ministry of State Security was sponsoring private groups of hackers who engaged in commercial theft was widely known.
“The Chinese operate a distributed web of hackers, so the level of government control over their activities isn’t as high,” he said. 
“I think the government would prefer their hackers have more discipline, but China trades away centralised control for greater effectiveness.”
Indictment aims to ‘deeply embarrass’ leadership
Another cybersecurity expert, Greg Austin, agrees the tactics revealed in the US indictment aren’t new, but the urgency to combat them is.
“It shows an intensity within the Biden administration that they’ve appointed top people to different positions and they’ve got on top of it in a way the Trump administration didn’t achieve,” he said.
President Joe Biden says China and the US are in an era of “extreme competition.” (AP: Andrew Harnik
The US has previously announced indictments for Chinese military personnel over commercial espionage, and it’s extremely unlikely the four Chinese nationals charged by American prosecutors would ever face the US justice system. 
But more troubling for China’s leader Xi Jinping would be the growing unity among Western allies to push back.
“I found it surprising that the EU and NATO have come out at this critical juncture,” said Professor Austin, who leads a cybersecurity program at Singapore’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“I think it bodes ill for the prospect of strong, positive relations between both organisations and China, and sadly seems to validate the Australian government’s hardening stance.”
He believes the purpose of the US-led indictment is to “deeply embarrass” the Chinese leadership.
“It shows either the Chinese government is approving this [commercial theft] activity or the officials in the provincial Hainan MSS bureau are undertaking activities that violate China’s own laws,” he said.
China’s government has long maintained that it is a victim of cyber attacks and a statement issued by China’s embassy in Australia said it “always firmly opposes cyber attacks and cyber theft in all forms”.
An international coalition has blamed China for a hacking campaign on Microsoft in January.(AP: Mark Schiefelbein
It also accused Australia of being “extremely hypocritical”.
“Australia has a poor record, including monitoring the mobile phone of the president of its biggest neighbour country,” it said, referring to the 2009 eavesdropping attempt on then-Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, which was revealed by American whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Australia, the Chinese embassy said, is “like a thief crying ‘stop the thief'”.

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