China’s Digital And Cyber Threat – OpEd


Malaysia remains high on China’s radar in the realm of digital economy and derivation of interests to its strategic calculations. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is geared to lead Chinese tech heavyweights to invest in Malaysian companies with greater stake in e-commerce and others, eyeing Malaysia’s fast growing US$21 billion digital economy.

China’s decades old quest to develop infrastructure overseas has shifted to the new purpose and strategy of new technology, one that will propel both its soft power narrative and critical impact on its hard power returns. This new drive is projected in the reported intent for China to deepen ties and investments in Malaysia’s digital assets, mainly under the banner of its Belt and Road Initiative. Critical areas including artificial intelligence, data management, cyber sphere and e-commerce will be in the radar, stating the importance of the spin-off effects to both countries especially in spearheading a more effective digital economy ecosystem.

The Malaysian Digital Economic Blueprint calls for developing a digital economy from 2021 to 2030 and turning the country into a “pioneer in digital content and cybersecurity in the regional market”, which provides a great opening for Beijing to seize upon. In doing so, Malaysia’s current laws and systems allow a relatively free flow of Chinese investment, compared with other countries. In its desperation to move up the value chain in our future economic tools, Chinese-funded projects become an easy reliance. Risks and threats in various forms and levels that come with this opening have not been given the level of proper evaluation and concerns, let alone be considerably explained to the public.

As reported in the findings by Lahore University’s Centre for Chinese Legal Studies, China has been looking for an “integration of markets” along the pan-Eurasia belt and road via digital infrastructure in getting the best returns from its regional digital expansion. In synergising its integrated approach, Chinese major tech firms including Alibaba, Huawei and Tencent are driven to play the leading role, especially in Malaysia in both providing the needed investment returns and also in fulfilling the broader agenda of Beijing’s strategies for the region and the country.

Jeremy Fleming, director of the GCHQ spy agency of Britain, has recently stated this week in his annual security lecture that China is using its financial and scientific muscle to manipulate technologies in a manner that risks global security, warning that Beijing’s actions could represent a huge threat to all. Chinese leadership seeks to use technologies including digital currencies and its Beidou satellite navigation platform to tighten its grip over its citizens at home, while spreading its influence abroad. This is an ongoing manifestation to control the potential of the Chinese people rather than supporting their talent and freedom. As Jeremy pointed out, Beijing sees nations from a two-pronged viewpoint, either as potential adversaries or potential client states, to be threatened, bribed, or coerced into the expected actions or policies that will suit Beijing’s interests.

Fleming highlighted technologies where China is seeking to gain leverage, including development of a centralised, digital currency to allow it to monitor the transactions of users, and to possibly evade the sort of sanctions Russia has faced since the Ukraine invasion.Space capacity and power projection in the form of building a powerful anti-satellite capacity with a doctrine of denying other nations access to space in the event of a conflict are increasing, and Jeremy expressed fears that the technology could be used to track individuals.Major incidents involving hacking and cyber threats have affected the region, ranging from the South China Sea issue to the Uighur community.

According to Insikt Group, the threat research arm of Recorded Future,one of the world’s largest intelligence and cybersecurity company, Malaysia is among the targets, including Indonesia and Vietnam, of intrusion campaigns in support of key strategic aims of the Chinese government including gathering intelligence on nations engaged in the South China Sea dispute or on projects or countries strategically important to the BRI. The report also highlighted a group called APT40, linked to the Chinese government, that has targeted maritime entities with operations in the region or involved with the sea dispute. The hackers focused on the offices of the Thai and Malaysian prime ministers, as well as their militaries, as outlined in the report. This also includes the identification of over 400 unique servers in Southeast Asia communicating with infected networks that were likely linked to Chinese state-sponsored actors. Much of the activities have been attributed to a Chinese state-sponsored entity labelled Threat Activity Group 16 (TAG-16).The report stated that the scale and scope of China’s cyber espionage programme remain unrivalled, exemplified by the large number of distinct actors with operational taskings within specific geographic regions.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Christopher Wray warned Western and other companies that China aims to steal for strategic dominance their intellectual property, so it can eventually dominate key industries and that it operated a well-resourced hacking programme that is bigger than that of every other major country combined. US government and cybersecurity companies such as Proofpoint have long alleged that China runs expansive hacking operations. Proofpoint also pointed out the ongoing phishing campaign lasting more than a year that has been aimed at gas fields owned by Malaysia’s oil and gas giant, Petronas including the Kasawari gas field, singling out a group known as TA423 based in China.

A Reuters report on statements by intelligence officials uncovered hackers working for the Chinese government breaking into telecoms networks to track Uighur travellers in Southeast Asia a few years ago including Malaysia, further highlighted the scope and intensity of the wider cyber-espionage campaign and threats in targeting high value individuals including diplomats and foreign military personnel, according to the sources. Different groups of Chinese hackers have compromised telecom operators in countries including Turkey, Kazakhstan, India, Thailand, apart from Malaysia, as pointed out by the sources in the report.

US cybersecurity company Volexity published a report detailing what it said were Chinese efforts to hack the phones and email accounts of Uighurs around the world.Other cybersecurity firms such as FireEye, Cybereason and many others have similarly raised the alarm over the measures and tactics employed in the cyber espionage realm of surgical and targeted tactics and approaches used.

This, among many others, provided a stark awakening to the threats faced in the digital world as part of the wave of non-conventional threats coming from a traditional state-led threat now led by China. This digital and cyber threat spectrum is just one part of the much larger threat equation now facing us and other nations, and will continue to remain so and even amplified in intensity should the region and the world remain indifferent. The combination of direct and indirect intrusions and threats in this digital form, synergised with the conventional form of coercion, pressure and intimidation, provide a comprehensive risk spectrum to the survival, interests and sustainability of the region as a whole.

As expected, China has dismissed all the reports as mere allegations laden with ulterior motives and ill intentions by the West out to discredit its purpose and rise, and providing counter-arguments by identifying itself as the victim of the West’s concerted and persistent manoeuvre to isolate China and suppress its peaceful expansion of economic and trade outreach.

True happenings on the ground have been recorded and documented, but met with dismal and subdued responses by most of the affected nations, including Malaysia. The ingrained grip on the region’s economic prospects provide a safe and comfortable assurance for Beijing, coupled with the increased soft power and media influence and narrative in further solidifying its dominance in dictating the policy options of the nations involved. Knowing that Malaysia’s unfavourable economic trap will mean that it will need to continue to solicit China’s capital and expertise in developing its progress especially in the digital field, Beijing seeks to seize on this to both extend its leadership in this digital sector and to bank on it as an effective quid pro quo and kryptonite in squeezing Malaysia’s options.

For years, the West has warned of the implications and risks from this too deeply ingrained reliance on Chinese tech firms and expertise, including suspicions and risks posed by firms including Huawei that have led to serious reorientation and pushback by the West, but the region remains aloof and hapless in its orientations.

Threats from this nature alone are alarming, not including the risks of Chinese apps and social media platforms that have raised alarms in the West particularly Tik Tok and others that might pose vulnerabilities in sensitive data management that could be used for Beijing’s interests. These questions remain crucial for Malaysia and the region: What are the cost-benefit calculations on its digital overdrive in facing this onslaught of offerings and enticements in its current scramble for digital economy uplifting? Has Malaysia done meticulous, impartial, honest and future-driven strategic projections on its comprehensive security and survival be it in data safety or oil and gas assets in the South China Sea resulting from potential backfiring in its current pandering to easy digital support from China? All these need truthful and honest assessments for Malaysia’s own reality check in its hunger and scramble to join the digital bandwagon and in expanding its economic transformation.

Various discussions, debates and awareness programmes have touched upon the aspect of cyber security and digital risk awareness, but almost practically none has highlighted the domain of risks and threats posed by China or its related parties in this field of threats to Malaysia’s national interests and security. None would have been bold and audacious enough to stand up for the truth and in projecting the reality that has affected the country and the communities, at least not in a way that will incite the wrath and retaliation by the platform providers or Beijing itself.

Awareness on this domain, is alas, expectedly low which Beijing is again wisely able to exploit in getting the desired returns and outcomes in the wider sphere of the ultimate end game of regional and global geopolitical outcome.

Squeezed now by Washington’s move to isolate its critical industry capacity in chips and semiconductors, Beijing is reorienting its moves and expanding its strategic net by including Malaysia and the region on its survival radar. For Malaysia, unless and until it has the needed public awareness and willingness to call for reasonable engagement and action, it will remain trapped under this dogma of fear, submission and unwillingness to create new future-led solutions and in facing hard truths.

Collins Chong Yew Keat

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya, the top university in Malaysia for more than 9 years. His areas of interests include strategic and security studies, American foreign policy and power analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.

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