Analysts say the recent leaks exposing top-secret U.S. surveillance programs may benefit China temporarily, but will not likely sway Washington from putting more pressure on Beijing to stop alleged Chinese cyber hacking against U.S. targets.
The leaks by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden came at an opportune time for China, just before U.S. President Barack Obama planned to prominently raise the issue of Chinese cyber hacking during a summit in California.
The original documents leaked by Snowden had little to do with China. They detailed a pair of classified domestic surveillance programs by the U.S. National Security Agency, under which authorities collected and monitored phone records and Internet usage.
Subsequent leaks by Snowden, who has fled to Hong Kong to fight extradition, revealed the NSA has been secretly spying on Chinese targets for years. That accusation prompted an angry reaction from China’s state-controlled media.
The Communist Party-controlled Global Times newspaper on Monday published an editorial calling for Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous sovereign territory of China, to not extradite Snowden.
It also praised him as a hero who exposed the U.S. government’s violation of civil rights.
The Global Times, which often expresses official viewpoints, has also called for Beijing officials to meet directly with Snowden in order to obtain more intelligence information that could be used during future negotiations with the United States.
Such comments suggest China will use Snowden’s information to deflect diplomatic pressure from Washington, which has attempted to hold China accountable for a series of high-profile cyber hacking attempts originating from its soil.
But there is not yet any evidence that Snowden has directly provided sensitive intelligence to Chinese officials. In a question-and-answer session in The Guardian newspaper on Monday, Snowden denied having had any contact with the Chinese government.
Jeffrey Reeves with Hawaii’s Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies says that such assurances have done little to calm the fears of U.S. intelligence officials, since Snowden has promised to reveal more information in the coming days.
“I think absolutely there is a lot of concern from the FBI now that’s investigating how much access he actually had,” he said. “And people from the NSA are very concerned that he could potentially have quite damaging information.”
But Steven Lewis, a China scholar with Houston’s Rice University, said it is unlikely Snowden is in direct contact with the Chinese government, given its official reaction.
“If he was actually being run as a spy, and it was viewed as an exceptionally sensitive thing by the Chinese government, I do not think the Global Times would be allowed to speculate on that issue,” he said.
Lewis says the leaks may have embarrassed the United States and made it more difficult for Obama to raise the issue of cyber attacks during his talks with Xi. But he doubts whether it will hamper U.S. efforts to raise the issue in the future.
William Martel, a professor of international security studies at Boston’s Tufts University, agrees. He says that the United States will have no problem keeping up the pressure, as long as allegations of widespread Chinese cyber hacking continue to appear in the headlines.
“I think it takes a little pressure off China at this point, but long-term, if in fact, as many allege, that China has been engaging in cyber spying and hacking, the pressure and scrutiny will continue,” he said.
President Obama echoed that sentiment in an interview that aired Monday on “The Charlie Rose Show” on PBS television. Obama said the Chinese have understood his very blunt message that cyber attacks have the potential to adversely affect the fundamentals of the U.S.-China relationship.