Persistent activity by Chinese cyberspies reveals just how vulnerable America remains to digital security breaches. In the cyberworld, the playing field has leveled, and the United States, without the fortified cyberprotections to match the threat, remains target No. 1.
This fact makes President Obama's recent message to Chinese President Xi Jinping even more disappointing. When the two recently met in California, Mr. Obama elected for a softer approach and cited the need to establish "common rules of the road," in some way implying that the obligation to secure America is a two-way street.
The president should have taken cues from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who just the week before in Singapore took China to task, publicly stating that the latest string of cyber-attacks against the United States "appear to be tied to the Chinese government and military." Mr. Hagel's predecessor, Leon E. Panetta, was equally assertive in calling attention to the cyberthreat, warning of a "cyber Pearl Harbor," capable of causing "physical destruction and loss of life, paralyze and shock the nation, and create a profound sense of vulnerability."
In fairness, the distinction between the defense secretaries' pronouncements and the president's call for a mutually agreeable rule book might be the design of a broader strategy among the president and his security team. If so, a new plan is needed desperately, though. Reports from the meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi predictably highlighted China's refusal to take responsibility for multiplying cyber-attacks, despite abundant evidence of Beijing's complicity.
The cyberthreat against U.S. industry and government targets is too serious for the commander in chief to pass off to surrogates the duty of drawing hard lines while he calls for more cooperation. This is especially so when calls for cooperation are ignored by the same nations, China included, with the least to gain from reordering the playing field.
In the meantime, China is expanding its focus from news organizations, private companies, government agencies and even political campaigns. Computer-based attacks are targeting military programs with greater frequency, with significant consequence to U.S. security.
The latest major breach by cyberspies provided China with access to designs for dozens of U.S. weapons systems, many of which are integral to the shift in U.S. global defense strategy to the Pacific region. By gaining access to information on systems that include missile defenses, combat aircraft and vessels, China is better positioned to counter specific weapons, most of which have a unique and necessary role in the pivot to the Pacific. In the process, China is sure to have accelerated the development of its own weaponry, avoiding some of the time and cost associated with developing systems, and further closed the military-technology gap.
Mr. Obama must know, as the saying goes, that the best defense is a good offense.
The claim by Edward Snowden, now in public view for revealing information about classified intelligence programs, is that the National Security Agency has engaged in 61,000 cyber-operations of its own, including the targeting of Chinese assets. While unconfirmed, Mr. Snowden's claim underscores the prevalence and depth of cyber-operations in a fully digitized world, in addition to the necessity for the United States to maintain an aggressive and forward-leaning cyberstrategy.
Building and strengthening cybersecurity is a must, a fact that Mr. Obama has rightly acknowledged at times, but the most effective security is best achieved through proactive measures. Cooperative agreements, while potentially beneficial on much a smaller scale, are no match for the neutralizing effect of enhancing the exposure of China's military and government.
For this to happen, the president must show the muscle to stand firm against China's cyber-infiltrations. Worrying less about defining the "rules of the road" and reiterating America's commitment to cybersecurity, supported by the necessary advancements, will send the message loud and clear that the United States will do all it takes to confront the threats of the 21st century.
Rep. Duncan Hunter is a California Republican.