Trade war

Apple. China. Cyberwar.

March 31, 2013: 8:02 PM ET

Are China's hacker attacks and its anti-Apple campaign both preludes to a trade war?

Shanghai headquarters of Unit 61398. Photo: NYTimes

Shanghai headquarters of Unit 61398. Photo: NYTimes

FORTUNE -- Hillary Clinton and Admiral Mike Mullen. The nuclear weapons labs at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge. The U.S. Departments of Homeland Security, State, Energy and Commerce. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Lockheed Martin, Dow Chemical and Coca Cola. Adobe, Yahoo and Google

That, according to an alarming (and alarmingly hawkish) article in the Wall Street Journal's weekend edition, is a partial list of U.S. interests targeted by a group of Chinese hackers who over the past decade have allegedly drained terabytes of military and commercial secrets from U.S. servers.

The list was drawn from a 60-page report issued in February by Mandiant, an American computer security firm that says it traced the source of the attacks to the doorstep of the 12-story building in the photo above, the Shanghai headquarters of the People's Liberation Army's top secret Unit 61398.

What does this have to do with Apple (AAPL)?

Three things.

  • First, although the Journal piece doesn't name it, the Mandiant report strongly suggests that Apple was among the dozens of U.S. companies targeted by Chinese hackers. (So, for that matter, was CNN.)
  • Second, the campaign against Apple on Chinese TV -- see here, here and here -- began four weeks after the New York Times put Mandiant's evidence of Chinese hacking on its front page and four days after the Obama administration publicly condemned it for the first time.
  • Three, reader Carl Levinson, who recommended the Journal piece, is convinced that the campaign against Apple and the pattern of data thefts are both part of a broad, state-sponsored attack on American interests. Levinson, an early computer pioneer and long-time China hand, makes a strong case that what we are seeing now is "blunt, corrupt mercantilism."

"China is going to keep eviscerating America until we put our foot down," Levinson writes. "It's simple freakonomics -- we must make it 'cost too much' to cheat us. Regrettably, that means a hard-nosed trade war."

I hope he's wrong. I fear he isn't.

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