Ahmed Ibrahim, Edith Cowan University and Paul Haskell-Dowland, Edith Cowan UniversityOver the past few years, tensions have been rising between Russia and the United States — not in conventional military terms, but in cyberspace. The issue came to a head at this month’s summit in Geneva, when US President Joe Biden threatened reprisals over allegedly Russian-backed cyber-attacks on US targets.
This confrontation first rose to global attention in 2016, when the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reported Russia had directly influenced the outcome of the presidential election, favouring the Republican candidate Donald Trump by hacking and leaking 60,000 emails from the private account of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign director.
Then, in 2020, a major cyber attack on IT firm SolarWinds compromised the security of a wide range of US government and industry entities, including the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security.
Trump administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held Russia responsible for the incident, although Trump himself went against the consensus, seeking to downplay the attack and blame China instead.
Microsoft president Brad Smith described it as the “largest and most sophisticated attack the world has ever seen”. Microsoft began investigating the attack after many of its customers were caught up in it, including major tech companies and federal agencies.
Russia denied any involvement in the SolarWinds incident, publicly rejecting what it described as “unfounded attempts of the US media to blame Russia for hacker attacks on US governmental bodies”.
The attack was ultimately attributed to a cyber-criminal group called Nobelium, which has continued to be active and allegedly perpetrated a series of cyber-attacks earlier this year, although there is no clear evidence it did so with Kremlin backing.
Fuel pipelines and black angus steak
That was followed last month by an attack on meat processor JBS, shutting down parts of its operations in the US, Canada and Australia, and severely disrupting global meat supplies. This time the FBI pointed the finger at REvil, another profitable Russian-based cyber-criminal group.
In both of these cases, the victims reportedly paid ransoms to resume their operations. While this is expensive and arguably encourages future attacks, disruptions in operations can be even more costly.
The FBI claims to have recovered more than US$2 million of the ransom paid by the Colonial Pipeline Company.
A few weeks before the Colonial Pipeline attack, the Biden administration imposed economic sanctions on Russia over its cyber-meddling in US elections. But the US has now understandably made combating ransomware attacks its top priority.
Does the US engage in similar activities?
The US is certainly known for its cyber-offensive capabilities. Perhaps the most widely reported engagement was the 2010 Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear program.
In 2015, the US Cyber Command and National Security Agency successfully hacked key members of ISIS, while the following year Wikileaks revealed the CIA had developed a powerful suite of hacking tools.
The US has both the capability and the motivation to conduct extensive cyber-infiltration of its adversaries.
At this month’s US-Russia summit in Geneva, Biden talked about establishing cyber-norms and declaring certain critical infrastructure as off-limits.
This list identified 16 sectors that should be excluded from offensive action, including government facilities, IT systems, energy infrastructure, and food and agriculture — all four of which have come under suspected Russian-backed attack in recent years.
Some cyber-security advocates have criticised US strategies in recent years as being too weak. Biden’s comments at the Geneva summit seem to be an attempt to strike a firmer tone.
So is this the start of a cyber-war?
Cyberspace is considered the fifth domain for warfare, after land, sea, air and space. But the truth is that IT systems are now so ubiquitous that they are also firmly embedded in the four other domains too, meaning a successful cyber attack can weaken an enemy in many kinds of ways.
This in turn can make it hard to even define what counts as an offensive act of cyber-war, let alone identify the aggressor.
Although the Kremlin continues to deny any association with cyber-criminal gangs such as DarkSide or REvil, Russia nevertheless stands accused of giving them safe harbour.
How do we stop global cyber attacks?
The recent Ransomware Task Force report specifically attempted to address the issue of ransomware. But it also offers useful advice for countering state-backed cyber-crime. It recommends:
- coordinated, international diplomatic and law-enforcement efforts to confront cyber-threats
- establishing relevant agencies to manage cyber incidents
- internationally coordinated efforts to establish frameworks to help organisations that are subject to cyber-attacks.
Successfully stamping out international cyber-attacks will be tremendously hard, and is ultimately only achievable with good diplomacy, trust, cooperation and communication.
While global superpowers continue to sponsor cyber-attacks on foreign shores while decrying attacks against their own assets, all we end up with is the virtual equivalent of mutually assured destruction.
Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraChina’s aggressive stands and the sharp deterioration of the bilateral relationship are flowing through strongly to produce record negativity by Australians towards our biggest trading partner.
The Lowy Institute’s annual poll for the first time finds most Australians (52%) see “a military conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan” as a critical threat. This is 17 points up on just a year before.
More than half (56%) think Australia-China relations pose a critical threat.
The poll, “Understanding Australian attitudes to the world”, was done in the second half of March with a sample of 2222. The report is authored by Natasha Kassam. The results on climate and COVID have already been published.
China-Australia relations have plummeted in recent years, with obstacles currently in place against a range of Australian exports, frequent denunciations of Australia by China, and its government’s continued refusal to return Australian ministers’ calls.
Since the poll was taken, the bilateral relationship has worsened; Scott Morrison at the G7 emphasised the challenge China presented and rallied support for resisting its economic coercion.
Trust in China has continued “its steep decline” according to the poll, reaching a new low. Only 16% of Australians trust China to act responsibly in the world, a 7-point decline from last year. As recently as 2018, 52% trusted China.
Just 10% of Australians have confidence in China’s president Xi Jinping to “do the right thing regarding world affairs”. This has halved since 2020 (22%) and fallen 33 points since 2018.
While people were critical of China on almost everything they were asked about in the poll, a majority do not want Australia dragged into a military conflict between China and the United States – 57% say Australia should remain neutral in such a conflict, well above the 41% who believe Australia should support the US.
There is a big age difference on this question: only 21% of those aged 18-29 say Australia should support the US in a conflict, but 58% of those over 60 believe it should.
In one small sign of optimism about China, 72% say it is possible for Australia to have good relations with both the US and China – although this is 15 points lower than in 2013.
China has fallen to the bottom of the Lowy Institute’s “feelings thermometer”, with a 7-point drop to 32 degrees – a 26 degree decline from 2018. This compares, for instance, with the rating of India (56 degrees), Indonesia (55 degrees), and the US (62 degrees),
Asked whether China is more of an economic partner to Australia or a security threat, more than six in ten (63%) see China as “more of a security threat” – a 22-point rise from last year. In contrast, only a third (34%) say China is “more of an economic partner to Australia”. This is 21 points lower than last year.
Some 56% believe China is more to blame than Australia for the bilateral tensions, although 38% attribute blame equally.
Having an increasingly negative influence on views of China are its investment in Australia (79%), its environmental policies (79%), its system of government (92%) and its military activity in the region (93%).
“Even in relation to China’s strong economic growth story, Australian attitudes have shifted significantly in recent years’, the Lowy report says.
“In 2021, less than half the population (47%) say China’s economic growth has a positive influence on their view of China, a steep 28-point fall since 2016”
The replacement of US president Donald Trump by Joe Biden has been wholeheartedly welcomed by Australians, the poll shows.
Some 69% have confidence in Biden to do the right thing regarding world affairs, 39 points higher than Australians’ confidence in Trump last year. More than six in ten (61%) now trust the US, 10 points higher than last year, but 22 points lower than reached in Barack Obama’s presidency.
There is strong support for the importance of the US alliance (78%), steady since last year) and confidence America would come to Australia’s defence if it were under threat (75%).
Commenting on the poll results, Kassam said “Australia’s China story has changed dramatically since 2018, from one of economic opportunity to concerns about foreign interference and human rights.
“Views of China are to some extent inseparable from the crackdown in Hong Kong, the detention of Uighurs, the disappearance of Australian citizens in China…” she said.
“A year of targeted economic coercion has clearly left its mark on the Australian public, and in a remarkable shift, now even China’s economic growth is seen as a negative. It would also appear that the uptick in China’s military incursions in the Taiwan Strait has not gone unnoticed by the Australian public, though the majority would still prefer to avoid a conflict between the superpowers.”
China ‘dogged by insecurity’, says outgoing secretary of foreign affair department
China, despite being a great power, was still “dogged by insecurity as much as driven by ambition,” the outgoing secretary of the foreign affairs department, Frances Adamson, said on Wednesday.
In an address before leaving the department later this week, Adamson – a former ambassador to Beijing – said China “has a deeply defensive mindset, perceiving external threats even as it pushes its interests over those of others”.
“It is too ready to suspect ‘containment’ instead of judging issues on their individual merits,” she told the National Press Club.
“And I always find it useful to remind myself when faced with strident official representations that the pressure exerted outwards on other countries must also be felt within, at an individual level, by those subject to that system.
“Insecurity and power can be a volatile combination, more so if inadvertently mishandled. We need to understand what we are dealing with.”
Lamenting the shrinking number of Western journalists in China, Adamson also said less access and less dialogue meant less understanding.
“This siege mentality – this unwillingness to countenance scrutiny and genuine discussion of differences – serves nobody’s interests.
“It means, among other things, that China is undergoing a steep loss of influence in Australia and many other countries.” This was confirmed, she said, by the Lowy poll showing Australians’ trust in China down to record lows.
“What we tell the Chinese government is that we are not interested in promoting containment or regime change.
“We want to understand and respond carefully – for shared advantage. Not to feed its insecurity or proceed down a spiral of miscalculation.
“Nor do we see the world through a simplistic lens of zero-sum competition.
“What we are interested in, and will continue to strive for, is a peaceful, secure region underpinned by a commitment to the rules that have served all of us – China included.”
Adamson said China might hope for Australia to have a fundamental rethink of policy but such hopes would be in denial of the impact of China’s behaviour on Australia, and the broad bipartisanship of its most fundamental policy settings.
“So we approach China with confidence, realism, and an open mind.
“National resilience and internal cohesion are important when dealing with China – but that doesn’t mean we should demand uniformity of viewpoint,” she said.
“Debate about our approach is a strength, not a weakness. Indeed, in an era when political and social freedoms are being rolled back in many parts of the world, a healthy open debate is one of the hallmarks of a liberal system.
“And the best policy always comes from contestability. This is as true of the China challenge as it is of economic or social policy.”
Adamson has been appointed governor of South Australia.
Tony Walker, La Trobe UniversityWhat’s next in the latest Middle East convulsion? Will a ceasefire between the Hamas militant group in Gaza and Israel be brokered by Arab mediators in coordination with western powers, or will the situation continue to deteriorate?
Are we witnessing the beginning of an intensifying conflict in which Israelis find themselves enveloped in a bloody confrontation with Palestinians across the occupied territories and, more threateningly, inside Israel itself?
Will Israel become enmeshed in widespread communal unrest on its own territory in Arab towns and villages?
In short, are we witnessing the early stages of a third intifada, in which casualties mount on both sides until the participants exhaust themselves?
We’ve seen all this before – in 1987 and 2000. Then, as now, violence spread from territories occupied in the 1967 war into Israel itself.
There are no simple answers to these questions as the crisis enters its second week, with casualties mounting.
In part, the next stage depends on the level of violence Israel is prepared to inflict on Hamas. It is also conditional on Hamas’s tolerance of Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire.
It will also rely on the extent to which Israel feels its interests continue to be served by courting widespread international opprobrium for its offensive against Hamas, as the militant group’s leadership is embedded in a densely packed civilian population in Gaza.
This is far from a cost-free exercise for Israel, despite the bravado from its leadership, embroiled in a lingering internal crisis over the country’s inability to elect majority government.
Political paralysis is not the least of Israel’s problems.
As always, the issue is not whether Israel has a right to defend itself against rocket attacks on its own territory. The question is whether its response is disproportionate, and whether its chronic failure to propagate a genuine peace process is fuelling Palestinian resentment.
Israel’s continued provocative construction of settlements in the West Bank, and the daily humiliations it inflicts on a disenfranchised Palestinian population in Arab East Jerusalem, contribute to enormous frustration and anger among people living under occupation.
If nothing else, the latest upsurge of violence between Israelis and Palestinians should persuade the international community that occupation and subjugation of one population by another is a dead-end street.
Further complicating things for the Israeli leadership are the circumstances that led to the latest conflagration. This has lessened international sympathy for the extreme measures Israel is using, aiming to bomb the Hamas leadership into submission.
Israeli authorities’ attempts to evict Palestinian families in East Jerusalem from homes they had occupied for 70 years, accompanied by highly provocative demonstrations by extremist Jewish settlers chanting “death to Arabs”, has contributed to a sharp deterioration in relations.
This was followed by a heavy-handed Israeli police response to Palestinian demonstrations in and around Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest shrine. In turn, this prompted Hamas rocket strikes into Israel itself from Gaza.
The International Crisis Group has identified the issue that should be most concerning to Israel and its supporters:
This occasion is the first since the September 2000 intifada where Palestinians have responded simultaneously and on such a massive scale throughout much of the combined territory of Israel-Palestine to the cumulative impact of military occupation, repression, dispossession and systemic discrimination.
In a global propaganda war over Israel’s continued occupation of five million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the issue of who started this latest convulsion is relevant.
Collateral damage to Israel’s reputation is an unavoidable consequence of the use of a heavy bombardment against Hamas targets in one of the world’s most densely populated areas.
There are two million Palestinians in Gaza, a narrow strip of land between Israeli territory and the Mediterranean Sea. Many are living in refugee camps their families have occupied since they fled Israel in 1948, in what Palestinians refer to as the nakba, or catastrophe.
The deaths of an extended Palestinian family at the weekend whose three-storey home was demolished by an Israeli airstrike is a grating reminder of fallout from the use of weapons of war in civilian areas.
This is the reality of a population held hostage to an unresolved – and possibly unresolvable – conflict involving Palestinians living under occupation.
US President Joe Biden, in a phone call with Netanyahu, seemed to endorse Israel’s heavy hand. Biden’s conciliatory tone has drawn widespread criticism in view of the shocking images emanating from Gaza. These include live footage of a building housing foreign media being destroyed by an Israeli airstrike.
Belatedy, the US has sent an envoy to the region.
In Australia, politicians from both sides have called for a de-escalation.
Regionally, Arab states have expressed their support for the Palestinian cause, but remarks by their leaders have been restrained.
However, circumstances leading to the outbreak of violence, notably Israeli policing of demonstrations in places sacred to Muslims, have left Arab leaderships no choice but to condemn Israel’s actions.
A hitherto limp US response reflects the Biden administration’s hope that the Israel-Palestine issue would not be allowed to intrude on Washington’s wider Middle East foreign policy efforts. Biden is trying to entice Iran back to the negotiating table to re-energise the nuclear peace deal ripped up by former President Donald Trump.
Part of this strategy has been to calm Israel’s concerns about renewed US efforts to re-engage Iran. Those efforts have been complicated by the violence of recent days.
Washington has been reminded, if that was necessary, that the toxic Palestinian issue could not simply be shoved aside, however much the US and its moderate Arab allies would like it to go away. This was always an unrealistic expectation.
Israeli violence against Palestinians in retaliation for rocket attacks on its territory is an embarrassment for Arab states that had established diplomatic relations with Israel under pressure from the Trump administration.
The so-called Abraham Accords, involving an exchange of ambassadors between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, is at risk of being discredited in the eyes of the Arab world by the latest conflagration.
Other Arab states that established diplomatic relations with Israel, brokered by Trump officials, include Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Sporadic demonstrations in support of the Palestinians have occurred in the latter two countries.
Finally, this latest conflict between Israelis and Palestinians exposes the failure of various parties to advance a peace agreement based on a two-state solution.
That prospect appears further away than ever, and may even be dead given Israel’s declared intention to annex territory in the West Bank. Such action would end any possibility of compromise based on land swaps to accommodate Israeli settlements in areas contiguous with Israel itself.
These are bleak moments for those who might have believed at the time of the Oslo Declaration in 1993, and subsequent establishment of relations between Israel and the leadership of the Palestinian national movement, that peace might be possible at last.
We are now a very long way indeed from Oslo.
Anthony Billingsley, UNSWThe latest violence between Israeli and Palestinian forces should come as no surprise. The issue of Palestinian statehood has been off the international agenda since US President Barack Obama effectively washed his hands of the issue. The Trump administration then focused on Israel’s relations with other Arab states at the expense of the Palestinians.
However, the tensions underlying the current violence have been building for some time and have the potential to become particularly serious.
In East Jerusalem, Israeli settlers have been trying to seize control of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah, a historic part of the city. They have resorted to the Israeli Supreme Court, which usually supports the government and settler line in matters relating to the occupied Palestinian territories. The court’s judgement was expected this week, but was deferred.
Palestinians have also been complaining about draconian restrictions imposed on worshippers during Ramadan at the Haram al-Sharif, the area including the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock (which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount).
Moreover, the end of Ramadan coincided with Jerusalem Day, a celebration of Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and with al-Nakba on May 15, the Palestinian day of mourning to mark the Arabs’ loss in the 1948 war.
These factors have given the unrest added ferocity.
Possible war with Gaza, or civil war
Following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, which were won by Hamas, violence between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza has been a regular occurrence.
There were major outbreaks in 2008 and 2014 when Israeli forces entered the area, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians.
There are worrying signs now that another Israeli incursion is being prepared — and another war will follow.
As the fighting has intensified, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has expressed concern war crimes are being committed. Israel has been accused of resorting to disproportionate force in Gaza, and both sides have been criticised for causing civilian deaths.
A particularly worrying aspect of these clashes is that intense fighting has also broken out between Israeli Palestinians and Jews in a number of Israeli cities and towns.
While Israeli Palestinians (who are citizens of Israel) have always been concerned about the fate of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, they have tended to be left alone, and inter-communal violence has been largely avoided.
But harmony between the two groups is fragile, and this outbreak could have serious implications. Israel’s president is warning of a civil war.
Why diplomacy has failed
A major problem is there is no means of bringing about a negotiated solution to the decades-long, seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Obama attempted to initiate negotiations by appointing former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. The administration’s focus was on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, but it was unable to make any progress with either the Israelis or the Palestinians.
Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, developed a plan that effectively bypassed the Palestinians and focused on Israel’s relations with Arab Gulf states. This was rejected by the Palestinians.
The international community has been equally ineffective in trying to reduce tensions in recent weeks. Russia has called for a reconvening of the Quartet, a body formed under former US President George W. Bush’s administration that brought together the US, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union to promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
China, meanwhile, has urged the UN Security Council to take action to de-escalate tensions — a move that was blocked by Israel’s ally, the US.
The one party that might have the capacity to bring about a ceasefire and promote negotiations is the US. However, beyond issuing the usual platitudes of concern, President Joe Biden has defended Israel’s response to Palestinian rocket attacks.
Biden is focused largely on domestic issues and does not need the distraction of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, a highly divisive issue in American politics. Moreover, Hamas is listed as a terrorist organisation in the US, making it difficult for Biden to apply greater pressure on Israel.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, has done nothing to moderate tensions in recent weeks and his language on Gaza has become increasingly defiant. The conflict could be politically expedient for the beleaguered leader — it may help him regain the prime ministership after he was unable to form a government following recent elections.
Yair Lapid, the opposition leader who was asked by the president to try to form a government last week, has had to suspend coalition negotiations while the fighting continues. His main hope is frustration with Netanyahu will encourage his negotiating partners to continue their talks to try to oust him from power.
The Palestinian side is no better placed to enter negotiations. President Mahmoud Abbas ceased engagement with Israel as a result of what he described as Israel’s refusal to negotiate and the Trump peace plan, which was widely seen as anti-Palestinian.
Abbas had called for Palestinian legislative elections in late May and presidential elections in July, but both have been postponed indefinitely. Though he hasn’t said it outright, his concern (as well as those of Israel and the US) is his party’s rival, Hamas, would easily win.
Abbas’s decision has infuriated Palestinians and added to the tensions in the East Jerusalem and Gaza over recent weeks.
Abbas’s hand is further weakened by the lack of support from other Arab governments, such as the UAE and Egypt. The result is Abbas is an isolated, impotent figure with few friends and waning support among the people he is supposed to represent.
Where to from here?
The relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is filled with suspicion and hate built up over decades. Both sides believe their cause is just.
While Israel’s survival is not at issue here, its future could be seriously influenced by the way its leaders handle crises like this. The departure of Netanyahu could be a positive step, but will not be decisive. The two sides need the international community to help them end the fighting and find a way out of the impasse they find themselves in.
This crisis represents an early major challenge for the Biden administration, but one the new US president will likely be reluctant to take on.