China Calls U.S. 'Biggest Empire of Hacking' After Being Accused of Cyber Spying

China has deflected claims that its government was behind a series of hacks that reportedly attempted to infiltrate networks linked to the U.S. defense sector, instead accusing the United States of conducting an unrivaled global campaign of cyber attacks and espionage.

California-based cybersecurity firm FireEye's incident response division Mandiant published a report Tuesday claiming Chinese involvement in an attempt to penetrate the VPN technologies of the Defense Industrial Base Sector, defined by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) as "the worldwide industrial complex that enables research and development, as well as design, production, delivery, and maintenance of military weapons systems, subsystems, and components or parts, to meet U.S. military requirements."

The company suspects that at least one of the perpetrators active between August 2020 until March 2021 "operates on behalf of the Chinese government."

Asked about the allegations, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin was skeptical.

"Given the virtual nature of cyberspace and the fact that there are all kinds of online actors who are difficult to trace, it is important to have enough evidence when investigating and identifying cyber-related incidents," Wang told reporters on Wednesday. "Groundless speculations should be avoided."

He then directed attention toward Washington's own international hacking efforts.

"As a matter of fact, the U.S. is the biggest empire of hacking and tapping as we all know," Wang added. "China firmly rejects any organization or country throwing mud at China under the pretext of cybersecurity or using the issues to serve their political purposes."

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A graphic published March 14, 2019 shows the watch floor of U.S. Cyber Command's Navy 10th Fleet. PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS WILLIAM SYKES/OLIVER ELIJAH WOOD/U.S. NAVY

The U.S. and China both have dedicated state branches dedicated to cyberwarfare and espionage.

The extent to which the U.S. engaged in such behavior has been brought to light by reporting on campaigns such as the National Security Agency's PRISM program that stores and monitors online communications. The NSA has also been accused of tapping the phones of foreign officials, including allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In recent years, Washington has accused Beijing of engaging in a concerted campaign to infiltrate both public and private institutions abroad, and U.S. firms specializing in cybersecurity have corroborated the claims. The latest incident is believed to have targeted Pulse Secure Connect, a widely used remote connectivity tool owned by Utah-based software company Ivanti.

The report prompted an emergency directive by CISA "requiring federal civilian departments and agencies running Pulse Connect Secure products to assess and mitigate any anomalous activity or active exploitation detected on their networks."

The directive comes "in response to observed active exploitation using disclosed vulnerabilities in Pulse Connect Secure products," according to the statement, which did not attribute blame for the incident. "Successful exploitation of these vulnerabilities allows an attacker to gain persistent system access and control of the enterprise network operating the vulnerable Pulse Connect Secure appliance," it added.

Acting CISA Director Brandon Wales issued accompanying remarks.

"Over the last year, CISA has issued several alerts urging agencies, governments and organizations to assess and patch Pulse Connect Secure vulnerabilities," Wales said. "This Emergency Directive reflects the seriousness of these vulnerabilities and the importance for all organizations – in government and the private sector – to take appropriate mitigation steps."

CISA was established in 2018 under the Department of Homeland Security to counter cyber threats to the country. The young agency saw one of its biggest challenges last year upon the discovery of a wide-spanning hack, which affected FireEye along with a long list of government agencies and leading companies infected with trojanized updates to leading software company SolarWinds.

President Joe Biden, who inherited the investigation into the hacks from his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, has blamed the affair on Russia and has expelled several diplomats in retaliation. Moscow has denied any involvement and has demanded a number of U.S. officials leave the country in retaliation.

Beijing too has repeatedly denied claims that it engaged in such illicit cyber behavior. The U.S. and China have also engaged in tit-for-tat actions against one another's diplomats.

Wang said Wednesday his government has made strides in securing against hacking.

"The Chinese government firmly bans and strictly cracks down on all forms of hacker attacks. This position is consistent and clear," he told his daily press briefing. "Hacking is a global issue which calls for a concerted response from the international community."

Wang also referenced efforts to shore up international cybersecurity efforts such as the Global Initiative on Data Security introduced last September, "offering a Chinese solution to the formulation of global data governance rules and getting positive feedback from many countries." China also joined the Arab League last month for a joint data security agreement, "making Arab countries in the Middle East the first region to have launched a data security initiative with China."

"China stands ready to step up communication with all countries and jointly uphold global data and cybersecurity through dialogue and cooperation," Wang said.

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd R), joined by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (R), speaks while facing Yang Jiechi (2nd L), director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, and Wang Yi (L), China's Foreign Minister at the opening session of U.S.-China talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska on March 18. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

The dueling accusations mark just the latest incident straining ties between the world's top two powers.

Biden has called for "steep competition" rather than "confrontation" with China. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved on Wednesday, however, a proposed new law by Democratic Chair New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez and Republican ranking member Idaho Senator Jim Risch that would call for sweeping measures targeting China and its global rise.

Allegations of cyber misconduct were among the topics on which Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan confronted Chinese Communist Party Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi during last month's talks in Alaska. Other areas of contention include accusations of aggressions across the South China Sea and Taiwan, as well as human rights violations in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang.

The two countries have since released reports detailing one another's alleged human rights abuses, with both sides denying one another's claims.

But even as relations prove tense, areas of potential cooperation have emerged between the U.S. and China. Beginning Thursday, Biden will virtually host 39 other heads of state, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, as part of the Leaders Summit on Climate, a topic on which Washington and Beijing have stressed the need to collaborate.