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Tokyo downplays US report of Chinese military hack on Japan

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III stands with Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi prior to a bilateral meeting at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., May 4, 2022. (U.S. Secretary of Defense/WikiCommons)
September 12, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Tokyo on Tuesday declined to confirm reports that Chinese military hackers had compromised the most classified military secrets of the U.S.’s vital East Asian ally, in a case that dates back to 2020.

Speaking at a regular news conference in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said the government was “aware of the news report” but “will refrain from providing detailed information due to the nature of the matter.”

“I am unable to provide further details of the communication, but we haven’t confirmed the fact that security information has been leaked due to cyber attacks,” he said.

In a Monday report, the Washington Post revealed that Chinese hackers had achieved “deep, persistent access,” apparently chasing down “anything they could get their hands on ­– plans, capabilities, assessments of military shortcomings.”

The sources are three former senior U.S. officials – among a dozen current and former U.S. and Japanese officials – who spoke to the Post on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“It was bad – shockingly bad,” recalled one former U.S. military official, on the previously unreported event.

It was in fact so bad that the head of the National Security Agency (NSA) and U.S. Cyber Command, and the White House deputy national security adviser at the time headed immediately to Tokyo.

There Gen. Paul Nakasone of the NSA and Matthew Pottinger, White House deputy national security advisor told first Japan’s defense minister and then the Japanese prime minister that Tokyo’s defense networks had been breached, in one of “the most damaging hacks in that country’s modern history.”

The hackers continued to infiltrate Japan’s networks into 2021, the paper said. It added the case was previously unreported.

Meanwhile, Tokyo may be hesitating to confirm the security breaches, but it has committed to beef up its cybersecurity, pledging to add 4,000 experts to its cybersecurity force over the next five years in an effort to increase network security, 

A Japanese defense official told the Post that Tokyo has also launched a Cyber Command to monitor Japanese networks 24/7, while the government plans to spend U.S.$7 billion over five years on its networked security.

Growing threat

China is already thought to be home to more state-sponsored hackers than anywhere else in the world – and it shows no sign of slowing down.

Increasingly, Chinese hackers are targeting key network infrastructure in the U.S., Guam and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific – notably, communication, transportation and utility systems, Microsoft said in May.

Less than two weeks ago, reports surfaced that the Biden administration was on the hunt for malware that threatened to compromise military and civilian power grids, communications systems and water supplies.

The malware, which is believed to have been inserted by Chinese hackers associated with the People’s Liberation Army, could seek to disrupt and slow down any reaction by the U.S. military should China move against Taiwan.

One congressional official described the malware as “a ticking time bomb” that could make it possible for China to cut off power, water and communications to military bases.

The malware could equally impact the homes and businesses of ordinary Americans, the same official said.

In July Microsoft revealed that China-based hackers known as Storm-0558 had gained access to the email accounts of some 25 organizations, including U.S. government agencies.

Among those affected were officials at the U.S. State Department and Commerce Department including the email account of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and the U.S. ambassador to China.

Microsoft said the breach was detected on June 16, and that it believed the hackers had first gained access around May 15.

Back to Japan, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida described the current situation at a news conference with President Biden in Washington in January as “the most challenging and complex security environment in recent history.”

Kishida noted that Japan is embracing a new national security strategy to boost its defenses.

“This new policy,” he said, “will be beneficial for the deterrence capabilities and response capabilities of the alliance as well.”

The new policy includes a counter-strike capability that can reach targets in mainland China, the Post reported.

Japan is buying U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles and allowing the U.S. Marine Corps to place a new advanced regiment in remote islands southwest of Okinawa, which would provide the U.S. military with proximity to Taiwan in the event of conflict with China erupting.