WASHINGTON -- In the months before Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's arrival today in Beijing, the Obama administration quietly held an extraordinary briefing for the Chinese military leadership on a subject officials have rarely discussed in public: the Pentagon's emerging doctrine for defending against cyberattacks against the United States -- and for using its cybertechnology against adversaries, including the Chinese.
The idea was to allay Chinese concerns about plans to more than triple the number of American cyberwarriors to 6,000 by the end of 2016, a force that will include new teams the Pentagon plans to deploy to each military combatant command around the world. But the hope was to prompt the Chinese to give Washington a similar briefing about the many People's Liberation Army units that are believed to be behind the escalating attacks on U.S. corporations and government networks.
So far, the Chinese have not reciprocated -- a point Mr. Hagel plans to make in a speech Tuesday at the PLA's National Defense University.
The effort, senior Pentagon officials say, is to head off what Mr. Hagel and his advisers fear is the growing possibility of a fast-escalating series of cyberattacks and counterattacks between the United States and China.
In interviews, U.S. officials say their latest initiatives were inspired by Cold War-era exchanges held with the Soviets so that each side understood the "red lines" for employing nuclear weapons against each other.
"Think of this in terms of the Cuban missile crisis," one senior Pentagon official said. While the United States "suffers attacks every day," he said, "the last thing we would want to do is misinterpret an attack and escalate to a real conflict."
Mr. Hagel's concern is spurred by the fact that in the year since President Barack Obama explicitly brought up the barrage of Chinese-origin attacks on the United States with his newly installed counterpart, President Xi Jinping, the pace of those attacks has increased. Most continue to be aimed at stealing technology and other intellectual property from Silicon Valley, military contractors and energy firms.
"To the Chinese, this isn't first and foremost a military weapon; it's an economic weapon," said Laura Galante, a former Defense Intelligence Agency cyberspecialist. She now works for the Mandiant division of FireEye, one of the largest of the many cybersecurity firms seeking to neutralize attacks on corporations.
Administration officials acknowledge that Mr. Hagel, on his first trip to China as defense secretary, has a very difficult case to make, far more complicated than last year. The Pentagon plans to spend $26 billion on cybertechnology over the next five years.
Moreover, disclosures about the United States' own focus on cyberweaponry -- including U.S.-led attacks on Iran's nuclear infrastructure and National Security Agency documents revealed in the trove taken by Edward Snowden, the former agency contractor -- detail the degree to which the United States has engaged in what the intelligence world calls "cyberexploitation" of targets in China.