Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

China, Cambodia reject US claims of Chinese cybertheft

A ferry transports passengers across the Mekong River from Phnom Penh to Kandal province, on February 16, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
A ferry transports passengers across the Mekong River from Phnom Penh to Kandal province, on February 16, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

China’s embassy in Cambodia has dismissed allegations that Chinese hackers stole data on the Mekong River from Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and turned the table on the United States, calling it the largest source of cyber attacks in the world.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also rejected the claims, following a report by UK-based Reuters News agency that four Chinese nationals had been charged in a US Justice Department indictment of cyber espionage over the theft of information related to 2018 discussions between China and Cambodia over use of the Mekong River.

In a statement on July 22, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Cambodia rejected the Reuters report and the allegations within, calling them baseless and an exaggeration of the facts.

“The Chinese side strongly opposes and suppresses all forms of cyber-attacks, whether encouraging, supporting or favoring hacker attacks,” the statement said. “The United States is the largest source of cyber-attacks in the world, and even its ‘allies’ are not spared.”

“The thief itself accuses others of being the thief.”

The Reuters article is based entirely on US fiction, the embassy said, while lashing out at media for not reaching them for a response to the allegations. Reuters reported that its requests for comment went unanswered.

Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry also dismissed the reports as baseless and said that it would not bother with any kind of investigation.

“I saw the report, claiming that data was stolen but so far, the ministry has no problem with this,” ministry spokesman Koy Kuong told CamboJA.

“It is not necessary to have any response to the report or to do an investigation … We do not care; they can report whatever they want.”

According to the Reuters report, the U.S. indictment shows that three Chinese security officials and a contract hacker had targeted dozens of companies, universities and government agencies in a global cyberespionage campaign, including Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The indictment said Chinese hackers obtained data from the Cambodian ministry on the same day Cambodia hosted the China-backed Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) leaders summit with China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam in Phnom Penh on Jan. 10, 2018.

The data obtained by the hackers pertained to those discussions, the indictment said, without elaborating.

According to the indictment, the hackers hid and transmitted “trade secrets and proprietary hydroacoustic data” within digital images of a koala bear and former U.S. President Donald Trump. It said the material was sent to an online account controlled by the hackers.

It was not clear if the hydroacoustic data – data collected by sonar and used to monitor underwater features – was of the Mekong River area, the report said.

The issue is the latest blow for Cambodia-US relations, which have become increasingly strained as Cambodia moves closer to Beijing, leading the country’s foreign policy to come under scrutiny.

Last month, six Cambodian students on US-funded scholarships at US military academies were informed that their programs would no longer be supported, in response to Cambodia rolling back long-running military-to-military engagement between the two nations, often replacing the US with China.

During a visit in June, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman raised concerns with Prime Minister Hun Sen about a Chinese military presence at Ream Naval Base along Cambodia’s coast. The US said that a Chinese military base in Cambodia — forbidden under the nation’s constitution — would “undermine its sovereignty, threaten regional security, and negatively impact US-Cambodia relations.”

Cambodia has repeatedly rejected the allegation.

Sherman also stressed that the US wants to aid Cambodia’s ASEAN chairmanship to ensure it can play a constructive role in addressing critical regional political and security challenges.

Political analyst Em Sovannara​ said that the Cambodia-centered confrontation between the two global powers was a geopolitical struggle for influence in the region, and that Cambodia could only try to balance the two in order to best position itself.

“For a small state like Cambodia, there is no potential to resist the great powers and the only way to survive is to maintain a policy of neutrality enshrined in the Constitution, which can help Cambodia benefit from all parties,” he said.

Cambodia’s obvious shift towards China in recent years is dangerous, he said, adding that Cambodia still enjoys many benefits from the United States, both in foreign policy affairs and trade.

“Cambodian leaders seem to be closer to China because China has provided investments and unconditional assistance,” he said.

“China does not care about democracy and human rights, so turning to China will stabilize their power. But if (Cambodia) opens up space for political freedom and stands in neutrality, it is a threat to maintaining their power.”

The US Embassy declined to comment, and referred reporters to a statement from the US Department of State.

China’s “pattern of irresponsible behaviour in cyberspace is inconsistent with its stated objective of being seen as a responsible leader in the world,” the statement said.

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