The United States, backed by several allies, accused China of state-sponsored cyber-crime, in a significant escalation of tensions between Washington and Beijing.
The Biden administration formally accused China of masterminding a series of cyber-attacks, including the high-profile attack on Microsoft Exchange Server software this year.
The US is “holding the People’s Republic of China (PRC) accountable for its pattern of irresponsible, disruptive, and destabilising behavior in cyberspace, which poses a major threat to our economic and national security,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
Specifically, Washington accused China of contracting hackers to conduct the cyber operations worldwide, including the Microsoft Exchange attack, which targeted thousands of email accounts.
In a sign of growing global pressure on China, the European Union, members of the “Five Eyes” group of security allies including Australia and New Zealand, and NATO joined the US in censuring China.
In particular, the move by NATO to name-check China was significant, marking the first time the transatlantic alliance, which was set up to counter the threat of the Soviet Union, has taken aim at Beijing.
"In line with our recent Brussels Summit Communiqué, we call on all States, including China, to uphold their international commitments and obligations and to act responsibly in the international system," the Brussels-based body said in a statement, referring to its summit in Brussels last month which was attended by President Joe Biden.
The co-ordinated announcement on Monday coincided with the unsealing of an indictment by the US Justice Department against four Chinese nationals, who are accused of infiltrating US companies, universities and government agencies between 2011 and 2018.
Concerns about Chinese malign cyber-activity have been on the rise in recent years in the US and Europe, echoing similar concerns about Russia. However, the Biden administration has so far restrained from imposing sanctions on Beijing, in contrast to its decision to impose sanctions on Russia over cyber-crime in April.
Speaking at the White House on Monday, President Joe Biden said he would be briefed on the Chinese actions on Tuesday but to the best of his knowledge, “the Chinese government not unlike the Russian government is not doing this themselves but are protecting those who are doing it”.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki left opened the possibility of sanctions on China. “We reserve the option to take additional actions as warranted,” she said at Monday’s White House press briefing.