Buried in a long US indictment accusing China of a global cyberespionage campaign was a curious detail: Among the governments targeted by Chinese hackers was Cambodia, one of Beijing’s most loyal Asian allies.
The target of the hack, which two sources with knowledge of the indictment said was the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, was also revealing: discussions between China and Cambodia over the use of the Mekong River, a new battleground for US and Chinese influence in Southeast Asia.
Four Chinese — three security officials and a contract hacker — have been charged for attacks aimed at dozens of companies, universities and government agencies in the US and elsewhere, the US Department of Justice said on Monday.
Reaction from the defendants named in the indictment was not immediately available.
The accusations, which China said were fabricated and politically motivated, were outlined in a 30-page US court indictment that described the activities as carried out by a front company run by Chinese state security in the country’s Hainan Province.
Among the hackers’ targets was “Cambodian Government Ministry A,” from which they “stole data pertaining to discussions between the Governments of China and Cambodia over the use of the Mekong River” in January 2018, the indictment said.
That ministry was the Cambodian foreign ministry, two sources with direct knowledge of the indictment told Reuters.
The 4,350km Mekong River, known as the Lancang in its upper reaches, flows from China along the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand through Cambodia and Vietnam, where it has supported farming and fishing communities for millennia.
Like the South China Sea, the Mekong has become a front in US-China rivalry, with Beijing overtaking Washington in spending and influence over downstream countries at the mercy of its control of the river’s waters.
The indictment said that Chinese hackers obtained data from the Cambodian foreign ministry on the same day Cambodia hosted a China-backed 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.
On the same day, the hackers hid and transmitted “trade secrets and proprietary hydroacoustic data” within digital images of a koala bear and former US president Donald Trump, it said, adding that the material was sent to an online account controlled by the hackers.
It was not clear whether the hydroacoustic data — collected by sonar and used to monitor underwater features — was of the Mekong River area.
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