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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, it's been more than 20 years since the Soviet Union collapsed bringing the end to the Cold War. Today, some scholars see a Cool War between the United States and China. The stakes are high for American industry, although they're much harder to see than they were in Cold War times. NPR's Elise Hu explains.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: The Cold War featured us-versus-them propaganda against the Communist Soviet Union, like we saw in this with 1950s government video.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: In the background was a growing struggle between two great powers to shape the post-war world.

HU: The Cool War with China is a lot more subtle. The Cold War taught young schoolchildren to duck and cover for fear of an atomic bomb.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUCK AND COVER")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Duck and cover, duck and cover.

HU: The Cool War is fought against American companies. It involves, not bombs, but server space. And instead of secret agents wearing disguises, the Cool War is being waged by faceless hackers thousands of miles away. They break into vast data systems.

NOAH FELDMAN: We're acting, in a lot of ways, as though we were at war.

HU: Harvard's Noah Feldman is the author of "Cool War: The Future Of Global Competition."

FELDMAN: But at the same time we're also trading with each other and cooperating with each other in a wide range of economic areas. And it's that strange combination of competition and cooperation that's a Cool War.

HU: This Cool War is flaring up. A couple of weeks ago, the U.S. brought its first ever charges against foreign officials for cyber spying. So no dead drops in the night. We're talking spying by hacking - stealing information through computers. U.S. companies have become the targets and the middlemen in this war nations. The Chinese have been hacking Westinghouse, U.S. Steel and more than 60 American companies for half a decade according to Attorney General Eric Holder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: The alleged hacking appears to have been conducted for no other reason then to advantage state owned companies and other interests in China at the expense of businesses here in the United States.

HU: The Chinese deny the charges and this spring leaked NSA documents showed the U.S. infiltrated Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qui Gang reminded the public of that on state-owned CCTV.

QUI GANG: (Through translator) It is known to the world that U.S. has done cyber spying and surveillance. On cyber security issues, we would like the whole world to judge who should be put on the defendant stand legally and morally.

HU: OK, so the U.S. called out China for spying on American companies. The Chinese say the U.S. has been spying all along on their companies. China is now retaliating economically. It's requiring American tech firms, like Cisco, to go through cyber security vetting. Failure to pass could mean a ban. The Chinese have also banned Microsoft Windows in all government offices, claiming the operating system is stealing personal information.

FELDMAN: It affects our lives as Americans in a wide range of ways that are not immediately obvious to us.

HU: Feldman says, unseen as it may be, this Cool War represents an ongoing power struggle with geopolitical consequences and plenty of present-day problems for American companies whose trade secrets are at stake.

FELDMAN: It's a reminder to tech companies - many of them already know this if they're big enough - that they need to keep their heads up and be aware that their data is not secure. And it's not just Big Brother, Uncle Sam who's listening. It's also Beijing that's listening in.

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