China’s quest for political control and military supremacy in the cyber domain
The People’s Republic of China seeks to contest information dominance (制信息权) and discursive dominance (话语权) in cyberspace. For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), cybersecurity is integral to comprehensive state security (国家安全). That’s distinct from ‘national’ security in that it focuses on preserving stability and legitimacy to ensure the regime’s survival. Xi Jinping has said that ‘without cybersecurity, there is no state security’.
In this concept of cybersecurity, information security and control take priority. Indeed, for the CCP, threats to cyber sovereignty (网络主权) are seen as existential in nature. For that reason, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is actively building its capabilities to engage in ‘military struggle’ (军事斗争) in the cyber domain.
The CCP has long believed itself to be engaged in an ideological contest in cyberspace. It has sought to counter foreign ‘hostile forces’ (敌对势力) through censorship and propaganda. It blames those influences for popular protests that have overthrown authoritarian governments, as in the Arab Spring.
So far, China has defied initial, utopian expectations for the future of the internet. Instead, the CCP has sought to reshape and harness the internet as a tool to enhance its social control, while still allowing a vibrant digital economy to thrive within certain parameters.
Xi Jinping articulated the objective for China to become a ‘cyber superpower’ (网络强国), to be not only the world’s largest nation in cyberspace, but also the most powerful. His own consolidation of power has included gaining absolute control over the PLA, in line with Mao’s maxim that the ‘Party commands the gun’.
China’s 2015 national defence white paper on military strategy—which included the PLA’s commitment ‘to remain a staunch force for upholding the CCP’s ruling position’ and to preserve ‘social stability’—also called for the PLA to ‘expedite the development of a cyber force’ and to enhance its capabilities in ‘cyberspace situation awareness’ and cyber defence. The stated objectives of these forces are ‘to stem major cyber crises, ensure national network and information security, and maintain national security and social stability’.
At a basic level, the PLA’s approach to employing military cyber forces should be understood as another piece in China’s strategy of ‘active defence’ (积极防御). In essence, that means, ‘We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counter-attack if attacked.’
When applied to the cyber domain, this logic implies that offensive operations at the tactical and operational levels would be consistent with a defensive orientation at the strategic level.
At the strategic level, the question of what constitutes an ‘attack’ is likely to be decided according to political and ideological factors, particularly in cyberspace. According to an authoritative text on information operations, the PLA should emphasise active defence if facing a ‘formidable enemy’, but might pursue an ‘active offensive’ against a weaker enemy in order to achieve rapid battlefield information superiority.
PLA concepts of cyber conflict are informed by Chinese strategic culture. For the US and most Western militaries, there’s a clear distinction between ‘peace’ and ‘war’. In contrast, the PLA appears to place these along a spectrum. In the Science of military strategy, PLA thinkers discuss the dynamics of military struggle in the cyber domain, highlighting the functional ‘integration’ of peacetime and wartime in cyberspace.
The PLA’s official dictionary of military terminology defines military struggle as ‘the use of military methods in order to advance the struggle among nation states or political groups to achieve a definite political, economic or other objective; the highest form is warfare’. This concept has Marxist and Maoist antecedents consistent with the CCP’s tradition of combined political and military struggle. That includes its history of political warfare that today provokes concerns about Beijing’s interference in democracies.
Notably, the PRC’s pursuit of a national strategy of military–civil fusion (军民融合) not only seeks to leverage synergies between commercial and defence developments, but also intends to take advantage of civilian personnel in defence and force development. The Science of military strategy argues that:
In light of the ambiguous boundaries between peacetime and wartime in cyber countermeasures, and the characteristic that military and civilian attacks are hard to distinguish, persist in the integration of peace and war [and] in military–civil integration; in peacetime, use civilians to hide the military; in wartime, the military and the people, hands joined, attack together ….
The Central Military–Civil Fusion Development Commission, under the leadership of Xi Jinping himself, established the Cyberspace Security Military–Civil Fusion Innovation Centre (网络空间安全军民融合穿心中心). Qihoo 360, a major cybersecurity enterprise, will lead the centre. The new centre will seek to improve national cyber defences and could even explore the creation of ‘cyber militia and teams’.
Looking forward, the PLA sees space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic domain as critical ‘strategic frontiers’ (战略边疆) and the ‘commanding heights’ (制高点) of future warfare. In particular, the PLA is concentrating on ‘information operations’ (信息作战) that include cyberwarfare, electronic warfare and psychological warfare.
Traditionally, core aspects of PLA strategic thinking have included the focus on seizing ‘information dominance’ (制信息权) through strikes against key nodes in an adversary’s command and control systems using integrated information and firepower assaults. Unsurprisingly given the perceived dominance of offensive attacks in this domain, the PLA is believed to prefer seizing the initiative through a first strike (先发制人).
Increasingly, the PLA considers cyber capabilities a critical component in its overall integrated strategic deterrence posture, alongside space and nuclear deterrence. PLA thinkers highlight that ‘blinding’, ‘paralysing’ and ‘chaos-inducing’ methods of deterrence in cyber, space and other domains will ‘probably possess even more ideal deterrence outcomes’.
The establishment of the Strategic Support Force (战略支援部队) in 2015 integrated the PLA’s space, cyber, electronic and psychological warfare capabilities in order to enhance its capability to achieve dominance in these new commanding heights of future warfare.
Elsa Kania is an adjunct fellow in the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. She will be based at ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre from 19 March to 9 April as a Fulbright specialist. On 22 March she is giving a public lecture at ASPI on China, technology & the future of warfare. Image courtesy of Flickr user Christiaan Colen.