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Chinese Cyber War

Hayoun Ryou was Visiting Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 22, 2008

    In 2007 Chinese hackers gained notoriety in the US after a series of cyber intrusions, including one involving Pentagon systems. Though China denies involvement and the US is reluctant to make it public, the reason for suspecting China stems from the history of Chinese hacking since 2001, when a Chinese hacker community, Honker Union, declared cyber war on US government and business. Since then, there has been a series of Chinese hacking operations. The most notable among these are: Titan Rain in 2005, an intrusion into the Naval War College’s network in November 2006, hacking into Whitehall departments in the United Kingdom, and a Spiegel report that the Chinese government has hacked into computers in Angela Merkel’s chancellery and in the offices of three other German ministers.

    Why has hacking become an important feature of the Chinese approach? For this one has to go back to China’s 2004 Defence White Paper. Also one has to note that Chinese war strategy and doctrine have transformed through five stages: people’s war (before 1979); people’s war under modern conditions (1979-85); local war under modern conditions (1985-96) and under high-tech conditions (1996-2002); and currently, local war under information conditions.

    The 2004 Defence White Paper outlined a new strategy of “Limited local war under information conditions,” which is significantly different from the “limited local war under high-tech conditions”. While the latter places more emphasis on arms and acquisitions, the former is focused on soft power like integrating services with information.

    The White Paper reads as follows: “The PLA, taking mechanization as the foundation and informationization as the driving force, promotes the composite development of informationization and mechanization to achieve overall capability improvement in the fields of firepower, assault, mobility, protection and information.”

    This is distinctly different from the route taken by Western and other developed countries, which follow the route of military modernization and then informationization. China views information warfare as an effective way for the PLA to match and even surpass the military superiority of its adversaries. This is based on the doctrine of “the inferior defeats the superior”.

    This is not the first time that China is applying asymmetric policies. In an effort to promote economic development, China chose coastal provinces and cities and then after its successful experience it launched similar a development plan in other inland provinces. This asymmetric development policy is a typical Chinese characteristic and is now being applied in the military domain.

    The future battle ground will not only be confined to land, air and sea but would be fought in outer space and cyber space. Developing a strategic information warfare unit called “Net Force” to neutralise the military capabilities of superior adversaries, China has prepared itself in advance and to a great extent has seized the initiative. China will increasingly focus on the need for upgrading its C4ISR.

    War in the information age is an asymmetrical confrontation of information that is invisible. Recent Chinese hacking reminds one of what a Chinese scholar Wei Jincheng wrote in the Military Forum in 1996: “Thanks to modern technology, revolutionary changes in the information domain, such as the development of information carries and the internet, are enabling many to take part in fighting without even having to step out of the door.”

    The Chinese military doctrine critically centres on the traditional superiority of a people’s war. As China once again strengthens its people’s war, this time it is not drawing in the enemy to the mainland, but without contact, intangibly fighting, with offensive character in the information space.

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