How China Thinks About the Future of Cyberspace Conflict

Chinese analysts are writing about how their country should approach what one author calls "cyber war mobilization"

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Chinese computer users at a 1999 conference in Beijing / AP

Chinese analysts and officials like to point out that it was the United States that first set up Cyber Command and thus, in their view, militarized cyberspace. Yet Chinese military thinkers are clearly thinking about what type of organizations and institutions they will need to conduct offensive cyber operations and to defend their own networks against attacks. An interesting piece in China Defense Daily lays out some of the characteristics necessary for "a highly effective command system for cyber war mobilization."

• Military and civilian networks are interconnected, and the resources needed for cyber war permeate society; military units, social organizations, and even individuals "will all possibly become combat forces during a cyber war."

• Given this diffusion of resources, there is a need for a cyber war mobilization command system with a "vertical command hierarchy" that reaches into all of society.

• Each of the branches of the military should have its own command division, manage necessary resources, cultivate forces, and organize training and drills. Once a war breaks out, there needs to be a "coordinated strategic level" command structure that mobilizes resources and launches combat operations.

• There must be specialized troops within industrial sectors, with especially strong ties to the information industries.

• Need to enlarge specialized cyber troops, recruiting computer network experts. The PLA should also reach out to all segments of society and create cyber reserves and people's militias.

• Offense and defense in cyber war have distinct characteristics, and they change frequently. Offensive technologies include computer viruses, EMP bombs, microwave bombs, and computer and microchip backdoors. For defense, there are network scanners, network wiretapping devices, password breaking devices, electromagnetic detectors and firewalls, and anti-virus software.

• Because the technological requirements of these weapons are very high, there must be extensive R&D programs into new offensive weapons as well as the defensive and offensive capabilities of the potential adversary.

This is a very "whole of society" approach, one which seems to fundamentally grasp that power in cyberspace is multi-faceted and spread throughout society. And while we assume that Chinese policymakers can simply mobilize these social forces to bolster state power, is that actually the case? And if it is true now, might that change?

These types of articles (and perhaps blog posts like this one?) can be expected to feed into the growing security dilemma between the United States and China. Chinese analysts see Cyber Command and Cyber Storm exercises as directed against them. Though the tone of the article is exploratory--and the author, Huang Chunping, appears to be an aerospace and nuclear expert, not a cyber specialist--the take-home for many readers will be that all Chinese citizens are potential cyber warriors. Dampening a security dilemma is not easy. Dialogue and confidence-building measures can help, but these are only at the preliminary stages right now. Hopefully they will pick up in 2012, otherwise the lack of trust between Washington and Beijing looks only to grow.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.
Presented by

Adam Segal is the Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes at Asia Unbound.

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