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China’s Cyber Threat: Real or Imaginary?

Jun 07 , 2013
  • Lu Jinghua

    Research Fellow, PLA Academy of Military Science

Nowadays, accusations of China’s cyber threats made by the United States have attracted much attention. Take the latest US DOD’s annual report on China’s military as an example; such accusations boil down into three aspects.

First, the information operations by the PLA are viewed as preemptive weapons to achieve information superiority and counter stronger enemies. According to this report, “the PLA has made huge progress in developing information technology and realizing information integration in recent years.” Second, China is using information and cyber technologies to obtain foreign advanced technologies. The report concluded that, “numerous computer networks, including those owned by the US government, were targeted for intrusion, some of which were attributable to the Chinese government and military.” Third, China, together with Russia, holds the position that the government should exercise sovereign authority over the content and flow of information. They continue to promote the Information Security Code of Conduct so that their positions can be accepted.

It is the first time for the United States to directly condemn the Chinese government and military for cyber activities in an official document. However, not all these accusations are new. We can find similar arguments in previous reports and some newest reports such as the IP Commission Report. They have reflected the US concerns that its military superiority, economic prosperity and diplomatic influence would be undermined because of China’s cyber activities. Undoubtedly, China has enhanced its cyber capabilities. But would these advancements really be threatening America’s national interests?

According to some American scholars, the development of Chinese strategy in the domain of cyber warfare can be traced to the early 1990s. Pursuit of information dominance is given highest priority in the PLA not only because cyberspace is an emerging and critical domain for military competition, but also because cyber warfare strategy is in accordance with Sun Tzu’s notion of “subduing the enemy without fighting.” That is, China enjoys “unique cultural advantages” in developing and using cyber capabilities. However, after two decades of development, the PLA is still aiming to “attain major progress in informationzation” while “bearing in mind the primary goal of accomplishing mechanization.” It is obvious that the PLA is still in the early process of informationization. In contrast with China, the US has a military with most IT applications and is the first one to establish a Cyber Command. Also, America is widely recognized as the main researcher, developer and user of Stuxnet, which is the only well-known computer network malware to cause significant damages to physical infrastructure. Through an in-depth analysis of this case, we can draw the conclusion that cyberspace is not an asymmetric domain for weaker actors to achieve unexpected advantages. Rather, it can only widen current gaps between strong countries and weak ones. In this sense, is it necessary for the strongest military power to feel afraid of a weak one?

Another major concern is that China is “stealing” advanced technologies from the United States. Some reports claim that China’s economic growth and America’s losses can be partly due to China’s cyber “theft”. For example, according to the report by the US Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive (ONCIX), America’s annual costs due to cyber espionage could be as high as $400 billion a year, and “Chinese actors are the world’s most active and persistent perpetrators of economic espionage.” The IP Commission Report made similar claims. There is no doubt that this kind of accusation lacks evidence, because no proof shows that these attacks originated from China. In addition, it is highly irresponsible to attribute America’s economic recession to another country while its own essential problems remain unsolved. Aside from this, as a rising power, China surely knows that no country can gain sustainable development by “stealing” and “reverse engineering.” China has always been advocating and exercising the policy of innovation while protecting intellectual property rights. In Hu Jintao’s report at 18th Party Congress, he pointed out that China must “implement the strategy of innovation-driven development” because “scientific and technological innovation provides strategic support for raising the productive forces and boosting the overall national strength, and we must give it top priority in overall national development”. Therefore, Chinese government and military have no impetus to encourage “cyber theft.”

A third US concern is about China’s diplomatic influence in the world addressing cyber issues. The 2012 annual report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission has clearly revealed this concern: “the Chinese government has become increasingly adept in utilizing international organizations to advance interest and to extract what it needs from these institutions.” We all know that in this globally connected domain, security can only be achieved through international cooperation. The purpose of China’s efforts in international society, such as promoting the Information Security Code of Conduct, is to improve communication and coordination among nations to maintain a peaceful and stable cyberspace. According to the US logic, China’s diplomacy is put in a dilemma: whenever China does something, some will say China is trying to expand spheres of influence and gain hegemony; whenever China does not take actions, some will say China has failed to shoulder due responsibilities. What is China supposed to do? In fact, the only feasible way to improve cyber security is to assume a positive attitude towards other countries and enhance bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

To conclude, it is meaningless and destructive to claim and exaggerate China’s cyber threat. The only consequence could be the deterioration of relations between China and the US. Since no issue in cyberspace can be solved without effective cooperation in the world community, especially between the two big cyber powers, what the US needs to do now is to stop imagining and accusing China of cyber threats, put differences aside, and work together with China in cyberspace.

Dr. Lu Jinghua is a Research Fellow for the Center on China-America Defense Relations (CCADR) at the PLA Academy of Military Science (AMS) in China.

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