China and the Future of Cyberwar

A new model of power relations and the establishment of an elite cyberwarfare unit means China is not afraid to challenge the US in Cyberspace.


China is one of the most active nations in cyberspace. It has devoted substantial money, manpower and resources to developing its cyber capabilities. Chinese cyber capabilities include a mix of dedicated personnel, advanced equipment and cyberattack methodologies. According to the cybersecurity firm Mandiant, since as early as 2006, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been using an elite cyberwarfare unit based in Shanghai to launch hundreds of cyber attacks targeting American interests. China President Xi Jinping has made no secret that a “new model of great power relations” policy means that it will not be afraid to challenge the U.S. and the rest of the world in areas it considers a core interest, such as cyberspace.

Take Away

Cybersecurity and the even greater concern of offensive cyber-driven warfare are becoming an ever more essential concern of global interests, particularly between the nation-states of China and the United States. Cyber technology and use have taken on an ever more essential function across a multitude of landscapes to include both geopolitical and economic. Because of this the concern, cyber-espionage and the threat of cyber-based attacks that could prove severely debilitating have become a greater concern.

China has developed an elaborate force of agencies and units designed for the express purpose of waging cyber operations throughout the world to include sabotage and espionage. These include several ‘hacker’ units both within its military and its civilian intelligence apparatuses with the mission of engaging cyber warfare and espionage on a large scale. It has developed much of its intelligence gathering abilities towards the west, whom it views as a serious threat to its own security. This is a vastly more complicated situation, and the U.S. is struggling to both understand and effectively respond.

China has used cyber espionage to their advantage very well. In recent years, they have engaged in a campaign against the west primarily for obtaining intellectual property of U.S. companies. Though it has publicly maintained that it does not engage in any form of cyber espionage or any form of cyber warfare, evidence to the contrary continues to emerge.

In May 2014 an investigation conducted by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation led to the indictment of five people involved in illegal hacking. These individuals were members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The Department of Homeland Security released the IP addresses of several Chinese hacking groups to Internet service providers. In April 2016 Admiral Michael Rogers, head of the U.S. National Security Agency, testified before a Senate Armed Services Committee that incidents of penetrations of U.S. companies continue to occur. Despite China’s claims, it has in recent times been active in building its military and intelligence organs in a


China will continue to engage in cyber operations, and it will be directed on a greater global scale. The question, however, is to achieve what goal? Understanding the difference between cyber war over cyber espionage, China still operates from the strategy of the 1980s calling for aggressive pursuit of knowledge that will eventually allow them to meet or surpass the world in technological and economic advancement.

That said, cyber espionage along with all other methods of intelligence collection will continue to be employed as a means to accomplishing this goal. Altogether this initiates an entirely new era of conflictthat has yet to even begin to be managed. An understanding of it still wavers between what is a practical and realistic concept versus a concern that is still only theoretical.

For China, the notion of cyber conflict, particularly with the U.S. is still hampered by current complications. The Chinese still vacillate between focusing more on threats posed on a global scale and threats within the regions of their own border creating a directionless policy through which their military and intelligence networks will have to constantly navigate and function.

From another perspective, between the execution of the Stuxnet virus and the information elicited about the U.S. cyber program from the Snowden files, China can only surmise that whatever they have as a weapon, the U.S. could possibly have something even more dangerous ready with which to retaliate. China’s own economic interests are closely aligned with the U.S. and any serious attack that could prove detrimental to the U.S. economy would have severe rippling effects back on China.

The most likely consideration is that China and the U.S., along with the other advancing cyber powers in the world are going to reach some kind of mutual detente in which the world settles into a cyber version of the old time nuclear Cold War. In this world governments, through various means, continue the practice of espionage on each other. However, any threats will be at best controlled and most likely initiated through proxy organizations that give distance to any government involvement.

Another consideration is that as the danger of none-state actors able to unleash far more damaging terror attacks becomes a potential reality with more sophisticated means of technology becoming available to the general public and out of the general control of any government authority. The need for mutual cooperation to better respond and police the cyber world will take precedence over any nation-state concerns.


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Interview with Sorin Ducaru: Is cyber defense possible, Journal of International Affairs, Vol 70 №1, Winter 2016, 182–189.

Segal, Adam, The Hacked World Order: How nations fight, trade, manueuver and manipulate in the digital age, Public Affairs, New York, 2016.

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Shackford, Scott, Big Brother in the U.K, Reason Magazine, March 2017, p 9.

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