Is China’s Cyberwar Capacity More Backward Than We Think?


In a lecture on January 7 in Beijing, a senior PLA officer and professor at the PLA National Defense University called on “PLA troops to enhance their capability of winning informationalized warfare,” according to an article on the Chinese Ministry of Defense website. The article goes on to summarize the lecturer’s principle point: “Zhu Chenghu said the future war will be information-based local wars, featuring unprecedentedly high levels of intelligence. As a result, there will be no concept of front or rear. Space, air, sea, ground, cyberspace, and even electromagnetic pulse space can be the target to strike. The information security will become the most vulnerable area for China.”

This is nothing new. Many senior Chinese officers have repeatedly emphasized the need to bolster the country’s cyber capabilities, since they provide some asymmetric compensation at a comparatively low cost for the relative backwardness of the Chinese military vis-à-vis the U.S. military and its regional allies.

Despite many reported successes in cyber espionage, the PLA is a latecomer when it comes to applying information technology to broad military use. China has never issued a formal cyber warfare strategy document. At the 16th Party Congress in 2002, then General Secretary Jiang Zemin announced that the PLA’s future mission will be to persevere in “local wars under informationized conditions” by 2050. This strategic guidance set in motion a timetable of modernization with the end result of a total “informatization” of the PLA by 2050. In a speech back in November 2012, former Chinese president Hu Jianto stated that by 2020 China should have made “major progress in full military IT application.”

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However, as I have pointed out elsewhere, China will need to overcome a number of challenges before it can be considered a first-rate military power in cyberspace.  For example, Chinese technical institutes and universities still cannot compete with the United States in the highly specialized areas that support cyber warfare. On a micro level, Chinese specialists can compete with their Western analogs, but postgraduate training for military personnel in cyber-related spheres is not as good as it is in the United States.

The PLA also has other competing military priorities, such as the mechanization of the army, modernizing the air force and deploying a more robust navy. More importantly, the private sector capacity in China – the true center of gravity in any cyber conflict – is inferior to the highly sophisticated U.S. private sector’s capacity to support cyber war operations (e.g., training future cyber warriors).

In addition, there are cultural issues within the PLA that will hamper progress such as the well-known strong “single-service silo” culture with little information sharing between services, which only amplifies the also well-known aversion of the Chinese military bureaucracy to change. Also, China, according to a former intelligence operator I spoke with, is still relatively weak in global intelligence collection – especially human intelligence, which is problematic for advanced military operations in cyberspace since they require intelligence collection from diverse sources in order to be successful. Insiders believe that China’s efforts on this front are neither as comprehensive nor as successful as those of the United States.

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