While the United States and its allies struggle with operating in the gray zone – competition between peacetime and war – the West’s adversaries, including China and Russia, have no such issue. Russia has long been comfortable exploiting non-kinetic actions to advance its interests vis-à-vis its rivals and now Beijing is emulating Moscow, leveraging asymmetric means that include offensive cyber operations and disinformation campaigns designed to press the advantage without evoking a counterattack from its rivals.
Last week, Microsoft announced that it had uncovered a malicious cyberattack emanating from China dubbed Volt Typhoon, which was launched with the objective of disrupting critical communications infrastructure between the United States and Asia in the midst of a potential future crisis. Western intelligence agencies have determined with significant confidence that the hacking campaign is state-backed and operated by elite hacking units within China’s military.
In order to advance its national interests, China relies on a range of gray zone tactics, non-military activities that span geopolitical, economic, and actions in and through the information environment. These tactics can be executed at multiple levels, including international, bilateral, or as part of grassroots campaigns in target countries through direct action or via proxies and clients. Cyberattacks are becoming a weapon of choice for many countries, favored for their anonymity or difficulty with ascertaining attribution or responsibility, hallmark characteristics of gray zone operations, the digital equivalent of “little green men.” Chinese cyberattacks are the non-kinetic equivalent of a weapons test, an initial probe to see how its targets respond. The target’s response is then used to calibrate future action plans.
And while cyberattacks are nothing new, analyzing China’s pattern of behavior over the past several years shows a clear indication that China is attempting to replicate Russia’s playbook against the West, operating outside of the margins of formal conflict and obfuscating its true intentions in an effort to frustrate a Western response. Beijing went a step further in the recent incident, not just denying responsibility for the hacking campaign but gaslighting the United States, with China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning commenting, “Apparently, this has been a collective disinformation campaign launched by the U.S. through the Five Eyes to serve its geopolitical agenda. It’s widely known that the Five Eyes is the world’s biggest intelligence association, and the NSA the world’s biggest hacking group.” The denial was unsurprising, as China typically answers accusations of espionage with deflections, as occurred after high-profile economic espionage cases, incidents of hacking efforts against U.S. vaccine production during the pandemic, and most recently following the spy balloon scandal that brought tensions between China and the U.S. to the forefront.
In mid-March, just one day after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese leader Xi Jinping was in Moscow to sign a new agreement with his counterpart that pledged to deepen the “strategic partnership” between Moscow and Beijing. And while Western fears of China arming Russia with significant quantities of weapons and ammunition have not been realized, at least so far, China has picked a side in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, boosting the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns and promoting false Russian narratives about the war. With recent changes at Twitter, Chinese and Russian disinformation has proliferated, as state-backed propaganda and blatant falsehoods pushed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Kremlin, respectively, earning significantly more views with lax controls and fewer guardrails in place. The Chinese embassy in Paris, on multiple occasions, even retweeted the Russian embassy in Paris regarding its denial of war crimes in Bucha.
By amplifying Russian disinformation, China is attempting to help sway public opinion in favor of Moscow and against Kyiv. One of the most damning false narratives pushed by the Kremlin is the presence of so-called U.S. biolabs on Ukrainian soil. The assertion is an effort to convince large swaths of the international community that Washington is surreptitiously maintaining a biological weapons program in Europe. China has also regularly seeded disinformation narratives related to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, the efficacy of Western vaccines, and the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. China has spent billions of dollars around the world parroting and promoting Russian disinformation efforts specifically regarding Ukraine, according to a U.S. special envoy.
But Chinese disinformation efforts have advanced far beyond mere troll farms and online bot armies recycling conspiracy theories on social media. Beijing has used official government spokespersons to spread these lies. Former Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian claimed last year that “This Russian military operation has uncovered the secret of the U.S. labs in Ukraine, and this is not something that can be dealt with in a perfunctory manner.” Lijian’s statement is more than just “wolf warrior” diplomacy, it’s a blatant lie with no supporting evidence deliberately peddled to deflect blame away from Russia.
Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, Chinese-affiliated media outlets, including the state-backed English-language Global Times, spread anti-U.S. propaganda framing Washington as a warmonger and the European Union as stooges and “puppets” of the United States. To complement its disinformation campaign, Beijing also heavily censored anti-Russian voices within China, while elevating pro-Russian conversations online. While China attempts to portray itself as a responsible international actor – touting its position on climate change and highlighting diplomatic successes in the Middle East – its blatant backing of Russian disinformation proves otherwise.
The West has largely been caught flat-footed in responding to China’s increased disinformation and cyber activities, stuck in the binary mindset of a nation at peace or a nation at war. Despite pivoting from 20 years of fighting the Global War on Terrorism to great power competition, the U.S. and many of its Western allies are just in the nascent stages of realizing exactly how the contours of warfare have evolved. Even more complicated is how to think about deterring adversaries in the gray zone, which requires identifying perpetrators of particular attacks and signaling to them the consequences of such actions, as well as how these actions will be answered in the future.
For China, the ultimate goal in building a gray zone strategy is Taiwan. China has already employed similar tactics against Vietnam, Japan, India, the Philippines, and other countries in the region, in addition to, as outlined above, geopolitical rivals like the United States. The CCP is adept at observing lessons learned, and adroitly monitoring how its adversaries fight and react in specific situations.
While many geopolitical observers are looking at the current conflict between Kyiv and Moscow to draw lessons about the Russian military’s behavior, one of the under-reported story lines is how Beijing is learning from Moscow’s gray zone approach and improving upon it. Cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns will grow more sophisticated as the barriers to mastering emerging technologies are lowered.