The background to China’s interest and involvement in cyber warfare is deeper and more extensive than comparable efforts by any Western nation. The People’s Liberation Army codified its concept of information warfare, which included what many western governments would today recognize as cyber operations, in the 1990s.
But for China, the overarching principles of information warfare go far beyond techniques to deny Internet Protocol-based (IP) communications to an adversary, or to deploy weaponized viruses or computer worms to interfere with command-and-control networks or destroy machinery.
Information warfare includes disciplines western militaries would call psychological operations – attempts by a state to influence public opinion – and also encompasses state censorship of news and other media. The Chinese view, therefore, is that the nation is under sustained attack by America and her allies in the West, because Western media regularly runs stories that are not supportive of Chinese interests and policies. China therefore sees itself as entirely justified in carrying out proportionate retaliatory operations.
China argues it is the most heavily attacked nation in cyberspace. According to several independent analyses, computers in China are victim to more distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks than any other nation’s networks.
The difficulties of attribution in cyberspace – where a skilled operator can easily make it look to a victim that an attack is coming from somewhere other than its actual geographic source – mean it is difficult to say with certainty where unauthorized intrusion into a computer system has come from. This has not stopped the country becoming synonymous with the type of long-lasting penetrations of corporate and government networks that have come to be known as APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) attacks.
Even if attribution to China can be confirmed, the problem of assessing which entity may be behind an attack has only begun. There are four distinct elements in Chinese society from which cyber attacks could emanate – organs of state, the Communist party, the Chinese military, or private individuals motivated by patriotism, money or other factors.
Major aerospace and defense contractors have been on the receiving end of numerous APTs, and there have been more than a few cynics whose first response to any new unveiling of an advanced Chinese military technology is to assume the effort resulted, in part, from stolen intellectual property. But the real issue here is about China’s national pride, argues the Mandarin-speaking former U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Colonel William T. Hagestad II, who lectures on Chinese cyber warfare and has written three books on the topic.
“China has already demonstrated that they need to keep up with the Joneses, and the Jonses in this case are America,” Hagestad tells ShowNews. “They want to be able to project military force through an air capability, a deep-water navy, an amphibious capability. With even their economy in a downturn they’re going to have to scream and scrabble for more innovations to make them even more competitive.”