Chinese Information Warfare: A Phantom Menace or Emerging Threat?

A Preliminary Evaluation of Chinese IW Literature.

While China’s IW literature and American interpretations of Chinese writings cover a broad range of concepts and capabilities, most analyses lack concrete evidence on the future direction of Chinese IW. Chinese IW doctrine and force structure have remained frustratingly elusive. The writings often theorize on the benefits of IW and tend to present a wish list of capabilities that the Chinese hope to acquire. These abstractions reveal the extent to which the Chinese are still struggling with a highly amorphous and ill-defined concept in warfare.  However, some preliminary assessments can be made about the existing literature on IW.

Are the Chinese Copy Cats? As noted earlier, Chinese interpretations of IW dovetail closely with the notion of information dominance in American military doctrine. In many cases, the Chinese have borrowed heavily from (and even outright plagiarized) open literature and security debates within the United States.49 Mulvenon identifies several Chinese writings that are virtually identical to the U.S. Air Force’s “Six Pillars of IW” and Joint Vision 2010.  For example, one author’s definition of IW as “electronic warfare, tactical deception, strategic deterrence, propaganda warfare, psychological warfare, computer warfare, and command and control warfare” mirrors the Air Force’s conception of IW. 50 The Chinese have also translated in full the Joint Doctrine for Command and Control Warfare (JP3-13.1) and Field Manual (FM)-100-3. 51 This peculiar tendency to reproduce American doctrine further evidences the daunting theoretical and analytical difficulties that the Chinese have encountered in studying IW. Indeed, this phenomenon of intellectual imitation is highly reminiscent of Soviet literature on nuclear strategy and doctrine in the 1960s and 1970s. 52 If the Chinese are merely mimicking American discourse, then the writings further obscure China’s real intentions and capabilities in IW. More importantly, the intellectual debates raging in the United States are simply incompatible with the current capabilities and needs of the Chinese. The primitive critical infrastructure in China, while rapidly expanding in recent years, is not nearly as vulnerable as the American counterpart. The Chinese also do not have the advanced systems to conduct offensive IW on the scale of the United States.

Why, then, are the Chinese engaged in a potentially fruitless exercise? It may be that China is simply extracting the benefits and lessons from the American experience in IW through imitation. However, such a conclusion would be an oversimplification of Chinese realities that could cloud better understanding of China’s developments in IW. In the preface of China Debates the Future Environment, Michael Pillsbury points to a prominent and recurring problem in the American study of Chinese security policy:

Some Americans wrongly believe Chinese views reflect a mirror image of their own. This study suggests instead that the Chinese have their own unique perceptions, which may be difficult to appreciate.

The risk of mirror imaging our own views was an issue also present in the study of the Soviet Union. Andrew Marshall, Director of the Office of Net Assessment, cautioned against assuming that a foreign nation’s strategic assessment is merely a reflection of America’s: “Soviet calculations are likely to make different assumptions about scenarios and objectives . .  . perform different calculations, use different measures of effectiveness, and perhaps use different assessment processes and methods. The result is that Soviet assessments may substantially differ from American assessments.” Marshall’s cautionary note also applies to understanding Chinese assessments of the future.53

The study of Chinese IW could similarly succumb to such temptations of mirror imaging. The following analysis suggests some probable explanations as to why Chinese strategists have so assiduously copied American literature on IW.