Chinese Information Warfare: A Phantom Menace or Emerging Threat?

Whether Chinese strategists have something useful to contribute analytically by looking through the lens of Sun Tzu or whether they have deluded themselves into accepting the capacity of information power to lift the fog of war remains to be seen. However, China’s ancient strategic culture, which is deeply imbedded in contemporary strategic thinking, will likely impact the future direction of Chinese IW. More specifically, a combination of practical considerations and strategic traditions will determine the course and uniqueness of China’s IW program. Notwithstanding the steady boosts in defense spending, China’s military establishment still faces severe resource constraints. In light of the economic uncertainty in the coming years, China would not attempt or be able to duplicate American efforts in IW. Moreover, Chinese weakness in conventional capabilities vis-à-vis the United States will force the PRC to focus on asymmetric strategies, which might involve certain aspects of IW (although the specifics remain unclear). In addition, Mao’s people’s war tradition and Sun Tzu’s philosophy will likely exert both conscious and subconscious influences on Chinese thinking on IW. For example, denial and deception and the notion of fighting from a position of weakness will undoubtedly dominate much of the discourse. Regardless of which elements of IW Beijing choose to exploit, the Chinese will likely pursue their own brand of IW that could deviate radically from Western conceptions and models. The pursuit of a unique IW strategy, which would not likely be well understood in the West, could be a perfect formula for achieving surprise (or abysmal failure) against China’s adversaries.

How Different from American Thinking? The literature suggests that Chinese strategists tend to conceptualize IW in the broadest terms possible. Similar to U.S. thinking, the Chinese expand IW to the psychological realm. However, strategists broaden IW attacks beyond warfighting purposes. They often discuss attacking the adversary’s social, economic, and internal political structures.  According to one analyst, “The soul of informationized warfare is to ‘subdue the enemy force without battle.’ Its essence is to force the opponent to give up the wish to resist and thereby to end confrontation and stop fighting by ultimately attacking their perception and belief, using information energy as the main means of action.”70 The Chinese essentially hope to elevate IW to a higher level of operational military art form. These strategists believe that by tapping into the enemy’s thought processes, values, and motives one can identify, manipulate, and reduce the adversary’s will to resist and hence achieve victory without actual combat. In concrete terms, IW attacks intended to inflict pain on the adversary’s society might be employed to impact public opinion and increase the political costs of fighting against China (much like the use of strategic airpower during World War II). The Chinese could direct IW against America’s increasingly vulnerable and sprawling critical infrastructure in order to complicate Washington’s decisionmaking process. The Chinese could apply indirect pressure on certain segments of the American population to induce broader public panic in the hopes of reducing Washington’s political will to act in the event of crisis. For example, consider the potential impact of tainting processed food by infiltrating the manufacturing process via computers.71 Whether the Chinese would take such action without fear or in spite of potential American retaliation and escalation will be the subject of analysis in the following section.

In any case, it is clear that an assessment of Chinese IW literature produces more questions than answers. Whether the Chinese have reached the wrong conclusions on IW within their unique political context remains unclear. Whether certain aspects of the literature are intended to mislead the outside world is equally unanswerable. The environment of rapid change and innovation inherent to information technologies compounds the uncertainties. Moreover, China confronts the United States, its designated potential adversary, who holds a dauntingly tremendous lead. Chinese analysts are constantly bombarded by the seemingly endless production of American analysis on IW. The confluence of all these factors may have shaped the sweepingly ambitious—and at times seemingly unrealistic or naïve—analysis of IW among Chinese strategists.

Assessing the Chinese IW Threat to the United States.

Given the intense Chinese interest in IW, China will likely devote substantial resources to studying the use of and acquiring state-of-the-art information technologies. In particular, China will seek capabilities that would help gather, process, and exploit information on the battlefield to establish an information-based military force. Command and control systems, such as reconnaissance satellites and surveillance systems will become important elements in China’s force structure. Moreover, as a “latecomer” to the information revolution, China may be able to reap the hard-earned fruits of nations that pioneered IW warfare. The diffusion and availability of technologies could allow China to leapfrog generations of obsolescent technologies within the Chinese force structure.

Beyond the technological implications, future developments in IW could have broader effects on Chinese policy and strategy. Unfortunately, predicting the future path of Chinese IW remains a haphazard exercise. As noted above, the current Chinese literature itself reveals  a yawning gap between theory and practice. Since China is notorious for shrouding any shred of data on defense capabilities in absolute secrecy, it is unclear how the Chinese might apply newly acquired IW capabilities. This level of uncertainty on when and how China would master IW adds greater urgency to understanding Chinese strategic thought on IW.