Chinese Information Warfare: A Phantom Menace or Emerging Threat?

The literature survey on Chinese views of IW and its convergence with preemption also leads to some other unsettling conclusions. Notably, the apparent belief that information is a panacea in warfare could breed dangerous attitudes. In the tradition of Sun Tzu, Chinese analysts of IW assert that knowledge can be assembled together in a rational and coherent manner that would produce inevitable victory. The assumption that superior information can overcome the fog of war could encourage the Chinese to devise ambitious IW strategies that might backfire terribly when employed. For example, confidence in attaining accurate knowledge prior to war and the emphasis on preplanning often leads to inflexibility. As John Keegan persuasively argued, the faith in war plans among the belligerents of World War I led to what he called “a tragic and unnecessary conflict.”75 Those war plans meticulously laid out a very specific course of action that brooked little deviation. The underlying assumption was that proper information and planning would determine the outcome of wars. Indeed, all the plans anticipated quick victories in a short war. The actual course of events led to prolonged stalemate and mass slaughter. Europe’s hubris at the time could similarly infect Chinese defense planners.

It is clear then, that the use of IW for preemptive purposes could be highly escalatory and unstable in crisis situations. The consequences of such a strategy could be dangerously explosive, particularly in a conflict involving the United States over a Taiwan crisis. This extreme scenario of course assumes that the Chinese IW strategy actually works. Beijing may also be equally unable to cope with a massive and complete failure to achieve its political objectives through IW. Given that an “IW Pearl Harbor” remains untested and the means to assess damage are underdeveloped and inherently difficult, it is entirely possible that the attack would end in a pathetic fizzle. China’s reliance on IW to conduct warfare at the expense of other traditional capabilities could lead to a multitude of unintended consequences.

If on the other hand, the Chinese are acutely aware of the counter productive and possibly disastrous results of an IW Pearl Harbor, they may be self-deterred from exercising such an option. Is Chinese IW as an asymmetric threat therefore a phantom menace? To what extent should the uncertainty and ambiguity of the Chinese threat dictate how the United States responds to China’s IW developments? Examining and weighing the likelihood of Beijing resorting to IW against the United States is therefore a policy-relevant and extremely elusive task. Greg Rattray’s formula for understanding strategic IW is a useful model for assessing the Chinese IW threat to the United States. Rattray states, “Despite the availability of technological tools for digital warfare, the utility of engaging in strategic IW for U.S. adversaries will vary based on their political objectives, likely campaign strategies, and willingness to risk retaliation and escalation.”76 He outlines four conditions for achieving success in strategic warfare: (1) offensive advantage; (2) significant vulnerability of centers of gravity to attack; (3) minimal prospects for retaliation and escalation; and (4) identifiability and targetability of enemy vulnerabilities and assessibility of damage inflicted. Rattray argues that strategic IW can only reasonably achieve an offensive advantage. Given the uncertainties surrounding the probability of success in employing IW, the Chinese might also be constrained by these considerations.

Does this mean that China is not likely to employ IW? A Chinese decision to use IW will depend on Beijing’s perceptions of the external security environment and internal politics. As Rattray argues, the broader political context is the central starting point for understanding IW. Clearly, Beijing would not likely use IW to reinforce its territorial sovereignty over Tibet. However, on an issue as explosive as the fate of Taiwan, self-deterrence could come under severe strain. Therefore, the United States cannot assume that since the Chinese face similar strategic and operational constraints in the use of IW that Beijing will be dissuaded from taking a risky course of action. Indeed, if the stakes are high enough, such as losing Taiwan and, in the process, destroying the Communist Party’s legitimacy, the Chinese might be more tolerant of failure and/or escalation. If a desperate Chinese leadership is sufficiently convinced that they no longer have anything to lose from taking action, reliance on IW as a preemptive “use it or lose it” option may not seem so unattractive or dangerous. While the probability of China using strategic IW is low at present or in the short-term, the political context may change sufficiently in the future to warrant caution and preparation on the part of the United States.