Chinese Information Warfare: A Phantom Menace or Emerging Threat?

We’ve Only Just Begun.

The policy implications in this analysis are clearly less than sanguine. However, it is important to note as a caveat that the lack of reliable sources and the opaqueness of China’s defense community preclude sufficient certainty on the future direction of Chinese IW. As suggested above, the Chinese may simply be following a familiar U.S.-Soviet pattern of rhetorical theatrics. The Chinese are still grappling with a nascent concept that even the most developed countries are also struggling with. Moreover, China’s capabilities are still too primitive to compete against advanced military powers such as the United States. In short, China will not be able to achieve the much touted information dominance for some time to come.

However, it would be dangerous and naïve to simply disregard the potential Chinese threat. Historically, the concept of offensive IW has been a tightly held secret even within the United States itself. The seemingly excessive secrecy surrounding offensive capabilities has three root causes. First, the United States kept this concept secret in deference to the political sensitivities among allies. Second, there were fears that touting offensive IW might engender enmity on the part of adversaries in an act of self-fulfilling prophesy. Third, as mentioned before, the frailties of offensive and defensive IW strategies make them vulnerable to countermeasures. Hence, even the most transparent countries developing IW have been very reluctant to reveal their strategies and capabilities. In other words, the lack of evidence on IW has no bearing on whether it exists or not or whether the country is proficient at it or not.77 China is no exception.

As a final cautionary note, the oftentimes reflexive response among some scholars to discount discussions of the “China threat” as mere paranoia or hawkishness must be tempered with some historical perspective. In many ways, the post-Cold War period resembles the interwar interregnum, during which military powers experimented with new technologies, organizations, and doctrine. As World War II approached, the balance of forces heavily favored the Allied powers. The political will of the leadership and the public mood in London and Paris had shifted from reluctance to surprising enthusiasm to fight. In contrast, Nazi Germany did not field the best or the most advanced military hardware. Yet, the hand wringing, bumbling generals led by a madman and backed by a German public with little appetite for war unleashed the blitzkrieg that would shatter the French and British forces in less than 7 weeks. How could this have happened? In Strange Victory, Ernest May argues convincingly that the devastating defeat resulted from the Allied failure to anticipate German plans and to appreciate the magnitude of British/French miscalculations. He concludes:

In sum, the essential thread in the story of Germany’s victory over France hangs on the imaginativeness of German war planning and the corresponding lack of imaginitiveness on the Allied side. Hitler and his generals perceived that the weakness of their otherwise powerful enemies resided in habits and routines that made their reaction times slow. They developed a plan that capitalized on this weakness. French and British leaders made no effort to understand how or why German thinking might differ from theirs. They neglected to prepare for the possibility of surprise, and, as German analysts and planners predicted, they could not react promptly once events began to be at odds with expectations.78

The lesson from this analysis is that constant vigilance is the only answer to avoiding ugly surprises. Further analysis is clearly required but this preliminary study suggests that China’s evolving attitudes toward IW could pose an increasingly daunting and unpredictable challenge for American policymakers.