Chinese Information Warfare: A Phantom Menace or Emerging Threat?

Triumph of the Information Revolution?

What explains China’s intense interest in IW? At the broadest level, the Chinese clearly realize the implications of the information revolution. First, China recognizes the importance of high technology and the growing power of information in the era of globalization and interdependence. Second, China aspires to become a major political and economic player in a global community where information power retains a critical place in dictating interstate relations. Given that economic development remains its highest national priority, China’s integration into the information-based international economic system has in turn magnified the appeal of information. Third, as  a corollary to the previous point, the Chinese believe that, as China increases its comprehensive national power, the world will eventually shift from a unipolar to a multipolar world, in which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will be a coequal.9 In sum, the ability to compete economically and wage high-technology warfare with information technologies will be critical components of China’s  national strength.

From a strategic and military perspective, IW promises to compensate for China’s largely antiquated conventional armed forces. First, IW could enable the Chinese to fight from a position of relative weakness, particularly against far superior military powers like the United States and Japan. In recent defense parlance, information technologies provide “asymmetric capabilities” to state and nonstate actors. While definitions of asymmetric warfare have varied and evolved over time, the basic concept is the use of unorthodox methods and capabilities that avoid or undercut an adversary’s strengths while inflicting disproportionate damage on the enemy’s weaknesses.10 In a hypothetical confrontation between China and the United States, the backwardness of Chinese forces would undoubtedly invite defeat. Since the Chinese cannot possibly hope to fight on American terms, they must therefore find other means to deter or defeat the United States. IW provides Beijing with the potential capacity to reach directly into the American homeland, which has been far beyond the very limited power projection capabilities of China’s military. The Chinese could attack vulnerable critical infrastructures in the United States to influence or manipulate domestic public perceptions and, in turn, weaken America’s political will to intervene or fight. This need to leverage weakness in order to defeat a superior foe, a central and still influential philosophy of Mao Zedong’s people’s war concept, has  a powerful hold on Chinese thinkers.

Second, many Chinese believe that IW is one of the few technological arenas where the contest for supremacy among the great powers remains undetermined. By exploiting the information revolution, China hopes to leapfrog generations of obsolescent technologies in order to catch up with the developed world.11 The Chinese believe that IW could offer a low-cost, quick fix to their backward forces, especially when compared to a full-fledged military build-up. America’s conventional military supremacy, a critical benchmark for the Chinese military, further underscores the difficulties of overcoming conventional military inferiority. Chinese strategists hope to capitalize on the integrative powers of information technologies to improve the performance of existing equipment without incurring prohibitive expenses.12 A prominent phenomenon in the information  technology revolution (popularly known as “Moore’s Law”) is that, while information processing power has accelerated over the last 2 decades, the costs per unit capacity have plummeted at an exponential rate.13