Chinese Information Warfare: A Phantom Menace or Emerging Threat?

However, this proposition holds true only for specific items and capabilities. The costs of systems or architectures that support the warfighting end of the military force have actually risen significantly relative to conventional military items. As Martin van Creveld points out, “even as the per-bit cost of data processing fell by a factor of ten over each of the three decades from 1950 to 1980, the cost of command systems rose so much that it now threatens to swallow up entire defense budgets.”14 He presciently concludes, “Given the problem of rising costs, the dilemma is likely to become even more important in the future.”15 Similarly, the pace of Chinese development in IW will largely “hinge on” the costs of IW capabilities that Beijing hopes to exploit. Depending on how broadly the Chinese conceptualize IW and which aspect(s) they want to pursue, some items or systems may be beyond China’s reach at present. For example, information-gathering tools, such as reconnaissance satellites and the associated support systems, require substantial and sustained financial commitments. Beijing has not tangibly demonstrated the political will to embark on such an ambitious modernization effort. While China’s economic growth has been spectacular in the past 2 decades, stagnant trends in recent years have already defied the euphoric linear projections of some economists. Hence, IW as an alternative to conventional military power may not be sustainable or realistic in the long term. Nevertheless, this line of reasoning on the benefits of information technologies has remained compelling for Chinese military thinkers.  China has therefore not discounted itself from this technological race.

Third, the Gulf War highlighted the growing centrality of IW. The high-tech weaponry (supported by sophisticated information systems) showcased during the conflict and the wholesale destruction of advanced weapons (largely Russian and Chinese in origin) shocked and galvanized the military leadership. Similar to America’s “Vietnam Syndrome,” China was just emerging from the deep malaise in the aftermath of the bloody and inconclusive war against Vietnam in 1979. The apparent inferiority, perhaps even irrelevance of Chinese equipment compared to American weaponry during the Gulf War finally spurred the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to embrace the study of high-technology war and, particularly, IW. In 1993, General Liu Huaqing, the former Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission and the vocal military leader credited with starting China’s current military modernization, lamented the failure of the PLA to meet the standards of modern warfare. He pointed specifically to the Gulf War conflict as the model for the Chinese when studying future wars.16 Chinese interest in this area intensified further in the aftermath of the NATO air campaign over Kosovo.17

The appreciation for information and its potential advantages in future warfare led Chinese analysts to speculate and theorize on how they might acquire their own set of doctrine and capabilities. Subsequent writings since the mid-1990s have demonstrated a keen interest (though not necessarily the analytical capacity) among strategists to explore, study, and absorb IW. Similar to the vague descriptions of IW currently circulating in America’s defense community, China’s evolving and fluid debates on IW have thus far remained abstract. At present no clear consensus has yet emerged in China on the specific aspects of IW the Chinese hope to develop. As a latecomer to the realm of IW, China has little foundation on which to base its intellectual discourse. As a result, the Chinese have often mimicked unclassified American works and security debates on IW as the literature survey below illustrates.  More interestingly, many have tried to express their views by applying or comparing Sun Tzu’s Art of War to IW. These efforts to adopt IW by finding new expression in strategic tradition could have profound influences on how the Chinese approach IW. The intersection between Beijing’s own conception of IW, which is still in the embryonic stages, and China’s strategic culture may produce strategies that are uniquely Chinese. The resulting degree of divergence from Western understanding of IW could enable China to harness the potential for unleashing ugly surprises against its adversaries.

The Chinese Buy into the RMA.

China’s analysis of the RMA was the central starting point for recent Chinese discussions on IW in the 1990s and the early 21st century. Chinese military strategists have devoted significant energy in the study of the RMA for more than a decade. For example, analysts monitored closely Soviet Marshall Nikolai Ogarkov’s work on America’s revolution in technical military affairs in the 1980s.  However, the notion of an RMA did not gain genuine currency in Chinese military circles until after the Gulf War. The Kosovo air campaign further reinforced the growing awareness of IW.