While western pundits and security industry leaders continue the debate over the terminology employed in describing state-sponsored cyber offensives - namely the use of "cyber war" as an all-inclusive descriptor - the Chinese government has fully embraced the concept of a virtual battlefield.
According to an article by
The Chinese strategy extends well beyond potential military targets, posing a significant threat to the core industries and critical infrastructure systems a nation relies upon to sustain a healthy military presence.
“When John Arquilla coined the phrase cyberwar in 1993, he framed the concept primarily around nation-state military actors, unfortunately this isn’t the case in the 21st century. In the industrial defense era allied forces primarily bombed military and military-industrial targets, but in the cyberdefense era viable targets include civilian-operated critical infrastructures, which all militaries are dependent," said John Bumgarner, CTO of the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, an independent research institute that studies cyber conflicts.
Attacks on private sector assets are seen as a central aspect of a successful Chinese cyber aggression strategy by eroding the industrial and technological superiority of an adversary over time.
The concept was detailed by two Chinese military officers in 1999 in a paper titled “Unrestricted Warfare."
“Economic warfare is really a big issue. Eroding segments of another nation’s financial stability can be easily accomplished by stealing proprietary data about a widget, using that information to your advantage to manufacture the widget without incurring all the research and development costs and then selling the widget on the world market at a faction of the cost. Continually repeating this cycle makes the target nation reliant on you for so many things. Eventually you hold the keys to the kingdom,” Bumgarner said.
Chinese hackers are not merely tasked with infiltrating established western economies, they are also conducting extensive operations in emerging economies and extending their presence in regions fraught by political conflict and economic turmoil.
“They’ve been a threat for a while. They’re someone we’ve had to really watch, and they get really involved in all the major cities around the globe. They’ve got a strong presence with their intelligence officers right down to cities like Kabul in Afghanistan, as well as here in the United States—you name it. Whether it’s a big country or a third world country, they try to get their claws into it," said former U.S. intelligence officer Drew Berquist.
While numerous nations are involved in varying levels of cyber aggression, what makes the Chinese threat so much more palpable is the systemic nature and comparatively large scale of the state-sponsored cyber-offensive operations, as evidenced by attacks like Operation Aurora, Ghostnet, and most recently Night Dragon.
“When I think of them, I think of the battle that’s going on beneath the surface, it’s more of an infrastructure battle. It’s ‘how do we attack their computer networks, how do we attack their economy, and how do we go about [this with] different means’—not battles and conflicts,” Berquist said.