Chinese Information Warfare: A Phantom Menace or Emerging Threat?

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What does not appear in the Chinese literature (and Owen’s work) regarding knowledge and information is equally instructive. Most analysts generally ignore the harsh reality that data is not always accessible or perfect. Accumulation of knowledge particularly under the duress of war is often a haphazard and unreliable exercise. Indeed, the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 should have demonstrated quite clearly that even the most sophisticated military power remains subject to the Clausewitzian fog of war. Beijing’s stubborn conviction that the bombing was not an accident may in part reflect Chinese illusions that technology does have the power to lift the fog (although the real motive for the diplomatic bluster may well be to extract political capital from the incident). On a related point, most IW strategists tend to skirt the practical application and hence the limitations of IW. Chinese analysts do not discuss how one gathers, analyzes, and disseminates information as a process. They similarly exclude from their analyses the difficulties in assessing and  verifying data. The ability to harness knowledge is simply accepted at face value as the solution to eliminating uncertainty in war and the key to victory.

What accounts for this apparent blind faith in information? First, Sun Tzu’s influence as a strategic tradition remains very palpable. The literature survey for this monograph demonstrates that the notion of winning without fighting through superior knowledge is highly appealing as a theoretical concept. Second, given that the current discussions are conceptual exercises, most of the  writings understandably focus on the abstract and the most ideal situations for information war. This tendency to describe IW within the vacuum of theory often has the effect of exaggerating the power of knowledge. Third, the defense community in China remains deeply divided over the future form of warfare. IW advocates must contend with supporters of the traditional people’s war concept, still a dominant force in the PLA, and the more conventional high-tech warfare school of thought.65 As representatives of a tiny minority view, they must present their case in the most favorable terms. Hence, radical thinkers (like Owens) are naturally compelled to promote the highly appealing notion that knowledge will make winning without fighting possible. The emergence of internal debates and political infighting owing to the introduction of new concepts and technologies is a prevalent if not inevitable phenomenon in any defense community around the world. New ideas often challenge the entrenched interests of military organizations, which are by nature conservative and resistant to radical change. Authors sometimes must produce provocative writings in order to propel the debate in the hopes of breaking the status quo or changing the existing order. The current literature on Chinese IW is clearly no exception. Regardless of which explanation is preferred for it, the general acceptance that knowledge is the key to mastering IW could have direct consequences for Chinese developments in IW.

Forgetting Clausewitz. Chinese writings on IW ignore the inherently interactive nature of combat. The ability to gather and utilize knowledge is always seen from the perspective of the self rather than from the enemy’s position. It assumes that the enemy does not enjoy the same type of access to information or has not devised parallel IW strategies. In concrete terms, “The notion that one can expect to attack an enemy’s satellite and computer networks while the enemy will not have thought to do so against oneself, or that the enemy will not have tried to take precautions against such an attack, is dangerously naïve.”66 The failure to appreciate the enemy’s IW strategies could magnify the problems that result from an unquestioning faith in knowledge as mentioned previously. The assumption that the adversary has not devised counter measures to deceive, mislead, or misinform could lead to disastrous consequences. It might inflate Chinese confidence in their ability to gather and process accurate information about the enemy and thereby open themselves to terrible blunders or miscalculations.

In Keeping the Edge, Victor A. DeMarines highlights the inherent interactive nature of cyber information operations:

A difficulty inherent in CND [Computer Network Defense] is that the attacker has the initiative, and the defender cannot know the time and place of the next attack . . . A critical characteristic of CNA [Computer Network Attack], which creates numerous problems in planning its use, is its fragility. Many forms of CNA are most effective when the enemy does not realize that it is under attack, because they can readily be countered once the enemy knows exactly how the attack is being carried out.67

In other words, computer network attack or defense, while highly appealing, are fraught with uncertainty. Without careful planning with the enemy constantly in mind, the attack could be ineffective or the defense could be circumvented by deception and surprise.

DeMarines also comments on the dilemmas that the policymaker faces when employing computer network defense or attack:

There is an inherent conflict between the requirements for effective CND and the requirements for CNA. This conflict arises whenever we discover a potential vulnerability in  a computer network. If we keep this vulnerability secret, and if a future enemy does not independently discover the  vulnerability and protect against it, then we can exploit it for CNA. But if we develop a defense against the vulnerability and deploy it widely in our networks, we make it highly likely that the future enemy will learn about the vulnerability and the defense, and we will be unable to use it for CNA. However, if a future enemy discovers this vulnerability independently, and we have done nothing to protect our own networks against it, the enemy can use it to attack us.68

The complex interactive process in IW means that the action taken by one side could potentially be negated immediately if the adversary is alert or aware. The linear approach to IW that the Chinese appear to have adopted ignores the Clausewitzian implications of a duel between two opposing forces.

The Ghost of Sun Tzu Still Lingers. The presence of Sun Tzu’s philosophy is inescapable in the IW literature. As noted earlier, Sun Tzu’s notion of winning without fighting and attacking the enemy’s strategy (command and control systems) resonates powerfully with Chinese strategists. In addition, Chinese discussions of IW as a tool for deception carry a distinct overtone of Sun Tzu’s influence. As suggested above, Sun Tzu’s philosophy tends to reinforce an unwarranted perception among Chinese commentators that knowledge or information can become a panacea in warfare. In short, traditional frameworks for understanding strategy could have a distorting affect on Chinese views of IW. However, some observers have concluded that China’s strategic culture might in fact help the Chinese benefit more from IW than the West. According to an early study on Chinese IW, “Despite our technological edge, we in the West may have much to learn from Chinese views of conflict in the information age. Indeed, Sun Tzu, with his emphasis on the power of ‘knowing’, may be more relevant in the future than Clausewitz, for whom ‘friction’, not information, was of overarching importance.”69 They suggest that this cultural difference may in fact enable China to achieve high levels of sophistication faster and earlier than Western analysts have generally predicted.

Toshi Yoshihara
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