March 11, 2020

From Offense Dominance to Deterrence: China’s Evolving Strategic Thinking on Cyberwar

By Tianjiao Jiang


This paper examines China’s strategic thinking on cyberwar. It has been widely argued that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has shown strong interest in launching large-scale cyberattacks against the US during warfare or peacetime. However, such views ignore the fact that the PLA must restrain itself due to the uncertainties of cyberattack, such as collateral damage, blowback, and escalation. In fact, Chinese experts follow US perceptions and cyberwar practices very closely, which has contributed to Beijing’s evolving strategic thinking over the past decades. From the 1990s to early 2000s, the “ideology of offense” was the PLA’s primary approach to the “informationization leaping forward”. Due to the shock of the Gulf War, most of the military strategists advocated cyber offense in order to catch up with the new round of revolution in military affairs. However, after 2008, both military and civilian experts started to increasingly question the effectiveness of cyberattack after studying their peers’ criticism against cyber deterrence in the US. There was no consensus on national cybersecurity strategy until 2015 when there was a call for China to develop a cyber deterrence strategy as a reaction to the further development of cyber deterrence by the US. The latest Chinese official documents on cybersecurity have reflected the shift of its strategic thinking.


There have been many discussions on how China takes advantage of cyber technology as a strategic tool to increase its power. The well-publicized disputes on cyber espionage between China and the US have raised further questions about how Beijing will use cyber capabilities in future conflicts or if the Chinese would even use them in a coercive manner, which poses a more significant threat to Washington. On the one hand, a high level dependency on cyber systems makes the socio-economic development of the US extremely vulnerable (The Economist, 2017). On the other hand, cyberwar is perceived as increasingly likely due to “its effectiveness as a weapon; the relative low cost of entry; the appeal as an asymmetric form of warfare; the lack of clearly defined international constraints; and difficulty of deterrence” (Mazanec and Thayer, 2015a). And China is believed to have made long-term preparations for this kind of cyberwar against the US (U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2017).

Observers have expressed serious concerns over the scenario of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launching a cyberwar against the US. However, there has been no sign of any large-scale cyberattack, except for continuous back and forth disputes about cyber espionage across the Pacific. The argument that a cyberwar between China and the US is unavoidable is internally contradictory. It ignores the fact that the PLA must restrain itself due to the uncertainties of cyberattack such as collateral damage, blowback, and escalation. But such restraint does not come by nature. I argue that China has gone through three stages of understanding on cyberwar: from the 1990s to 2008, from 2009 to 2014, and from 2015 to present. The first stage witnessed the PLA’s “informatization leap forward” when most military strategists advocated cyber offense due to the shock of the Gulf War. But the English literature largely missed the domestic debate on the effectiveness of cyberattack after 2008 and the shaping of cybersecurity strategy in recent years. In fact, the concept and practice of cyberwar raised by the US have strong influence on Chinese strategists and policy advisers. It is worthwhile to examine how they borrow ideas, translate key words, and quote arguments from the US experts during domestic debates. It may also shed light on how the input from academia and think tanks will decide the policy-making of China’s cybersecurity strategy.

In my analysis, I combine the research from both military and non-military sources to illustrate the vibrant debate on China’s strategic thinking about cyberwar. Despite a lack of official military doctrine on cyberwarfare, there have been many textbooks and research papers discussing the PLA’s understanding of cyberwar. Additionally, the viewpoints from the civilian strategists and think tanks can never be undervalued due to Beijing’s continuing reform of the decision-making system. In fact, it is not the PLA, but the Leading Small Group (LSG) for Cybersecurity and Informatization that coordinates different departments and makes cybersecurity policy (Inkster, 2016; see footnote 1).[1] With President Xi’s call to develop “a new type of think tank with Chinese characteristics”, think tanks are playing important roles in policy-making through their channels to the government (Glaser and Saunders, 2002; see footnote 2).[2] Besides think tanks, Chinese leaders also receive advice from scholars at top universities, including Peking University, Tsinghua University, Fudan University, Renmin University, and East China University of Political Science and Law.[3] Think tanks and university scholars usually apply for research projects sponsored by the government in order to submit internal reports or publish open journals to influence policy-making.[4] As internal reports are rarely declassified, the openly published academic papers are the best resources available from which one can summarize policy debate issues and predict potential policy shifts. In this research, I turn to academic journals and reports from the civilian side to complement military studies on cyberwar that aim to shed light on Beijing’s intentions to develop cyberwar capabilities. All of the papers were selected through the Chinese Social Sciences Citation Index (CSSCI), an authoritative academic journal index widely used in

China (see footnote 4). The authors of the sampled articles are mostly professors at prominent universities or analysts at influential think tanks. As the Western audience have not reviewed such a large number of Chinese journals and reports openly discussing China’s understanding of cyberwar and cyber deterrence, this paper also aims to fill the literature gap in China’s cybersecurity.

This paper only focuses on large-scale computer network attacks (CNAs) between state actors rather than computer network exploitation (CNE) attacks. In the US Department of Defense definition, both CNA and CNE are considered as hostile computer network operations (CNOs) (US Department of Defense, 2011). CNA is the use of computer networks to disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy either the information resident in enemy computers and computer networks, or the computers and networks themselves, while CNE is usually equal to cyber espionage activities. Although there is a blurred line between CNA and CNE, they can still be separated (Kello, 2013a). This paper defines cyberwar as “hostile actions in cyberspace that have effects that amplify or are equivalent to major kinetic violence” (Nye, 2011a) or “employs CNAs as a use of force to disrupt an opponent’s physical infrastructure for political gain” (Lindsay, 2013a). There are basically two kinds of cyberwar: operational cyberwar (acting against military targets during a war) and strategic cyberwar (cyberattacks on enemy civilian infrastructures) (Libicki, 2009).

1.    Fallacies on the China–US Cyberwar Scenario

The debate on cyberwar has lasted for many years. The pessimist argues that cyberwar is coming or has already come (Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 1993; McConnell, 2010). The nature of cyber technology is going to change the interactions between states and brings greater instability to the world. Such fear coincides with the relative decline of the US and the rise of China, which makes many China watchers further argue that the PLA has been preparing a major cyberattack on the US for decades. The cyberwar scenario between China and the US has become both the content and driving force of such fear. However, whether there is a set course of conflict or whether the threat has been exaggerated deserves a more careful examination. Several analysts strongly question such arguments. Rid (2013) argues that cyberwar will never happen. Lindsay (2013b) and Gartzke (2013a) point out that a “digital Pearl Harbor” is unrealistic on both operational and strategic grounds. Dunn-Cavelty (2008) suggests that the growing perceptions of fear among governments and policymakers only exacerbate cyber threats. As both the threats and the opportunities brought by new technology are usually oversold and exaggerated, “confusion and misinformation” have pervaded discussions on cybersecurity (Singer and Friedman, 2014; Betz and Stevens, 2011a).

The pessimistic perspective suggests that the revolution of cyber technology has fundamentally impacted the world military balance and international relations (Clarke and Knake, 2010). The problem of attribution and offense dominance are the main driving factors of such instability (Mulvenon and Rattray, 2012). As cyberattacks can be easily routed through multiple networks or even proxies in a third country, it is very difficult to identify the intent of the strike and the responsible party. It is more difficult to deter by retaliation without identifying the real attacker. Offense is believed to have much more advantage over defense in cyberspace. The defender has to maintain a great wall for the entire system while the attacker only needs to find one single weak point. Offense dominance elicits a strong incentive to strike first. Additionally, cyber capabilities have become part of the “tool-box” to “manipulate the strategic environment” (Sheldon, 2012). As the entry barrier is extremely low and cyber weapons can be rapidly proliferated, it multiples the power of small and weak actors so that they can launch an asymmetric attack on major powers. Cyberspace has become “a perfect breeding ground for political disorder and strategic instability” (Kello, 2013b).

Furthermore, “the fundamental instability of cyberspace compounds the mistrust between China and the US” (Segal, 2013). All of the pessimistic discourse and growing concerns about the vulnerability of cyberspace are “motivated to no small extent by concerns about China’s economic and military development” (Lindsay et al., 2015a). Especially after the 2008 economic crisis, the relative decline of the US and the continuous rising of China make a collision between the established superpower and the emerging power very likely as the Thucydides trap forecasts. Henry Kissinger warned that “enough material exists in China’s quasi-official press and research institutes to lend some support to the theory that relations (between Washington and Beijing) are heading for confrontation rather than cooperation” (Kissinger, 2012). President Xi Jinping’s promotion of the China Dream is perceived by Western scholars as a shift away from “hide and bide” to challenging the post-war order (Inkster, 2018). China’s recent assertive foreign policy in both world affairs and periphery relations reflects its long-term strategic objective to replace the US as the superpower (Pillsbury, 2015). With China’s increasingly hostile behavior in the East and South China Seas, the geopolitical competition makes a conflict scenario between Beijing and Washington very likely

(Christensen, 2006; Copper, 2012; Glaser, 2017). Other flashpoints, including the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan Strait, can easily escalate to involve the US as well. This, in turn, leads to much more focus on how cyber capabilities can help the PLA compensate for the gap in physical military capabilities and gain leverage on the battlefield (Kraska, 2010; Lambeth, 2011; Reveron, 2012). A former US Air Force Chief of Information Operations predicted that during the conflict between the US and China over Taiwan, cyberwar would be essential (Barrett, 2005). China can not only attack infrastructure to undermine the will of the Taiwanese, but also interfere with the unclassified logistic systems to deter or delay US military intervention (Hannas et al., 2013). It was also argued that China would leverage its unique advantage to recruit a huge population of patriotic hackers, netizens, or even technical school students as cyber militia and issue laptops to the populace to revive Chairman Mao’s doctrine of the “people’s war” (Blasko, 2001; Barrett, 2011; Klimburg, 2011; DeWeese, 2009; Mulvenon, 2009). “Let’s say an emerging superpower would dedicate 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 people and then unleash that force at some point” (Skinner, 2008; Hjortdal, 2011), which would obviously be a disaster for the US. In a doomsday scenario, several thousand Americans would die, trains would derail, and satellites would fall; all of the critical infrastructure would be paralyzed (Clarke and Knake, 2014).

However, the extremity of this scenario is troubling for many reasons. The question of whether or not the nature of cyber technology leads to strategic instability deserves more careful examination in the first place. Analysts often overstate the animosity problem as a driving force of cyber warfare. It is true that the difficulty of attribution makes cyber espionage, hacking, and other cyber disputes unresolvable. But, it is incorrect to apply the same logic to the analysis of cyber warfare as any war must have a strategic objective. “There is no sneaky way” to pass political intention to the adversary or subjugate the enemy (Betz and Stevens, 2011b). Serious cyber conflicts, like the 2008 Russo-Georgian or the Stuxnet, often develop under a greater geopolitical context, which provides important clues in identifying the attacker (Valeriano and Maness, 2015a). Without the protection of anonymity, the attacker has to think twice about retaliation or escalation before taking action. Although widely spread cyber technology and malware have largely lowered the barrier of entry for cyberattack, it does not mean that any state can launch a critical cyberattack against any infrastructure at any time as “the complexity of weaponization makes cyber offense less easy and defense more feasible than generally appreciated” (Lindsay, 2013c).

Additionally, cyber restraint exists between states as empirical study shows that despite the increasing frequency of cyber disputes (cyber espionage or other hacking activities), the severity level has remained very low and there is no evidence of any escalation in cyber conflicts (Valeriano and Maness, 2012a,b, 2014). For example, the US did not launch a direct cyberattack against Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya despite the Stuxnet; Russia avoided using cyber weapons during the Crimea crisis after the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict; China also used cyber capabilities minimally, only for CNE rather than destroying any infrastructure. There are many reasons why a state has to restrain the severity of its cyber operations and keep advanced cyber weapon secret. Most cyber weapons are one-time use as the zero-day exploits, once used, will no longer be the adversaries’ weak points (Gartzke, 2013a; Rowe, 2008). To some extent, cyberattack is helping the rival discover system vulnerabilities, which means the more frequent the cyberattack, the stronger the defense it needs to challenge (Libicki, 2009). Additionally, malware can be reproduced and used to target the original attacker very quickly (Nye, 2011a; Farwell and Rohozinski, 2011). An extreme cyberattack may not only cause collateral damage to a third party and blowback to the initiators themselves, but also incur serious retaliation (Valeriano and Maness, 2015b). Last but not the least, the damage caused by cyberattack against a robust system with good resilience and backup is usually temporary, which means it can hardly change the fundamental balance of power between rivals. So what good would a major cyberattack do if it faces so many uncertainties and brings so many negative consequences to the strategic calculation?

When analyzing the specific cyberwar scenario between China and the US, we should apply all of the counterarguments above. Despite the continuing revolution in military affairs (RMA), states must have a clear strategic goal behind its operations (Mansbach and Vasquez, 1981). Pessimists are used to exaggerate one side of the cyber capabilities and link the fear of new technology with a long-standing mistrust of China. However, basing policy and strategic advice on the “worst case scenario” analysis cannot improve this situation as misjudgment of states’ intentions and the hostility of their words and actions will lead to overreaction and a downward spiral, which are the deep roots of security dilemma between states (Jervis, 1979, 1988). It is dangerous to make the “cyberwar threat from China’ a normative view in the West” (Richards, 2014). In fact, many factors restrain states’ cyber operations. No matter how used in tactical or strategic ways, a major cyberattack will bring negative consequences to the cost–benefit calculation. The attack may not be effective in the first place. It will also enhance the enemy’s defense, cause collateral damage and blowback, and escalate into kinetic war. This is not to say that the PLA would not use its cyberwar capabilities even when reacting to a Taiwan contingency. However, it is not any single cutting-edge technology, but the balance of power and combination of strategies that will decide the outcome of large-scale military operations.

2.    The Shift of China’s Strategic Thinking on Cyberwar

Despite so many reasons for a self-restrained cyber behavior, most current English literature still argues that cyber warfare is appealing to China not only in regional conflicts, like the Taiwan Strait, but also in peacetime as it is in accordance with classical Chinese thinking on warfare, especially Sun Tzu’s “subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting” (Mazanec and Thayer, 2015b). There is no smoke without fire. In the early stages of the PLA’s “informationization”, Chinese strategists overemphasized cyber offense and the effectiveness of cyberattack as a coercive tool. But when Western scholars criticize China’s “ideology of the offensive” as possibly leading to inadvertent escalation (Gompert and Libicki, 2014; see footnote 5),[1] most of them fail to recognize that the PLA’s interest in cyberwar capabilities has been “inspired in no small part by American writing and demonstrated ability in the field” (Lindsay et al., 2015c; Inkster, 2016). Fortunately, many non-military analysts have joined the discussion after having studied their US counterparts’debate on cyber deterrence in recent years. More doubts and reflections have been made on offense dominance and cyber deterrence. However, as the US government continues its cyber deterrence strategy with a declaratory policy that reserves the right to retaliate cyberattack in any appropriate manner, China has been shifting to consideration of its own deterrence strategy as a reaction since 2015.

3.    Offensive Dominance: 1990 to 2008

There are two historical trains of thought that illuminate China’s understanding of cyberwar in the early stage. One stumbling block is that the “difference in terminology complicates the development of mutual understanding” between China and the US on strategic dialogue (Heginbotham et al., 2017; Kulacki, 2011). For example, the Chinese term weishe, generally translated as “deterrence”, encompasses both deterrence (preventing the target from taking an action) and compellence (forcing the target to take an action) (Guangqian and Youzhi, 2001; see footnote 6).[2]Especially during the Cold War, “Chinese strategists viewed “nuclear deterrence” as inherently aggressive Western behavior, akin to coercion or compellence, in which China did not see itself engaging. The origins of this thinking lie in the Chinese translation of the term “deterrence” (weishe), which is to use overwhelming military force (wei) to intimidate (she) an adversary into submission” (Bin, 2006; Fravel and Medeiros, 2010). The difference in glossary not only causes misunderstanding, but also reflects China’s strategic thinking which is deeply rooted in its painful experience with the West since 1840. As “lagging behind leaves one vulnerable to attacks”, Chairman Mao believed that the only way to break the nuclear monopoly of superpowers and avoid nuclear blackmail (coercion) was for China to have its own nuclear weapons. One prominent Chinese scholar summarized such strategic thinking as “anti-coercion” (Bin, 2006), which obviously influences the PLA’s attitude toward its development of cyberwar capabilities. The second train of thought is that the PLA has not fought a war since 1979 while the US and its allies have demonstrated the growing role of advanced technology in modern warfare. Shocked by how easily the US defeated a Soviet-equipped Iraqi army during the First Gulf War, the PLA spared no effort to upgrade its information war capabilities in order to avoid falling behind and being humiliated again.

In the early stages of China’s catching up with “informationization”, the PLA emphasized cyber offense and preemptive strikes, and even characterized major cyberattack as a coercive tool against the US. The PLA strategists argued that as a “computer network war is an important means for paralyzing enemy” (Xiaoyan, 2002), “whoever possess superiority in integrated network electronic operations (a combination of cyber and electronic warfare) will then control the high point of future wars and will win future wars” (Shengwei, 2008). Cyberattack is perceived as low cost, covert, but extremely destructive, and the bar to enter is very low (Wenguang and Yuanlei, 2007; Shengwei, 2008; Liang et al., 2009). Many writers who favor offense over defense even argue that “whoever strikes first prevails” (Yuliang, 2006a; Qingmin, 2002a; Linzhi, 1996). Through attacking the key nodes in either the enemy’s C4ISR system or critical infrastructure, the PLA could acquire the upper hand in a battle against the stronger US military, create massive loss to its socio-economy, and eventually win the war (Yuliang, 2006b; Shengwei, 2008; Qingmin, 2002b).

However, the propensity to overemphasize the effectiveness of cyberattack exists not only in China, but also in the US as the debate on cyberwar has already demonstrated. And the military history has witnessed theorists repeating the same mistake of overemphasizing a single technology due to the “shock of the new’. For example, the “airpower has never lived up to the dreams of its most enthusiastic advocates” (Betz and Stevens, 2017) as the London Blitz turned out to be a failure. It is fortunate that many US scholars criticized these obsessions later, but it is unfortunate for China to have had such “ideology of the offensive” during the PLA’s “informationization leap forward” till late 2000s.

4.    Debate on Cyber Offense and Deterrence: 2009 to 2014

A widely held wrong impression is that Chinese strategists have a consensus on cyberwar and have not paid attention to the destabilizing consequences brought by misunderstanding it (Lindsay et al., 2015b). In fact, an increasing number of civilian researchers have joined the debate on cyberwar since 2008, and even some of the PLA strategists have voiced different opinions. Ventre’s (2014) research on US discourse regarding China’s cybersecurity issues reveals that 2008 was a “hinge point” when the Department of Defense began to express great concern over China’s cyberattacks. In addition to the pressure from the US, continuous cyber incidents, such as the cyberattack against Estonia, Georgia, the Stuxnet against Iran, the Arab Spring, and the PRISM revealed by Edward Snowden, have had a profound impact on Chinese thinking on cybersecurity. The boom of cybersecurity issues attracted not only the PLA strategists, but also scholars and analysts from universities and think tanks to discuss its impact on national security, foreign policy, and economic development.

One of the important disagreements comes with the debate on cyber deterrence. In the early stage, the PLA strategists believed that the principles of mutually assured destruction could be applied to cyberspace (Academy of Military Science Strategic Studies Group, 2004–2005). As “hegemonic countries” like the US were developing cyber capabilities, China must also have its own cyber deterrent (Qingmin, 2002a). However, many non-military analysts began to doubt the effectiveness of cyber deterrence after studying American peers’ comments on this topic. For example, professor He Qisong at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law published two papers in 2012 and 2013 in journals published by the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations and Peking University in which he summarizes the debate on cyber deterrence in the US (Qisong, 2012, 2013). Quoting James Lewis, David D. Clark, Richard A. Clarke, and Adam Segal, he notes that the attribution problem makes cyber deterrence very difficult. He further joins a discussion with Patrick Morgan, Herbert Lin, and Martin Libicki, and points out that a credible cyber deterrence must face challenges including how to demonstrate the power of cyber weapons and how to set the threshold neither too high nor too low. Associate researcher Ren Lin at China Academy of Social Science echoed this argument by saying that due to the problem of attribution, false flags, and the uncertainty of cyberattack, deterrence by retaliation is not practicable in cyberspace (Lin and Weian, 2015). Associate Professor Dong Qingling and Professor Dai Changzheng at the University of International Business and Economics published another paper in the top Chinese social science journal (Qingling and Changzheng, 2012). They conducted a careful literature review on both sides of the cyber deterrence debate and concluded that a state’s cyber strategy is determined by the risk preference of the leadership, a viewpoint very similar to Libicki’s. Other commentators, such as Yu Xiaoqiu, a senior researcher at Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, a high-ranking think tank directed by the Chinese Communist Party, Ambassador Li Hong, the former secretary of China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, and Associate Professor Shen Yi from Fudan University wrote several articles in the People’s Daily and People’s Tribune in which they argue that the pursuit of cyber deterrence will increase the possibility of accidental wars and cause global instability (Xiaoqiu, 2011; Hong, 2011; Yi, 2011). Even PLA officers, such as colonel Liang Kui and Yang Yanbo, argue in the China National Defense Newspaper that as cyberattack usually causes no damage to physical assets or personnel casualties, and as the results of cyberattack are temporary and reversible, the credibility of cyber retaliation becomes very low (Kui, 2011; Yanbo, 2012). Although these discussions do not touch upon cyberwar directly, they help correct many key assumptions and misunderstandings widely held during the early stage. Since the effectiveness of cyberattack is largely uncertain, and usually limited (due to the enemy’s superior defense) or even negative (due to collateral damage and blowback), it further weakens the advocation for cyber offense or coercion.

There are still PLA strategists who support cyber deterrence, but the argument is quite different compared to the “ideology of the offensive” seen in the first stage. Senior colonel Ye Zheng published an article, first in Chinese and later translated into English, on how to fight a cyberwar (Zheng and Baoxian, 2011; Lindsay et al., 2015d). Ye states clearly that cyberwar capabilities are essential to national security and survival, and that weaker states can use cyber weapons against stronger rivals to win a fight (Lindsay et al., 2015e). However, he also emphasizes that “cyberwarfare is also attractive for strong powers like the US, which can use it to supplement the exercise of military power or to expand the range of covert action options” (Lindsay et al., 2015f). He further explains that “the US has established the world’s first dedicated Cyber Command and fully functional cyberwarfare units in order to establish a controlling position over cyber power. Following this example, other countries are developing their own cyber power in competition” (Lindsay et al., 2015g). The priority here is therefore not to launch asymmetric attacks or coerce others, but to protect China itself from a potential destabilizing order. Beijing perceives severe threat from cyberspace, especially after Snowden’s revelations about NSA operations. The US is considered not only to possess advanced cyber technology, but also to enjoy the advantage of human capital, training systems, and warfighting experience. As there are also many foreign industrial control systems used in China, it faces the high risk of a Stuxnetlike cyberattack (Shan, 2011; Qinzhi, 2013). A deteriorating cybersecurity situation provides good reasons for those who call for developing China’s own cyber deterrence.

In the second stage, the so-called “ideology of the offensive” subsided, and there was no consensus as to what kind of strategy the PLA should take. The existing examples of cyberwar or serious cyber incidents led to the counterintuitive conclusion that cyber technology is used by great powers to bully the weak, not the opposite. Instead of advocating a preemptive strike, some PLA strategists argued that China must build up its own cyber deterrent against the increasing threat from the US. However, other analysts, especially from the non-military side, rebutted that the logic of deterrence could hardly be applied to cyberspace as the nature of the technology is so different from the past experience. Such counterargument was also largely based upon their peers’ research in the US.

5.    Back to Defense and Deterrence: Post-2015

However, as the practice of the US government and military was opposite to what the skeptics had expected, the debate on cyber deterrence in China also came to an end around 2015. Since cyber deterrence was confirmed once again as the key part of the US national cybersecurity strategy in the 2015 Department of Defense Cyber Strategy, both Chinese military and non-military strategists believe that it is time to develop their own cyber deterrence strategy. Since 2015, several important articles have been published in the journal published by the China Information Technology Security Evaluation Center, which is directed by the LSG for Cybersecurity and Informatization. One of Dong Qingling’s articles argues that despite the many difficulties mentioned in the debate, cyber deterrence is still an important and necessary national security strategy (Qingling, 2016). He further points out that China has to understand the role of punishment in different kinds of cyberattacks and clarify the responsibility of the third parties in order to promote such strategies. Of note, the journal indicates that Dong’s research is a major project funded by the National Social Science Foundation (NSSF), which is closely tied to government policy-making. Professor Cheng Qun and He Qisong published another article that calls for cyber deterrence strategy with Chinese characteristics (Qun and Qisong, 2015). Qun and Qisong highlighted the idea of linking China’s nuclear deterrence with cyber deterrence in order to prevent any major cyberattack from other big powers. They further explain that as a cyberattack against the C4ISR system is like shooting down an early warning satellite, it would very likely be followed by a nuclear strike. It may seem mad to retaliate against a cyberattack with a nuclear deterrent, but such irrational thinking is what makes the “balance of terror” successful. Coincidentally, the US Defense Science Board published a report several years ago that also proposes the same idea of connecting cyber and nuclear deterrence (The US Department of Defense and Defense Science Board, 2015). Qun and Qisong’s argument also helps to correct the overemphasis on cyber strikes against an enemy’s command and control system as it will cause the opponent to lose control of its forces and lead to a total war. Colonel Yuan Yi from the PLA Academy of Military Science also agrees with these arguments by analyzing how to establish China’s cyber deterrence in details (Yi, 2015). She points out that it is essential to declassify the tests for some cyber weapons, demonstrate the PLA cyber equipment and broadcast the cyber drill in order to increase the credibility of cyber deterrence. She further notes that there is a balance between hiding and brandishing the cyber capabilities, which can perplex the enemy and dissuade potential attackers.

These points have been largely reflected in official documents recently published by the Chinese government and military. Although the China’s Military Strategy in 2015 introduced how the PLA would protect cybersecurity without using the word deterrence, it tiptoed between cyber defense and deterrence strategy. “China will expedite the development of a cyber force, and enhance its capabilities of cyberspace situation awareness, cyber defense…so as to stem major cyber crises, ensure national network and information security, and maintain national security and social stability” (The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, 2017). One year later, the Chinese National Cyberspace Security Strategy criticized cyber deterrence for aggravating an arms race first. However, in the section on Strategic Tasks, it stated clearly that China would simultaneously develop “protection and deterrence”, and “focus on identification, prevention, monitoring, early warning, response handling and other such segments” (Cyberspace Administration of China, 2016). Furthermore, it would “adopt all measures, including economic, administrative, scientific, technological, legal, diplomatic, and military measures” to protect its “information infrastructure and information resources” (Cyberspace Administration of China, 2016). Even the idea of cross-domain deterrence can be well inferred from these sentences. The latest Chinese International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace follows the same pattern by criticizing the “deterrence buildup in cyberspace” in the beginning while proposing to “expedite the development of a cyber force and enhance capabilities…to prevent major cyber crisis” (Xinhua News, 2017). Although an official Chinese cyber deterrence strategy has yet to be established, reading between the lines reveals that this strategic thinking can be found in all of the current related documents.

The West may once again suspect China’s true intentions when they see it opposing the idea of cyber deterrence in rhetoric while nonetheless developing its own capabilities to establish credible cyber deterrent. The reason for saying one thing and doing another here is again related to China’s strategic culture. As discussed in the beginning of Sec. 4, deterrence is a negative word in Chinese. Beijing has long perceived deterrence as an offensive or coercive strategy used by the “hegemonic states”. In this context, developing a deterrence strategy seems contradictory to the principle of peace consistently advocated by the Chinese government. What China therefore strongly opposes is coercion, not deterrence. Deterrence can promote a purely defensive posture, which is precisely what China says about its nuclear deterrence. It nonetheless took several decades for Beijing to finally accept the word “deterrence” as its nuclear strategy.

6.    Conclusion

Most current English literature criticizes China’s accumulation of cyberwar capabilities and predicts a very likely cyberwar launched by the PLA against the US. However, they ignore many constraining factors faced by the PLA, such as the uncertain effectiveness of a large-scale cyberattack, which may be useless when faced with an adversary’s robust system. It would also bring serious negative consequences, such as collateral damage to the third party or blowback. Without the cover of anonymity, it would definitely incur retaliation or even escalation into total war. So the PLA has to be very cautious about initiating any major cyberattack.

This paper does not deny the fact that many Chinese military strategists advocate cyber weapons in an asymmetric attack against the US military and civilian targets. However, the overemphasis on the effectiveness of cyberattack and “ideology of the offensive” were early immature thinking due to the shock of the Gulf War and the pressure of falling behind again during the new round of RMA. In fact, China’s strategic thinking on cyberwar started to shift around 2008 with a serious debate on cyber offense and deterrence. On the one hand, many non-military scholars drew upon the latest research from their peers abroad to criticize cyber deterrence strategy. The uncertainties of cyberattack not only weaken the credibility of retaliation, but also its effectiveness as a coercive tool. On the other hand, some PLA strategists maintained that it was necessary to establish a powerful cyber force in order to deter cyberattack from the US. The “ideology of the offensive” in the early stage rarely appeared. The debate ended around 2015 with an increasing number of analysts calling for China’s own cyber deterrence strategy as a reaction to the continuous development of cyber deterrence by the US. The latest Chinese official documents on cybersecurity have largely reflected the shift in strategic thinking.

The US perceptions and practice of cyberwar are the main drivers of China’s shift in strategy thinking. Both Chinese military and non-military strategists play an intermediary role in passing these ideas and shaping the policy. In the early stage, PLA experts not only learned cyber technology as a new RMA from the US, but also exaggerated the effectiveness of cyberattack as many theorists did. Later, with civilian scholars following the research of their peers in the US, they began to question the effectiveness of cyberattack. Finally, Beijing may soon imitate Washington’s cyber deterrence strategy as a reactive policy. It is no coincidence that even the names of China’s recent cyber strategy documents are the same as those of the US. Both military and non-military strategists play an essential role in the evolution of China’s strategic thinking on cyberwar. In order to preserve the stability between China and the US in cyberspace, the dialogue between intellectuals from both sides will be very helpful to clarify key concepts, initiate policy debate, reflect on misleading principles, and even change the input of policy-making.


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