In the event of conflict, China’s cyber capabilities will be deployed at the outset to disable the adversary – with all the escalatory risk that would entail.

If there is one aspect of China’s rise that has created widespread apprehension, it is the country’s evolution into a significant military power. The development of China’s armed forces since the early 1990s has been dramatic. Once reliant on a low-tech, mass-mobilisation land army designed primarily for a People’s War, China has begun to attain major naval, air, space and nuclear capabilities, and is rapidly acquiring the capacity to project force beyond its borders and traditional sphere of influence. The cyber domain has been a critical factor in this evolution and, as is true for other facets of China’s development, is widely regarded as a determinant of how the country will fight future wars. Understanding the precise role that cyber capabilities will play is by no means easy. As Anthony Cordesman has observed, ‘China does not make publicly available a unified, single doctrine for guiding military operations.’1 However, there is a hierarchy of official documentation that provides insight into Chinese military thinking, starting with a series of biennial defence White Papers that, although they lack specificity, give an indication of overall aims and direction. These are supplemented by articles in the journals of military think tanks such as the Academy of Military Science, official newspapers such as the Liberation Army Daily and the writings of serving and retired military officers. 

Chinese military traditions
In assessing the cyber capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), it is important to consider China’s view of the place of warfare in statecraft, and how that view might determine the ways in which these new-found capabilities will be used. Foreign analysts of China’s military strategy are often preoccupied with the issue of whether it is broadly analogous to that of the country’s main comparator, the United States, or qualitatively different due to the influence of traditional Chinese military thinking – requiring a different kind of analysis from those who seek to counter it. There are dangers associated with both approaches. Mirror-imaging by policymakers – assuming that an adversary will invariably interpret events and make decisions in a similar manner to oneself, or what used to be referred to in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office as the ‘Wykehamist fallacy’ – has a long track record of failure, as Percy Cradock illustrates in his history of the UK Joint Intelligence Committee, Know Your Enemy.2 Equally, an Orientalist view of Chinese military strategists as philosophising Go masters steeped in the traditions of Sunzi and other classical Chinese writers on strategy is likely to be just as misleading. At the same time, it is hard to imagine that an intellectual and cultural tradition developed over more than 2,000 years has not left some mark, and it is therefore worth briefly examining what that tradition actually amounts to.

Nigel Inkster is Director of Future Conflict and Cyber Security at the IISS.

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China’s Cyber Power

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