Cyber security is now paramount to national security. It is no surprise, then, that China has incorporated sophisticated psychological, public opinion and legal warfare approaches into its international cyber activities.
In April last year, the Australian and Chinese governments arrived at an agreement on “enhanced cyber security cooperation”. This included an agreement that “neither country would conduct or support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets or confidential business information with the intent of obtaining competitive advantage,” as well as a commitment to uphold any international norms identified by the UN Group of Government Experts (GGE). The GGE meeting ended in deadlock two months later, which for the moment has largely derailed most international efforts towards crafting the norms of cyberspace. Nevertheless, the April 2017 China-Australia agreement joins a growing collection of similar arrangements, including those with the US, UK, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, the G7 and the G20.
Clearly, Beijing is taking extensive steps to present itself as a viable cyber security partner and all-round good global cyber-citizen. Yet this runs contrary to its status as one of the more prolific state actors exploiting the domain. The apparent contradiction invites two immediate questions: first, how do these seemingly inconsistent bilateral agreements fit within Beijing’s approach to cyberspace; and, second, are such agreements consequential given the apparent contradiction? Thankfully, addressing the former benefits an exploration of the latter.
The Three Warfares
An understanding of Beijing’s approach begins with the Three Warfares. Approved by the Central Military Commission in 2003, its subsequent integration into the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) education and training programs has cemented it as a pillar of PLA strategic thinking. The Three Warfares emphasises the exploitation of information flows along three axes: psychological, public opinion and legal. A US Department of Defense report to Congress in 2011 described these as follows:
- Psychological Warfare: seeks to undermine an enemy’s ability to conduct combat operations through operations aimed at deterring, shocking, and demoralising enemy military personnel and supporting civilian populations.
- Public Opinion/Media Warfare: is aimed at influencing domestic and international public opinion to build support for China’s military actions and dissuade an adversary from pursuing actions contrary to China’s interests.
- Legal Warfare: uses international and domestic law to claim the legal high ground or assert Chinese interests. It can be employed to hamstring an adversary’s operation freedom and shape the operational space. China has attempted to employ legal warfare in the maritime domain and in international airspace in pursuit of a security buffer zone.
More recent strategic documents such as the 2013 and 2015 editions of the Science of Military Strategy from the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences—a generally authoritative perspective on present thinking—reflect a continuing emphasis on the Three Warfares, as well as their expanding role in political and diplomatic struggles, not just military ones. In essence, the Three Warfares is Beijing’s approach to manipulating international and domestic environments to enable wider Chinese strategy, including for cyberspace. While there is nothing remarkable about this on the surface, the methods matter, and these are key to understanding Beijing’s pursuit of international cyber security agreements.
The exploitation of cyberspace meets a critical need in terms of Beijing’s core strategic objectives. Beyond just securing regime survival, national sovereignty and territorial integrity, Beijing aims to continue establishing itself as a major regional and global power.
The last several 5-year-plans identify the development of key strategic emerging industries as a major component. Specifically, these include the development of new energy technologies, biotechnology, high-end/high-tech materials, information technology and high-tech manufacturing. Beijing now pays as close attention to economic secrets as it does to the military and diplomatic because these fields benefit extensively from information advantages. Cyber espionage is a uniquely useful tool to furnish that information advantage while avoiding open conflict. Unsurprisingly, these industries are prominent targets of cyber-attacks, which are widely held to be Chinese in origin. Therefore, and despite any international commitments to the contrary, it is unlikely that Beijing intends to give up or seriously scale back its exploitation of cyberspace.
Instead, Beijing’s interest in bilateral agreements and international norms is best understood as something between smokescreen and stalling strategy. By engaging internationally and securing bilateral agreements, Beijing mitigates or avoids negative costs—political, diplomatic and economic—attached to its widespread cyber espionage, while also utilising the process of engagement to delay the development and implementation of effective counter-strategies while the benefits accrue. Thus far, China has avoided sanctions or other significant punitive or deterrent action in response to its expansive cyber espionage campaign.
Returning to the Three Warfares provides a useful schema for unpacking Beijing’s approach. First, the constant discussion of China’s cyber capabilities by its adversaries, which invariably surrounds any agreements, serves as psychological warfare by reinforcing perceptions of China’s strength, without the need for sabre-rattling or messaging directly from Beijing that might conflict with rhetoric of a peaceful rise. Second, international public opinion is mollified by the appearance of positive engagement from Beijing which, again, fosters perceptions of a good global citizen and diminishes ideas of China as cyber-menace. Third, international engagement and agreements bolster China’s legal standing and promote China as a viable cyber security partner, while affording an opportunity to shape and leverage international norms as they form.
Are such agreements consequential?
Whatever the grander purpose behind Beijing’s international engagement on cyber security, it does not necessarily mean that these agreements hold no weight; it may simply be that they hold less than a face-value interpretation would grant. There are two main reasons for this.
First, even as a smokescreen, the presence of these agreements creates limits and implicit constraints. Flagrant violation would directly imperil Beijing’s credibility and viability as a partner on these issues, and invite exactly the international response Beijing seeks to avoid, as well as a range of wider knock-on consequences across all three warfares. Thus, behaviour that contravenes the spirit of the agreements needs to—at a minimum—remain on the covert side of overt-covert. So, while the agreements may not do much to stem the tide, they can still forestall escalation.
On the other side of this coin is tacit acceptance of behaviours below that threshold. However, given the nature of cyberspace as a readily exploitable domain which affords deniability—if not anonymity—preventing these behaviours would be exceedingly difficult, and almost certainly beyond the feasible scope of any international agreement.
Second, international norms can emerge through practice given time and favourable circumstances, regardless of intent. The history of the chemical weapons norm demonstrates this well. After the experiences of World War I, the belligerents entered World War II fully expecting a return to chemical warfare in short order, even in the face of an expansive inter-war campaign against it and several international agreements endeavouring to prohibit it. Nevertheless, those agreements—which few believed were any serious barrier—did still function as a de facto no-first-use framework. As none of the belligerents considered it strategically advantageous to initiate a return to chemical warfare themselves, the result was non-use. Regardless of the reason, the simple fact of non-use served as a confirmation of the inherently objectionable character of chemical weapons. This, in turn, led to the relatively robust norm against their use today.
In effect, the intent behind behaviour can matter less than the behaviour itself. It is equally possible that behavioural expectations emerging from even half-hearted international agreements addressing security in cyberspace today may yield a comparable outcome in the future, without that ever being the design.
Dr Matthew Sawers recently completed his PhD at the University of Western Australia. His specialties are international norms, the regulation of innovative warfare and cyberwarfare.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.