The US Justice Department announced the indictment of five soldiers of the People’s liberation Army (PLA) over alleged state sponsored industrial espionage, thrusting into the spotlight the war between the two countries in the cyber world. On Tuesday May 20 the department highlighted that hackers targeted US companies in the nuclear power, metals and solar products industries to steal information useful to competitors in China. The charges are the first-of-its-kind against state actors by the US, all this with the backdrop of the US losing competitive advantage in many corporate areas to Chinese state sponsored companies. Sino-US relations have always been fractious despite periods of cooperation, but this new battleground of information warfare is just another arena where both powers are competing with each other alongside other more traditional battlefields.
This new information driven battlefield has emerged with the enormous growth of electronic devices in the last two decades. Keeping communication networks safe from enemy interference, crashing and listening into enemy networks is the new electronic battlefield. This battlefield in reality has been around for over a century, except for one element, the internet. Controlling information and communication first came into use during the US civil war in 1861 when messages were sent over the wire. Telegraph was used for forces to communicate with each other hundreds of miles apart almost in real time. With the emergence of the internet in the early 1990’s has only added to the importance of information and thus the control of it for competing powers. The internet was the construct of the US military, that allowed US personnel to be connected by a whole host of servers. The proliferation of the internet to civilian use gave rise to Cyberwar, the use of all available electronic and computer tools to shut down an enemy’s electronics and communications, or snoop on their servers. The internet relies on its open interconnected nature but this means the nets computers (the servers that hold the websites) are vulnerable if a malicious user is able to bypass the security of other servers and therefore have the ability to do whatever they want.
The 1990’s witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf war. The result of 1991 war between the US and Iraq led to a major rethink in Chinese military doctrine. China’s forces lagged behind most of the world in military development and was utilising platforms developed in the 1950’s. The annihilation of the Iraqi army, which was similarly equipped and followed a similar doctrine to the Chinese military proved to Chinese leaders that modern precision weapons could quickly obliterate Soviet era equipment. Recognising the need to reform China has ever since been undergoing a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), which emphases a C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence), characterized by the wholesale shift to digital, secure communications via fiber-optic cable, satellite, microwave, and encrypted high-frequency radio. China recognised that it quantitatively and qualitatively lagged behind the US. In light of its generational deficiencies cyber warfare provided China with an asymmetric advantage to deter aggression from stronger military powers as they catch up in traditional military capabilities.
Whilst China has struggled to manufacture military platforms on par with the US it has however utilised its espionage resources to deal with foreign threats and strengthen the nation. China’s intelligence services focus more on business and technology intelligence than on political intelligence. Chinese hackers have taken aim at a range of government and private systems in the United States, including the power grid and telecommunications networks to glean technical information as well as industrial secrets in order to aid its economic development. This Chinese military developed the nation’s communication network and has been able to effectively leverage certain IT products to improve the military’s command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence (C4I) capabilities. This aspect of China’s military represents its strongest and most capable tool and its most stealth resource. The US has known for some time of Chinese intrusions into US networks a Pentagon report in 2013 explicitly stated this.
The US has for long adopted technical intelligence as an espionage tool. This is why the most important US intelligence-collection agency is not the CIA, but the National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA focuses on intercepting communications, penetrating computer networks, encryption and the like. So whereas most intelligence agencies tried to place moles in foreign governments, the NSA seeks access to everything that is recorded electronically. The goal here is understanding capabilities and intentions of other nations. This method provides better and faster intelligence than the placement of agents, but substitutes for influence. The revelations about PRISM are thus not a diversion from US modus operandi (method of operation). Given the state of technology the US has for long been doing what its accusing China of. The US has for long used the NSA to spy on foreign leaders, companies and intercept communications. Many leaks prior to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor showed that the NSA was doing this. As data cannot be judged until it has been read, NSA systems have turned into a global collection system, whereby vast amounts of information are collected, regardless of source or use.
Intelligence and espionage activities are similar to war, in the sense that they are just politics through other means. Just as military equipment and wars can yield results they can also lead to stalemates or even losses, espionage activities can also lead to results or failure. In the 21st century, espionage is as prominent a tool as it was during the cold war. While espionage efforts on a country-to-country basis are what dominate the headlines, the covert operations that are not heavily publicized are what deserve the most scrutiny. The US making public Chinese espionage activities reveals much about the inner workings and trends within the espionage community, and show that every nation is spying on other nations despite rhetoric to the contrary.