Expert details ‘centrality of information’ to China’s cyber ops, security strategy

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BEIJING, CHINA: Lit up by their computers' blue screens, delegates from across China follow the proceedings, check additional information and send emails during the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing 05 March 2000. (Photo Credit: STEPHEN SHAVER/AFP/Getty Images)

An expert on China provided members of Congress a broad overview Wednesday of current Chinese military and strategic thinking, including China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) focus on “informationization” (xinxihua) and “informationized warfare” (xinxihua zhanzheng). The expert also outlined the Chinese “integrated” view of cyber, network, electronic, space and kinetic warfare.

Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, gave oral and detailed written testimony to the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. The hearing occurred on World Intellectual Property Day, with opening remarks from Subcommittee Chair Ted Yoho, R-Fla., noting China’s “systematic and widespread theft” of American intellectual property.

The hearing’s oral testimony leaned toward trade and economic issues in what Yoho characterized as the “most consequential bilateral relationship in the world,” but discussion regularly reverted to China’s ongoing cyber espionage and its continued use of soft-power tactics to outmaneuver the U.S.

The tone toward China was combative at times throughout the hearing, with Chinese trade, strategic and military activities and their outcomes described as “predatory,” an “emerging threat” and a “dramatic risk” by members of Congress and expert witnesses, which included Information Technology and Innovation Foundation President Robert D. Atkinson and Robert E. Scott, director of trade and manufacturing policy research at the Economic Policy Institute.

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, referred to Chinese actions in cyber and economic realms as “shenanigans,” while Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., referred to U.S.-China economic relations, as characterized during and since the Bill Clinton administration, as “baloney.”

Atkinson warned that, having supplanted U.S. commodity and low-tech manufacturing, China now has its eye on U.S. high-tech and advanced manufacturing, such as aerospace and semiconductors. Scott criticized China’s “pirating” of U.S. software and technology, while cautioning of the Chinese threat to the U.S. defense-industrial base. Atkinson and Scott both pointed to potential and recent cybersecurity incidents in the China-U.S. supply chain.

In opening remarks, Cheng responded to the open criticism of China by observing that “innovation can often come in different forms.” Cheng noted that, while Americans tend to focus on technology, innovation can also stem from breakthroughs in basic science, organizational structure and processes. Cheng said that other nations, including China, have “built on top of” American innovation. Cheng pointed to what he characterized as distinctly Chinese innovations in its space program and high-tech industry, citing examples such as the Great Firewall of China, which is used by the government to censor the Chinese internet. Acknowledging sometimes conflicting U.S.-Chinese national values, Cheng said the Chinese have nonetheless innovated independently of mere U.S. intellectual property theft.

In later discussion, Rohrabacher was especially critical of Cheng’s remarks, prefacing an extended refutation of the claim to original Chinese innovation with, “Let me just say that I have a fundamental difference in analysis than you do.”

Cheng’s oral and written testimony on China’s military and strategy emphasized two major themes: 1) The “increasing centrality of information,” which the Chinese call “informationization,” to China’s strategic thinking; and 2) “Integrated” warfare, which for China entails tactics ranging from cyber, network and electronic to political, economic and cultural – although all are interconnected in the Chinese view, Cheng noted.

On “informationization,” Cheng said Chinese leadership views the world as having entered an information age, in which “the very nature of international power, the currency of international power, has shifted from traditional industry … toward the ability to gather information, analyze information and exploit information.” Cheng continued, “As a result, China believes that, in a sense, the global balance of power has been reset to zero, where everyone is starting from the same starting point, and China can therefore catch up much more easily.”

On the Chinese perspective on conflict within a context of “informationization,” Cheng wrote:

The focus of informationized warfare is establishing “information dominance” (zhi xinxi quan). This is the ability to establish control of information and information flow at a particular time and within a particular space. Establishing information dominance entails efforts that span the strategic to the tactical level. It is not simply a wartime requirement, but involves intelligence gathering throughout peacetime. Nor can this be solely a military function. As the world has informationized, the Chinese economy has had to informationize; similarly, as warfare has informationized, the Chinese military has had to evolve to prepare to fight such conflicts. Although the PLA plays a major role, though, such preparations involve all the various elements of the Chinese government and broader society and economy.

It should therefore not surprise the U.S. that China engages in peacetime “information extraction and information exploitation,” Cheng wrote, alluding to Chinese cyber espionage against the U.S. government and businesses. Chinese espionage goes “far beyond purely military-related information, and includes economic and political information,” Cheng noted.

Cheng elaborated during oral testimony, telling the panel, “Chinese cyber activity is not random.” By acknowledging there’s a Chinese strategy, Cheng continued, the U.S. can better combat it rather than handling cyber incidents on a case-by-case basis.

Cheng’s written remarks noted, “[China’s] actions are therefore not those of a ‘rogue’ military. As important, they are undertaken in support of broader national goals and polices … Thus, it is entirely consistent with the roles and missions of the PLA for it to be tasked with obtaining industrial and economic information, as well as military codes and war plans.”

On the theme of integrated warfare, Cheng’s written comments explained the Chinese view of three distinct, yet interrelated, soft-power warfares, which include psychological, legal and public opinion. Cheng wrote:

Psychological warfare exploits information by drawing upon the political, economic and cultural, as well as military elements of power. Legal warfare can build psychological support and sympathy among bystanders, and erode an opponent’s will by constraining their preferred courses of action for fear of legal repercussions. Public opinion warfare can directly build support, persuading domestic and foreign audiences of the justice of one’s own cause and the success of one’s own efforts, while undermining an adversary’s attempts to do the same.

Cheng also highlighted the “growing discussion” among Chinese strategists of “command-and-control warfare” and “intelligence warfare.” Cheng wrote, “The idea is that the key electronics, networks and decision makers are those that are part of the intelligence network and the command-and-control structure.”

On cyber and its close relation to other domains, Cheng outlined the Chinese connection between cyber and space warfare: “Chinese cyber capabilities should be considered an integral part of China’s ‘counterspace capabilities.’ Several cyber incidents involving space systems have been attributed to the PRC, suggesting that they are actively exploring vulnerability in space information systems.”

As examples, Cheng cited the 2007 and 2008 hacking of LANDSAT-7 and Terra AM-1 EOS (Earth Observation System) satellites, which have both been attributed to China, as well as the hacking of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather satellite system, believed to be the work of Chinese hackers.

“These cyber activities,” Cheng wrote, “are a reminder that the Chinese see cyber operations as a part of information operations, and that space networks are part of the broader information networks that the Chinese seek to disrupt. The focus is on information, not just cyber or space.”

Cheng’s testimony echoed recent observations by U.S. military and security experts. This week, for instance, former U.S. Cyber Command Director of Operations Maj. Gen. Brett T. Williams (ret.), former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and current State Department Coordinator for Cyber Issues Christopher Painter all argued for broader recognition of the distinct, yet interrelated, nature of cyber and information operations, although their arguments were largely aimed at classifying Russian tactics.

Cheng’s testimony provided insights into China’s broader strategic thinking as it continues a multiyear reorganization of its military.

Wednesday’s House hearing occurred just weeks after President Donald Trump hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. During two days of talks, Tillerson said President Trump “raised serious concerns” with Xi “about the impact of China’s industrial, agricultural, technology and cyber policies on U.S. jobs and exports.”

Tillerson said the Trump-Xi talks were “candid” and “very frank,” while also “very positive.”

Reflecting the Wednesday hearing’s tone at times, Subcommittee Ranking Member Brad Sherman, D-Calif., referred to the Mar-a-Lago talks as a U.S. “total capitulation to China on all economic issues.” Sherman added that the “utter capitulation” to China in return for nothing, at least nothing that makes the U.S. safer – an allusion to North Korea – demonstrates that Trump, “campaigns with a big mouth and governs with small hands.”

Following the Mar-a-Lago talks, Tillerson announced a new “U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue,” which will consist of four pillars: “The diplomatic and security dialogue; the comprehensive economic dialogue; the law enforcement and cybersecurity dialogue; and the social and cultures issues dialogue.”

The conceptual grouping of cybersecurity with law enforcement, rather than with diplomatic and national security, reflects the fact that U.S.-China cyber tensions revolve primarily around China’s commercial and industrial cyber espionage and intellectual property theft, which in the U.S. view is distinct from nation-state cyberwar.

Just ahead of Xi’s April visit to the U.S., cybersecurity companies Fidelis and BAE Systems and PwC published new research charging China with ongoing cyber espionage, despite a 2015 U.S.-China anti-hacking agreement negotiated by the Barack Obama administration. The U.S.-China agreement came a year after the U.S. charged five Chinese military hackers with cyber espionage against U.S. organizations.

The House hearing made little mention of current regional tensions between the U.S., China and North Korea. Concurrent with the House hearing on Wednesday, the White House hosted nearly all 100 U.S. Senators for a briefing on North Korea given by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Most U.S. officials and experts view China as a key ally bridging the U.S. and the isolated North Korean regime, with whom the U.S. maintains no formal diplomatic ties. However, the Trump administration has also stated its willingness to act alone in preventing North Korea from obtaining the capability to deliver a nuclear warhead to the U.S. mainline.

Following the Senate briefing on Wednesday, Tillerson, Mattis and Coats issued a joint statement that said, “The United States seeks stability and the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. We remain open to negotiations towards that goal. However, we remain prepared to defend ourselves and our Allies.”

With rhetoric and provocation escalating on both sides in recent weeks, the Chinese continue to urge a peaceful resolution. An editorial that appeared in Tuesday’s China Daily advised the North Korean leadership to not act foolishly in the current situation, cautioning, “[The North Koreans] have greatly underestimated the international community’s – not just any individual stakeholder’s – political will to denuclearize the peninsula. [The North Koreans] are at once perilously overestimating their own strength and underestimating the hazards they are brewing for themselves. They need to reassess the situation so they do not make any misjudgments.”