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#2735, 19 November 2008
 
Asymmetric Capabilities of China's Military
Sanjay Kumar
Research Assistant, Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation, USI, New Delhi
e-mail: kumarsinha@hotmail.com
 

Over the past twenty years, the world has witnessed a resurgent China - seemingly unhappy with single power dominance - taking long and steady strides towards becoming the world's next superpower. Not just its economy, China's military too has grown from strength to strength over the past two decades, making remarkable progress in all spheres - land, air, water, space and cyber-space.

While China continues its search for power-projection capabilities beyond the Asia-pacific region with particular attention to its navy, air force and second artillery, it is believed to have achieved considerable power-projection capabilities in space as well as cyber space - domains that remain largely unregulated, indefensible and not bound by any geographical divisions.

China's strategy to develop asymmetric capabilities, often dubbed as "anti-access" or "area-denial" strategy extending from outer space to cyber space is part of the two pronged strategy that China seemingly has adopted with regard to its military modernization. On the one hand, the Chinese military is intensely beefing up basic infrastructure that supports conventional warfare capabilities; on the other hand, it is aggressively pushing for capabilities which are aimed at exploiting technical vulnerabilities of its adversaries.

The unprecedented scale of China's military modernization together with the exponential growth of its defence budgets in the past twenty years has left many nations wondering about China's real intentions behind investing so heavily in its armed forces. Despite mounting international criticism, China has never spelt out its strategic intentions in clear terms.

In the absence of a clearly articulated defence policy,, the outside world has little insight into key capabilities surrounding China's military modernization. Shrouded in even deeper mystery, asymmetric capabilities of Chinese military are viewed as potential threats to not only key military installations of other nations but also their financial hubs and other civilian infrastructure that support their economies.

China's motivation to seek asymmetric warfare capabilities stems mainly from its inherent technological weaknesses in keeping pace with the advances made by modern militaries around the world. While the US military is increasingly looking to a future where unmanned systems will take up frontal positions on the battlefield, China is still grappling with reverse engineering of many of Russia's military equipment.

The geostrategic dynamic of the Asia-pacific region coupled with China's own economic rise contributing significantly to it, necessitates China to keep its military in state of constant combat readiness. The Chinese military, however, is in the throes of biggest transformation in its history - transforming everything it can, from doctrine to strategy and from training to equipment. Therefore, it can ill afford to wait till it has gained technological parity with the western nations. With latest military technology from Russia increasingly becoming scarce and China's own conventional capabilities still a long way off the desired level, it is expected that China's asymmetric war-fighting capabilities will only grow with time. While asymmetric threats from China are real and demand closer attention, deterrence could be perhaps another reason behind China's motivation for building up asymmetric capabilities.

Next to space, China is eying cyberspace as an extension of its anti-access strategy. 'Informationisation' the dominant theme behind China's current military modernization programme is in essence about gaining "electromagnetic dominance". According to a Pentagon Report in 2007, China views cyberspace - attacks, defense and exploitation - as critical for achieving "electromagnetic dominance" early in a conflict. The Chinese military views internet as a possible tool of war. Hence, it is believed to be training and equipping specialists who would try and penetrate foreign military networks which are generally considered safe and impregnable.

Chinese hackers are believed to be behind several intrusions into the White House in the past. In 2007, Niprnet the unclassified e-mail system of the Pentagon was thought to have been invaded by hackers operating from China. UK, France and Germany are among other nations who faced network-based cyber attacks from China in the past. Indian cyber space too came recently under attack by hackers thought to be Chinese. However, the Chinese military is not alone in pursuing cyber warfare. According to one estimate presently there are about 120 countries which are engaged in such activities. In the most recent example, Russia and Georgia were engaged in a 'cyberwar' of sorts attacking each others networks and websites.

The Indian military is seeking increasingly to evolve into a network-enabled force and stands particularly vulnerable to Chinese cyber threats. While the US set up a cyberspace command, albeit provisionally, in 2007 supposedly with the aim to devise both defensive as well offensive capabilities in cyber warfare, the cyber security forum of the National Security Council in India became defunct after the US spy incident. As cyber threats from China are only likely to intensify further, the Indian military would need to remain focused on achieving synergies in the field of information technology and cyber security. What the military needs is a cyber security force with authority to launch cyber warfare. Such a force can be placed within an 'integrated cyberspace cell' and placed under HQs, IDS, similar to what was done with the Integrated Space Cell.

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