China’s Cyber Command?

The development of China’s cyber warfare program has captured worldwide
attention in recent years. While evolving doctrines and incidents of
cyber intrusions with alleged links to the Chinese government have
helped China watchers glean the development of China’s growing cyber
warfare capabilities, far less certainty surrounds the command and
control side of this enigmatic operation. This is partly because key
tasks of China’s computer network operations and information warfare
had been, until recently, decentralized in different departments in the
People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff Headquarters (i.e. the
Third and Fourth Departments) and specialized bureaus located in the
different military regions.

On July 19, the Peoples Liberation
Army Daily (hereafter PLA Daily) reported that the PLA General Staff
Department—the operational nerve center of the Chinese military
supervised directly by the PLA’s Central Military Commission—held a
ceremony to unveil what the Chinese-media called the country’s first
“cyber base” (Global Times, July 22). The establishment of the
“Information Security Base” (xinxi baozhang jidi), which is
headquartered under the PLA General Staff Department, may serve as the
PLA’s cyber command. The “base” is reportedly tasked with the mission
to address potential cyber threats and to safeguard China’s national
security. According to Chinese-media reports, the establishment of the
cyber base was a strategic move ordered by President Hu Jintao to
handle cyber threats as China enters the information age, and to
strengthen the nation’s cyber-infrastructure (PLA Daily, July 20; China
Times, July 20; Global Times, July 22).

According to a report
in the Global Times, an offshoot of the party’s mouthpiece People’s
Daily, an anonymous officer in the General Staff Department said that,
“The setup of the base just means that our army is strengthening its
capacity and is developing potential military officers to tackle
information-based warfare.” Other tasks will include online information
collection and the safeguarding of confidential military information by
“build[ing] up walls.” The officer emphasized that, “It is a
‘defensive’ base for information security, not an offensive
headquarters for cyber war” (Global Times, July 22).

The stated
missions of the new cyber base appear to complement the PLA’s
information warfare (IW) units, which the PLA has been developing since
at least 2003. The PLA’s IW strategy was largely spearheaded by Major
General Dai Qingmin, then-director of the PLA’s electronic warfare
department (Fourth Department), who advocated a comprehensive
information warfare effort (Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2009).

The
high echelon of military officers from the General Staff Department
represented at the unveiling ceremony seem to also reflect the
importance that the leadership attaches to this newly minted program.
Indeed, the launch ceremony, which was held in Beijing, was chaired by
PLA Chief of General Staff General Chen Bingde and attended by other
top brass of the PLA General Staff Department. The entourage included
four deputy chief of staffs: General Zhang Qinsheng, General Ma
Xiaotian, Vice-Admiral Sun Jianguo, General Hou Shusen; and the two
assistant chief of staffs: Major General  Qi Jianguo, Major-General
Chen Yong; as well as leaders from the other three General
Departments—General Political Department, General Logistics Department
and General Armament Department (PLA Daily, July 20).

One
attendee worth pointing out is Deputy Chief of Staff General Zhang
Qinsheng (1948 – ), who is a member of the 17th CCP Central Committee
and currently the commander of the Guangzhou Military Region. General
Zhang previously served as director of the military training department
of the Beijing Military Region, and deputy director of the military
training department of the General Staff Headquarters. While at the
National Defense University, he served as director of the Campaign
Teaching and Research Office, dean of studies, and director of the
operations department of the General Staff Department. During his
career, Zhang has built a reputation as being an expert on
“informationized warfare” and conducted research on network command
systems. In December 2004, then-Major General Zhang was elevated to
chief of staff assistant of General Staff Department, and was promoted
to vice chief of staff in December 2006. In 2007, he was appointed
commander of Guangzhou Military Region. Zhang was recently elevated to
the rank of general by President Hu in mid-July 2010 (Xinhua News
Agency, July 20).

It is important, however, to note that the
line between offensive and defensive capabilities in computer network
operations is murky at best. Even Chinese experts acknowledge this gray
area. In reference to the establishment of the U.S. cyber command,
Professor Meng Xiangqing from the PLA’s National Defense University
Institute for Strategic Studies stated:

“It is really hard to
distinguish attacks and defenses in Internet war. In traditional wars,
there was a definite boundary between attacks and defenses. However, in
the war of internet, it was hard to define whether your action was an
attack or a defense. If you claim to fight against hacker attack, it is
hard to say that you are just defending yourself.” Meng added, “To
fight against a hacker attack, you might attack other Internet nodes,
which leads to the Internet paralysis in other countries and regions.
Moreover, the Internet is a virtual world. It is hard to say that
acquiring information from other countries is a defense” (People’s
Daily Online, May 25).

At the very least, the establishment of
the cyber base highlights the rise of China’s cyber warfare program.
Moreover, the promotion of experts in informationized warfare to
positions of prominence in China’s military ranks, namely General
Zhang, who took over as deputy chief of staff with the portfolio for
intelligence after General Xiong Guangkai retired, may signal the
increasing influence of the cyber dimensions in Chinese decision-making
on military strategy.

Furthermore, the establishment of a
cyber base within China’s military complex shed light on the direction
of China’s military modernization. More specifically, the establishment
of the base indicates that the PLA’s commitment to cyber security is
increasing and its role as a major cyber power will only continue to
grow in the foreseeable future. With the emergence of a centralized,
coordinated effort to strengthen its cyber networks, the presence of a
command center in top decision-making bureaucracies focused on cyber
security lends credence to the concerted push undertaken by the Chinese
leadership to develop its cyber capabilities.