China’s Cyber Command?

The development of China's cyber warfare program has captured worldwideattention in recent years. While evolving doctrines and incidents ofcyber intrusions with alleged links to the Chinese government havehelped China watchers glean the development of China's growing cyberwarfare capabilities, far less certainty surrounds the command andcontrol side of this enigmatic operation. This is partly because keytasks of China's computer network operations and information warfarehad been, until recently, decentralized in different departments in thePeople's Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff Headquarters (i.e. theThird and Fourth Departments) and specialized bureaus located in thedifferent military regions.

On July 19, the Peoples LiberationArmy Daily (hereafter PLA Daily) reported that the PLA General StaffDepartment—the operational nerve center of the Chinese militarysupervised directly by the PLA's Central Military Commission—held aceremony 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 isheadquartered under the PLA General Staff Department, may serve as thePLA's cyber command. The "base" is reportedly tasked with the missionto address potential cyber threats and to safeguard China's nationalsecurity. According to Chinese-media reports, the establishment of thecyber base was a strategic move ordered by President Hu Jintao tohandle cyber threats as China enters the information age, and tostrengthen the nation's cyber-infrastructure (PLA Daily, July 20; ChinaTimes, July 20; Global Times, July 22).

According to a reportin the Global Times, an offshoot of the party's mouthpiece People'sDaily, an anonymous officer in the General Staff Department said that,"The setup of the base just means that our army is strengthening itscapacity and is developing potential military officers to tackleinformation-based warfare." Other tasks will include online informationcollection 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 offensiveheadquarters for cyber war" (Global Times, July 22).

The statedmissions of the new cyber base appear to complement the PLA'sinformation warfare (IW) units, which the PLA has been developing sinceat least 2003. The PLA's IW strategy was largely spearheaded by MajorGeneral Dai Qingmin, then-director of the PLA’s electronic warfaredepartment (Fourth Department), who advocated a comprehensiveinformation warfare effort (Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2009).

Thehigh echelon of military officers from the General Staff Departmentrepresented at the unveiling ceremony seem to also reflect theimportance that the leadership attaches to this newly minted program.Indeed, the launch ceremony, which was held in Beijing, was chaired byPLA Chief of General Staff General Chen Bingde and attended by othertop brass of the PLA General Staff Department. The entourage includedfour deputy chief of staffs: General Zhang Qinsheng, General MaXiaotian, Vice-Admiral Sun Jianguo, General Hou Shusen; and the twoassistant chief of staffs: Major General  Qi Jianguo, Major-GeneralChen Yong; as well as leaders from the other three GeneralDepartments—General Political Department, General Logistics Departmentand General Armament Department (PLA Daily, July 20).

Oneattendee worth pointing out is Deputy Chief of Staff General ZhangQinsheng (1948 - ), who is a member of the 17th CCP Central Committeeand currently the commander of the Guangzhou Military Region. GeneralZhang previously served as director of the military training departmentof the Beijing Military Region, and deputy director of the militarytraining department of the General Staff Headquarters. While at theNational Defense University, he served as director of the CampaignTeaching and Research Office, dean of studies, and director of theoperations department of the General Staff Department. During hiscareer, Zhang has built a reputation as being an expert on"informationized warfare" and conducted research on network commandsystems. In December 2004, then-Major General Zhang was elevated tochief of staff assistant of General Staff Department, and was promotedto vice chief of staff in December 2006. In 2007, he was appointedcommander of Guangzhou Military Region. Zhang was recently elevated tothe rank of general by President Hu in mid-July 2010 (Xinhua NewsAgency, July 20).

It is important, however, to note that theline between offensive and defensive capabilities in computer networkoperations is murky at best. Even Chinese experts acknowledge this grayarea. In reference to the establishment of the U.S. cyber command,Professor Meng Xiangqing from the PLA's National Defense UniversityInstitute for Strategic Studies stated:

“It is really hard todistinguish attacks and defenses in Internet war. In traditional wars,there was a definite boundary between attacks and defenses. However, inthe war of internet, it was hard to define whether your action was anattack or a defense. If you claim to fight against hacker attack, it ishard to say that you are just defending yourself." Meng added, "Tofight 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 thatacquiring information from other countries is a defense” (People'sDaily Online, May 25).

At the very least, the establishment ofthe cyber base highlights the rise of China’s cyber warfare program.Moreover, the promotion of experts in informationized warfare topositions of prominence in China’s military ranks, namely GeneralZhang, who took over as deputy chief of staff with the portfolio forintelligence after General Xiong Guangkai retired, may signal theincreasing influence of the cyber dimensions in Chinese decision-makingon military strategy.

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

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