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Friday, December 22, 2023

China & Cyber Warfare: History, Apparatus, Capabilities & The Threat to India

By Bhavdeep Modi

Recently, the US arrested and charged Jun Wei Yeo, an alumnus of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, for being a Chinese intelligence agent. He pleaded guilty to the charge of being an ‘illegal agent of a foreign power’. Jun Wei Yeo had been accused of using his political consultancy firm as a front to acquire non-public information for the Chinese government, for which he had been actively recruiting people to write confidential reports. It has been reported that he had been using LinkedIn, a widely popular career networking site with over 700 million users worldwide, for his recruitment purposes. He admitted in his statement that he had posted fake job advertisements through his LinkedIn profile, which resulted in him receiving over 400 CVs. He also admitted that 90% of these applicants were US military and government personnel with high-level security clearances.

In the modern times, cyber warfare is being considered as the fifth dimension of warfare. 20th century is often identified with nuclear warfare whereas the 21st century is now being touted as the century of cyber warfare. In the past, we have seen cyber warfare being utilized by countries to achieve major political goals. With the number of people online growing at a lightning fast pace, countries have been relying more and more on developing their cyber warfare and cyber espionage capabilities. The biggest example of cyber warfare is the use of STUXNET virus against Iran in 2003. Believed to be jointly developed by Israel and the US, the virus managed to destroy the centrifugal system at the Natanz Nuclear Facility in Iran. At that time, Iran was developing weapons-grade uranium in order to further its nuclear weapons program. To this date, US denies having developed the STUXNET virus.

But in the past decade, the world has witnessed China’s tremendous growth in the domain of cyber warfare and cyber espionage. If one looks at the list of ‘Significant Cyber Incidents’ by Centre for Security & International Studies (CSIS), a US based think-tank, one would find that the majority of cyber-attacks between June 2019 & June 2020, have purportedly been carried out by China. The arrest of Jun Wei Yeo is just one of the many examples where China has been accused of being involved in cyber espionage and cyber warfare. In the recent past, China has been accused of carrying out a host of cyber-attacks against various countries like USA, India, Mexico, UK, and many others. The attacks have mostly targeted ministries of the government, while also targeting various multinational corporations and their senior management, and NGOs.

China & Cyber Warfare: A Historical Context

According to LyuJinghua, a senior fellow with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, China’s academic discussion on cyber warfare started in the 1990s when it was called ‘information warfare’. China, at that time, had seen the use of high technologies by US in the Gulf War, in Kosovo, Afghanistan & Iraq. It was during this time that the ruling elite of the Chinese Communist Party saw it fit to invest in developing information technology. In fact, Brigadier Saurabh Tewari, in a piece for United Services Institution, a Delhi-based think-tank, wrote that the Central Military Commission of Chia had set up a 100-member elite corps to devise ways of hacking. China’s National Defense Paper in 2004 elaborated that “…information has become the key factor in enhancing the warfighting capability of the armed forces.” It has to be noted that this attitude in policy making came after the STUXNET attack against Iran in 2003. It was at this juncture of world history that the world actually started paying attention to the extent of the power of cyber weapons.

It was the year 2013 when China addressed cyber warfare publicly; in a report called ‘The Science of Military Strategy’ by the Academy of Military Science. Post the publication of this study, the Chinese government started investing heavily in the domain of cyber space. It is interesting to note here that China not only focused on developing military cyber capabilities, but also worked on enhancing them in the sphere of economics, diplomacy and social development.

China’s Cyber WarfareApparatus& Capabilities

According to China’s National Defense in 2004, China’s modernization plans for its armed forces include the development of a fully networked architecture capable of coordinating military operations on land, in air, at sea, in space and across the electromagnetic spectrum. In the past decade, China had a sweeping military modernisation programme that has tremendously transformed its capability to fight wars in the cyber domain. Xinhua News agency had reported back in 1999 that PLA Science & Engineering Institute serves as the centre for military research related to technology. The Institute also provides advanced information warfare networking training to members of the PLA and even, recent college graduates.

Prior to 2016, the General Staff Department used to be the command organ of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). However, following the military reforms of 2016, the GSD was disbanded and its operations were consolidated into the Joint staff Department of the Central Military Commission.

In the year 2015, the PLA created the Strategic Support Staff (SSF) in order to enhance the cyber warfare capabilities of China, while also focusing more on developing China’s capabilities in the domain of space warfare. The SSF integrated the various organs responsible for conducting cyber warfare and espionage for the Chinese government, which were previously under the GSD. It is believed that the SSF still operates these departments. Following points will highlight them, though their names are the ones which were used as per GSD, since the current names under the apparatus are unknown:

1. GSD 4th Department: It was the offensive arm of the GSD, additionally responsible for conducting Research & Development of cyber warfare techniques and strategies.

2. GSD 3rd Department: This department was responsible for gathering signals intelligence, also known as SIGINT. It mainly focused on defensive operations carried out by the PLA.

3. Technical Reconnaissance Bureaus: There were 5 such bureaus, located in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Beijing, Lanzhou, and Jinan. They were responsible for gathering SIGINT. However, their focus was on collecting SIGINT against strategic targets.

4. PLA Information Warfare Militia Units: These units were first established in the year 2002. They had recruited personnel from commercial IT sector, as well as academia, and were responsible for carrying out electronic warfare, psychological warfare and deception operations.

China’s abilities in the cyber space were established in 2015, when Edward Snowden provided a tranche of documents to a German weekly magazine, revealing that China had been able to extract a major chunk of information and data on the development of F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter Jet. The F-35 is a 5th generation fighter jet, being the most advanced in the current lot of fighter jets in production in the world. It is developed by Lockheed Martin, and it was alleged that the Chinese stealth fighter jet J-31 is a replica of the F-35. The Chinese have gone so far to say that the J-31 is superior to F-35.

Apart from this, the Wikileaks documents also revealed that a hack, purportedly carried out by a unit of the PLA, had managed to steal information about US’ B-2 stealth bomber, the F-22 jet, space-based lasers, missile navigation & tracking systems, as well as submarine/anti-air missile designs. This just goes on to show the extent of the capabilities of Chinese cyber espionage and warfare.

Chinese Cyber Threat To India

In 2017, an Indian Air Force Sukhoi 30 fighter was downed, which a lot of analysts believed was due to a cyber-attack carried out by China. In 2018, a report to the National Security Council Secretariat mentioned that 35% of the total cyber-attacks against India, were carried out by Chinese entities. Most of the hacks originating from China have targeted various ministries of the Indian government such as Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Finance & Corporate Affairs, amongst others. Personal details of the ministry’s personnel have often been compromised, while hacking of their websites is something that has happened numerous times.

Even though such attacks haven’t led to any casualties or massive infrastructural losses, it needs to be noted that China can undermine India through its highly developed cyber attacking capabilities in times of military conflict. This potential risk has become increasingly important to look at, since India has been embroiled in a border conflict with China at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) since May 5th 2020. Moreover, a serious cyber concern that has sprung up for India, is the development of the BeiDou navigation system by China. BeiDou has been launched as a rival to USA’s GPS, Russia’s GLONASS, and Europe’s Galileo. It is now being offered as a ‘free service’ to Asian countries by China. But a host of defence experts have opined that this ‘free lunch’ extended by China could have ulterior motives. Once any country starts operating BeiDou, it’ll become extremely easy for China to track its critical infrastructure. Moreover, the BeiDou Navigation System has already been integrated into PLA’s modern command system and guidance packages. It is estimated that its location services are precise to 2.6m in the Asia-Pacific, as compared to GPS’ 5m.

The BeiDou navigation system is being already used by over 30 countries in the Middle East, Europe and Asia. But in this regard, use of BeiDou by Pakistan becomes extremely important to study. Pakistan is the only country in the world which is using the exact version of BeiDou as being used by China’s PLA. This means that China is relatively at a higher tactical ground against India, since it can use BeiDou to track users of the system by placing malware in transmissions. It was also reported by New York Times in 2018 that they had reviewed a confidential plan prepared by Islamabad and Beijing to strengthen their cooperation in the space sector. The United States has long accused China of militarising space. The fact that BeiDou’s exact version is being used by Pakistan, leaves India in a weaker position to defend itself.


All in all, India needs a two-pronged approach to the cyber threat emanating from China. On one hand, it needs to focus on cyber-attacks that target ministries, multinational corporations and NGOs through various hackings; and on the other hand, it needs to focus on more complex, military related threats that are emanating from China’s growing cyber attacking capabilities, especially in the domain of space. India has taken some steps in this regard, especially by establishing CERT-In as the nodal agency to deal with cyber threats such as hacking and phishing. India has also been in the process of developing Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), with operational name as NaviC (Navigation with Indian Constellation). It covers India and an additional area of 1500 kms around it, with plans of further extension. In comparison to China’s BeiDou using 18 satellites, IRNSS uses 7, which means that the former has a wider range. But India plans to add 4 more satellites in order to expand NaviC’s reach. In this particular regard, Indian policymakers have been focusing on expanding public-private partnership in the domain of cyber security, since a lot of Indian cyber security firms have been hired by US government in the past. It will give India a much needed boost in the cyber security domain.

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