The Platform

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Cyber warfare represents a contemporary battleground that exacerbates existing global tensions.

The digital age has ushered in not only revolutionary technologies but also novel forms of conflict. In the 21st century, cyber warfare has become as significant as traditional combat. This new domain has solidified itself as the fifth arena of warfare, following the integration of digital and cyber strategies into global military doctrines. The United States and China, two technologically advanced nations, have particularly engaged in a cyber arms race, intensifying their strategic rivalry in the digital sphere. Amidst an erratic global security environment, restraining conflict escalation grows increasingly complex, making cyber warfare a tool of choice due to its stealth and non-physical engagement benefits.

Understanding cyber warfare is crucial. The RAND Corporation conceptualizes it as a strategic modern warfare element, on par with nuclear tactics of the past century. This parallel underscores the profound implications cyber warfare has on national security, extending to diplomatic, economic, and societal dimensions. It includes the strategic use of technology to disrupt adversaries’ operations and secure information—actions that are expected to increasingly target both military and civilian sectors.

The historical tapestry of U.S.-China relations is woven with threads of suspicion, disagreement, and open contention. Recent times have seen these hostilities intensify due to economic and technological competition, the delicate situation in Taiwan, and South China Sea tensions, nudging the nations towards confrontation. Cyber warfare’s role has been magnified following mutual recognition by the United States and China of cyberspace as the latest conflict domain. The rapport between the two has further soured amid multiple accusations of espionage, predominantly concerning intellectual property theft.

Experts on Sino-American relations note a precipitous decline in bilateral ties, potentially past a point of no return. Cybersecurity authority James Lewis points to China’s political divergence, regional dominance ambitions, and efforts to dilute U.S. influence in Asia as barriers to cooperation.

The U.S. harbors grave concerns over China’s persistent corporate network breaches to pilfer trade secrets and intellectual property—a practice with an estimated annual cost of $300 billion, per General Keith Alexander, ex-director of the National Security Agency. The U.S. also fears China’s potential cyber offensive against vital American infrastructure during crises. This concern manifested in 2014 when the U.S. indicted five members of the Chinese military for hacking, resulting in China halting its participation in the U.S.-China Cyber Working Group.

Equally alarming for intelligence agencies is the prospect of conflict escalation stemming from miscommunication in cyberspace. The hacker group Volt Typhoon is suspected of being part of a larger ploy to penetrate Western infrastructure, targeting naval ports, ISPs, and utilities, as reported by Microsoft following attacks on key U.S. military installations.

FBI Director Christopher Wray recently highlighted the Chinese Communist Party as a significant threat to U.S. national and economic security, with infrastructural attacks confirming the severity of this threat. He argued for more public awareness of these dangers, noting preparations by Chinese hackers to disrupt American infrastructure, thereby endangering lives and societal stability. Consequently, the U.S. government has bolstered its cyber defenses, mindful of foreign election interference and the toll of ransomware attacks on U.S. businesses in 2023.

Jen Easterly, director of CISA, contends that Chinese cyber espionage transcends traditional statecraft, serving state-owned enterprises and aligning with China’s strategic and economic priorities. Despite steadfast denials from Beijing, the escalating cyber disputes continue, with China accusing the U.S. of similar misconduct.

China is recognized as a nation advancing both military and non-military cyber capabilities, aspiring to enhance its cyberspace influence and bolster its economic and military prowess. Its military strategy delineates cyber objectives, such as situation awareness, defense against cyber assaults, support for national activities in cyberspace, and international cooperation, aiming to avert major cyber crises and ensure network security.

The 21st century has solidified technology’s role across multiple societal spheres, with cyber warfare representing a contemporary battleground that exacerbates existing global tensions. The inherent stealth and conflict-avoidance nature of cyber warfare are causes for concern. As the U.S. and China navigate their complex relationship, their cyber hostilities deepen, highlighting the urgency for clear communication and effective diplomacy to prevent further degradation of bilateral ties and unintended consequences in the cyber realm.

Malaika Afridi is a graduate of the University of London and currently works as a freelance researcher. She covers inter-state relations, arms control and disarmament, and climate change.