The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

China’s cyber capabilities are far superior to many of its economic rivals.

In the subtle art of war as described by Sun Tzu, the acme of skill is to subdue the enemy without battle—an axiom that has found a home in China’s modern strategy. The nation’s application of covert operations ranging from cyberwarfare to espionage, economic bullying, and beyond aims to establish a coercive edge, particularly against India. The heightened tempo of China’s cyber activities against the United States has prompted a recalibration within the strategic community, provoking intense discussions on the nuances of Beijing’s hidden hand amid a global geopolitical flux.

Grey zone warfare operates in the interstices of peace and war, attempting to alter realities on the ground through coercive tactics that fall short of provoking traditional military retaliation. Following the Galwan Valley clash, China has amplified such hybrid endeavors, reaping the benefits of ambiguity and deniability—strategically disarming its opponents and precluding effective countermeasures. These tactics are designed not merely to challenge but to unbalance a state’s defensive capabilities.

Paul D. Moore, a former FBI chief, notes that the Chinese intelligence’s ‘Thousand Grains of Sand’ approach gathers vast amounts of seemingly innocuous data, then harnesses emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing to distill actionable intelligence. This expansive intelligence-gathering network—encompassing civil society, academia, and students—conducts espionage under the guise of benign interaction. This strategy subtly undermines the social fabric of the target nation through a multi-pronged assault encompassing economic, cyber, psychological, and propaganda dimensions.

The strategy’s efficacy is illuminated by reports of the expansive surveillance operations conducted by Zhenhua Data—a company implicated in the systematic tracking of India’s elite. Such intelligence feeds the engines of influence operations, evident in India’s northeastern region, where insurgencies gain momentum in the shadow of Myanmar’s destabilization.

China’s cyberwarfare doctrine, rooted in Maoist principles, endorses perpetual offensive operations. Advanced persistent threat (APT) vectors serve as the primary tool for Chinese state-sponsored hackers, infiltrating and extracting sensitive information through a labyrinth of servers, making detection a formidable challenge.

However, these strategies have met with limited success. The Shenyang FC-31 stealth aircraft, for instance, fell short of the People’s Liberation Army’s expectations, plagued by design and performance issues.

The narrative extends beyond cyber espionage to the economic sphere. Vikram Sood, a former intelligence chief, unravels the opaque dealings of Huawei in his book The Ultimate Goal, revealing its intricate connections to the Chinese Communist Party and the subsequent global hesitation to embrace the tech behemoth in critical 5G infrastructure.

India’s confrontation with subversion extends to the financial sector, with Chinese involvement in predatory loan application scams, capitalizing on the vulnerabilities of financial illiteracy—a stark manifestation of the ‘Grains of Sand’ strategy. Furthermore, investments by Chinese firms like Alibaba in data-centric companies underscore China’s calculated positioning within the digital domain, laying the groundwork for potential influence and control.

In response to the encroaching grey zone tactics, India must consolidate its cyber defenses, fortifying its technological prowess through alliances with the QUAD and Five Eyes nations. Vigilance against disinformation and influence campaigns is imperative, demanding an elevation of counter-cyber capabilities through investment in burgeoning tech startups. A resilient communication framework, grounded in the country’s linguistic diversity, is essential to refute adversarial narratives and preserve the integrity of India’s societal discourse.

Srijan Sharma is a former editor and national security analyst specializing in intelligence and security. He has written for several institutions, journals, and newspapers. He is currently a guest author for the School of International Studies in New Delhi.

Prakrat Gupta is a cyber security analyst specializing in cyber affairs, artificial intelligence, and cyber espionage. Previously, he worked with various police departments throughout India to help them bolster their cyber capabilities. He has also served as a Research Assistant with United Service Institution of India (USI), a think tank in India.