China’s attitude toward the idea of mutual strategic restraint with the United States will reflect Chinese views on the United States and SinoAmerican relations, on the uses of force in general, and on nuclear weapons, space, and cyberspace in particular. This chapter analyzes these views and considers the circumstances in which China might accept limits on its strategic freedom of action contingent on U.S. reciprocity. It also examines civil-military relations and whether and how tensions between militaryoperational and national-strategic objectives could complicate Chinese views on mutual restraint.
China’s approach toward international relations in general and toward the United States in particular rests on a foundation of higher priority domestic interests and concerns.1 Many of these concerns reflect a sense of vulnerability rooted in China’s history, geography, and the political relationship between Communist Party leaders and the people they rule. The failure of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and the Chinese republic (1911–1949) to modernize the economy and military had disastrous consequences when Western countries and an industrialized Japan sought commercial and territorial concessions. China’s inability to resist pressure from superior military forces resulted in the loss of Chinese territory (Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and parts of Manchuria), forced the Qing dynasty to grant extraterritorial privileges to occupying foreign powers, and eventually led to invasion and occupation of much of China by the imperial Japanese army. Karl Marx’s prescriptions for economic development and Vladimir Lenin’s diagnosis of the sources of imperialism contributed greatly to Marxism’s appeal to Chinese nationalists who sought a way to revive and defend their country. The lessons Chinese elites have derived from this "century of humiliation" include the importance of economic development and a strong military for national survival, summarized by the goal of a "rich country, strong army." Chinese leaders also believe that domestic weakness and instability can invite foreign intervention. The PLA role in bringing the Communist Party to power (and in maintaining its rule against challenges such as the Tiananmen protests in 1989) strengthens the connection Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders feel between military power and domestic stability.
This interpretation of history is reinforced by security challenges imposed by geography and China’s status as the last large, multiethnic empire. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) covers a large territory that borders 14 other states and contains 55 different ethnic minority groups in addition to the Han Chinese majority. Many of these minority groups are concentrated in border areas in territories added to the Chinese state in the 19th and 20th centuries, most notably Uighurs in Xinjiang and ethnic Tibetans in Tibet and Qinghai provinces. China also regards the island of Taiwan as part of its territory that must eventually be unified with the mainland. China has resolved most of its land border disputes but has a host of ongoing maritime issues including disagreements with Japan about control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the boundaries of their respective maritime exclusive economic zones and disputes with various Southeast Asia countries over control of the Spratley and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The disparity between the territories China claims and those it actually controls is a significant source of regional tension. China advocates a policy of peaceful resolution of international disputes, but Chinese leaders emphasize the importance of sovereignty and territorial integrity as "core interests" where compromise is impossible.
This rhetorical emphasis reflects fears of potential domestic political challenges. Chinese leaders prioritize the objectives of maintaining political stability and ensuring continued Communist Party rule. The 1989 Tiananmen protests, the subsequent collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and the fall of the Soviet Union challenged the ideological foundations of CCP rule, even as the party was adopting economic reforms that emphasized the role of market forces and moving further away from socialist orthodoxy. As belief in socialist ideology has waned, the CCP has tried to build new sources of political support by raising living standards through rapid economic growth and by appealing to nationalist sentiment.2 In recent years, development goals have been expressed in terms of building "a harmonious and moderately well-off society." CCP economic policies have been successful in producing rapid and sustained economic growth that has improved living standards and supported military modernization. However, this growth has been accompanied by a dramatic rise in inequality (both between coastal and inland provinces and between winners and losers from reforms) and widespread corruption. Legitimacy based on the ability to deliver rapid economic growth and improvements in living standards requires continued performance in achieving those goals; CCP leaders fear that an economic crisis or rampant inflation could produce challenges to their rule.
Appeals to nationalism as a source of legitimacy provide Chinese nationalists with an independent basis for judging the performance of Communist leaders in advancing nationalist goals such as enhancing China’s international status and reclaiming lost territories. Taiwan’s status as a territory outside PRC control, the Dalai Lama’s role as exiled leader of the Tibetan minority, and the existence of numerous territorial and sovereignty disputes mean that outside actors can make statements or take actions that produce significant domestic problems for CCP leaders. (The reverse is also true—Chinese nationalists can take independent actions such as attacks on Japanese businesses that turn into foreign policy incidents that the government must manage.) This makes issues involving nationalism especially sensitive and difficult for Chinese political leaders.
The cumulative result of these historical legacies, geographical challenges, and domestic governance issues is a sense of insecurity and weakness, even though in conventional terms China’s external security environment arguably has never been better. These concerns are aggravated by the fact that China’s rapid economic growth—the foundation of the CCP’s ability to sustain itself in power—has been achieved by integrating China into the regional and global economy in order to tap foreign capital, management skills, and technology and to access overseas resources and markets. China’s reforms have been remarkably successful in producing rapid and sustained growth, raising living standards, and building China’s national power. But these international connections also mean that China’s domestic economy (and political stability) are now much more dependent on imported supplies of energy and raw materials and are affected by global economic developments that lie outside the control of Chinese leaders. Economic success has created new vulnerabilities and dramatically expanded China’s interests outside its borders.
Throughout the reform era, Chinese leaders have focused on maintaining a stable international environment that supports China’s economic modernization. This requires China to avoid a hostile relationship with the United States, the dominant power in the current international system and a country positioned to facilitate or obstruct many Chinese objectives. Given the high costs of confrontation, Beijing seeks stable, cooperative relations with Washington. Yet many Chinese elites believe that the United States seeks to subvert the Chinese political system and to contain China’s economic and military potential. These concerns are partly rooted in differences in ideology and values that often lead U.S. political leaders to sympathize with Chinese political dissidents, criticize Chinese governance problems, and take actions that create domestic problems for Chinese leaders, such as meeting with the Dalai Lama or selling arms to Taiwan. They also reflect the legacy of ideological confrontation during the 1950s and 1960s, when the United States fought the PLA in Korea and led Western efforts to isolate and contain China. U.S. economic and military sanctions following the Tiananmen protests persuaded many Chinese leaders that the United States sought to challenge CCP rule by Westernizing and breaking up China. These concerns were reinforced by Clinton administration efforts in 1993–1994 to use renewal of China’s most-favored-nation trade status as a tool to force improvements in human rights conditions and by the deployment of two U.S. aircraft carriers in March 1996 in response to China’s use of ballistic missile tests to intimidate Taiwan.
At a global level, many Chinese leaders and analysts believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union produced an unbalanced world order (defined as "one superpower and many great powers") that left the United States unconstrained and able to use its unrivaled economic and military power to intervene militarily, violate the sovereignty of other countries, and strengthen the foundations of its global dominance. China’s domestic weaknesses and inferior power position placed it in an uncomfortable and vulnerable position relative to the United States.
China has sought to deal with a powerful United States through several means. One is to build its own comprehensive national power (a composite of economic, military, and soft power resources) to increase its ability to resist U.S. pressure. This requires a focus on long-term economic growth while avoiding a confrontation with the United States. Aware of the potential for a dominant power to feel threatened by a prospective challenger, Chinese leaders have articulated the theory of "peaceful development" and sought to reassure U.S. leaders that China does not intend to challenge the U.S. position or seek major changes in the current international order. China’s leaders hope to take advantage of the first two decades of the 21st century to build the country’s comprehensive national power and improve its international position. "Grasping the period of strategic opportunity" sometimes requires Beijing to compromise with Washington for the sake of stable relations. However, China’s nuclear capability limits the U.S. ability to coerce China and force concessions on key issues, and improvements in Chinese economic and military capabilities are strengthening China’s long-term position relative to the United States.
A second means involves efforts to build positive relationships with current and potential great powers to deny the United States the opportunity to construct a coalition to contain China and prevent its continued rise. Most Chinese analysts see an inexorable trend toward a multipolar world order as established and emerging great powers improve their standing relative to the United States. The chief debate lies in varying assessments of U.S. power relative to other great powers, and the projected timing and impact of U.S. relative decline. By properly managing relations with established and emerging great powers, its Asian neighbors, and developing countries, China seeks to preserve its freedom of maneuver and prevent the United States from organizing its allies and other countries into an anti-China coalition. Within Asia, this has prompted Chinese military restraint and active (if not always successful) efforts to reassure Asian countries that a stronger China will not threaten regional stability.
A third means has involved Chinese efforts to build a stable partnership with the United States. In the aftermath of the 1996 Taiwan crisis, Clinton administration officials sought to work toward a "constructive strategic partnership" with China. President Jiang Zemin supported the effort to downplay bilateral differences over issues such as Taiwan and identify a positive bilateral agenda for cooperation across a range of issues. Reciprocal summit visits in 1997 and 1998 were used to articulate and advance this cooperative agenda, but U.S. domestic support for a partnership collapsed amidst partisan accusations of Chinese nuclear espionage and mismanagement of relations with China. By the 2000 campaign, candidate George W. Bush was proclaiming that the United States and China were "strategic competitors," though this rhetoric cooled as his administration sought Chinese cooperation in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Chinese efforts to build a stable strategic partnership with Washington have not succeeded, but Beijing has sought to develop and expand bilateral cooperation in areas such as responding to North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions, nonproliferation, energy, and counterterrorism. China’s position as a veto-wielding permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council and special relationship with North Korea make it an important player on many international issues. The U.S. need for Chinese cooperation on a range of regional and global issues gives Beijing leverage in dealing with Washington. At the same time, Chinese leaders have insisted on respect for sovereignty as a key principle of international relations and have not endorsed proposals that might reinforce U.S. long-term dominance.
A fourth means has been the deepening economic relationship between the United States and China. Trade and investment ties between the countries have been a source of stability in the relationship because they benefit key actors in both countries. The United States is China’s largest single trading partner and a major market for Chinese exports. U.S. companies are an important source of capital, management expertise, and technology for China’s economic development. In recent years, China has become a large purchaser of U.S. Government securities, holding more than $900 billion. Both the U.S. and Chinese governments have periodically sought to use economic threats and incentives as leverage, but economic interdependence has been an important source of stability in bilateral relations. (This interdependence was vividly demonstrated in 2008–2009 by the impact of the U.S. financial crisis on the Chinese economy.) The fact that politically influential U.S. economic actors have important stakes in China has helped Beijing manage its potential vulnerability to U.S. pressure.
The net result is a complex, multifaceted, and ambiguous relationship where substantial and expanding areas of cooperation coexist with ongoing strategic tensions and suspicions. China’s sense of its room for maneuver (and potential strategic vulnerability) with respect to the United States rests on the global balance of power, the relative military balance, China’s domestic political vulnerabilities at any given moment, and the "balance of need" in terms of which country needs the other more.
During the Obama administration’s first 2 years in office, these factors have produced a negative dynamic in bilateral relations. Chinese analysts saw broad trends toward multipolarity and the diffusion of power reducing U.S. international dominance; many concluded that the financial crisis and U.S. commitments in the Middle East were accelerating the U.S. decline. At the same time, many Chinese believed that China’s rising economic, political, and military power allowed it to be less deferential to the concerns of the United States and other Asia-Pacific states and to push its own agenda by calling for reductions in U.S. arms sales and political support for Taiwan and by taking a tougher line on maritime sovereignty disputes. These perceptions were reinforced by expressions of nationalist sentiment in the Chinese media (including a number of articles by retired PLA officers) that criticized any signs of compromise by Chinese leaders and called on the government to punish the United States for actions such as arms sales to Taiwan.3
These perceptions coincided with Obama administration efforts to expand the areas of U.S.-China cooperation and encourage China to take on more responsibility in addressing global challenges such as climate change, nonproliferation, and the stability of the international economic system. Chinese leaders likely concluded that these proposals—intended to increase China’s stake and role in sustaining the current international system—were a reflection of American weakness and indicative of a shift in the "balance of need" in China’s favor. Improved cross-strait relations, which reduced China’s need for U.S. support in reining in possible Taiwan moves toward independence, were another factor in this assessment.
China’s temporary shift away from its "charm diplomacy" and military restraint toward a more assertive posture in 2009–2010 alarmed its neighbors and revived concerns about a threat to regional stability. A more assertive China and a series of provocative North Korean actions (including a second nuclear test, the sinking of the Republic of Korea Navy corvette Cheonan, and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island) have reinvigorated U.S. security alliances with Japan and South Korea. They have also produced a broader demand in Asia for an enhanced U.S. political and security role in the region.
China’s more assertive policy interacted with independent Obama administration efforts to make a "return to Asia." Increased U.S. high-level attention to Asia, modest adjustments in the U.S. military posture, and enhanced U.S. security ties with both formal allies and informal partners such as Vietnam, Malaysia, and India led many Chinese leaders, military officers, and analysts to conclude that the United States had intensified efforts to contain and encircle China. President Hu Jintao’s summit visit to Washington in January 2011 signaled China’s return to a more restrained regional policy and helped restore a measure of stability to bilateral ties and highlight areas of ongoing cooperation. Nevertheless, officials on both sides increasingly acknowledge the competitive dimensions of U.S.-China relations and have mutual concerns about each other’s military modernization efforts, deployments, and activities.
This is especially true in Asia, which has become the focal point of Sino-U.S. competition. China disclaims any desire to dominate the region and touts its "win-win" regional policy, but the U.S. political and military presence in the region is an inherent obstacle to the exercise of Chinese power to pursue its outstanding territorial and sovereignty claims and increase Beijing’s regional influence. Absent the U.S. presence, Chinese leaders believe that issues such as Taiwan would have been solved long ago. Moreover, China fears that the United States might use alliances and its naval power projection capabilities to launch attacks on China in the event of a military conflict over Taiwan. This has prompted PLA efforts to purchase and develop advanced weapons for antiaccess and area denial missions that raise the costs and risks of U.S. forces operating close to China.
China’s regional goals and development of antiaccess capabilities challenge U.S. treaty commitments to its allies in Asia, which require the ability to project military power into the region.4China has looked to nuclear deterrence and methods for exploiting U.S. military dependence on space and cyberspace as means of redressing the current U.S. conventional military advantage. However, favorable trends (for Beijing) in the conventional military balance and China’s "home field advantage" when operating near its territory may eventually shift this thinking and give China more interest in a strategic restraint regime that limits the U.S. ability to escalate a conflict into the nuclear, space, or cyberspace domains. China’s efforts to develop a stable nuclear deterrent relationship and elicit a nuclear no-first-use pledge from Washington indicate that Chinese leaders can see value in strategic restraint.
At a diplomatic level, China consistently opposes the use of force or military threats in international relations and calls for peaceful resolution of international disputes via dialogue. These views are codified in China’s advocacy of the five principles of peaceful coexistence: mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual nonaggression, mutual noninterference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. China opposes military alliances and overseas bases on principle and has advocated a "new security concept" for Asia "which focuses on enhancing trust through dialogue and promoting security through cooperation." Chinese officials contrast these ideas with an alleged U.S. Cold War mentality focused on military alliances and opposing blocs.
The diplomatic principles discussed above resonate with some strands of traditional Chinese strategic culture, specifically those derived from the defensive, pacifistic line of Confucian-Mencian thought. But some scholars have identified another strand of Chinese strategic culture with a hard realpolitik view that emphasizes seizing the initiative, offensive action, and preemptive attack.5 One China expert argues that these two strands interact to produce "the paradoxical outcome of idealist, principled, high minded logic (the Confucian school) combined with hard realpolitik security policies and regular decisions to call out the troops (the Realpolitik school)."6In practice, China often contrasts its "principled positions" on international issues with the self-interested motives of other actors, even though its international behavior usually reflects pragmatic decisions firmly grounded in Chinese national interests.
These tensions are partly reconciled by the Chinese preference for avoiding the use of force when desired outcomes can be obtained by other means. Chinese strategists and policymakers are keenly aware of relative power balances between countries and the military balance in specific contingencies. Their ideal is not to fight and win military conflicts, but rather to create a favorable military balance that places an adversary in an untenable position and allows China to obtain its desired outcomes without the use of force. As Sun Tzu said, "To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill." A more powerful China and a more capable PLA are better positioned to prevail militarily, but improved capabilities can also contribute to resolutions on Chinese terms without the threat or use of force.
The empirical record reveals a PRC willingness to employ force in a variety of circumstances, even against superior adversaries in situations where the overall military balance is unfavorable. In particular, PRC leaders have been willing to use force or military threats to arrest negative security trends or to warn neighboring countries to stop actions that threaten important Chinese interests.7One study identifies four characteristics of China’s use of force: early warning for deterrence purposes, seizure of the initiative (including by striking first), risk acceptance, and risk management "through closely supervised rules of engagement in an attempt to control escalation."8 Other scholars conclude that "the historical record shows a pattern of using force in a conflict to achieve surprise and thus administer a strong psychological or political shock to an adversary."9Most cases involving significant PRC use of force date to the prereform (1950–1979) period.
This pattern reflects the enduring influence of Mao Zedong’s strategic thought on the PLA. Mao’s core doctrinal principle was "active defense," which emphasizes offensive operations aimed at decisive engagements within an overall defensive strategy. Active defense "places utmost emphasis on gaining and retaining the initiative" and highlights the role of deception as a key means of gaining the initiative.10 The PLA record of employing force, coupled with operational lessons derived from studying the Gulf War, has reinforced the emphasis on seizing the initiative through offensive operations in the opening phase of a campaign and led some PLA strategists to advocate "gaining the initiative by striking the first blow." The initiative is especially important because PLA strategists envision modern high-tech warfare in terms of a relatively short and lethal conflict. Their doctrinal focus is on employing joint operations and precision strike capabilities to attack a superior adversary’s high-technology capabilities, particularly his C4ISR capabilities.11
PLA thinking about how to fight and win a "local war under conditions of informationization" has been shaped heavily by studying U.S. military doctrine and observing the experience of the United States and other modern militaries in combat.12 The need to plan for a potential conflict with the United States over Taiwan has focused PLA attention on attacking U.S. C4ISR systems, impeding the U.S. ability to deploy combat forces into theater by attacking U.S. logistics hubs and the computer and communications networks that support them, and on developing or acquiring advanced high-tech weapons systems that can force U.S. aircraft carriers and aircraft away from China’s coast. Key antiaccess/area denial systems include Kilo-class attack submarines, Sovremenny destroyers equipped with advanced antiship cruise missiles, advanced surface-to-air missiles, long-range ballistic and cruise missiles that can target U.S. air bases and ships, and the development of an ASBM that can target U.S. carriers. Even with the addition of these advanced capabilities, PLA strategists still emphasize the importance of seizing the initiative and prosecuting a short, violent, decisive war if China is to prevail over technologically superior U.S. forces.
Chinese strategic culture, the historical record, and PLA doctrinal writings all highlight China’s willingness to use force and to fight when necessary. Yet China’s increasing economic integration with the United States, Asia, and other major powers has greatly increased the absolute economic costs of a major military conflict (and the potential for serious domestic instability as a result). This needs to be kept in mind when considering the impact of improved PLA conventional and strategic capabilities (which may reduce the costs and risks of limited military conflicts).
PRC decisions about whether to use force are made at the highest levels of the CCP in the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, on the basis of advice and recommendations from other organs of the state (such as the Foreign Ministry), the military, and the party (including the CCP International Department). Although the Politburo Standing Committee stands at the apex of the Chinese system and approves decisions on the most important issues, in practice, the formulation of options, recommendations, and lower level policy decisions takes place in other parts and at other levels of the system. The CCP monitors developments and theoretically ensures compliance via a system of party committees set up at each level of government (ministries, provinces, cities, townships, and so forth) and of military command down to the unit level.
In practice, decisions on important national security matters that cross bureaucratic lines get made at the highest level or do not get made at all. Policymaking and implementation in China take place within stovepiped systems with responsibilities for a specific functional area. Information and authority flow relatively easily within a particular system, but the flow of information across systems is limited, and mechanisms for interagency coordination and decisionmaking are relatively weak. This is especially true on national security and foreign policy issues, where the PLA, the Foreign Ministry, and the CCP International Department all report to different top civilian leaders and cannot be forced to reach agreement or implement decisions by actors in a different system.
Although the Chinese political system has become somewhat more responsive in recent years, CCP control of the media (and efforts to control information and especially organizational activity on the Internet) limits the influence of public debate, especially on military and security issues. The partial exception is nationalist calls for tougher policies, which contribute to a policy environment where compromise on international issues is difficult. The National People’s Congress is a relatively weak institutional actor that responds to CCP guidance and does not effectively articulate the interests of Chinese citizens or businesses (especially where those touch on sensitive political issues). Chinese businesses have a variety of formal and informal means of lobbying the government to influence policy decisions at the national and ministry levels and policy implementation at the ministry and local levels.13 Large state-owned enterprises (whose top managers are appointed by the CCP) have disproportionate access to senior political leaders and government officials.
The Chinese political system can have great difficulty reaching decisions on contentious issues, especially when powerful interests disagree on priorities and can enlist patrons in the CCP or government to argue their positions. When decisionmakers at a particular level can reach agreement, that compromise is usually adopted (sometimes producing incoherent and incremental policymaking based on the balancing of competing interests). When compromise is not possible, decisions are raised to a higher level for more senior leaders to consider.14 Contentious issues that involve broad questions of competing priorities or competing interests of powerful actors can remain unresolved for years before formal policies are adopted. For example, Chinese leaders recognize energy as a critical issue for long-term development, but there is no separate energy ministry because powerful interests (including the state-owned oil companies) regard a separate ministry as a threat to their bureaucratic and economic interests.
Within the national security arena, China lacks an interagency body such as the National Security Council that can assess intelligence and other information; prioritize national interests across the security, military, foreign policy, and economic domains; formulate options for senior decisionmakers; and work to ensure implementation once a decision has been made. Instead, China uses a system of "leading small groups" that typically unite the senior Politburo Standing Committee members with functional responsibilities with the relevant senior state, military, and party officials. However, heavy responsibilities for standing committee members and senior officials mean that the small groups can only address a limited number of issues, and their ability to reach decisions and track their implementation is constrained. It is also worth highlighting that China’s current top civilian leaders have little military experience or expertise and more limited ties to the military than previous generations of PRC leaders.
The Chinese political system has particular difficulty with issues that cross economic and security lines and involve questions about military, intelligence, or security issues where relatively little information about Chinese capabilities is available to the public. This includes the issues this book raises about strategic vulnerability, where military-operational and national-economic interests may be in tension. For example, telecommunications policy decisions involve the economic interests of the companies and ministries that develop technologies and operate communications networks, the interests of party and security organs in monitoring communications networks to collect information, military interests with respect to standards and the security of military communications, and the interests of end-users. This process has sometimes produced decisions (such as China’s initial ban on the use of foreign encryption software) that favor the interests of the PLA or the security apparatus over the interests of businesses and consumers. The opaque nature of the Chinese decisionmaking system and lack of public information and open debate make decisions about military and security issues especially problematic.
With respect to decisions involving military, nuclear, space, and cyber issues, the picture is mixed. Chinese civilian leaders at the Politburo Standing Committee probably set and approve the broad outlines of major policies in these areas, with the general secretary/president playing an especially important role on military issues in his capacity as chairman of the Central Military Commission. Decisions about whether to use force and whether to employ nuclear weapons would be made at this highest political level, albeit with military input. In the nuclear area, civilian guidance has clearly had a significant and lasting influence on PRC nuclear capabilities and nuclear strategy and established political constraints on the development of nuclear doctrine and training. The degree to which top civilian leaders are fully aware of the details of Second Artillery (the branch of the PLA that controls China’s ground-based nuclear forces) doctrine and campaign planning (and specifically whether they endorse military thinking on issues such as preemption) is unknown.
In the areas of space and cyber policy, the PRC decisionmaking system is much murkier, partly because these areas involve dual-use technologies with a wide range of military, intelligence, and commercial applications involving a host of government and nongovernment actors. The military origins of the Chinese space program (including both the manned and civil space aspects) suggest that the PLA and defense industry exert significant influence on decisions in this arena. As in other parts of the Chinese system, the interests of producers are probably favored over those of consumers (for example, users of space systems and services). Secrecy about Chinese military and civilian cyberspace programs makes it hard to render a clear judgment, but there is good reason to suspect that the interests of the PLA and Chinese intelligence apparatus probably have disproportionate weight in policy on the employment of offensive cyber operations for intelligence collection and cyber attacks. However, other government and commercial actors have significant interests in the less sensitive area of cyber security, so a wider range of views may be represented there.
China’s initial quest for a nuclear weapons capability was motivated by recognition of their political value and by Mao Zedong’s determination to remove China’s vulnerability to nuclear blackmail, which had been a factor in several crises involving the United States.15China’s senior political and military leaders have consistently emphasized that the principal utility of nuclear weapons lies in deterring a nuclear attack and countering nuclear coercion.16 Although Chinese leaders believe that possession of nuclear weapons bestows international status, they do not believe that more warheads increase a state’s power or status. Unlike U.S. and Soviet strategists who focused heavily on the potential impact of relative capabilities in nuclear warfighting scenarios, Chinese leaders appear to have concluded that one or a few nuclear weapons striking an adversary’s homeland would constitute unacceptable damage, making a large arsenal unnecessary to achieve the desired strategic effects. Following its first nuclear test in 1964, Beijing announced that it would adhere to a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons and called for worldwide nuclear disarmament.
Western analysts have described China’s nuclear strategy as a "minimum deterrent" that relies on a small number of nuclear weapons to deliver punitive countervalue responses to an adversary’s first strike.17 Minimum deterrence refers to "threatening the lowest level of damage necessary to prevent attack, with the fewest number of nuclear weapons possible."18China’s choice of minimum deterrence was influenced by technological constraints on its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems but was also heavily shaped by the views of senior political leaders (especially Mao), which have had an enduring influence on PRC nuclear doctrine. Chinese leaders did not dictate a specific number of nuclear weapons; nuclear forces appear to have been sized based on the need for a few weapons to survive a first strike, penetrate missile defenses, and deliver a retaliatory attack destructive enough to deter a nuclear attack on China.
China’s 2006 Defense White Paper provides a concise overview of the key elements of China’s "self-defensive" nuclear strategy:
Its fundamental goal is to deter other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China. China remains firmly committed to the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances. It unconditionally undertakes not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones, and stands for the comprehensive prohibition and complete elimination of nuclear weapons. China upholds the principles of counterattack in self-defense and limited development of nuclear weapons, and aims at building a lean and effective nuclear force capable of meeting national security needs. It endeavors to ensure the security and reliability of its nuclear weapons and maintains a credible nuclear deterrent force. China’s nuclear force is under the direct command of the Central Military Commission (CMC). China exercises great restraint in developing its nuclear force. It has never entered into and will never enter into a nuclear arms race with any other country.19
This description highlights key elements of China’s nuclear strategy and policy, including the goals of deterrence, the prevention of nuclear coercion, and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons; a no-first-use policy; and China’s explicit determination (which dates from the beginning of its nuclear weapons program) not to engage in nuclear arms races.
In terms of doctrine, a no-first-use policy implies an operational focus on retaliatory counterattack, or "striking after the enemy has struck." In terms of force structure, "limited development of nuclear weapons" and a "lean and effective nuclear force" do not translate directly into requirements for specific numbers of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Rather, they suggest that the quantitative requirements for a "lean and effective" nuclear force will depend on the ability of Chinese nuclear forces to survive a potential adversary’s nuclear first strike via some combination of mobility, dispersal, camouflage, and operational resilience and then to launch a retaliatory strike that can penetrate an adversary’s missile defenses and inflict unacceptable damage. Chinese nuclear force requirements thus depend significantly on the intelligence, conventional precision strike, nuclear strike, antisubmarine warfare, and missile defense capabilities of potential adversaries. China’s nuclear forces are not solely focused on the United States, but U.S. capabilities (and potential future advances) in these areas make it a key driver of Chinese force structure.
One distinctive aspect of Chinese nuclear thinking is the concept of counter–nuclear deterrence. This is described as "an operation used to demonstrate China’s resolve and will to use nuclear weapons in response to efforts by adversaries to coerce China with nuclear threats."20 Counterdeterrence operations involve efforts to communicate China’s will and resolve to respond to a nuclear attack in order to signal that China cannot be coerced by nuclear threats and to reinforce deterrence.
The development of China’s nuclear forces is broadly compatible with the thinking of Chinese top political leaders (especially Mao and Deng) described above. Technological limitations meant that the Chinese deterrent initially relied primarily on air-delivered weapons and then on vulnerable siloand cave-based missiles. Chinese experts privately admitted that the credibility of China’s deterrent rested on a potential adversary’s uncertainty about whether a first strike could destroy all of China’s long-range nuclear missiles. Ambiguity about the total size of its nuclear arsenal was therefore viewed as an important element of China’s deterrent capability. Rather than build large numbers of highly vulnerable first-generation missiles, China decided in the late 1970s and early 1980s to develop a second generation of mobile landand sea-based missiles that would be more survivable and better able to provide a credible second-strike capability. As these new systems began nearing deployment in the late 2000s, U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and deployment of ballistic missile defenses challenged the premises behind mutually assured destruction, prompting Chinese complaints that the United States sought "absolute security" for itself while keeping others vulnerable.
China’s current nuclear forces consist of a mix of firstand secondgeneration nuclear missiles, with new DF–31 and DF–31A solid-fueled mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) gradually being deployed to augment existing DF–5A ICBMs. China has also upgraded its regional nuclear deterrent with the deployment of the DF–21 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) to supplement first-generation DF–3 and DF–4 intermediate-range ballistic missiles. In terms of a sea-based deterrent, China’s initial Xia-class nuclear missile submarine (SSBN) suffered from a troubled development process and may never have constituted a truly operational system.21China has already built two follow-on Type-94 Jinclass SSBNs and may ultimately deploy five of the submarines, which will be equipped with JL–2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).22
The interaction between evolving U.S. military capabilities and China’s nuclear modernization is likely to produce a significant expansion of the number of Chinese deployed warheads that can reach the United States. However, it is difficult to speak about the numbers with confidence because China provides no official data on the current or projected size of its nuclear force, the number and capabilities of its delivery systems, or its overall modernization plans. A 2010 Pentagon report estimates that China’s current ICBM arsenal consists of approximately 20 first-generation missiles and 30 solid-fueled, road-mobile second-generation missiles.23
Most observers expect nuclear modernization efforts to produce both a quantitative expansion in the number of Chinese ICBMs and SLBMs that can reach the United States and qualitative improvements in missile capabilities. China’s future nuclear forces are likely to include additional second-generation ICBMs and possibly upgrades to allow its first-generation ICBMs to carry multiple warheads. The Pentagon report notes that China is developing:
a range of technologies to attempt to counter U.S. and other militaries’ ballistic missile defense systems, including maneuvering re-entry vehicles, MIRVs [multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles], decoys, chaff, jamming, thermal shielding, and ASAT weapons. PRC official media also cites numerous Second Artillery Corps training exercises featuring maneuver, camouflage, and launch operations under simulated combat conditions, which are intended to increase survivability. Together with the increased mobility and survivability of the new generation of missiles, these technologies and training enhancements strengthen China’s nuclear deterrent and enhance its strategic strike capabilities.24
China’s nuclear arsenal has remained small, consistent with its nuclear strategy, even as technical constraints on building a larger, more sophisticated arsenal have eased. But are China’s nuclear doctrine and the Second Artillery training consistent with the publicly articulated strategy? Although the official campaign outlines and combat regulations for China’s nuclear forces are classified documents inaccessible to Western scholars, enough internal doctrinal materials have become available to permit an assessment. Broadly speaking, doctrinal materials and published reports about Second Artillery Corps training are consistent with Chinese public statements about nuclear strategy such as the white paper quoted above. The principles originally articulated by Mao and Deng have continued to guide Chinese nuclear strategy and campaign planning even as technical and resource constraints on development of advanced nuclear forces have eased.25
Debates within the Chinese nuclear community have periodically challenged these principles. One discussion in the early 1990s considered a shift to a limited nuclear deterrent with a broader mix of nuclear capabilities that would support nuclear warfighting, but this debate concluded by reaffirming the deterrence and countercoercion principles that had historically guided Chinese nuclear strategy.26A debate in 2005–2006 questioned whether a no-first-use policy was viable given U.S. advances in conventional precision strike capabilities (which might target Chinese nuclear missiles) and missile defenses (which might intercept the limited number of Chinese ICBMs that survived a conventional first strike). Although China did not modify its official description of its no-first-use policy, subsequent statements by officials and military officers created a degree of ambiguity about whether a conventional strike against Chinese nuclear assets or command and control systems constituted a "first use" that justified nuclear retaliation.27
We know little about what China’s top civilian leaders in the Politburo Standing Committee—the actors who would decide whether China should employ nuclear weapons—think about nuclear weapons use or the role of nuclear weapons in crisis situations. The fact that these leaders have little military experience and likely have not been exposed to academic thinking about nuclear weapons (and nuclear dangers) may be grounds for additional concern.28At the end of the day, Chinese leaders, like other leaders in other countries, are acutely aware of China’s vulnerability to nuclear attack and are likely to be cautious in situations having the potential to escalate to an exchange of nuclear weapons.
Chinese thinking about space emphasizes its importance across a wide range of economic, scientific, and military applications. The 2006 space white paper lists the aims of China’s space activities as being:
to explore outer space, and enhance understanding of the Earth and the cosmos; to utilize outer space for peaceful purposes, promote human civilization and social progress, and benefit the whole of mankind; to meet the demands of economic construction, scientific and technological development, national security and social progress; and to raise the scientific quality of the Chinese people, protect China’s national interests and rights, and build up the comprehensive national strength.29
The principles for development of China’s space industry include "maintaining and serving the country’s overall development strategy, and meeting the needs of the state and reflecting its will. China considers the development of its space industry as a strategic way to enhance its economic, scientific, technological and national defense strength, as well as a cohesive force for the unity of the Chinese people, in order to rejuvenate China."30These statements have been backed by sustained investments to develop and improve China’s space capabilities in both the commercial and military realms.
The CCP has derived considerable domestic and international prestige from Chinese accomplishments in space, including its manned space program, scientific exploration activities, and willingness to share space technology and provide launch services and satellite expertise to other developing countries. China’s official policy emphasizes the peaceful use of outer space and calls for a ban on the weaponization of space and negotiation of a legally binding treaty on the prevention of an arms race in outer space.31 China and Russia jointly submitted a draft treaty to the UN Conference on Disarmament in 2008. The text called for a ban on objects carrying weapons in orbit or on celestial bodies along with commitments "not to station such weapons in outer space in any other manner" or to "resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects." However, the draft treaty contained no verification measures and does not apply to Earth-based weapons that can attack satellites or their terrestrial support infrastructure, making it largely irrelevant to the goal of limiting the danger of ASAT attacks.
Chinese thinking has been heavily influenced by the study of U.S. space doctrine and how the U.S. military has used space assets in modern military conflicts, beginning with the Gulf War. Although the PLA does not appear to have developed and approved a comprehensive space doctrine, one PLA textbook proposes "unified operations, key point is space dominance" as a guiding concept.32"‘Unified operations’ refers to applying all types of capabilities, terrestrial and space-based, active and passive measures, hard-kill and soft-kill, focused on assuring that the PLA can derive and exploit space at times and places of its choosing, while preventing an opponent from doing so."33 Space dominance requires the integration of space operations with those of other services and the integration and unification of various types of offensive and defensive space operations.34
The Chinese military discusses the use of space assets to support joint military operations in terms of "space support operations," which corresponds to the U.S. terminology of "force enhancement."35Space support operations make use of space-based platforms to provide critical information to ground, air, and naval forces, including space-based ISR, communications and data relay services, navigation and positioning, early warning of missile launches, and Earth observation.36China has significant capabilities in most of these mission areas and is likely to develop more sophisticated capabilities in the future.
One expert described the military impact of Chinese space capabilities in these terms:
Increasingly sophisticated space-based systems expand PLA battlespace awareness and support extended range conventional precision strike systems. Space assets enable the monitoring of naval activities in surrounding waters and the tracking of air force deployments into the region. The PLA is investing in a diverse set of increasingly sophisticated electrooptical (EO), synthetic aperture radar (SAR), and electronic reconnaissance assets. Space-based remote sensing systems also provide the imagery necessary for mission planning functions, including automated target recognition technology that correlates preloaded optical, radar, or infrared images on a missile system’s computer with real time images acquired in flight. A constellation of small electronic reconnaissance satellites, operating in tandem with SAR satellites, could provide commanders with precise and timely geo-location data on mobile targets. Satellite communications also offer a survivable means of linking sensors to strike systems, and will become particularly relevant as PLA interests expand further from PRC borders.37
Although China currently lacks satellites to provide early warning and tracking of ballistic missile launches, the utility of this capability is discussed in Chinese military writings. If China intends to deploy ballistic missile defense capabilities (it conducted a test intercept in January 2010), a spacebased launch detection system would be a requisite capability. China also employs a range of telecommunications and data relay satellites to support both military operations and civilian applications such as satellite television, Internet, and telephony.38 China is developing its own global positioning system as well.39Navigation and positioning information is critical for a range of military applications, including to provide guidance and targeting information for China’s growing array of precision strike weapons.
China is also pursuing efforts to deny an adversary’s use of its space assets. Chinese military writings emphasize the importance of offensive operations to deny a superior adversary the ability to use space, but these are not limited to attacking systems in orbit. They discuss:
a range of efforts aimed at affecting the range of space-related capabilities, from orbiting satellites, through space-related terrestrial facilities, to the data, communications, and telemetry links that tie all these systems together. . . . Space offensive operations include not only applying hard-kill capabilities against satellites, but also attacking launch bases and tracking, telemetry, and control facilities. They also discuss the use of soft-kill techniques, such as jamming and dazzling, against satellites, in order to minimize the generation of debris, and the attendant physical and diplomatic consequences. And they also will likely involve the application of cyberwarfare methods against the various data and communications links that transfer information and allow satellites to maintain their orbits.40
China has developed a range of capabilities that can potentially be used to target space assets and support systems. In addition to the directascent ASAT system China successfully tested in January 2007, a Pentagon report notes that China has "a multi-dimensional program to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by potential adversaries during times of crisis or conflict." The report adds that:
China’s nuclear arsenal has long provided Beijing with an inherent ASAT capability, although a nuclear explosion in space would also damage China’s rapidly multiplying space assets, along with those of whomever it was trying to target. Foreign and indigenous systems give China the capability to jam common satellite communications bands and GPS receivers. In addition to the direct-ascent ASAT program, China is developing other technologies and concepts for kinetic and directed-energy (e.g., lasers, high-powered microwave, and particle beam) weapons for ASAT missions. Citing the requirements of its manned and lunar space programs, China is improving its ability to track and identify satellites—a prerequisite for effective, precise counter-space operations.41
Although some Chinese military experts advocate preemptive attacks on space assets to take advantage of U.S. dependence on them and seize the initiative in the fight for information dominance,42it is not clear that this argument has been fully accepted by the PLA leadership or endorsed by Chinese civilian leaders. Another strand of thinking emphasizes the importance of China having offensive space capabilities as a deterrent measure. This is partly to exploit the inherent vulnerability of costly space assets as a means of deterring conflict in the first place. However, some PLA writings appear to envision an escalation ladder that runs from testing space weapons, to exercising space forces, to reinforcing space capabilities (especially in a crisis), and to actually employing space forces. Demonstrating the capability and will to attack an adversary’s space assets is described as the most credible form of deterrence.43
Other relevant aspects of PLA writings on space issues highlight a preference for "soft kill" (which temporarily or permanently denies use of space assets by means such as jamming, blinding, or cyber attack) over "hard kill" (kinetic attacks with the potential to generate significant amounts of space debris that might affect China’s own satellites). Soft-kill attacks are seen as potentially more deniable and having fewer diplomatic consequences than hard-kill attacks, which may generate debris or involve kinetic attacks on facilities in third countries. Some writings by PLA authors also stress the importance of centralized authorization of attacks due to diplomatic costs and the potential for escalation.
PLA strategists see the U.S. military’s dependence on space as a critical vulnerability that can be exploited by use of counterspace assets. However, the PLA also intends to take full advantage of the contributions space assets can make to its military operations, emulating U.S. military efforts to improve their capacity to fight and win an "informationized war." This will necessarily increase PLA dependence on vulnerable space assets. PLA authors discuss a range of "space defensive operations" to protect space assets and defend against attacks from space. These include the use of camouflage and stealth measures to disguise a spacecraft’s functions, deployment of small and microsatellite constellations rather than single large satellites, maneuverability, capability for autonomous operation, and deploying false targets and decoys to overload an adversary’s tracking capability. They also envision offensive operations by both space-based and terrestrial assets to protect space assets.44These tactics might have some value in protecting military space assets but would probably do little to protect civilian satellites. PLA space experts write that space dominance will be a critical and contested objective throughout a military conflict, with the PLA seeking to preserve the operational use of its own space assets in the face of attacks by an adversary’s ASAT capabilities and to deny an adversary’s use of its space assets.45
The relationship of the doctrinal writings described above to broader decisions about space policy is unclear. Chinese space policy involves a wide range of actors interacting in a complex policy environment. Key features of the process include top leadership involvement, the influence of elite scientists, coordination by leading small groups, and operational control by the PLA.46Even within the PLA, responsibilities are divided, and different organizations are vying for control of Chinese space activities. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation are the two key state-owned research and development and manufacturing organizations, while theState Council’s China National Space Administration coordinates and executes international space cooperation agreements.47
The General Staff Department, Air Force, Navy, and Second Artillery Corps are primary military customers for information derived from space based assets.48 Central government agencies, such as the China Meteorological Administration and the China Oceanic Administration, and large state-owned enterprises, including commercial telecommunications providers, are the largest civil and commercial users of space-derived data, but local and provincial governments and smaller enterprises are becoming increasingly important. Key applications include telecommunications, mapping and surveying, natural resource management, satellite navigation, and weather forecasting. The Chinese government’s emphasis on commercialization of space technology is likely to lead to a further expansion of space-related goods and services, with applications centered on navigation and positioning data and on the use of geospatial data for mining and resource management being areas for future growth.49This diversification of space uses and space users is broadening the number of Chinese actors with a stake in continued access to space, though not all voices are represented equally in the Chinese political system.
The CCP, the government, businesses, and individual citizens have embraced the importance of the Internet and computer networks for a wide range of government, business, and entertainment applications. The CCP and the government use the Internet and various network-enabled communications mechanisms to distribute information and propaganda, receive feedback from citizens, and manage party members and officials across China’s vast territory. Chinese businesses, especially those with international operations, use the Internet to deal with foreign suppliers and customers (and increasingly to solicit bids and manage domestic supply chains). Over 450 million Chinese citizens have at least some access to the Internet for news, communications, shopping, and entertainment applications.50
PLA leaders and strategists are keenly aware of the many military applications of information technology and networking and have closely observed U.S. doctrine and practice in these areas.51 Much of the PLA writing and thinking about space and cyber issues is couched in the emerging PLA doctrine of informationization and reflected in the PLA’s task of preparing "to win local wars under the conditions of informationization."52 This focus derives from study of U.S. military doctrinal writings and operations, with the Gulf War being especially influential on PLA thinking. Informationization is a broad concept that applies to the increasing importance of information and information networks in the civilian economy as well as military operations. The PLA seeks to take advantage of the opportunities provided by networking, but its doctrinal focus on information warfare and information dominance also seeks to exploit adversary vulnerabilities by attacking their information systems. Jiang Zemin endorsed the objective of informationizing weapons as early as 2000, and the concept subsequently has been formally studied, debated, and incorporated in PLA doctrinal materials, textbooks, operations regulations, and training guidance.53
A PLA textbook states that the goal of information warfare is to "cut off the enemy’s observation, decisionmaking, and troop command and control capabilities at critical times, while maintaining our own command and control ability, thus allowing us to seize information superiority . . . and to create conditions to win the decisive battle."54The textbook adds that "the primary task of modern campaigns has become seizing information superiority and taking away the enemy’s capability of acquiring information."55Key targets include command systems, information systems (ISR and computer networks), and logistics systems.56More recent writings highlight information dominance as a prerequisite for dominance in other battlespaces, including the land, sea, air, space, and electromagnetic domains.57PLA writings clearly suggest that integrating C4ISR systems to take advantage of the significant opportunities provided by informationization requires a military to become more dependent on access to these systems. The struggle for information dominance also requires an emphasis on offensive operations, especially for a military in an inferior position.58 PLA computer network operations fit under the broader concept of "Integrated Network Electronic Warfare," which combines electronic attacks on sensors and communications links to disrupt the opponent’s acquisition and transmission of information with network attacks to disrupt an adversary’s processing and use of information.59
A Pentagon report notes that:
China’s CNO [computer network operations] concepts include computer network attack, computer network exploitation, and computer network defense. The PLA has established information warfare units to develop viruses to attack enemy computer systems and networks, and tactics and measures to protect friendly computer systems and networks. These units include elements of the militia, creating a linkage between PLA network operators and China’s civilian information technology professionals.60
A U.S. cyber expert notes that "interviews and [PLA] classified writings reveal interest in the full spectrum of computer network attack tools, including hacking, viruses, physical attack, insider sabotage, and electromagnetic attack."61 Among the advantages computer network attacks offer the PLA are their extended range, low cost, and potential to degrade a sophisticated adversary’s most advanced C4ISR capabilities. One Chinese author writes that "computer network attack is one of the most effective means for a weak military to fight a strong one."62
Analysis of PLA writings suggests a number of characteristics that might govern PLA employment of computer network attacks in a conflict involving the United States.63 These characteristics include:
Definitive attribution to particular state actors is a challenging task, but a number of open source reports identify likely Chinese cyber espionage attacks against a range of foreign government and commercial targets based on the targets, nature of the information sought, and technical characteristics of the attacks. One journalist listed 10 major attacks on Department of Defense, State Department, Commerce Department, and Congressional computer systems that are widely attributed to China.64
A report on Chinese cyber capabilities concludes that:
China’s development of its computer network operations capability extends beyond preparations for wartime operations. The PLA and state security organizations have begun employing this capability to mount a large scale computer network exploitation effort for intelligence gathering purposes against the U.S. and many countries around the world, according to statements by U.S. officials, accusations by targeted foreign governments, and a growing body of media reporting on these incidents.65
The report documents a number of specific attacks attributed to Chinese actors and includes a detailed case study based on forensic analysis of an attack on a large U.S. commercial firm that was assessed to be a statesponsored attack that came through or originated in China. It concludes:
China is likely using its maturing computer network exploitation capability to support intelligence collection against the U.S. Government and industry by conducting a long term, sophisticated, computer network exploitation campaign. The problem is characterized by disciplined, standardized operations, sophisticated techniques, access to high-end software development resources, a deep knowledge of the targeted networks, and an ability to sustain activities inside targeted networks, sometimes over a period of months.66
Similarly, a 2010 Pentagon report concludes that:
in 2009, numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the U.S. Government, continued to be the target of intrusions that appear to have originated within the PRC. These intrusions focused on ex-filtrating information. . . . The accesses and skills required for these intrusions are similar to those necessary to conduct computer network attacks. It remains unclear if these intrusions were conducted by, or with the endorsement of, the PLA or other elements of the PRC government. However, developing capabilities for cyber-warfare is consistent with authoritative PLA military writings.67
Two additional points relevant to this study deserve attention. The first involves the use of "cyber militias" or "patriotic hackers" by the PLA and/or the Chinese intelligence service. Some analysts argue that PRC state entities can use covert relations with Chinese hackers to launch attacks against foreign targets with a high degree of deniability.68 Although credible reports have documented PLA and Chinese intelligence contacts with Chinese hackers, there are indications that Chinese strategists are aware of the potential downsides of uncoordinated attacks by nonstate actors in the midst of a crisis or military conflict. In addition to the potential negative impact on crisis stability, such attacks (or defensive reactions prompted by them) could interfere with the PLA’s ability to execute its own targeted computer network attacks. The National People’s Congress passed an expansion of China’s antihacking law in February 2009 that criminalizes previous legal activities, including creation and dissemination of malicious software. Passage of the law was followed by several high-profile arrests and convictions of Chinese hackers.69
The second point is the vulnerability of China’s own networks to cyber attack. A U.S. expert notes that military writings on information operations are marked by a glaring omission: the refusal of PLA analysts to acknowledge that increasing reliance on advanced C4ISR systems will make China more vulnerable to cyber attack.70The PLA may feel that security measures such as airgapped networks (with no connection to unclassified systems) make their military networks secure. However, Chinese civilian computers and networks are highly vulnerable, partly due to widespread software piracy that inhibits the use of patches to fix security vulnerabilities. A Chinese government study noted that 480,000 Internet protocol addresses had used viruses to control computers in the Chinese mainland in 2010, and argued that threats were worsening as more attacks were made on "hardware and networks used in finance, security, communications, customs, and taxation." A Chinese computer security expert lamented that "China lacks a national means of coordinating cyber security affairs" and that the current government cyber security office did not have the bureaucratic clout to coordinate issues across government agencies.71
The question of the key Chinese actors on cyber issues depends on how the issues are defined. Debates about the proper emphasis in military doctrine and training take place in secrecy within the PLA, with final decisions and formal approval given by China’s top civilian leader (in his capacity as chairman of the Central Military Commission). Debates about China’s broader policies toward cyber defense and Internet security take place within a somewhat larger circle that includes economic ministries responsible for development of the telecommunications sector and the intelligence, public security, and propaganda apparatus responsible for monitoring China’s telecommunications and Internet systems and the political content of material transmitted via those systems. Yet if the issue is framed in its broadest possible terms—how to use telecommunications and the Internet to support continued rapid Chinese economic growth in the 21st century—the circle of relevant actors enlarges even further to include telecommunications operators, commercial users of telecommunications and networks, and Chinese citizens. These actors may have a very different perspective on what policies will best serve China’s national interests.
What does the preceding analysis suggest about Chinese receptivity to the idea of U.S.-China strategic restraint in the nuclear, space, and cyber domains? The chief conclusion is that Chinese civilian leaders are unlikely to accept that such a regime is in China’s national interest in the near future. Secrecy and the structure of the Chinese political system favor the narrow interests of the military and intelligence apparatus in counterspace and offensive cyber capabilities over the broader interests of Chinese space and computer network users (especially commercial users and citizens). These factors will likely lead both civilian and military leaders to underestimate China’s vulnerability and thus the potential value of a strategic restraint regime for China’s stability, security, and economic development.
Over the longer term, however, a number of developments may change the Chinese calculus. First, as the PLA exploits the military advantages of space assets and cyberspace in pursuit of "informationization," it will become more dependent on the use of these vulnerable assets, and the current asymmetry between U.S. and Chinese military vulnerability in these domains will shrink. The PLA may eventually come to prefer restraint that protects space and strategic networks over an unrestrained environment where attacks on these assets may limit their ability to operate. Second, if current trends in the conventional military balance in the western Pacific continue to move in favorable directions for China over the next decade, PLA strategists may conclude that their improving capabilities will let them deal with forward-deployed U.S. military forces on more equal terms using conventional means. Under such circumstances, restricting the U.S. ability to escalate into the space and cyber assets domains would have greater appeal.
Third, the trends toward increased military and civilian use of the space and cyber domains described above will continue to grow over time, increasing China’s national dependence on these vulnerable assets. As the economic costs of this vulnerability become clearer and more widely acknowledged over time, a strategic restraint regime that limits and manages this vulnerability may be viewed as more valuable. Fourth, Chinese civilian leaders already have a keen awareness of their vulnerability to nuclear attack, which has shaped their guidance for China’s own nuclear force and their acceptance of deterrence as a means of managing U.S.China mutual vulnerability. Over time, they may apply the same logic to the space and cyber domains, perhaps increasing their willingness to impose tighter political restrictions and authorization requirements on the use of counterspace systems and computer network attacks. These four trends may, over time, make Chinese civilian and military leaders more receptive to a U.S.-China strategic restraint regime.
Domestic political changes or a reorganization of China’s national security decisionmaking structure could facilitate such a shift in thinking. If China’s political system does a better job of responding to and representing broader interests of small and medium-sized businesses and consumers, this would likely make top Chinese leaders more sensitive to the costs of Chinese users losing access to space and cyber assets. This might be the result of incremental improvements in the responsiveness of the government rather than a broader movement toward democracy. Chinese leaders might also decide that expanding global interests require a new national security apparatus to manage the complex trade-offs between economic, diplomatic, and security interests. The United States reached such a conclusion after World War II and established the foundations of its current national security system in a short period of time (between 1947 and 1949). Such a shift would facilitate a broader reconsideration of where China’s interests really lie. These changes would likely make Chinese leaders more receptive to a U.S.-China strategic restraint regime but arguably are not necessary conditions for acceptance.