Academic journal article Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations

Pouring 'New' Wine into New Bottles: China-U.S. Deterrence Relations in Cybersace

Academic journal article Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations

Pouring 'New' Wine into New Bottles: China-U.S. Deterrence Relations in Cybersace

Article excerpt


Within China, pouring "old wine into new bottles" translates into treating the contents of a preexisting concept as if they were new. This phrase applies to how analyses on deterrence in cyberspace continue to echo those on nuclear deterrence.1 And yet, there are indications that the cyber realm is moving beyond old constructs to a new form of deterrence predicated on greater symmetry and transparency.2

Even in a realm in which Chinese analysts lament U.S. hegemony, Beijing's investment in the sciences at an estimated $10.1 billion in 2015 places it in a unique position to close the gap and to articulate its scope, aims, and activities in cyberspace, among any number of other fields. And even where attribution remains a challenge, demonstration of Beijing's and Washington's capabilities in cyberspace shapes incident planning and incident response. Improvements in cyber forensics and China's launch of its Micius quantum communications satellite suggest that "deterrence by detection" and "deterrence by denial" may not be that far off.3

In the near term, however, the threat of punishment via coercion is serving as the modus operandi within the China-U.S. cyber deterrence relationship. To date, ironically, this has meant a degree of progress. Highlevel talks held between Washington and Beijing towards the end of 2015 had their roots in both capitals' practice of this "deterrence by punishment" and growing parallelism in the realization of threats in cyberspace.

Among these, Beijing faced the threat of sanctions and diplomatic fall-out following the indictment of People's Liberation Army (PLA) officers from Unit 61398. Washington confronted the potential for future espionage or blackmail elicited from information allegedly infiltrated by Chinese hackers from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). As articulated by analysts in China, the United States only takes a country seriously once it demonstrates capabilities that are of concern.4

Conversely, U.S. analysts often point to sanctions as the most viable means to name and shame a country. Nonetheless, questions remain as to whether these two "deterrence by punishment" trajectories are sustainable and stable within the larger China-U.S. relationship. To better understand this phenomenon, this paper explores Chinese writings and interviews to determine how cyberspace may be replacing old constructs with new ones in China-U.S. deterrence.

Cyber Framework

Much has been written on Washington's use of sanctions and other means to deter behavior. Within Beijing, "deterrence by punishment" is rooted in "information deterrence" (xinxi weishe), which has been evolving since the first Iraq war in the early 1990s.5 Even the concept of "cyber" (wangluo) is a relatively new entrant into the Chinese lexicon in which "information" (xinxi) is the cornerstone. Within this discourse, information can be used to gain advantage in combat, to exert coercive leverage, or to retaliate. A profusion of Chinese writings has emerged to address the technological means needed to shore up China's cyber defenses, intrusion detection, and response to attacks. These analyses suggest that Beijing is looking to extend its "Great Firewall" into strengthened encryption and cloud networks, quantum communications, and red team exercises. It seeks via these measures to decrease its dependence on external software and hardware supply chains and networks.6

In achieving these aims, Chinese writings place a premium on comprehending, countering, and controlling capabilities to garner "major power weapons" (daguo wuqi), listing nuclear weapons, anti-satellite systems, and more recently cyber weapons within this pantheon.7 These new elements fit neatly into Beijing's "Strong Military Dream" (qiangjun meng), which in line with the "China Dream" (zhongguo meng) advocates mastering the technology needed to build powerful armed forces.8 Precepts derived from U.S. forces include being first to the fight with information superiority, unified perception, rapid decision-making, self-synchronization, dispersal of forces, and expanded deployment of sensors. …

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