Could US-China space war be ‘inevitable’ even if the two nations aren’t ‘natural enemies’

Out of sight out of mind. That may explain how space competition between China and the US gets so little attention. With satellites orbiting hundreds of miles overhead and space “militarized but not weaponized” it’s easy to forget that space too, is an aspect of China’s rise. And because it involves high-technology, it’s probably an important one to watch.

Space war: an artist's rendering.
Space war: an artist’s rendering.

The Center of Strategic and International Studies’ James A. Lewis notes that “the only likely military contest in space is between the United States and China.” Space activities, he writes, are support China’s longer-term economic and strategic goals. “China’s intentions are to catch up with and surpass the West.”

Here is a piece I did on the subject for Fairfax that also takes in the growing space economy.

The subject of US-China space competition is, at this point, more for the elites than the masses. That’s because, until China puts a taikonaut on the moon, the American public likely won’t notice too much.

As Professor of Strategy at School of Advanced Air and Space Studies Everett Dolman told me: “China and US are not natural enemies” [nonetheless] both sides “fear the influence the other might have” and the geopolitical realities of the two “really collide first now in outer space.”

And the looming collision is on the radar of elites. A report on the subject was prepared this month  for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

The report gives a detailed account of China’s evolution space strategy, viewing it as the ultimate “high ground” in a battle.

The People Liberation Army’s interest in space got rolling “after the 1991 Gulf War, which has been referred to as the first space war, and has only increased since,” the report notes. Today the thinking is that as air warfare has evolved, so will space warfare.

According to Chinese sources, space warfare is now at the equivalent stage of the state of air power in World War I in which intelligence gathering was the main mission of air forces. But just as with air power, space power will become so vital to military operations that militaries will seek to control space, resulting in a contest over its supremacy.

As a result, Chinese analysts conclude that space war is inevitable and that the Chinese military must not only develop space-based command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, but also develop the means to protect those assets and to deny an enemy access to its space-based C4ISR assets.

In this regard, Chinese writers on space advocate the PLA to prepare to achieve space supremacy, defined as the ability to use space and to deny the use of space to its adversaries.

As grim as that sounds, a competition in space may not be nearly as lethal as one on the ground. In fact, if the parallel can be made to the cyberrealm, such a conflict may come down to which country has superior technology, rather than which one has bigger armies capable of more deadly destruction. The competition may be discrete, again, like it is in the cyberrealm. The question remains: when will the wider public notice?

The answer: maybe not until their own space-enable communications or entertainment are affected.

Sony cyber hacking fallout: Lawful cowboys versus Elizabethan pirates

North Korea’s exact role in the Sony Pictures hack is unclear but what’s certain is the cyber attack on Hollywood is part of a a much bigger trend. What’s unique about the Sony incident is the way the plundered documents have been splashed around the internet. But frankly these kind of malicious cyber intrusions happen all the time, with much less, or even no fanfare. And the trend is for governments to use third-party hacker groups to stage damaging attacks on businesses, governments and institutions. This has created a dilemma for modern Western governments – because they are not dealing with a traditional state-to-state political problem, but they’re also not dealing with purely criminal gangs either.

1) It’s not just North Korea. From a Western perspective, the US should “recognize that most malicious actions in cyberspace directed against the United States come from hackers in two countries: China and Russia,” writes James Lewis of Center for Strategic and International Studies. And those countries, along with North Korea and Iran, outsource their most aggressive cyber actions to create a new dynamic in the contested cyberspace. Today, China and Russia “encourage their hackers to go after networks, data and money in the United States, and they protect them from prosecution,” says Lewis. Criminal groups in Russia steal from Western banks while China uses military units to steal plans and intellectual property for everything from the “F-35 fighter jet (the Joint Strike Fighter) to the formula for house paint,” he says.

2) So this is war, then? Not exactly. In China’s case, while much of the hacking is done by the military, much is aimed at economic and trade rather than military targets abroad. A lot of Chinese hacking is done by freelancers and even government employees in their off-hours. In many cases, it’s not even clear what the relationship is between the government and the hacking gangs. This arrangement brings to mind the way the British used pirates to overwhelm the superior Spanish armada in the 1500s, write Jordan Chandler Hirsch and Sam Adelsberg:

[In the 1500s, during the England’s Elizabethan Era] the Spanish empire boasted a fearsome navy, but it could not dominate the seas. Poorer and weaker England tested Spain’s might by encouraging and equipping would-be pirates to act on its behalf without official sanction. These semi-state-sponsored privateers robbed Spain of gold and pride as they raided ships off the coasts of the New World and Spain itself, enriching the English crown while augmenting its naval power.

3) Why is the hacking such a challenge? Because the way it’s being used is a recipe for what cyber analyst Kenneth Geers calls pandemonium. “Governments today are confronted with a paradox: to disconnect from the global Internet is folly – and yet network connectivity provides adversaries with a medium through which to commit cyber crime,  cyber espionage, or even cyber war,” he writes. The problem is made worse by the fact that pre-internet based law enforcement jurisdiction “ends every time a network cable crosses an international border.”

The Isles of Scilly where pirates once sailed and terrorized passing ships
The Isles of Scilly where pirates once ruled

Western governments’ last major great power geopolitical challenge was the Cold War, a time before the internet. Today, write Hirsch and Adelsberg

Neither the United States nor China can slice cyberspace into the reassuring structure of spheres of influence [such as those seen during the Cold War]. With no obvious borders for states to violate or defend, power in cyberspace is at once easier to exercise and harder to maintain, a battle of subtleties rather than hard-nosed deterrence.

4) So how are Western governments reacting? The US, publicly at least, has taken a nimble approach, bringing cases against foreign individuals accused of cyber crime including North Korean officials. Over the longer term, experts like Geers and CSIS’s Lewis see an international treaty about acceptable behavior online as the best way to stabilize the volatile situation.

Lewis says the Wild West frontier days of the internet “are over” and that now is the time for laws, rules and enforcement to be put in place to help weed out the kind of hacking threats faced by governments and businesses everywhere. He gives the example of the Western classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which “a mild-mannered lawyer (played by Jimmy Stewart) supplants a larger-than-life cowboy (played by John Wayne) who pioneered the West.” Bottom line: what the world needs, is an inclusive, all-encompassing treaty on what exactly is kosher activity online, many Western experts say.

The Western movie poster
The Western movie poster

5) Wouldn’t a treaty hurt internet freedom? After all, isn’t the internet a place where ideas and content level the playing field with governments and powerful interests? Lewis acknowledges that the idea of “formal cooperation among governments is anathema to the old-school Internet community.” It would be a tough sell not just internationally but domestically. Look at the backlash over the Australian government’s meta-data retention laws or the prospect of creating a two-speed internet in the US in which companies can buy faster download speeds.

6) Good luck with that treaty idea. While China and the US recently made climate deal announcements side-by-side, what is the upside for China to cooperate on an issue that poses a greater threat to a US-led world order than Chinese-led one? The paradox is more stark when you look at rocky Russia-US relations. Why would Russia, which wants to block perceived American ‘imperialism’ at its border, strengthen the US’s hand by adopting Uncle Sam’s vision of a tamed internet? Further, Russian hackers are considered some of the most skilled in the world – why would Russia set aside that tool at a time like this?

Welsh pirate Bartholomew Roberts aka Black Bart (public domain)
Welsh pirate Bartholomew Roberts aka Black Bart (public domain)

7)  Because Russia and China have an internet problem too. Terrorism, dissent and news control are issues for the governments of China and Russia. Because of the internet’s roots in the US, coupled with revelations about the extent of the NSA’s capabilities, there is the perception of the internet in its current form is an extension of American power, and thus a threat to Beijing and Moscow’s aspirations. Russia, China and some ex-Soviet Republics have proposed an International Code of Conduct for Information Security that would favor information security, rather than network security, in maintaining an authoritarian preference for censorship. Another split in views over the future of the internet can be seen in the debate over governance at the International Telecommunication Union. Geers notes: “There are already hints of emerging alliances in cyberspace.”

8) But for now, the internet is a Wild West… The Wild West analogy, like the pirate analogy isn’t perfect. But they’re an approximation of the geopolitical situation online. And to extend the Wild West analogy it’s fair to say today’s cyber competition is less a showdown at high noon than an Indian raid by an endless parade of tribes that are impossible to identify, with motives that aren’t entirely clear. While the US will lobby for the case of laws on this frontier, the current state of affairs may benefit Moscow and Beijing too much to change it. That’s why the hope for an internationally acceptable treaty is a long shot. CSIS’s Lewis compares the need for a cyber treaty to the Bretton Woods agreements on “rules, norms and institutions to manage” created at the end of World War II. But today China is challenging a global system built on the Bretton Woods agreement.

The US-China cyber working group, for example, has halted cooperation. Besides, even if governments in Washington, Moscow, Beijing and Canberra forged an agreement, it’s the relationship between governments and underground and unofficial cyber gangs that matter. China relies on military hackers. Does China’s Communist Party exercise full control over the military? Russia relies on criminal hacking gangs. Can the Kremlin fully control them, or, like the rebels in Ukraine, are they on a long leash?

In fact, Hirsch and Adelsberg see a risk of Western countries trying to grapple with cybersecurity issue as if it were a Cold War-era geopolitical matter. “The cold war model of a struggle with calibrated boundaries, clear rules, and the threat of mutual assured destruction simply doesn’t fit cyberspace,” they write.

9) And if it’s a world of pirates? Pirates flourished until the end of the Thirty Years War in Europe, when the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648 was signed in Europe, effectively putting into place the foundations of the modern nation-state. At the same time, navies of the new world nations were stronger and capable of subduing pirate ships at seas. In other words, the decline of the pirates coincided with the rise of nation states with sovereign borders.

Today, however, rising powers, like China, are not based on the rule of law as much as rule of power. Russia, meanwhile, is willing to ignore internationally recognized borders to achieve strategic goals. All in all, a vastly different situation on the ground than the last Cold War, which ended with the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Can Washington and other liberal democracies step into this Wild West, and like the lawyer Ranse Stoddard from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, see the power of law prevail over the power of force? Hopes for a treaty align nicely with a law-based government. But law-based societies begin at home and the current crop of Republicans who have just won back power in US Congress don’t seem to understand this.

Also, governments with kleptocratic tendencies that rely on bandits to attack targets in the West are effectively getting into bed with the kind of lawlessness that could destabilize the authoritarian regimes themselves, making the Western-favored rules-based order more attractive. But unfortunately, the world may need to see more chaos before that option looks attainable. Meanwhile, the digital frontier remains wild and Hollywood scripts, rather than giving a pop-culture example for the solving the problem, are themselves part of the booty today’s pirates have plundered.

China outsources cyberspies

Non-state actors are a feature of all cyberspying. But in China, the use of non-state actors matches its historical method of espionage in China.

Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst James Lewis writing for the Lowy Institute:

China’s cyber espionage strategy combines both official programs and the coordination of unruly efforts of thousands of individuals, companies, and civil agencies as intelligence collectors. This broad, diffuse, cyber espionage collection program reflects the traditional Chinese approach to intelligence collection – instead of relying on officers operating under official cover, China’s approach has been described as “a thousand grains of sand,” where businessmen, researchers or students are asked to collect information when they visit a country

This accounts, too, for the profusion of Chinese nationals of a non-intelligence background living abroad who are expected to provide useful information to Beijing.

Online, however, it means there is less control over cybertheft from the top. China cyber-espionage includes official programs plus “independent actions by agencies and companies not directed by the central government” as well as individual criminal activities sometimes working for a larger organization.

As Lewis writes:

The central leadership in Beijing does not control all of these actors and it is not clear that it could control them if it wished to do so, despite strenuous efforts to keep internet freedom in check.

This was seen in the news surrounding the US indictments of the five China military officers for spying.

From the New York Times:

Some military and government employees moonlight as mercenaries and do more hacking on their own time, selling their skills to state-owned and private companies. Some belong to the same online social networking groups.

“There are many types of relationships,” said Adam Segal, a China and cybersecurity scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “Some P.L.A. hackers offer their services under contract to state-owned enterprises. For some critical technologies, it is possible that P.L.A. hackers are tasked with attacks on specific foreign companies.”…

A hacker who jumps among wildly divergent victims, he said, is likely to be a contractor. In recent months, FireEye observed a hacker who took aim at foreign defense and aerospace companies, then hacked an online entertainment company. It appeared the hacker was a private contractor.

It’s something to keep in mind in discussions of US-China cyber competition. Without a doubt non-state actors are big in hacking in the US – but it’s not likely they form an integral part of official US cyberwar capabilities. The role of the Chinese cyberattackers suggests there are plenty of side deals between various parts of Chinese government and lone individuals undergirding China’s efforts. That means, Beijing probably couldn’t stop the cybertheft if it wanted to.

An observation about the myths of Chinese hackers

A view about the nature of China’s hacking, in response to this enlightening piece by CSIS’s James Lewis on what exactly China is doing online versus the US.

He makes the point that the US is not in a Cold War-like struggle with China – but I disagree. The notion is at the margins now. I think it will move more towards the center of American thinking in time. And that’s while borders remain open and trade continues to flow. 

But Lewis makes this point about China, which echoes the notion that China as a country “not abiding by the statecraft” anymore through its use of cyber espionage and theft.

Says Lewis:

“The Internet, poorly secured and poorly governed, has been a tremendous boon for spying. Every major power has taken advantage of this, but there are unwritten rules that govern espionage, and China’s behavior is out of bounds. Where Beijing crosses the line is in economic espionage: stealing secrets from foreign companies to help its own. China also outmatches all other countries in the immense scale of its spying effort, and the United States is far from the only nation to have suffered.

Emphasis mine. But what Lewis is really saying can be extended to much of China’s economy. In fact, China exhibits this behavior offline too. So the concern is not that its army steals secrets to turn over to private industry. At a certain level there is a blur between China’s army and its private industry, as there is in the Chinese government and industry through state owned enterprises. So there should be no surprise this is happening online, or at a massive scale. The question is: how is the US – the birthplace of the Internet, and the incubator of many of the values around it – going to ruggedize both the internet and the concepts of fairplay in business that are so crucial to the American system thriving in this century. In this way, in my opinion, the Cold War is on. And no, it doesn’t mean massing tank battalions on the border of East and West Germany. The struggle may be more subtle to view, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a full blown effort, consuming lots of time and imagination of people on both sides – the Chinese with their hard power in the seas around, as well as efforts at softpower through the world, particularly with developing countries. For the US, this new Cold War will be an act of reinvention, to become a country that can more deftly navigate the tremendous influence and pressure of China, and other BRICs nations when they can agree. To be sure, this may not mean more military spending in the US, but less. But we’ll see…