Cyberwar between the United States and China

Commentary: Here we are at a commercial and quasi-conventional war between two powers, i.e. an old Western power, on the one side, and an Asian power on the other which, however, does not want at all to be relegated and closed in the Pacific. Certainly China is currently not lagging behind on the cyberwar issue. Nevertheless it does not want to use it as a substitute for conventional war or psywar for dual-use technologies, nor to play the game of the total defeat of a hypothetical "enemy".

Photo: Reuters

How is the new "Cold War 2.0", which currently characterizes the ever less collaborative relations between the United States and China, developing?

Some data may be interesting in this regard. On March 3, 2020 the Chinese cybersecurity company Qihoo 360 accused CIA of having hacked many Chinese companies for over 11 years.

They are - almost obviously - aviation companies, large global commercial Internet networks, research institutions and certainly also Chinese government agencies.

Not to mention the cryptocurrency operations often organized by people and entities traceable to the North Korean government.

Both the Chinese and the US governments, in fact, use various and complex entities and mechanisms to operate in cyberwar. Firstly, the "front companies". Just think of the Chinese group APT40, which even hires hackers - as everybody does, after all. Secondly, the intrusions to collect cyber data in the large multinational companies, or even in State agencies, which often remain blocked for a few days and, in that phase, transfer vast masses of data to the "enemy".

Thirdly, the theft of IP and trade secrets - another mechanism that everybody uses.

Obviously this is not the case of Italian Agencies, which, at most, can entrust a small, but good Milanese company to do some hacking, possibly in accordance with the law.

It now seems that the Italian ruling classes are composed above all of what in the 1920s Gaetano Salvemini called "the Paglietta of the Naples Court".

On the military level, the United States believes that today the Chinese Joint Chiefs of Staff can hit well and quickly any opposing C3 system (Combat, Control, Communication) and that it can also carry out automated, but smart warfare operations, from the very first moments in which a significant regional military clash occurs.

Although many US experts in the sector also maintain that, still today, the United States has a better base of action and, probably some advanced technologies that could enable the United States to have a better and wider cyber action. Nevertheless, this is not necessarily the case.

Certainly China is well aware that the Western and especially North American response to a harsh cyberattack would entail an even harsher, immediate and ruinous reaction against Chinese targets in the homeland and in the other regions.

Hence cyberwar's parallel IT operations are mainly carried out by Russia: just think of the attack on French TV5Monde in 2015 or on Ukrainian energy companies in late December 2015, as well as on Sony in 2014. We can also mention the 2017 attack - through the use of a computer virus, WannaCry - which, however, was a cyberattack attributed by the United States to North Korea.

On the technical-legal level, the Chinese legislation that governs the Chinese cyberwar is mainly contained in the National Security Law of 2015 and finally in the Intelligence Law of 2017, in which it is laid down that cyber operations can be conducted both by the Ministry of National Security, the old guoan, and by the Office for Internal Security of the Public Security Ministry.

The operations abroad normally concern the Centre for the Evaluation of Intelligence and Technology (CINTSEC), which is an integral part of the Ministry for State Security.

The other autonomous cyber networks operating within the People's Liberation Army (PLA) add to this official network.

At geopolitical level, China does not want to trigger any conflict with the United States. Neither a traditional conflict nor a cyber one. Quite the reverse.

China’s current real goal is to bridge the technological and operational gap between the two cyberwars, both on a strictly military level and, above all, on the economic and technological one.

China knows that - as Napoleon said - "wars cost money" and it is good not to make them if they can be avoided.

For the United States, China needs cyberwar to win "particularly informationalised local wars".

Conversely, for Chinese theorists, cyberwar is the only real strategic war of the 21st century, as it was the case for nuclear war in the 20th century.

In other words, the technological and doctrinal area that allows to win a medium and large conflict and then sit at the peace negotiating table with of Phaedrus’s motto Quia sum Leo.

Also on a global and commercial level, China even plans to build a large private company that can compete on an equal footing with what in China is called "the eight Kongs", namely Apple, Cisco, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle and Qualcomm.

Therefore, at military level, China wants first of all its full cyberspace security so as to ensure the security of critical intelligence, both of regions and economic activities.

Also on the American side, however, there is currently a tendency to reduce the Chinese cyber penetration power, both at military and commercial levels. Some analysts maintain that, in recent years, the Chinese cyber presence has been very exaggerated.

There is a psywar operation - this time, certainly, of North American origin, but recently present on the Web - which currently makes us add a further analytical factor on the intelligence cyberwar and, above all, on the implementation of cyber criteria in psywar.

Nowadays there is a sort of "Report of a Military Contractor" available on the Web - as it is officially entitled - which is supposed to reveal just what the United States would like to hear still today, i.e. that Covid-19 is just a "Chinese virus" that was designed and made in the now very famous Wuhan laboratory.

This report was drafted by a previously unknown Multi-Agency Collaboration Environment (MACE), a group of cyber and non-cyber experts, whose site is only part of the Sierra Nevada Corporation.

However, it is still a current relevant contractor of the US Department of Defence.

Hence the usual "external centre" that is used to say things that it would be unreasonable to say directly.

The report states it is based on evidence related to the posts of the intra-and extra social networks, both of the laboratory and its employees, as well as on the data provided by non-military satellites and finally on the positioning data of mobile phones.

All this in view of even saying that "something" happened - probably by chance and accidentally, but in any case extremely severe and uncontrolled - in the Wuhan laboratory, only with regard to the Covid-19 virus.

This is a further phase of the modern misinformation technique: at first, it was said that the virus deliberately came out of the Hebei laboratory, while now it is underlined that it probably "escaped" unintentionally from its microscopic cage.

It is easy to understand what they really want to communicate: even if the Chinese government were not responsible, international lawsuits for claiming damages would still be possible.

Nowadays, at least in the West, misinformation is carried out at first by hardly hitting the opponent and later possibly apologizing for saying something inaccurate or wrong. A psychological warfare technique that creates the "aura" of the case without later supporting and corroborating it. It is very dangerous.

A really dangerous tactic, especially in the presence of an increasingly evolved and advanced Network.

The document, however, does not report as many as seven locations of mobile and institutional phones within the Wuhan laboratory - too great a flaw to be accidental.

MACE also states that, allegedly, a whole conference inside the Hebei laboratory was "cancelled", due to an unspecified disaster, while, again in the documents of the laboratory, there are pictures with a clear internal date concerning precisely that event, the conference of November 2019.

One of these pictures was also found in the social media of a Pakistani scientist who had participated.

Even the aerial photographs provided by the company Maxar Technologies are a sign of obvious and normal repairing of roads, certainly not specific roadblocks placed due to an unforeseen and very severe event.

A few days ago President Trump stated that the "virus came out of the lab because someone was stupid". Too easy and, I believe, useless even for a legal and insurance case against the Chinese government itself.

Moreover, these is the more or less manipulated data which, however, has certainly been useful to develop and spread the theory of "Chinese fault" for the outbreak of the epidemic and then pandemic, just in the midst of the great "acquisition of intelligence data" to which Trump and Pompeo referred.

All this just to reaffirm, without any reasonable doubt, the wilful or culpable guilt of the Chinese government in the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and hence to stop the development of China and make it retreat, - with huge legal costs - from a development rate that was already within reach.

Moreover, the aforementioned MACE report lacks some data that we would simply call cultural intelligence, i.e. not knowing that the first week of October is a "golden" week for China, e.g. the National Day which commemorates the foundation of the People's Republic of China, announced by Mao Zedong in a very famous speech at the Square of Heavenly Peace Square, with an even more famous phrase: "the Chinese people have stood up! "

How can they not know this, even believing they are intelligence people?

The same happened with a US report on the coronavirus issue transmitted from US to Australian intelligence agencies and later immediately published in a Sydney newspaper. Obviously everyone also "manipulate" documents to defame the opponent, but there are many ways and means of doing so.

On a more strictly doctrinal level, however, the issue brings us back to the analysis developed in 1999 by the two famous PLA Colonels, Quiao Lang and Wang Xiangsui, entitled Unrestricted Warfare.

It was a manual on what we would today call asymmetrical warfare.

Today, however, Quiao Liang thinks that - even at this stage of the conflict - war is still linked to the manufacturing industry. This means you can have excellent scientific research and a good network of research centres, but if you do not turn all this into mass and important industrial products, as Quiao Liang says, "you have just won a medal, but nothing more".

Liang also maintains that the United States is therefore using up its weapons and industrial equipment stocks.

Furthermore, the more the coronavirus crisis worsens - considering the scarcely effective reaction of the US economic and health system - the more the consumption of North American military and civilian stocks increases, although the ability to produce them decreases more than proportionally.

Hence has the United States still have a manufacturing and mass industry, as well as the ability to turn technological evolution into mass products, to wage an asymmetrical or conventional war but, above all, to continue it until the final victory?

The Chinese Air Force General seems to imply that this is not the case.

Hence, in his mind, currently the only reasonable solution for China is to expand its production system, but never underestimate the "traditional" medium-low technology manufacturing industry, which is the one that reproduces and expands production forces and enables it to last over time, which is the only real guarantee of victory.

You do not eat fintech products, but rather Californian tomatoes and Midwest meat.

Those who want to collect technological jewels can certainly do so and - as the General maintains - obviously also China must do so, but what is still and always needed is the great mass production and items that, coincidentally, have become scarce all over the world: masks, respirators, food, traditional infrastructure, as well as means of transport.

It is fine if you believe that war and the economy are a superhero scenario, but you have to win, i.e. "to last one minute more than your opponent" - hence you need to go back to a mass, industrial, stable and growing civilization for the "real" economy.

The myth of high technology as the key to everything, induced by the development of the current United States, has made everyone else in the world lose the true sense of modernization, the key concept of the Chinese political narrative, from Deng Xiaoping to present days and in the future.

You cannot think of a future civilization in which social verticalisation is such that a share of over-rich countries slightly higher than 1% follows the vertical impoverishment of all the others.

A mass impoverishment which also leads to a reduction of manufacturing production. The products are later sent to "Third World" countries to trigger a process of social pyramidalization that is almost unprecedented in human history. And what is it for? For uselessly spending the mad money produced by fintech?

Therefore, the Chinese General believes that a US decoupling from China - as all the economists close to the White House preach - is needed to prevent China from taking all the most important technological and defence patents. In his opinion, however, also China must not decouple from the USA at all. This is not useful for high technology, but if anything, to avoid doing the same as the United States on a mass level.

If there is decoupling - as the current US economists preach - the Chinese products will become more competitive compared to the US and US-related products. Hence the US monetary hegemony would soon disappear and the same would be true for the its double use of the dollar that made an old FED Governor say to his European colleagues: "the dollar is our currency, but it is your problem".

Therefore, in the long run, it will also be impossible to let China - with its low-cost productions - be replaced by Vietnam, Myanmar and the other countries in the so-called "pearl necklace" of Southeast Asia.

Moreover, if after the coronavirus crisis, there will be further robotization of the workforce, how will it be possible to maintain many and sufficiently high wages which, after the pandemic, will obviously be distributed to a smaller number of available workers?

Low wages - and hence also scarce tax revenues - as well as crisis of State spending and decrease in social and military spending, especially in the high tech sector, which always has a very high unit cost.

Therefore, just to recap, the Empire is facing severe danger.

As the Chinese General maintains, "we must not dance with wolves", i.e. we must not follow the pace of US dance to reap only the technological fruits, but rather maintain and expand the great manufacturing production and, above all, even avoid taking up the cultural, industrial and scientific traits of the United States, which the Chinese General deems to be at the end of its civilization cycle.

According to Chinese analysts, the United States is a "country that has gone directly from dawn to decadence", just to put it in the words of a French ambassador.

Hence China needs to solve the Taiwan issue autonomously, as well as also harshly oppose the actions against Huawei, by reacting blow-for-blow with the U.S. companies in China, such as IBM, Cisco, etc., and stopping their activities in China, where necessary. Anything but hybrid warfare.

Here we are at a commercial and quasi-conventional war between two powers, i.e. an old Western power, on the one side, and an Asian power on the other which, however, does not want at all to be relegated and closed in the Pacific, as implied and assumed by the new US military projects for closing the Ocean, from California to Japan, or for trying to block the expansion of the Silk Road or still trying to block the expansion line to the South and East of China, as President Xi Jinping has recently advocated.

Certainly China is currently not lagging behind on the cyberwar issue. Nevertheless it does not want to use it as a substitute for conventional war or psywar for dual-use technologies, nor to play the game of the total defeat of a hypothetical "enemy".

China can now avail itself of the Third Department of the People's Army, the network dedicated to cyberwar within the PLA, but also of the Strategic Support Force.

This will be the new "Cold War 2.0", i.e. a series of IT, economic and industrial guerrilla warfare actions, and of actions of defamation - specifically at military level - of confidential information to be stolen from the enemy in a tenth of a second, as well as of cultural manipulation and - eventually, but only in the end - of fake news.

 

Professor Valori is President of the International World Group