A lone amphibious ship such as Jinggangshan is not worrisome. However, it represents the kind of expeditionary capability that an adventurous China could use to escalate a territorial dispute into a very dangerous situation.
Offensive Cyber Operations
The People’s Liberation Army believes establishing “electronic dominance” early on is critical to their success in a future conflict. Of the five Chinese weapons that America fears the most, the most enigmatic is China’s ability to mount offensive cyber operations.
Offensive cyber operations are defined by a wide spectrum of activity, from psychological operations to destroying enemy equipment and infrastructure. China’s electronic army might achieve that dominance by include seizing control of communications networks, planting harmful software, and even conducting online disinformation campaigns. Offensive cyber is best used in conjunction with traditional military operations, to present another front. For example, Chinese cyber operations could disrupt enemy computer networks or jam enemy communications prior to an aircraft and missile attack.
Detached from traditional military ideas of operational range, Chinese offensive cyber operations could be used against military or civilian targets without regard to geographic location. Offensive cyber operations are also the only weapon on this list that can strike the American homeland.
China’s main cyber unit appears to be the General Staff Department, Third Department. Roughly analogous to the U.S. National Security Agency, the Third Department may have as many as 130,000 personnel, attached to Chinese military units, twelve operational bureaus, and three research institutes. Within the Third Department is the Second Bureau, also known as 61398 Unit, tasked for operations involving the United States.
According to the Project 2049 Institute the General Staff Department, Fourth Department, traditionally tasked with electronic warfare and signals collection, may be involved in offensive cyber operations. The People’s Liberation Army’s concept of “integrated network and electronic warfare” makes it clear that China considers jamming enemy computer networks and jamming battlefield electronics related activities. The Chinese military links cyber operations to traditional forms of electronic warfare in ways the United States often does not.
Despite the amount of manpower devoted to China’s cyber capabilities, capabilities remain relatively unsophisticated. There is no sign, for example, that China is capable of such offensive cyber weapons as Stuxnet. Desmond Ball, a professor at Australian National University, argues that China’s leadership is well aware of their shortcomings in cyber warfare and this has “led to the adoption of a pre-emptive strategy…in which China’s very destructive but relatively unsophisticated cyber-warfare capabilities are unleashed at the very outset of prospective conflicts.”
The United States may be a leader in Internet and networking technologies, but the rapid development pace of both means that potential exploits will be constant and ever-changing. As both technologies continue to penetrate American society and the U.S. Military, there will be more opportunities for an adversary to exploit the cyber realm in a future conflict.
War between the United States and China is not inevitable any more than war with the Soviet Union was inevitable. There are quite a few good reasons that a great power war is even less likely than it was during the Cold War, particularly the state of mutually beneficial economic interdependence between the United States and China. That China should develop weapons such as these shouldn’t be any great surprise; it is logical from their perspective to prepare to engage the United States even without the intention of war.
These five weapons do not make war more likely—rather, they may give self-conscious China the confidence to cooperate with its neighbors and the United States. Alternately, they may tempt China to decisively settle longstanding claims—or create new ones. One thing is for certain: they put the ball in China’s court.
Kyle Mizokami is a writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and The Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. This is his debut article for The National Interest.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Luo Shaoyang/CC by 2.0