China Reveals Its Cyber-War Commando Squad

REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files
REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files

The Daily Beast reports that China has finally admitted something everyone knew: they have been training cyber-warfare military and intelligence units. The formal concession of this digital warfare program is significant, arriving in a government publication produced by the Chinese government only once per decade or so, because they have always preserved a shield of “plausible deniability” for their cyber-war exploits in the past.

China is still making the claims, but quietly conceding they are purely rhetorical exercises. The Daily Beast notes that during the months it took for Western analysts to obtain a copy of the latest Science of Military Strategy publication and translate it, China continued to formally insist it does not engage in cyber-espionage.

The Chinese Communists understand the value of making a bluff that competing nations might be reluctant to call. There is great political value in forcing others to accept transparent falsehoods, or at least deny them in a muted rhetorical manner, rather than taking action. It’s a demonstration of dominance. Western governments do it to their own citizens all the time.

Also, the Chinese know how Western media works, and doubtless found some value in issuing denials that would be reported widely. Chinese officials and diplomats would then take these denials seriously, creating international diplomatic confusion. In the murky world of cyber-warfare, confusion is a major strategic asset.

The operation described in China’s military strategy guide is large, diverse, and aggressive. There are military units trained for online warfare, plus civilian specialists who work with both the military and Chinese law enforcement, and “external entities” that sound like deniable attack dogs Beijing can unleash when it wants to get really nasty. All three wings of the Chinese cyber-war machine have attacked American public and private institutions over the years, but it appears the military hacking units would be tasked with the heavy-duty destruction of enemy online infrastructure during an overt conflict.

Perhaps the Chinese have simply grown tired of pretending to cooperate with international crime investigations. “Now that China is coming clean about its cyber warfare forces, other countries may question whether they can safely cooperate with the government on combating cybercrime,” the Daily Beast reports. “The Ministry of Public Security (MPS), for instance, has assisted more than 50 countries with investigations of more than a thousands cases of cybercrime over the past decade, and China has set up bilateral law enforcement cooperation with more than 30 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Russia.” Admitting that China is the source of much cyber-crime is one way to get the rest of the world to stop pestering them for help in combating it.