For China, hacking may be all about Sun Tzu and World War III

Summary:There are many other actors in the global cyberwar, from nation states to criminal organizations to hacktivist groups. Today, however, we're going to just focus on China vs. the U.S. It's a war both undeclared and unwinnable, but very, very real.

Sun Tzu and America's reliance on advanced technology

America has long relied on its advanced technology to win wars. In both the Iraq wars, America "owned the night," by being able to operate, fly, and attack with absolute clarity in pitch darkness. Our competitive advantage has been our technology, and we've baked fly-by-wire, computer-based navigation, and digital targeting into most of our warfighting systems.

I'm not going to go into each of our battle platforms here, but the key point is that regardless of which combination of battlespace strategies we're using, all of them now rely heavily on digital networks.

In that context, keep in mind what Sun Tzu said 2500 years ago: "All warfare is based on deception...Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near."

Imagine a situation where China is actually in a shooting war with the United States. If they were able to disrupt (or mislead) our systems, they would be able to almost completely negate our advantages.

Those of you who are science fiction fans will remember the reason the Galactica was still able to fight, when  the other ships in the Colonial Battlestar fleet were rendered useless. Because the older Galactica had been turned into a museum piece, it hadn't been fitted with the new networking technology that linked the other 119 Battlestars in the fleet. When the AI-based Cylons attacked, they infiltrated the newer network systems, and effectively disabled the defenses of the majority of the fleet before the first shot was fired.

Now, think of that in the context of this Sun Tzu maxim, "The skillful leader subdues the enemy's troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field." Sun Tzu repeats over and over the idea that once you get to shooting, you've given up your advantage. His entire strategic treatise is fighting the war before you fight the war.

Sound familiar? It sure seems like China is engaging in this cyberwar strategy using the Sun Tzu playbook.

The Chinese fascination with war with America

There is no doubt that most of China's aging leadership would prefer we don't engage in a shooting war. The country has been investing hugely in building infrastructure and raising its citizenry out of abject poverty -- most funded through our purchases of their goods and services.

A shooting war would both cut off their largest means of income and damage the infrastructure they've worked so hard to build.

Even so, there's an almost morbid fascination among Chinese citizens and younger leaders with the possibility of war with America. Foreign Policy recently ran a fascinating article (might be behind a paywall) about the Chinese obsession with military fantasy novels.

According to Foreign Policy, many articles showcase an animosity to Japan with World War II-themed plots. However, there's also a growing number of ebook military thrillers showcasing future battles between the United States and China.

Interestingly, the Chinese government censors any fiction where there's warfare with another non-fictitious nation, so most of these battle thrillers are published outside of normal channels and distributed online.

To be fair, the existence of military thrillers pitting the U.S. against China can't be taken as evidence of the country's overall desires. After all, I've been a huge fan of the Tom Clancy thriller for decades, and just because he often pitted America against other nations doesn't mean I'm an advocate for armed conflict with those nations. They were just great reads.

That said, in 2010 I did run a story entitled, In China, many younger military leaders view America as the ultimate enemy. In that, I discussed how the younger generation of leaders is uncomfortable with the United States and both their reliance on our purchasing and our reliance on their willingness to lend, along with some vast culture clashes.

The point here is not that China has any expressed desire for war with the United States. However, it is important to note that there is the awareness that such an event is possible, even if not necessarily probable.

Given that such an event -- no matter how unlikely -- might happen, China's cyberprobes against the United States begin to make sense from a big picture, decades-long perspective. And that brings us to China's constant attempts to gain access to our networks and systems.

Next, Sun Tzu and China's constant cyberattacks... 

Topics: Security, China, Government, Government : Asia, Government : US


In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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