February 6, 2023

In the past few weeks, China’s surveillance balloon and the ubiquity of TikTok have created substantial concern in Washington, as well they should. However, these are simply among the most obvious tactics China is using in its competition with the West. For the US to be adequately responsive we need to be more aware of the broader and most surreptitious digital strategy China has engaged, and we need to be more aware of how far we have to go to match them in this domain.  

China’s Digital Silk Road (DSR) initiative is strategically designed to upend the post-World War II United States and Western European dominated world order, and it’s working…

As Sun Tzu wisely cautioned in ‘The Art of War’ centuries ago, “if you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Given the lack of progress we have made over the last 20 years in creating a reliably secure cyberspace, it is arguable that we are neither adequately self-aware of our peril, nor are we fully appreciating the threat we are facing from China (and others – Russia, Iran, etc.). Sun Tzu’s words may well be prophetic with respect to the USA in the digital age.

The sad reality is that the US and Europe have nothing in comparison to the sophisticated, comprehensive, and integrated digital strategies that the Chinese Communist Party has instigated.

China’s digital strategy dates back to the 1980s and is steadily becoming more extensive. In contrast, for over thirty years the US has relied on a patchwork of cybersecurity tactics like information sharing, standards development, and reporting, requirements that are all important, but these are not a strategy in the same sense as those being employed by our adversaries.

In the upcoming series of posts, we will first analyze the Chinese digital strategy and its ongoing successes, despite the head-winds China is currently facing. In successive posts, we will compare the strategies of our adversaries to our own. Readers interested in an in-depth analysis can find it in the Internet Security Alliance’s new book ‘Fixing American Cybersecurity: Creating a Strategic Public Private Partnership.’

Arguably, the Chinese government has many advantages over the US in creating their integrated digital strategy. Unlike our political system, China has a one-party political structure consisting of the CCP. The efficiency of one-party rule makes it easier to implement decisions and demand compliance from industry. China’s progress is undeniable. Since the “opening of China in the late 1970s and 80s, it has raised 800 million people out of poverty in what the World Bank has termed “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.” The average gross domestic product (GDP) of China has reached 9.5% growth from 1979-2018. Even now, in what is considered a down year for China, expectations are that China will see about 3% growth in its economy.  In comparison, economists in the USA are almost giddy over the prospects that the US may see growth at 2.1%.

China’s economic success is impressive, and their leaders ought to be acknowledged for achieving so many of their goals. To be sure China is a very worthy adversary.  As Sun Tzu advised, it is important to know your adversary and one of the most important things to know about China is that a central tactic in their very successful strategy, has been exploiting digital vulnerabilities in the west.

China’s digital strategy has been developed honed and refined in a series of official councils and plans dating back to the 1980s.   In 1991-1995, the Chinese State Council introduced a policy rooted in industrialization to promote the development of pillar industries to directly influence the economy. China cleverly accessed the vulnerabilities in networks of the US and other Western nations and understood they would be able to leap-frog generations of western R&D through theft intellectual property via cyber espionage. By the turn of the century, the Chinese Communist Party had adopted intellectual property theft as a main pillar in their strategy. The internet gave the Chinese unparalleled access to poorly secured Western networks.

The US Trade Representative Report estimates the theft of trade secrets alone by actors affiliated with the Chinese government cost between $180 and $540 billion annually. This transfer of wealth by cyber intellectual property theft is constituted as the largest transfer of wealth in human history according to former head of NSA, General Keith Alexander.

By 2020, China’s strategy to disrupt the current world order was set into motion. The Belt and Road Initiative was introduced with more than $1 trillion in investments with its objectives affecting more than sixty countries along with its sister Digital Silk Road initiative which is currently budgeted at $1.4 trillion over the current 5-year period beginning in 2022. The budget for China’s digital strategy is growing faster than its traditional military budget.

China realized that their ultimate goals couldn’t be accomplished by solely stealing from the West The next step in the Chinese strategy was to make massive investments to build upon the baseline the West had provided them and then use their technological, economic, philosophical tactics to achieve their international geo-political goals which would come at the expense of the West. 

As we will detail in subsequent posts, this strategy is already being implemented successfully.  In some instances, the successes China has already achieved may prove difficult to roll back.

The US still does not have a digital strategy that is comparable to China’s strategy in terms of its comprehensiveness, its degree of integration, and economic support.  It is in that sense that one wonders if we know ourselves adequately to compete in the digital age and do we really know our adversaries well enough.  It is clear that as bothersome as examples of the China cyber strategy spy balloons and TikTok are, they are mere examples of what China is doing; They are not the essence of what China is doing. The essence of the Chinese strategy is to overturn the current world order.  To compete for that prize the US cannot copy the Chinese strategy.  Indeed, the western values of free speech, free markets, and private enterprise are probably a better match for the quickly changing parameters of the digital age. However, we will need to learn how to leverage these advantages more effectively than we are currently doing to win in this highly competitive struggle.

In subsequent posts, we will detail multiple examples of how China’s strategy is playing out, not just over our heads and in simple entertainment venues, but in terms of enhancing their military readiness, altering the basis for US oriented international allies, creating sustainable pathways to intercept our communications, replacing the dollar as the world’s dominant currency, and even changing the way technical standards will be written.

It’s a lot more than balloons and cute dances.