On the eve of the twenty-first century, a revolution in transportation, technology, and communication had created a global world marked by profound socio-political changes. With the emergence of transnational non-state actors, states have seen their authority diluted, creating an increasingly anarchical system where the concept of multipolarity no longer works.
In this apolar world, the state’s monopoly on violence has been challenged by non-state actors. Consequently, this new strategic environment has been impacted by the privatisation of security where non-state actors conduct the delivery and maintenance of security. Threats have become less tangible, less predictable, unlike during the Cold War. In addition, in a world where social media has revolutionised the way we communicate, shaping the narrative of war has become drastically vital and can make a difference in achieving a strategic victory. Thus, this new strategic environment is shaped by a quasi-return to the pre-Westphalian era as ‘no actor can really dominate this increasingly anarchic environment across all dimensions of power’ (Andreas Krieg, Jean-Marc Rickli, 2019).
The cyber domain provides states with an additional strategic lever of power alongside the traditional levers. As Joseph Nye argues, cyber power can be defined as ‘the ability to use cyberspace to create advantages and influence events in other operational environments and across the instruments of power.’ The cyber domain provides a new field where both soft and hard power can be exercised to achieve strategic and political gains in both the virtual and the physical realms through cyber-attacks and cyber interventions.
As the centre of gravity for our militaries and societies has shifted towards data and information, the cyber domain fits perfectly into this new strategic context. The intangibility of threat in the cyber domain, the constant, ubiquitous nature of cyber hostilities, the anonymity of the perpetrator, the compression of geographic space and time, and the instant strategic depth of cyber power have created a perfect breeding ground for strategic instability.
Thus, the use of power in the cyber domain can produce strategic effect that can diminish the opponent’s will and capacity to resist. Cyber-attacks that produce strategic and military effects can include the manipulation of software, data, knowledge, and opinion to degrade performance and produce political and psychological effects.
As a strategic lever of power, cyber power is more a force multiplier than a stand-alone power. Cyber power does not alter global power dynamics, but it does provide a competitive advantage to smaller states with an internet architecture less open than in liberal democracies. The ‘Sony Hack’ allegedly perpetrated by the cybercrime group ‘Lazarus’ with strong ties to the North Korean state is a clear example of how cyberspace can provide a strategic leverage for small states over bigger ones. A great deal has been said about cyber power and its capacity to unleash massive destructive power on US soil. Former CIA director Leon Panetta predicted that the next Pearl Harbor could very well be a cyberattack. However, due to the anonymity feature, cyber power is better understood as a force multiplier that can be used in conjunction with other levers of power to achieve political goals
The cyber domain typifies the diffusion of power of the twenty-first century by empowering non-state actors which can leverage the advantages of the cyber domain. For non-state actors, cyber power can be used as a stand-alone lever of power. Indeed, hacktivist groups such as Anonymous operate solely in cyberspace and have been empowered to deliver high-profile cyber-attacks against state and non-state actors, as demonstrated by the attacks against the Church of Scientology in 2008 known as ‘Project Chanology.’
In the scheme of great power rivalry, China sees itself as a non-status quo actor on course to replace the United States as the leading world power. The use of cyber power has been instrumental in China’s rise and has been a strategic avenue in how the country has projected its power. Leader of China’s Communist Party since 2012, Xi Jinping has envisioned a new ‘Chinese dream’ that would restore China’s lost national greatness. China has been able to leverage the cyber domain to advance its economy and military and is likely to continue to fully exploit the cyber domain in the years to come to reach its ‘Chinese Dream.’ Indeed, China has been using the cyber domain strategically to close the gap with the developed world, essentially with the United States, by massively using cyber exploitation since the beginning of the century. In particular, the Popular Liberation Army’s infamous cyber unit 61398 has played a crucial role in stealing intellectual property in key technological areas. The Mandiant report about that unit’s activities clearly shows that China has stolen intellectual property related to more than twenty US advanced weapons systems such as the F-35 fifth-generation fighter jet, looking a lot like its Chinese counterpart, the FC-31.
As a country with more than 700 million internet users, it is vital for China to control social media in cyberspace and prevent any anti-regime narrative from spreading. China has one of the world’s most restrictive internet environments, relying on censorship to control information on social media, and is preventing the penetration of foreign websites through its so-called Great Firewall. As such, using cyber power has produced strategic outcomes for China in leapfrogging military technological development, controlling the narrative on its own cyberspace, and accessing classified information and intellectual property from other leading powers. In China’s case, cyber power has been used in conjunction with its own military efforts, its research and development activities as well as its economic development. In addition to strengthening control domestically, China has been trying to gain more control over some international institutions such the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) which will allow China to raise its influence globally and help shape internet governance to its standards.
Conclusively, the twenty-first century arguably offers a new strategic environment that is readily exploitable in the cyber domain given the digital revolution we have experienced. As such, the centre of gravity of our societies and militaries has shifted to data and information, giving more strategic importance to the cyber domain. The cyber domain provides an asymmetrical advantage to smaller states in international politics as demonstrated by North Korea’s cyber capabilities. It can also provide a significant strategic advantage in helping countries to achieve global ambitions in the case of China. Moving forward, it would be wise to keep a close eye on the evolution of the capabilities within the cyber domain as the strategic competition between the U.S. and China intensifies.
Based in Asia for more than 10 years, Arnaud Sobrero, a M.A. candidate in International Affairs at King’s College London, is an independent writer focused on defense technology and East Asian affairs.