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Beijing’s Views on Norms in Cyberspace and Cyber Warfare Strategy Pt. 2

By LCDR Jake Bebber USN

The following is a two-part series looking at PRC use of cyberspace operations in pursuit of its national strategies and the establishment of the Strategic Support Force. Part 1 considered the centrality of information operations and information war to the PRC’s approach toward its current struggle against the U.S. Part 2 looks at the PRC’s use of international norms and institutions in cyberspace, and possible U.S. responses.

Cyber-Enabled Public Opinion and Political Warfare

Many American planners are carefully considering scenarios such as China making a play to force the integration of Taiwan, seize the Senkaku Islands from Japan, or seize and project power from any and all claimed reefs and islands in the South China Sea. Under these scenarios we can expect preemptive strikes in the space and network domains in an attempt to “blind” or confuse American and allied understanding and establish a fait accompli. This will, in Chinese thinking, force the National Command Authority to consider a long and difficult campaign in order to eject Chinese forces, and the CCP is placing a bet that American decision makers will choose to reach a political accommodation that recognizes the new “facts on the ground” rather than risk a wider military and economic confrontation.

The role of public opinion warfare may be an integral component of future crisis and conflict in Asia. Well in advance of any potential confrontation, Chinese writing emphasizes the role of “political warfare” and “public opinion warfare” as an offensive deterrence strategy. China will seek to actively shape American, allied, and world opinion to legitimize any military action the CCP deems necessary. We might see cyber-enabled means to “incessantly disseminate false and confused information to the enemy side … through elaborate planning [in peacetime], and [thereby] interfere with and disrupt the enemy side’s perception, thinking, willpower and judgment, so that it will generate erroneous determination and measures.”1 China may try to leverage large populations of Chinese nationals and those of Chinese heritage living outside China as a way to influence other countries and generate new narratives that promote the PRC’s position. Consider, for example, how Chinese social media campaigns led to the boycotts of bananas from the Philippines when it seized Scarborough Reef, or similar campaigns against Japanese-made cars during its ongoing territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands. Most recently, Lotte Duty Free, a South Korean company, suffered distributed denial-of-service attacks from Chinese IP servers – almost certainly a response to South Korea’s recent decision to host the THAAD missile defense system.

It is also critical to recognize China’s understanding and leverage of the American political, information, and economic system. Over decades, China has intertwined its interests and money with American universities, research institutes, corporate institutions, media and entertainment, political lobbying, and special interest organizations. This has had the effect of co-opting a number of institutions and elite opinion makers who view any competition or conflict with China as, at best, detrimental to American interests, and at worst, as a hopeless cause, some going so far as to suggest that it is better for the U.S. to recognize Chinese primacy and hegemony, at least in Asia, if not worldwide. Either way, China will maximize attempts to use cyber-enabled means to shape American and world understanding so as to paint China as the “victim” in any scenario, being “forced” into action by American or Western “interference” or “provocation.”

What can the U.S. do to Enhance Network Resilience?

One of the most important ways that network resiliency can be addressed is by fundamentally changing the intellectual and conceptual approach to critical networks. Richard Harknett, the former scholar-in-residence at U.S. Cyber Command, has suggested a better approach. In a recent issue of the Journal of Information Warfare, he points out that cyberspace is not a deterrence space, but an offense-persistent environment. By that he means that it is an inherently active, iterative, and adaptive domain. Norms are not established by seeking to impose an understood order (such as at Bretton Woods) or through a “doctrine of restraint,” but rather through the regular and constant interactions between states and other actors.  Defense and resiliency are possible in this space, but attrition is not. Conflict here cannot be contained to “areas of hostility” or “military exclusion zones.” No steady state can exist here—every defense is a new opportunity for offense, and every offense generates a new defense.2

Second, the policy and legal approach to network resiliency must shift from a law enforcement paradigm to a national security paradigm. This paradigm is important because it affects the framework under which operations are conducted. The emphasis becomes one of active defense, adaptation, identification of vulnerabilities and systemic redundancy and resilience. A national security approach would also be better suited for mobilizing a whole-of-nation response in which the government, industry, and the population are engaged as active participants in network defense and resiliency. Important to this is the development of partnership mechanisms and professional networking that permit rapid sharing of information at the lowest level possible. Major telecommunications firms, which provide the infrastructure backbone of critical networks, require timely, actionable information in order to respond to malicious threats. Engagement with the private sector must be conducted in the same way they engage with each other – by developing personal trust and providing actionable information.

Network hardening must be coupled with the capabilities needed to rapidly reconstitute critical networks and the resiliency to fight through network attack. This includes the development of alternative command, control, and communication capabilities. In this regard, the military and government can look to industries such as online retail, online streaming, and online financial networks (among others) that operate under constant attack on an hourly basis while proving capable of providing on-demand service to customers without interruption. Some lessons might be learned here.    

Third, new operational concepts must emphasize persistent engagement over static defense. The United States must have the capacity to contest and counter the cyber capabilities of its adversaries and the intelligence capacity to anticipate vulnerabilities so we move away from a reactive approach to cyber incidents and instead position ourselves to find security through retaining the initiative across the spectrum of resiliency and active defensive and offensive cyber operations.

Congressional Action and Implementing a Whole-of-Government Approach

There are five “big hammers” that Congress and the federal government have at their disposal to effect large changes – these are known as the “Rishikof of Big 5” after Harvey Rishikof, Chairman of the Standing Committee on Law and National Security for the American Bar Association. These “hammers” include the tax code and budget, the regulatory code, insurance premiums, litigation, and international treaties. A comprehensive, whole-of-nation response to the challenge China represents to the American-led international system will require a mixture of these “big hammers.” No one change or alteration in Department of Defense policy toward cyberspace operations will have nearly the impact as these “hammers.”3

The tax code and budget, coupled with regulation, can be structured to incentivize network resiliency and security by default (cyber security built into software and hardware as a priority standard), not only among key critical infrastructure industries, but among the population as a whole to include the telecommunication Internet border gateways, small-to-medium sized Internet service providers, and information technology suppliers. Since the federal government, Defense Department, and Homeland Security rely largely on private industry and third-party suppliers for communications and information technology, this would have the attendant effect of improving the systems used by those supporting national security and homeland defense. The key question then is: how can Congress incentivize network resiliency and security standards, to include protecting the supply chain, most especially for those in industry who provide goods and services to the government?

If the tax code, budget, and regulation might provide some incentive (“carrots”), so too can they provide “sticks.” Litigation and insurance premiums can also provide similar effects, both to incentivize standards and practices and discourage poor cyber hygiene and lax network security practices. Again, Congress must balance the “carrots” and “sticks” within a national security framework.

Congress might also address law and policy which permits adversary states to leverage the American system to our detriment. Today, American universities and research institutions are training China’s future leaders in information technology, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, computer science, cryptology, directed energy and quantum mechanics. Most of these students will likely return to China to put their services to work for the Chinese government and military, designing systems to defeat us. American companies hire and train Chinese technology engineers, and have established research institutes in China.4 The American taxpayer is helping fund the growth and development of China’s military and strategic cyber forces as well as growth in China’s information technology industry.

Related specifically to the Department of Defense, Congress should work with the Department to identify ways in which the services man, train, and equip cyber mission forces. It will have to provide new tools that the services can leverage to identify and recruit talented men and women, and ensure that the nation can benefit long-term by setting up appropriate incentives to retain and promote the best and brightest. It will have to address an acquisition system structured around platforms and long-term programs of record. The current military is one where highly advanced systems have to be made to work with legacy systems and cobbled together with commercial, off-the-shelf technology. This is less than optimal and creates hidden vulnerabilities in these systems, risking cascading mission failure and putting lives in jeopardy.

Finally, Congress, the Department of Defense, and the broader intelligence and homeland security communities can work together to establish a center of excellence for the information and cyber domain that can provide the detailed system-of-systems analysis, analytic tools, and capability development necessary to operate and defend in this space. Such centers have been established in other domains, such as land (e.g., National Geospatial Intelligence Agency), sea (e.g., Office of Naval Intelligence) and air and space (e.g., National Air and Space Intelligence Center).


It is important to understand that this competition is not limited to “DOD versus PLA.” The U.S. must evaluate how it is postured as a nation is whether it is prepared fight and defend its information space, to include critical infrastructure, networks, strategic resources, economic arrangements, and the industries that mold and shape public understanding, attitude, and opinion. It must decide whether defense of the information space and the homeland is a matter of national security or one of law enforcement, because each path is governed by very different approaches to rules, roles, policies, and responses. Policymakers should consider how to best address the need to provide critical indications, warnings, threat detection, as well as the system-of-systems network intelligence required for the U.S. to develop the capabilities necessary to operate in and through cyberspace. For all other domains in which the U.S. operates, there is a lead intelligence agency devoted to that space (Office of Naval Intelligence for the maritime domain, National Air and Space Intelligence Center for the air and space domains, etc.).

It must always be remembered that for China, this is a zero-sum competition – there will be a distinct winner and loser. It intends to be that winner, and it believes that the longer it can mask the true nature of that competition and keep America wedded to its own view of the competition as a positive-sum game, it will enjoy significant leverage within the American-led system and retain strategic advantage. China is pursuing successfully, so far, a very clever strategy of working through the system the U.S. built in order to supplant it – and much of it is happening openly and in full view. This strategy can be countered in many ways, but first the U.S. must recognize its approach and decide to act.

LCDR Jake Bebber is a cryptologic warfare officer assigned to the staff of Carrier Strike Group 12. He previously served on the staff of U.S. Cyber Command from 2013 – 2017. LCDR Bebber holds a Ph.D. in public policy. He welcomes your comments at: jbebber@gmail.com. These views are his alone and do not necessarily represent any U.S. government department or agency.

1. Deal 2014.

2. Richard Harknett and Emily Goldman (2016) “The Search for Cyber Fundamentals.” Journal of Information Warfare. Vol. 15 No. 2.

3. Harvey Rishikof (2017) Personal communication, April 21.

4. See: https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2013-03-28/chinese-hacking-is-made-in-the-u-s-a-

Featured Image: Nokia Security Center server room (Photo: Nokia)

Beijing’s Views on Norms in Cyberspace and Cyber Warfare Strategy Pt. 1

By LCDR Jake Bebber USN

The following is a two-part series looking at PRC use of cyberspace operations in pursuit of its national strategies and the establishment of the Strategic Support Force. Part 1 considers the centrality of information operations and information war to the PRC’s approach toward its current struggle against the U.S. Part 2 looks at the PRC’s use of international norms and institutions in cyberspace, and possible U.S. responses.


A recent article noted a marked shift in Chinese strategy a few short years ago which is only now being noticed. Newsweek author Jeff Stein wrote a passing reference to a CCP Politburo debate under the presidency of Hu Jintao in 2012 in which “Beijing’s leading economics and financial officials argued that China should avoid further antagonizing the United States, its top trading partner. But Beijing’s intelligence and military officials won the debate with arguments that China had arrived as a superpower and should pursue a more muscular campaign against the U.S.”1

The nature of this competition is slowly taking shape, and it is a much different struggle than the Cold War against the Soviet Union – however, with stakes no less important. This is a geoeconomic and geoinformational struggle. Both U.S. and PRC views on cyber warfare strategy, military cyber doctrine, and relevant norms and capabilities remain in the formative, conceptual, and empirical stages of understanding. There is an ongoing formulation of attempting to understand what cyberspace operations really are. While using similar language, each has different orientations and perspectives on cyberspace and information warfare, including limiting structures, which has led to different behaviors. However, the nature of cyberspace, from technological advancement and change, market shifts, evolving consumer preferences to inevitable compromises, means that while windows of opportunity will emerge, no one side should expect to enjoy permanent advantage. Thus, the term ‘struggle’ to capture the evolving U.S.-PRC competition.

The PRC recognized in the 1990s the centrality of information warfare and network operations to modern conflict. However, it has always understood the information space as blended and interrelated. Information is a strategic resource to be harvested and accumulated, while denied to the adversary. Information warfare supports all elements of comprehensive national power to include political warfare, legal warfare, diplomatic warfare, media warfare, economic warfare, and military warfare. It is critical to recognize that the PRC leverages the American system and its values legally (probably more so than illegally), to constrain the U.S. response, cloud American understanding, and co-opt key American institutions, allies, and assets. In many ways, the PRC approach being waged today is being hidden by their ability to work within and through our open liberal economic and political system, while supplemented with cyber-enabled covert action (such as the OPM hack).

To support their comprehensive campaign, the PRC is reforming and reorganizing the military wing of the Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), posturing it to fight and win in the information space. Most notably, it recently established the Strategic Support Force (SSF) as an umbrella entity for electronic, information, and cyber warfare. Critical for U.S. policymakers to understand is how the SSF will be integrated into the larger PLA force, how it will be employed in support of national and military objectives, and how it will be commanded and controlled. While much of this remains unanswered, some general observations can be made.

This reform postures the PLA to conduct “local wars under informationized conditions” in support of its historic mission to “secure dominance” in outer space and the electromagnetic domain. Network (or cyberspace) forces are now alongside electromagnetic, space, and psychological operations forces and better organized to conduct integrated operations jointly with air, land, and sea forces.2

This change presents an enormous challenge to the PLA. The establishment of the SSF disrupts traditional roles, relationships, and processes. It also disrupts power relationships within the PLA and between the PLA and the CCP. It challenges long-held organizational concepts, and is occurring in the midst of other landmark reforms, to include the establishment of new joint theater commands.3 However, if successful, it would improve information flows in support of joint operations and create a command and control organization that can develop standard operating procedures, tactics, techniques, procedures, advanced doctrine, associated training, along with driving research and development toward advanced capabilities.

While questions remain as to the exact composition of the Strategic Support Force, there seems to be some consensus that space, cyber, electronic warfare, and perhaps psychological operations forces will be centralized into a single “information warfare service.” Recent PLA writings indicate that network warfare forces will be charged with network attack and defense, space forces will focus on ISR and navigation, and electronic warfare forces will engage in jamming and disruption of adversary C4ISR. It seems likely that the PRC’s strategic information and intelligence support forces may fall under the new SSF. The PLA’s information warfare strategy calls for its information warfare forces to form into ad hoc “information operations groups” at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels, and the establishment of the SSF will save time and enable better coordination and integration into joint forces. The SSF will be better postured to conduct intelligence preparation of the battlespace, war readiness and comprehensive planning for “information dominance.”4

The establishment of the SSF creates a form of information “defense in depth,” both for the PLA and Chinese society as a whole. The SSF enables the PLA to provide the CCP with “overlapping measures of electronic, psychological, and political deterrents.” It is reasonable to expect that there will be extensive coordination and cooperation among the PRC’s military, internal security, network security, “commercial” enterprises such as Huawei and ZTE, political party organizations, state controlled media both inside and outside China, and perhaps even mobilization of Chinese populations.

Chinese Information Warfare Concepts and Applications

Recent Chinese military writings have stressed the centrality of information to modern war and modern military operations. Paying close attention to the way the West – principally the U.S. – conducted the First Gulf War and operations in Kosovo and the Balkans in the 1990s, the PRC has been aggressively pursuing a modernization and reform program that has culminated in where they are today. Indeed, there is close resemblance to PLA and PRC aspirational writing from the 1990s to today’s force structure.

In many ways, the PLA understanding of modern war reflects the American understanding in so much as both refer to the centrality of information and the need to control the “network domain.” “Informatized War” and “Informatized Operations” occur within a multi-dimensional space – land, sea, air, space and the “network electromagnetic” or what Americans generally understand as “cyberspace.” The U.S. has long held that the control of the network domain provides a significant “first mover advantage,” and the PRC is well on the way toward building the capability for contesting control of the network domain. Its writings consistently hold that the PLA must degrade and destroy the adversary’s information support infrastructure to lessen its ability to respond or retaliate. This is especially necessary for “the weak to defeat the strong,” because most current writing still suggests that the PLA believes itself still inferior to American forces, though this perception is rapidly changing. Regardless, the PRC understanding of modern war supposes a strong incentive for aggressive action in the network domain immediately prior to the onset of hostilities.6 These operations are not restricted geographically, and we should expect to see full-scope network operations worldwide in pursuit of their interests, including in the American homeland.7

There are three components to a strategic first strike in the cyber domain. The first component is network reconnaissance to gain an understanding of critical adversary networks, identifying vulnerabilities, and manipulating adversary perception to obtain strategic advantage. Network forces are then postured to be able to conduct “system sabotage” at a time and place of the PRC’s choosing. When the time is right, such as a prelude to a Taiwan invasion or perhaps the establishment of an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea, the PRC will use system sabotage to render adversary information systems impotent, or to illuminate the adversary’s “strategic cyber geography” in order to establish a form of “offensive cyber deterrence.” The PRC could take action to expose its presence in critical government, military, or civilian networks and perhaps conduct some forms of attack in order to send a “warning shot across the bow” and give national decision-makers reason to pause and incentive to not intervene.8

Indeed, unlike the American perspective, which seeks to use cyberspace operations as a non-kinetic means to dissuade or deter potential adversaries in what Americans like to think of as “Phase 0,” the PLA has increasingly moved toward an operational construct that blends cyberspace operations with kinetic operations, creating a form of “cyber-kinetic strategic interaction.” The goal would be to blind, disrupt, or deceive adversary command and control and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems while almost simultaneously deploying its formidable conventional strike, ballistic missile, and maritime power projection forces. The PLA envisions this operational concept as “integrated network electronic warfare,” described by Michael Raska as the “coordinated use of cyber operations, electronic warfare, space control, and kinetic strikes designed to create ‘blind spots’ in an adversary’s C4ISR systems.”9 

The PLA has recently described this as a form of “network swarming attacks” and “multi-directional maneuvering attacks” conducted in all domains – space, cyberspace, ground, air, and sea. The Strategic Support Force has been designed to provide these integrated operations, employing electronic warfare, cyberspace operations, space and counter-space operations, military deception and psychological operations working jointly with long-range precision strike, ballistic missile forces and traditional conventional forces.

Essential to these concepts are China’s ability to achieve dominance over space-based information assets. PRC authors acknowledge this as critical to conducting joint operations and sustaining battlefield initiative. This includes not only the orbiting systems, but ground stations, tracking and telemetry control, and associated data systems. We can expect full-scope operations targeting all elements of America’s space-based information system enterprise.

Important to all of this is the necessity of preparatory operations that take place during “peacetime.” China understands that many of its cyberspace, network, electronic and space warfare capabilities will not be available unless it has gained access to and conducted extensive reconnaissance of key systems and pre-placed capabilities to achieve desired effects. We should expect that the PRC is actively attempting to penetrate and exploit key systems now in order to be able to deliver effects at a later date.

Chinese Understandings of Deterrence and International Law in Cyber Warfare

China recently released the “International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace.”10 Graham Webster at the Yale Law School made some recent observations. First, it emphasizes “internet sovereignty,” which is unsurprising, since the CCP has a vested interest in strictly controlling the information space within China, and between China and the rest of the world.  This concept of “internet sovereignty” should best be understood as the primacy of Chinese interests. China would consider threatening information sources outside of the political borders of China as legitimate targets for cyber exploitation and attack. In the minds of the CCP, the governance of cyberspace should recognize the sovereignty of states, so long as the Chinese state’s sovereignty is paramount over the rest of the world’s.

Second, the strategy suggests that “[t]he tendency of militarization and deterrence buildup in cyberspace is not conducive to international security and strategic mutual trust.” This appears to be aimed squarely at the U.S., most likely the result of Edward Snowden’s actions. The U.S. seems to also be the target when the strategy refers to “interference in other countries’ internal affairs by abusing ICT and massive cyber surveillance activities,” and that “no country should pursue cyber hegemony.” Of course, the PRC has been shown to be one of the biggest sources of cyber-enabled intellectual property theft and exploitation, and China’s cyber surveillance and control regimes are legendary in scope. Immediately after decrying the “militarization” of cyberspace, the strategy calls for China to “expedite the development of a cyber force and enhance capabilities … to prevent major crisis, safeguard cyberspace security, and maintain national security and social stability.” These broad, sweeping terms would permit China to later claim that much of its activities that appear to violate its own stated principles in the strategy are indeed legitimate.

The strategy seeks to encourage a move away from multi-stakeholder governance of the Internet to multilateral decision-making among governments, preferably under the United Nations. This would certainly be in China’s interests, as China continues to hold great sway in the U.N., especially among the developing world. After all, China is rapidly expanding its geoeconomic and geoinformational programs, leveraging its state-owned enterprises to provide funding, resources, and informational infrastructure throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. As more countries become dependent on Chinese financing, development, and infrastructure, they will find it harder to oppose or object to governance regimes that favor Chinese interests.

Naturally, the strategy emphasizes domestic initiatives and a commitment to a strong, domestic high-tech industry. This would include the “Made in China 2025” plan, which has received a great deal of attention. The plan seeks to comprehensively upgrade and reform Chinese industry, with an emphasis on information technology.11

When considering deterrence in the Chinese understanding, it is important to remember that China approaches it from a different context than the United States. Jacqueline Deal noted that China’s basic outlook proceeds from the premise that the “natural state of world is one of conflict and competition, and the goal of strategy is to impose order through hierarchy.”12 While Americans understand deterrence as a rational calculation, the Chinese approach emphasizes the conscious manipulation of perceptions.

Indeed, the Chinese term weishe, which translates as “deterrence,” also embodies the idea of “coercion.” We might see examples of this understanding by China’s historic use of “teaching a lesson” to lesser powers. In the 20th Century, Chinese offensives against India and Vietnam – thought by many in the West to be an example of tragic misunderstanding and failed signaling of core interests – might be better thought of as attempts by China to secure its “rightful” place atop the regional hierarchy. It is a form of “lesson teaching” that has long-term deterrent effects down the road.

We can expect therefore that cyberspace would become one means among many that China will use in support of its “Three Warfares” (public opinion, media, legal) concept in support of its larger deterrent or compellence strategies. It will likely be much broader than the use of PLA SSF forces, and could include cyber-enabled economic strategies, financial leverage, and resource withholding.

LCDR Jake Bebber is a cryptologic warfare officer assigned to the staff of Carrier Strike Group 12. He previously served on the staff of U.S. Cyber Command from 2013 – 2017. LCDR Bebber holds a Ph.D. in public policy. He welcomes your comments at: jbebber@gmail.com. These views are his alone and do not necessarily represent any U.S. government department or agency.

1. Available at: http://www.newsweek.com/cia-chinese-moles-beijing-spies-577442

2. Dean Cheng (2017). Cyber Dragon: Inside China’s Information Warfare and Cyber Operations. Praeger Security International.

3. Cheng 2017.

4. John Costello and Peter Mattis (2016). “Electronic Warfare and the Renaissance of Chinese Information Operations.” in China’s Evolving Military Strategy (Joe McReynolds, editor). The Jamestown Foundation.

6. Joe McReynolds, et. Al. (2015) “TERMINE ELECTRON: Chinese Military Computer Network Warfare Theory and Practice.” Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis

7.  Barry D. Watts (2014) “Countering Enemy Informationized Operations in Peace and War.” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments

8. Timothy L. Thomas (2013) “China’s Cyber Incursions.” Foreign Military Studies Office

9. See: http://www.atimes.com/article/chinas-evolving-cyber-warfare-strategies/

10. See: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2017-03/01/c_136094371.htm

11. See: https://www.csis.org/analysis/made-china-2025

12. Jacqueline N. Deal (2014). “Chinese Concepts of Deterrence and their Practical Implications for the United States.” Long Term Strategy Group.

Featured Image: The Center for Nanoscale Materials at the Advanced Photon Source. (Photo: Argonne National Laboratory)

Normalizing Military Operations in the South China Sea

By Brandon D. Hughes


On December 22, 2016 Hainan Airlines flew its first chartered flight to Woody Island (Ying Xing Dao), one of the many disputed islands in the Paracel Island Chain claimed by China in the South China Sea. For a mere 1200 Yuan (roughly $173 USD), a patriotic Chinese tourist could purchase a one-way ticket to visit the controversial island outpost.1 Less than a week later, China sailed its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, around Taiwan, accompanied by an escort of five People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships, amid vocal protests from the Taiwan and Japanese governments.2 Though decades behind the more advance U.S. Nimitz and Gerald R. Ford class carriers, the deployment of China’s newest power projection platform sends a clear strategic message. The series of moves by Beijing are not only tactical decision points, but part of a broader strategic narrative aimed at regional competitors, periphery countries, and the United States. Beijing is sidestepping concerns over its militarization in the region by simply continuing on its own agenda. By downplaying controversial decisions and promoting “standard” and “scheduled” actions or exercises, Beijing is shaping the narrative to its benefit. Additionally, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership is pursuing multiple avenues to promote mutual interests with its neighbors and shift attention away militarization efforts.

China’s militarization is as much a domestic issue as it is a blunt approach to international diplomacy. The ever-growing military prowess of Beijing is steamrolling weaker countries and brushing off critics. The CCP does subscribe to the age-old analogy using both the carrot and the stick in global diplomacy. For example, in the Philippines case, Beijing has had an on again off again charm offensive, supporting President Rodrigo Duterte, and sidestepping disputes over the Scarborough Shoal.3 The remarkable policy shift in the Duterte administration has allowed Beijing to continue development of the Shoal without widespread pushback. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims nearly all of the South China Sea and therefore has ongoing disputes with nearly every Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member. Officially, the United States declines to take sides in the territorial disputes, and continues to support United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and continues overflight surveillance and Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS).  Leadership in Beijing does not seem to possess a sense of urgency to resolve the South China Sea disputes, nor does it have enough external pressure to do so. In fact, the first U.S. FONOP patrol since President Trump took office was only conducted on May 24, 2017, passing within 12 miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Island China near the Philippines.4

Since 1949, China has settled disputes with nearly every country along its borders. These have not always been in Beijing’s ultimate favor, but were instrumental in allowing the CCP and PLA to refocus time and resources towards Taiwan and other core interests. The South China Sea may be seen as a flash point by many, but there remains plenty of room to negotiate. The South China Sea is one of the last disputed “borders” that Beijing has to contend with, and given the sheer volume of untapped natural resources, centrality of international trade, and over-fished Chinese littorals, it is in Beijing’s interest to maintain its position and continue to expand its footprint in the region.

Capabilities and Possibilities

By further wielding this defiant attitude and increased military aptitude, Beijing hopes to grow its footprint farther from its borders. Emplacement of HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island and the likelihood of increased air defense and intelligence capabilities in the region are small moves towards a tactical asymmetric proficiency.5 Additionally, a recent article quoted U.S. military officials as having assessed that China’s Hainan Island harbors a robust system of air defense missile systems, including the SA-21 system with a 400km range.6 Once these emplacements are finalized, the accompanied C4ISR infrastructure refined, and defenses fully hardened, these small outposts will most certainly be incorporated into a notional South China Sea air defense identification zone.7

In the event of a Taiwan or South China Sea contingency, the possibility for China to declare a no-fly zone over the disputed islands is a near certainty, albeit one that will present significant difficulties in execution. A functioning aircraft carrier forward deployed into the South China Sea, active patrols by Chinese attack submarines, and Chinese fighters launching and recovering from the Paracel Island Chains, increase the possibility for China to blockade, inhibit, or force the hand of its Asia-Pacific neighbors if a crisis emerges. Emplacing Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), Electronic Warfare (EW), and SAM assets on these islands sets conditions for China to be able to enforce stronger coercive options. Granted, these systems function perfectly in theory, and in the absence of outside interference, but will be stressed by the offensive capabilities of the U.S. and their allies in the event of an escalating conflict. A blockade or any sort of crisis places in jeopardy trillions of dollars in trade that pass through the South China Sea each year. The likelihood of a large-scale action is unlikely; however, smaller disputes have the potential to erupt if gone unchecked.


The Chinese strategy is to probe, test, and normalize its economic and military efforts while reinforcing a strategic message characterizing these operations and policies as normal part of statecraft. Actions by the U.S. and other regional stakeholders have been unsuccessful in bringing about significant changes to the current dynamic. FONOPs by the U.S. Navy are met with stern rebuttals from Beijing, but do little to change Chinese policy. The continued Chinese development of artificial islands in the South China Sea will offer a jumping off point for both civil maritime and military operations. This also adds a geographic buffer zone against western influence. So far, none of the artificial islands are assessed to be capable of handling a deep-water port limiting the amount of force projection capability the islands can provide.  However, Beijing has more options should the deployment of its submarine fleet from the Sanya base in Hainan require additional coverage. The buildup of the island and the capability does not greatly increase China’s force projection capability, but it does offer something more valuable at this time, a permanent foothold in South China Sea. The U.S. has few options which may alter Beijing’s path but the longer this policy goes unchecked the more dug in reality becomes. Countering the Beijing narrative is crucial but concrete steps must be taken by the U.S. and the ASEAN countries before these small outposts become bigger militarized stepping stones.

Brandon Hughes is a Senior Regional Analyst-Asia for Planet Risk and has previously worked with the U.S. Army, the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, and Asia Society. He is a combat veteran and has conducted research on a wide variety of regional conflicts. Brandon holds a Masters of Law in International Relations from Tsinghua University, Beijing and has extensive overseas experience focused on international security.


1. “China to Philippines: ‘We’ll go to war’ over South China Sea,” L. Todd Wood, Washington, Times, May 23, 2017, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/may/23/china-philippines-well-go-war-over-south-china-sea/

2. “U.S. Warship Sails Near Island Claimed by Beijing in South China Sea,” Jane Perlez, May 24, 2017, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/24/world/asia/south-china-sea-us-navy-warship-spratly-islands.html?_r=0

3. “三沙永兴岛民航公务包机成功首航每天往返海口(图),” http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/2016-12-22,/docifxyxury8051270.shtml , 2016年12月22日 17:38 央视 AND “China Begins Daily Civil Charter Flights to South China Sea Outpost,” 22 December, 2016, Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-china-idUSKBN14B0UJ

4. “Chinese warships enter South China Sea near Taiwan in show of force,” 26 December, 2016, Reuters, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/27/chinese-warships-enter-south-china-sea-near-taiwan-in-show- of-force

5. “Beijing’s missile move in South China Sea could make US think twice about getting too close,” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/17/beijings-missile-move-in-south-china-sea-could-make-us-think-twice-about-getting-too-close, Euan Graham, Wednesday 17 February 2016 00.43 EST AND “China’s New Spratly Island Defenses”, PUBLISHED: DECEMBER 13, 2016, https://amti.csis.org/chinas-new-spratly-island-defenses/

6. “China is mobilising hundreds of missiles to disputed islands, US officials claim,” December 27, 201611:21am, http://www.news.com.au/finance/economy/world-economy/china-is-mobilising-hundreds-of-missiles-to- disputed-islands-us-officials-claim/news-story/4f375e33d1ef2404bef156c7c3f329df

7. “China Says It Could Set Up Air Defense Zone in South China Sea,” By EDWARD WONGMAY 31, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/01/world/asia/china-says-it-could-set-up-air-defense-zone-in-south-china- sea.html?_r=0

Featured Image: Subi Reef in the South China Sea. (CSIS AMTI/DigitalGlobe)

U.S. Options for the People’s Republic of China’s Maritime Militias

This article originally featured on Divergent Options and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here

By Blake Herzinger

National Security Situation:  People’s Republic of China (PRC) Maritime Militias operating in the East China Sea (ECS) and South China Sea (SCS).

Date Originally Written:  February 21, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  April 6, 2017.

Author and/or Article Point of View: Author believes in freedom of navigation and maintenance of good order at sea in accordance with customary and written law of the sea. The article is written from the point of view of U.S. sea services leadership toward countering PRC maritime irregulars at sea.

Background:  The PRC employs irregular militia forces at sea alongside naval and maritime law enforcement units.  By deploying these so-called “blue hulls” manned by un-uniformed (or selectively-uniformed) militiamen, the PRC presses its maritime claims and confronts foreign sea services within a “gray zone[1].”  In keeping with national traditions of People’s War, PRC Maritime Militias seek advantage through asymmetry, while opposing competitors whose rules of engagement are based on international law.  The PRC Maritime Militia participated in several of the most provocative PRC acts in the SCS, including the 2009 USNS Impeccable incident, the seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, and the 2014 China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) 981 confrontation with Vietnam that also involved the smaller Vietnam Maritime Militia[2].

Significance:  On its surface, employing irregular forces may be an attractive option for a state facing a more powerful opponent, or for a state interested in “a less provocative means of promoting its strategic goal of regional hegemony” such as the PRC[3].  However, incorporating these irregular forces into a hybrid national strategy has deleterious impacts on the structure of the international legal system, particularly in maritime law and the laws of naval warfare[4].  PRC Maritime Militias’ use of “civilian” fishing vessels to support, and conduct, military operations distorts this legal structure by obfuscating the force’s identity and flaunting established international legal boundaries.

Option #1:  U.S. political and military leaders engage the PRC/People’s Liberation Army (Navy) (PLAN) directly and publicly on the existence and operations of the Maritime Militia, insist upon adherence to internationally-accepted legal identification of vessels and personnel[6], and convey what costs will be imposed on the PRC/PLAN if they do not change their behavior.

As an example, the Commander U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift, has voiced his frustration with PLAN unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of the PRC Maritime Militia and its relationships with state law enforcement and military forces[5]. In the event that the PRC declines to engage in dialogue regarding the Maritime Militia, discontinuing PLAN participation in the Rim of the Pacific exercise is the suggested response.

Risk:  Without clearly attaching costs to continued use of militia forces in operations against the USN, Option #1 is unlikely to affect PRC behavior.  Conveying possible imposed costs carries risk of further-degrading relations between the U.S. and PRC, but it is precisely PRC perceptions of their behavior as costless that encourages the behaviors exhibited by the PRC’s Maritime Militia[7].

Gain:  Option #1 is an excellent opportunity for the U.S. to underline its commitment to good order at sea and a rules-based maritime order.  By encouraging the PRC to acknowledge the Maritime Militia and its associated command structure, the U.S. can cut through the ambiguity and civilian camouflage under which the Maritime Militia has operated unchallenged.  In the event that the PRC declines to engage, conveying the possible imposition of costs may serve as a warning that behavior negatively affecting good order at sea will not be tolerated indefinitely.

Option #2:  U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force West (JIATF-W) assists the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in developing and implementing an organic maritime domain awareness (MDA) capability with domestic, and international, interagency sharing and response capability.  For the purposes of this article, MDA will be understood to be a host-nation’s ability to “collect, fuse, analyze and disseminate maritime data, information and intelligence relating to potential threats to [its] security, safety, economy or environment[8].”

Risk:  Close to a score of abandoned information portals and sharing infrastructures have been tried and failed in Southeast Asia, a cautionary tale regarding the risk of wasted resources.  Building upon over 20 years of JIATF-W’s experience should help to mitigate this risk, so long as an MDA solution is developed cooperatively and not simply imposed upon ASEAN.

Gain:  By providing focused and long-term support to an ASEAN-led solution, the U.S. can make progress in an area where MDA has been plagued by reticence, and occasionally inability to share vital information across interagency and national borders.  Shared awareness and cooperation at sea will combat the ability of the PRC Maritime Militia to operate uncontested in the SCS by enabling more effective law enforcement and naval response by affected countries.  Working through existing regional institutions such as Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre would add increased value to Option #2.

Option #3:  Utilize U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) to provide law enforcement and maritime safety training support to states bordering the ECS/SCS interested in creating their own maritime militias.

Risk:  Expanding a concept that is damaging the rules-based order may increase the rate of disintegration of good order at sea.  Any observable indication that the U.S. is encouraging the creation of irregular maritime forces would likely be viewed negatively by the PRC.  Option #3 carries risk of engendering diplomatic or military conflict between the U.S. and PRC, or between the PRC and U.S. partners.

Gain:  Option #3 might provide some level of parity for states facing PRC militia vessels.  Vietnam has already made the decision to pursue development of a maritime militia and others may follow in hopes of countering the PRC’s irregular capability.  USCG involvement in the organizational development and training of militias might provide some limited opportunities to shape their behavior and encourage responsible employment of militia forces.

Other Comments:  Encouragement for the expansion of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) is not addressed.  The CUES  was adopted during the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) and provides a basis for communications, maritime safety, and maneuvering guidelines for use by ships and aircraft in unplanned encounters at sea.  CUES is not a legally binding document, but an agreed-upon protocol for managing potentially escalatory encounters in the Pacific[9].  This author believes coast guards adjoining the contested areas of the ECS and SCS will continue to resist CUES adoption in order to maintain operational latitude.  Given the reticence of coast guards to accede to the agreement, drawing PRC Maritime Militia into CUES seems an unrealistic possibility.

Recommendation:  None.

Blake Herzinger served in the United States Navy in Singapore, Japan, Italy, and exotic Jacksonville, Florida. He is presently employed by Booz Allen Hamilton and assists the U.S. Pacific Fleet in implementation and execution of the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative. His writing has appeared in Proceedings and The Diplomat. He can be found on Twitter @BDHerzinger. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of any official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


[1]  The South China Sea’s Third Force: Understanding and Countering China’s Maritime Militia, Hearings on Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea, Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, 114th Cong., 1 (2016)(Statement of Andrew S. Erickson, U.S. Naval War College). http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS28/20160921/105309/HHRG-114-AS28-Wstate-EricksonPhDA-20160921.pdf

[2]  Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson, “Model Maritime Militia: Tanmen’s Leading Role in the April 2012 Scarborough Shoal Incident,” CIMSEC, 21 April 2016, http://cimsec.org/model-maritime-militia-tanmens-leading-role-april-2012-scarborough-shoal-incident/24573

[3]  James Kraska and Michael Monti, “The Law of Naval Warfare and China’s Maritime Militia,” International Law Studies 91.450 (2015): 465, http://stockton.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  Christopher Cavas, “China’s Maritime Militia a Growing Concern,” DefenseNews, November 21, 2016,  http://www.defensenews.com/articles/new-website-will-allow-marines-to-share-training-videos

[6]  The South China Sea’s Third Force: Understanding and Countering China’s Maritime Militia, Hearings on Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, 114th Cong., 1 (2016)(Statement of Andrew S. Erickson, U.S. Naval War College). http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS28/20160921/105309/HHRG-114-AS28-Wstate-EricksonPhDA-20160921.pdf

[7]  The Struggle for Law in the South China Sea, Hearings on Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, 114th Cong., 1 (2016)(Statement of James Kraska, U.S. Naval War College).

[8]  Secretary of the Navy Approves Strategic Plan for Maritime Domain Awareness, U.S. Navy, Last updated 8 October 2015, http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp? story_id=91417

[9]  Document: Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, USNI News, Last updated 22 August 2016, https://news.usni.org/2014/06/17/document-conduct-unplanned-encounters-sea

Featured Image: Reuters video journalist Peter Blaza (C), with assistant Oscar Abunyawan (R), films a Chinese fishing vessel docked on the mouth of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, April 6, 2017. Picture taken April 6, 2017. (Erik De Castro, Reuters)