The Future of Cyber Conflict: Beijing Rewrites Internet Sovereignty Along Territorial Lines

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 17

Li Dianren, a PLA Lieutenant General, has compared "netwar" to Deng's smoke-less war concept (Source: Chinese Internet)

Over the past 12 months, China and a number of similarly-minded countries have taken firm steps to challenge the internet status quo. The January redrafting of a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)–sponsored United Nations Information Security Code of Conduct, the signing of a China-Russia “cyber pact” in May, and the subsequent release of China’s draft cyber security legislation constitute a flurry of developments that reflect Beijing’s increasingly proactive approach to international security in cyberspace. Together, these developments provide key insights into China’s cyber security posture and its inclinations toward a shake-up of Internet governance and the establishment of a new world cyber order.

These developments have been accompanied by increasing references in the Chinese press to the Internet as part of the military battlespace and as a theater of “net war” within the broader context of “soft war” or “cultural cold war.” China has long sought greater controls over what its citizens can and cannot access online, but now Beijing is pushing for network-based subversion of a state’s ideological values and political legitimacy–including by social media–to be defined as an act of war.

This has significant implications for Internet governance and the potential staking out of borders in cyberspace–or so-called “balkanization of the Internet.” It also raises questions in relation to how cyber-aggression might be defined and treated in the future and how future wars might be triggered. By examining Chinese discourse on the subject, this paper examines the extent to which Beijing is looking to reshape rules of engagement in cyberspace in line with its own ideological and political values.

Cyber War, Soft War and Peaceful Evolution

Recent years have witnessed an intense war of words between Beijing and Washington in relation to mutual allegations of network-based espionage, surveillance and cyber-attacks. Both powers have developed strategies addressing the issue of cyber conflict, with the United States’ 2015 cyber strategy taking a more offensive posture than its 2011 incarnation and attracting criticism from the Chinese defense ministry for fueling an Internet arms race (Xinhua, May 2). Amid the myriad controversies, however, the most potentially destabilizing difference between the two is how they respectively define cyber conflict.

In their seminal 1993 article “Cyberwar is coming!,” defense analysts John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt compared the related–yet distinct–concepts of “cyberwar” and “netwar.” “Whereas cyberwar refers to knowledge-related conflict at the military level,” they explain, “netwar applies to societal struggles most often associated with low-intensity conflict…” [1] Both Beijing’s and Washington’s conceptions of cyber aggression include the network attacks and espionage envisaged in what Arquilla and Ronfeldt referred to as “cyberwar.” Beijing’s conception, however, goes beyond this to include network-based subversion of ideological values and political legitimacy, or “netwar.”

Reinforcing this definitional difference is the fact that Beijing avoids use of the term “cyber” with its U.S. connotations. Chinese official writing thus refers to ‘information security’ (信息安全) and network warfare (网络战), but not cyber security or cyber warfare (see China Brief, April 16).

In mid-2014, Seeking Truth Online published a paper by Lieutenant-General Li Dianren of the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University, asserting that Western cyber aggression had ushered in the specter of “netwar” (网战). Targeted at a readership of domestic ideologues, Lt. Gen. Li’s missive, was a call to defensive arms against a predatory West bent on undermining non-Western authoritarian states with the seeds of revolution (China Academy of Social Science Journal, June 15, 2014):

At present, some Western countries rely on their “network information superiority,” to change the network into a main channel to penetrate and destroy other countries, export Western ideology on a large scale, preach Western political systems and models, slander and attack other countries’ political systems and value views, vigorously conduct “peaceful evolution” and carry out “color revolutions,” and direct one “smokeless war” after another. To some extent, ideological penetration has become one of the main forms of Western “netwar.”

This perspective characterizes Beijing as victim of cyber-based “ideological and cultural infiltration” (思想文化渗透) by foreign actors. Reimagining Deng Xiaoping’s “smokeless war” (无硝烟的战场) concept for the information age, Lt. Gen. Li’s “netwar” also appears to borrow from the idea of “soft war” (软战), another “smokeless war” contemporization. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher Ping Zhaokui describes “soft war” as a contest of soft power in which the purpose of each state is to “protect its own national interests, image and status so as to promote a stable international environment conducive to its development” (Liberation Daily, May 10, 2010; Liberation Daily, April 23, 2010). [2] In the soft war context, Beijing sees itself as the target of powerful Western political, military and media efforts to undermine its international credibility and to erode its legitimacy domestically.

Lt. Gen. Li’s answer to defending against ideological penetration is to safeguard “ideological cybersecurity” (网络意识形态安全). This would involve the careful management of the legal and social implications of the domestic Internet as well as the strengthening of computer system research, development and technological innovation so that the technological superiority of the West might be neutralized. A two-pronged approach appears consistent with that followed by the Xi Jinping administration, with its tight domestic Internet and social media controls, elevation of ideological security as a focus of China’s new National Security Committee, new draft cyber security law, Xi’s chairmanship of a new central Internet security and informatization leading group and a slew of policies aimed at catching up to a technologically superior West.

Crackdowns on Internet dissent, social media censorship and state cyber surveillance in China have been widely viewed by international commentators as the actions of a technologically panoptic authoritarian state. Beijing articulates its role in terms of protecting the ideological integrity of its borders by countering the West’s malevolent hegemony in cyberspace. In Chinese netwar rhetoric, technological superiority (including Internet backbone technologies) and a stranglehold over the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance give the West–and the US in particular–a level of cyber reach that disrespects international borders and undermines the sovereignty of other states (China Brief, January 23).

Cyberspace as Territory

According to Chinese Academy of Social Sciences academic Lang Ping, if one applies Clausewitz’s concept of key terrain to cyberspace, “it’s clear the U.S. has absolute superiority” (People’s Daily, June 23, 2014). In cyberspace, states Lang, technology determines one’s capacity to maintain sovereignty, with key terrain incorporating data centers, network service providers, submarine cables, supply chains, labor sources, technological innovation and international standard-setting bodies. In the same article, former president of the Chinese Academy of Engineering Fang Binxing argues that US dominance over ICANN and the Internet’s multi-stakeholder model undermines that model’s independence and allows the U.S. to manipulate stakeholders under U.S. domestic law.

The Snowden revelations have emboldened Chinese protestations against the domination of cyberspace by a malevolent U.S. cyber-hegemon. At the June 2014 UN co-sponsored International Workshop on Information and Cyber Security, in Beijing, Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong condemned the massive-scale surveillance activities by an “individual country,” which have “severely infringed on other countries’ sovereignty and their citizen’s privacy.” Rather than “reflecting on its behaviors that undermine the sovereignty of other countries and privacy of citizens,” alleged Minister Li, “it has painted itself as a victim and made groundless accusations against or defamed other countries” (MFA, June 5, 2014). This now common mantra from Beijing asserts that states have rights in cyberspace and, by implication, that the Internet has borders.

The clearest articulation by Beijing of the territoriality of cyberspace had come six months earlier, when Minister of China’s State Internet Information Office Lu Wei, commented at the second China–South Korea Internet Roundtable that “Just as the 17th century saw the extension of national sovereignty over parts of the sea, and the 20th over airspace, national sovereignty is now being extended to cyberspace” (Xinhua wang, December 10, 2013).

Respect for and protection of national sovereignty has long been a cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy, and it defines how Beijing conducts itself within the international system. China’s ongoing territorial claims and consolidation in relation to disputed territory in its maritime peripheries and the recent staking out of its littoral airspace reflect this strategic imperative. Beijing’s rhetoric in relation to the Internet stems from a now firmly entrenched view of cyberspace as part of a country’s territory, and Minister Lu’s comments are aimed squarely at pursuing change in global Internet governance among territorial lines.

China’s recently drafted cyber security law is intended to provide the domestic jurisdictional basis for the exercise of this sovereignty and to clarify “that safeguarding cyber sovereignty and security is an indisputable, international norm” (Xinhua, July 25). According to Xinhua, “as long as companies, no matter their locality, offer products or services in China, they should abide by Chinese laws and regulations, which is in line with the territorial principle enshrined in international laws.”

What this draft legislation also does is domestically codify Beijing’s “netwar” notion of cyber aggression, with its focus on Internet censorship, a mediated blogosphere and linking of public sentiment in cyberspace to national security. According to Article 9 of the draft (Renda wang, July 8).

Any person and organization shall, when using the network, abide by the Constitution and laws, observe public order and respect social morality, they must not endanger network security, and must not use the network to engage in activities harming national security, propagating of terrorism and extremism, inciting ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination, dissemination of obscene and sexual information, slandering or defame others, upsetting social order, harming the public interest, infringing of other persons’ intellectual property or other lawful rights and interests.

A number of phrases, including “respect social morality” and “harming the public interest” could be used to prosecute an entire range of online activity.

Defining Cyber Aggression Between States

Beijing has been pursuing a more proactive international engagement strategy to define cyber aggression post-Snowden, including the revisiting of international law and the signing of new treaties. Despite being previously wary of the idea of incorporating cyber aggression into the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC), reports indicate renewed Chinese interest in it. [3] Wang Tianlong of the China Center for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE), for example, has argued that China “should study the feasibility of applying the principles of the LOAC to cyberspace and push for the formulation of a code of conduct for cyberconflict” (Shanghai Zhengquanbao, September 9, 2012).

Although Beijing remains somewhat ambivalent on the LOAC front, it has nevertheless been pursuing change via a cyber-alliance of like-minded states wary of the multi-stakeholder model. In mid-January, members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) proposed a revised draft International Code of Conduct for Information Security to the UN Secretary-General (UN, January 13). Originally drafted in 2011, the proposal would classify information communication technologies, including sites such as Twitter and Facebook, as weapons if their use violated individual state laws. It proposes that states agree not to “use information and communications technologies, including networks, to carry out hostile activities or acts of aggression, pose threats to international peace and security or proliferate information weapons or related technologies.”

The Russia-China “Information Security Pact,” signed only three months ago, solidifies this position and is being heralded in China’s press as a case of Beijing and Moscow setting an example to others in terms of pursuing the process of wresting Internet governance from U.S. interests. According to the agreement, Russia and China agree to not conduct cyber-attacks against each other, or jointly counteract technology that may “destabilize the internal political and socio-economic atmosphere,” ”disturb public order” or “interfere with the internal affairs of the state” (Guancha, May 13).

In employing the term “information security” (信息安全) throughout, both the proposal and the pact reflect Beijing’s “net war” definition of cyber conflict. Unlike the related yet narrower term “cyber security,” which is commonly used by the U.S., “information security” encompasses the imperative of protecting the state against technologies that threaten ideological values and political legitimacy. In this way, these documents read as an extension of China’s own draft cyber security law and–importantly–a repudiation of existing international standards.

Beijing, it appears, is willing to work with the international community to achieve consensus on Internet governance, but only to the extent that this consensus rewrites governance along largely state lines and aggression along territorial lines. This is clearly an area of intense international contention, but if Beijing was to ultimately have its way what is certain is that the multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance will become history, and state-patrolled borders will define its future.


Beijing is escalating its pursuit of multilateral governance of the Internet as a way of breaking what it sees as Western technological, institutional and ideological hegemony in cyberspace. Given its strong position on the direct link between cyber, territorial and national sovereignty, and its characterization of cyber conflict within the context of ideological or “soft” war, the recent pact with Russia is a strong indicator that it is now looking to proactively shape the international cyber landscape. This has significant implications not only for the multi-stakeholder model that has for some time governed the Internet, but also for the future of how conflict and acts of war may be defined.

Looking ahead, expect Beijing to increasingly assert sovereignty over its cyberspace and to manage its slice of the Internet in ways that take their cue from how China manages its terrestrial space. Applying this to the international order, it is not illogical to envisage a future in which the Westphalian notion of the bounded nation-state that underpins international collective security may be used to assert that borders are technological and ideational, and not merely physical delineators of political geography.

Nicholas Dynon is a doctoral candidate at Macquarie University, Sydney, specializing in Chinese media and soft power. A former diplomat, his research has appeared in The China Journal, Place Branding and Public Diplomacy and China: an International Journal. He coordinates the Line 21 Project, an online resource on Chinese state propaganda and public diplomacy.


1. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, “Cyberwar is Coming!”, Comparative Strategy , Vol 12, No. 2, Spring 1993, pp. 141–165, Taylor & Francis. [Reprinted as Chapter Two in John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, eds., In Athena’s Camp: Preparing for Conflict in the Information Age, RAND/MR-880-OSD/RC] (1997).

2. For “smokeless war” see Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol 3, pp. 325 and 344.

3. Refer to China Military Science, No. 5 2013, pp. 130–139.