Changing Dynamics of Chinese Grey Acumen

There is a saying in Sun Tzu’s Art of War which says that the most incredible skill is to subdue the adversary without a conventional military offensive. This has been well ingrained in Chinese strategic culture in contemporary times. The Chinese state has utilised the suite of cyberwarfare operations, disinformation campaigns, civilian and corporate espionage, economic coercion, etc., to gain coercive leverage vis-a-vis India. The recent incidents of China raising its covert cyber tempo against US has made the security and strategic community to re-visit China’s designs of covert gameplays and discuss its implications in the anxiously evolving geopolitics.

Understanding the Contours of Grey Zone Warfare 

Grey zone warfare is ‘the exploitation of operational space between peace and war to change the status quo through coercive actions which remain below a threshold that, in most cases, would prompt a conventional military response’. In the aftermath of the Galwan clash, Chinese hybrid warfare operations have been on the ascendancy. The associated advantages of these operations are plausible deniability by the aggressor and the strategic ambiguity, which puts the affected state actor on the backfoot, ruling out effective counter-response to such operations. Most importantly, these grey zone playing will disrupt the state’s response and operational settings, which is deploying countermeasures.

Deciphering Chinese Espionage Capabilities 

According to Paul D. Moore, former FBI chief, the Thousand Grains of the Sand approach of Chinese intelligence attempts to cultivate an extensive database of low-quality information, which is then processed and analysed by emerging technologies. Artificial Intelligence, Quantum computing etc are some of these recent technologies. Chinese intelligence leverages its vast network of civil society, academics, intellectuals, and students for espionage operations which is deceptive to most of the global community. The strategy rests on the pillar of non-political subversion of the target state by employing a suite of economic domains, multidimensional cyberwarfare operations, psychological influence operations and propaganda machinery. Once the strategy successfully grips the non-political fields of the target states, then it begins influencing political lobbies. The Indian Central Government has been prompted to make mandatory Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Amendment Act, 2020 (FCRA) clearances for educational institutes to collaborate with Chinese Confucius Institutes (CIs). CI’s affiliation with the Chinese Ministry of Education has come under the scanner, especially after former FBI Director Christopher Wray’s testimony to Senate in February 2018. The Chinese intelligence is well aimed at deploying massive influence operations discrediting the government of the target state and polarising the domestic opinion for weakening the national consensus on crucial security issues. The classic play of such tactics was on display during the Doklam crisis. 

As revealed by renowned newspapers, the massive Chinese state-sponsored surveillance programme by Zhenhua Data Information Technology Company is tracking prominent Indian personalities like parliamentarians, business class, bureaucrats, intelligence & defence officials, scientists etc.  The company followed the digital footprint of famous Indians along with granular information to compile the database, which could be effectively leveraged in subversion operations and disinformation campaigns to polarise the domestic opinion in times of security crisis. These datasets generated by Intel operations are well operational during the influence operations like the one in North-East India, where Myanmar-based insurgent groups have been raising their clout ever since Tatmadaw toppled the civilian government.

Multidimensional Cyberwarfare Operations

China’s cyberwarfare strategy is based on Mao Zedong’s doctrine of offensive operations at all stages of conflict. The standard procedure used by Chinese state-sponsored hacker groups is Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) vectors to infect the devices with cross-network linkages, slowly expanding their footprint across the organisational devices and then discretely extracting the required information to their servers by deception tactics like denial of server attacks. The trail of such attacks is difficult to trace due to the diverse cross-satellite servers involved.

However, this strategy has not always paid rich dividends to the Chinese. In the domain of advanced weapon systems like their domestic version of stealth aircraft J-31, it has not found the anticipated response from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) due to its structural design flaws and weight issues.

Apart from the commercial considerations, these cyber warfare operations have coercive aims to be achieved with ongoing offensives on critical infrastructure like power grids, ports etc. Various reports of American cybersecurity firms such as Recorded Future shed light on Chinese state-sponsored hackers’ consistent attempts to sabotage India’s critical infrastructure, like the attack on power grids of Ladakh in April 2022 and the Mumbai blackout in 2020. In the aftermath of the Galwan clashes, India’s military deterrence has risen vis-a-vis China, accompanied by a rise in unconventional cyberattacks.

Economic Stratagems for Subversion 

The commercial and trade relationship is another front for Chinese subversion offensives. Vikram Sood, former R&AW Chief, in his book ‘The Ultimate Goal: A Former R&AW Chief Deconstructs How Nations Construct Narratives’, showcases the non-transparent ownership pattern of Huawei with deep links with the Chinese Communist Party. This has posed a grave threat to India’s national security leading to permission denial to the telecom giant from participating in 5G trials worldwide, including in India. A descriptive pattern in the activities of Huawei has been the utilisation of a ‘backdoor’ on telecommunications networks, giving them virtually unlimited access to susceptible customer details.

The involvement of Chinese servers in the Instant Loan Applications Scam unearthed in India points to the well-rooted subversive tactics of intimidation and exploiting the fault lines of lack of financial literacy in our society in one of the clearest demonstrations of the ‘Grains of Sand strategy’.

Alibaba’s investment in technology venture place IQ in October 2016 and the Magic leap in February 2016 is considered an example of such investment. These companies collect big data and then utilise it at their convenience. Since such data is readily available in a free and democratic society, falling prey to such an approach is not a big deal. This highlights how Chinese companies gain massive leverage in the digital space by supplying datasets for subversive operations, propaganda machinery to achieve national interests, and opportunistic takeovers of data companies. Sensing such nefarious designs of the Grey Zone warfare, the Indian government revoked China’s automatic approval of Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs). 

The Grey Zone threat emerging from across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) severely threatens India’s national security. Firstly, India’s inherent strength in the software domain must be backed up by the indigenous development of hardware and secure communication networks in which collaboration with QUAD and Five Eyes intelligence countries can enhance our technology and cyber deterrence. The safety of critical infrastructure and datasets must be ensured by removing the bugs and security patches exploited under APT attacks. 

The disinformation campaigns and influence operations require constant vigil. They must be strengthened by investing our capabilities in Technical Intelligence (TECHINT) and Human Intelligence (HUMINT) by investing in emerging technology startups.

Strategic communications require a robust indigenous internal communication mechanism to counter any disinformation in our society. Imparting training in most spoken dialects of regional languages of India to counter such influence operations in a diverse country like India is a solution.

[Representational Image by Cliff Hang / Pixabay]

Srijan Sharma is a national security analyst specializing in intelligence and security analysis and working as a Research Assistant in India’s premier and prestigious national security and foreign policy think tank United Service Institution of India(USI). 

Prakrat Gupta is a cyber security analyst specializing in cyber affairs, Artificial Intelligence and Cyber espionage. He has briefly worked with various state police departments in India and looked after the cyberprojects. He has also served as a Research Assistant in United Service Institution of India (USI). The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.

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