James Lewis is Director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at CSIS, Washington, DC. This is the first of a five-part series on the world of cyber. The focus is Asia and particularly the role of China.

There is widespread concern about strategic competition in cyberspace, including cyber espionage and cyber attack as an element of armed force. Cyber infrastructure is critical to the global economy. Yet it is badly secured, worse governed, and a place of interstate competition and potential conflict.

In the US, the Defense Department is, according to leaked reports to the Washington Post, expanding its Cyber Command, an organisation that was focused mostly on defensive measures, into an assertive fighting force which will expand from 900 personnel to 4000. In Australia, Prime Minister Gillard announced in January the establishment of the Australian Cyber Security Centre, drawing attention to attacks from states as well as individuals as the world economy 'moves east'. 

However, the cyber domain is better understood in terms of competition rather than of war.

From a legal and political perspective, the distinction between armed force, espionage, and crime is very important for decision-making. Crime, even if state sponsored, does not justify a military response under existing international law. Nor does espionage justify an armed response. 

The concerns over strategic cyber competition may be global but it is Asia, with its political tensions, vigorous economies, and lack of strong multilateral institutions that is a focal point for this new form of competition. And it is the rise of China and its extensive cyber capabilities that defines strategic competition in both Asia and cyberspace globally.

The information technology industry is now largely Pacific-based, with Asian countries, the US and India creating most digital products. The internet is an enabling technology for global business that has helped propel rapidly growing Asian economies. Asian societies have been enthusiastic adopters of the internet and have made it an important vehicle for political expression within and between Asian nations.

In the Asian region, cyber competition and conflict encompasses planning for military competition and asymmetric warfare, engagement in economic espionage to gain economic and trade advantages, as well as a new kind of transnational mass political action. The 'cyber powers' of the Asia Pacific are the US, China, Russia, Taiwan, North and South Korea, and Australia. Other countries, such as Japan and India, and even less developed nations like Burma, are also exploring military cyber capabilities, making this a crowded field for competition.

The US, China and Russia have the most advanced cyber capabilities in Asia. The capabilities of other Asian nations range from nominal to relatively sophisticated, albeit not in the top tier. Judging from public sources, ten Asian nations – twelve, if we count Russia and the US – are developing cyber capabilities. Seven are developing military capabilities and doctrine: Australia, China, North Korea, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, South Korea. Another three (Brunei, Japan, and Singapore) are developing defence-only capabilities.

Australia has a unique advantage in cyber capability development given its close intelligence sharing relationships with the US and UK. 

Information technology and cyberspace occupy a central position in Chinese politics, strategy, and economic policy. China is modernising its military forces for 'informatised' warfare.  Economic espionage in cyberspace is routine in China, and Chinese government agencies, companies, and individuals have increased efforts to illicitly acquire technology or gain business advantage.

China's growing strength and its apparent desire for increased regional influence (if not dominance), and the question of whether China's 'development' will be peaceful or aggressive, are the principal strategic issues for Asia. The internet complicates this discussion because China's leaders must also deal with the growing but uneven power of China's 'netizens' to affect policy-making.

The most influential elements in Chinese thinking appear to include an intent to develop asymmetric military capabilities, to promote indigenous innovation, and to restore China's rightful place in the world after the 'century of humiliation'.

Over the course of this series, we will explore various aspects of cyber competition in the region, including crime, political activism, economic hacking and espionage. The threat of cyber war is often exaggerated, but the risk of cyber espionage and cyber crime is vastly under-appreciated, as we will see in the next post.

Photo by Flickr user Truthout.org.