• China’s consolidated control its political mechanisms enables a unity of effort difficult to achieve in democracies. Credit: Shutterstock/Poring Studio
     China’s consolidated control its political mechanisms enables a unity of effort difficult to achieve in democracies. Credit: Shutterstock/Poring Studio

China Posing Power Challenge

The Cyber Edge
March 1, 2021
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Hybrid approach influences governance and military strategy.


The rise of the People’s Republic China as a peer competitor vying for superpower status has emerged as an important challenge for the United States. To confront this competition, policy and decision makers must preserve and extend U.S. global interests to deter China if necessary and work in the international system in which the United States plays a vital role.

In a recently published white paper, AFCEA Cyber Committee members open the discussion about China’s hybrid approach to the use of power, particularly in cyberspace. The document describes two facets of this approach: its influence on internal and external governance and how it applies to the battlefield.

As China has modernized and gained strength, it appears to have sought mechanisms by which it can shape the international system and tools that afford it unique influence and privileges equal to—and perhaps surpassing—those of the United States. China’s approach is complex, but many of the method’s aspects are evident, the paper’s authors state.

The Chinese Communist Party exercises consolidated control over the country’s political mechanisms, which enables a unity of effort that is difficult to achieve in democracies. Consequently, China’s policy- and decision-making elites can act throughout the nation’s civil society, civil government, military and economy in a coordinated manner that reflects its national interests and aspirations, they point out.

A progressively modern infrastructure and technology base that reflects increasingly organic innovation buttresses the country’s economy. Once dependent largely on the import—and, some would say, theft—of foreign intellectual property, China’s technology base is increasingly homegrown, benefiting from world-class research and development spending, facilities and most importantly people.

The country’s rise also is exhibited by the technology developed for and deployed to its armed forces, the white paper’s authors state, and it is building space-faring capabilities useful for global conflict.

China’s land, sea, air and space forces also are undergoing a process of “informationalization” that reflects lessons learned from the U.S. concepts of network-centric warfare, though Chinese leaders are likely extending the use of technology to their own doctrines and operational concepts.

As China’s strategy has emerged, at least two overarching consequences are arising for the United States, its allies and its partners.

First, China’s approach to the integration of technology, ideology and governance is likely to be exported along the Digital Silk Road. Nations that adopt this approach can govern using China’s method to digital authoritarianism, diminishing the influence of U.S. values and possibly of the United States within and among other countries the Digital Silk Road encompasses.

Second, and perhaps of more immediate relevance to the military, government, industry and academia, is the likelihood that China’s approach to integrated, smart city-like infrastructures comprising numerous sensors, 5G networks, machine learning and artificial intelligence will be used to craft a new approach to warfare.

U.S. policy and decision makers should act in an integrated manner, the paper’s authors propose, to understand China’s use of economic, political and technology power to shape events along the Digital Silk Road. The United States needs to provide alternatives to countries that might consume China’s model either on their own behalf or possibly on behalf of China itself, they emphasize.

The U.S. defense community should examine its assumptions about China’s approach to the battlefield, conceding that China’s concept development may be, in some cases, ahead of its own, the experts add.

To find out more about how the United States and its allies should respond to the consequences of China’s hybrid approach to the use of power, download the free white paper from the SIGNAL Resource Library.

And don't miss the AFCEA TechNet Indo-Pacific conference, which takes place March 1-3 and features keynote speakers Adm. Philip S. Davidson, USN, commander, USINDOPACOM, and Rear Adm. Michael Studeman, USN, director for intelligence, USINDOPACOM.

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