Prospects for Extended Deterrence in Space and Cyber: The Case of the PRC

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Prospects for Extended Deterrence in Space and Cyber: The Case of the PRC

January 21, 2016 18 min read Download Report
Dean Cheng
Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center
Dean brings knowledge of China's military and space capabilities as a research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs.

While there has been discussion about whether today’s security environment constitutes a “neo-Cold War,” the reality is that it is actually more complex than the Cold War. For most of the period between 1947 and 1992, the situation was largely marked by a bipolar balance, where the two major players created somewhat symmetrical blocs of allies, friends, and client states. Consequently, there was a potential for symmetric responses and signaling. As important, there was a perceived continuum of security that spanned conventional and nuclear thinking, linking the use of force in the former to the potential for escalation into the latter. It is within this context that “extended deterrence” took shape.

Today’s world, however, is much more multipolar, so most states, including increasingly the U.S., have to consider more than just a single, highest priority contingency. Consequently, signaling is also more difficult, especially because there is no symmetry of relations and alliance networks. This is exacerbated by the spread of military operations to outer space and the cyber realm. That various activities are more open to consideration in space and cyber erodes the conceptual firebreak that marked the Cold War.

It is important to begin with some definitions of key concepts. First, what is deterrence? From the American perspective, deterrence is the combination of actual capability and will to employ that capability to influence an adversary, typically to not do something. As Alexander George and Richard Smoke wrote in 1974, deterrence “in its most general form…[is] simply the persuasion of one’s opponent that the costs and/or risks of a given course of action he might take outweigh its benefits.”[1]

Thus, deterrence is typically seen by American decision-makers as a goal. Although there is nothing in this formulation that presupposes deterrence as being dissuasive versus coercive, in the Western conception, deterrence is almost wholly associated with the idea of dissuasion.

This focus on dissuasion and defense, especially when it comes to space and cyber, is reflected in the array of U.S. government strategic documents including the National Security Space Strategy, the National Space Policy, the U.S. National Security Strategy, and the U.S. National Military Strategy. The American focus seems to be on deterrence in space—in particular, on deterring an opponent from attacking our own space assets. The same sort of logic appears to be developing regarding cyber, as reflected in the recent Department of Defense Cyber Strategy and the earlier Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative.

In each of these respects, the People’s Republic of China has a very different perspective. Whereas for the United States the very act of deterring an opponent or multiple opponents from acting in certain ways is seen as serving U.S. interests, deterrence in the Chinese view is a means rather than an end. This is because the Chinese concept of weishe, which is typically translated as “deterrence,” embodies both “dissuasion” and “coercion.” Coercion, in turn, is typically in the service of some other goal: One does not simply coerce an adversary; one coerces an adversary to get them to do something that one wants. Thus, the Chinese would employ weishe as the means, whether dissuasive or coercive, to persuade an opponent to follow a course of action that accords with larger Chinese strategic objectives.

Within such a framework, the Chinese are not necessarily interested so much in deterrence in the space or cyber environments, but rather are interested in the use of space and/or cyber as means to effect deterrence, including coercion. Thus, in Chinese writings, space operations are characterized as contributing to an effort to achieve overall goals, whether in conjunction with conventional and/or nuclear operations or on their own, either through weishe (i.e., dissuasion and coercion) or in actual combat. There is little discussion of deterring actions in space.

The realm of cyber would seem to be even more complex. Operations in the cyber domain are part of the larger portfolio of information operations, which includes not only what the U.S. has typically termed computer network exploitation, computer network attack, and computer network defense, but also electronic warfare; psychological operations; camouflage, concealment, and deception; and kinetic attacks against sensors, information and communications networks, and command and control facilities. While Chinese analysts have discussed “information deterrence,” there appears to have been little discussion of “network deterrence” or “cyber deterrence.”[2]

This, again, would seem consistent with the Chinese focus on deterring, including coercing, an adversary through actions in the information domain but not deterring actions in that domain in the first place.

These asymmetries in perspective and definition make comparisons of American and Chinese approaches to even basic deterrence approaches difficult. For the Chinese, for example, actual use of space weapons is the highest rung of what seems to be an “escalation ladder” of deterrent actions. This would seem to be a radically different perspective from that of the United States, where weapons use is rarely considered part of deterrence. This divergence holds dangerous implications in event of a crisis.

The situation with extended deterrence is even more problematic. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union had allies and commitments outside their national territories. Consequently, there were at least some parallels in terms of understanding extended deterrence. In the case of the PRC, however, that nation has few allies; neither Pakistan nor North Korea, the closest analogues, is comparable to the American relationship with Japan or Great Britain. Consequently, China does not have a parallel experience with extended deterrence; it is not attempting to defend allies. Instead, along its periphery, China itself directly confronts American friends and allies, whether it is Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, or Taiwan.

This creates substantially different, asymmetric concerns between China and the United States. Where Beijing is concerned about direct deterrence (i.e., direct threats to China), Washington is engaged in extended deterrence in support of allies.

This is further exacerbated by the nature of many of the tensions. Whether it is the Senkakus dispute with Japan, the issue of Taiwan, or the South China Sea, Beijing sees these as matters of Chinese territorial sovereignty, what is often termed “core interests.” Thus, China is seeking to engage in weishe (whether dissuasion or coercion) over territorial concerns to which the United States is not a party.

Beijing arguably perceives these concerns as defensive and preserving the status quo (i.e., its territorial integrity and sovereignty), which casts a different light again on the objectives being served by weishe. Deterring threats to one’s own immediate territory typically embodies greater commitment and resolve.

The Problem of Extended Deterrence Through Cyberspace and Outer Space

All of these conditions make traditional extended deterrence with land, sea, and air forces difficult. The incorporation of cyberspace and outer space, however, does not necessarily mark a qualitative change in terms of deterring broad military threats to American allies.

Indeed, given the Chinese view that future “local wars under informationized conditions” will be joint operations involving operations on land, sea, and air, in outer space, and in the electromagnetic spectrum, including cyberspace, the PRC views future weishe requirements in a way that resembles “extended cross-domain deterrence.” That is, the PRC will seek to employ all the various forces and capabilities in pursuit of its ends; therefore, the United States should be thinking about extended deterrent measures that similarly embody all of its capabilities, including land, sea, air, outer space, cyber, and nuclear forces.

Should the PRC threaten to engage in broad actions against an ally or friend, it is not clear that the extended deterrent challenges confronting the United States would be fundamentally different because of the added domains of outer space and cyberspace.

The Problem of Extended Deterrence in Cyberspace and Outer Space

The more difficult, but arguably the most unlikely, contingency is that of engaging in extended deterrence in the face of attacks only in cyber (or space), although it should be noted that Chinese military writings suggest that, in the event of conflict, it is unlikely that the Chinese would engage only in cyber (or space) attacks. Moreover, this presumes that there is a level of confidence in attribution such that the United States (and its allies) could be sure that it was retaliating against the right adversary.

Nonetheless, various conditions make extended deterrence in outer space and cyberspace almost impossible. To begin with, it is unclear what one wishes to deter. In the case of cyberspace, for example, if the objective is to engage in extended deterrence against computer network exploitation and cyber espionage, it is an open question how well one can defend one’s own networks, never mind others’. Nor is it clear how one can credibly provide extended deterrence if the supported state should have only weak protections for its cyber systems and information infrastructure.

Indeed, the lack of American reaction in the wake of the hacking of the OPM suggests that even basic deterrence (or defense) in cyberspace is difficult.[3] This is made even more problematic by the extensive Chinese sales of hardware to various states: How does one help defend a nation’s information systems if they have embedded vulnerabilities?

Similarly, it is difficult to imagine that one can engage in extended deterrence on behalf of an ally’s space assets in the face of jamming, dazzling, or other interference. As with cyber, there is an attribution issue: Was the use of a laser against a satellite an attempt to interfere with its systems or an attempt to determine its distance? As with cyber, there is also the question of an appropriate response. Barring sustained jamming and dazzling, any response will suffer from a lag time. It is not clear what a symmetric response would be for a third party (i.e., the one providing extended deterrence) on behalf of its supported partner. Should the United States jam or dazzle a Chinese satellite in response to Chinese actions against a Japanese system?

The situation is further complicated if the United States itself has not been targeted for cyber attacks. While one might try to draw a parallel with the nuclear deterrent situation of the Cold War, the difference in the two sides’ political situations (i.e., the absence of Chinese allies) means that any response would be aimed directly at the PRC, inviting retaliation against the United States. There would be few “firebreaks” in terms of targets or effects. Consequently, a decision to engage in retaliatory cyber or space attacks to fulfill extended deterrence in the face of cyber or space attacks against an ally or friend would mean opening up the American information and space infrastructure to retaliation. (Again, this presumes that the attacker can in fact be identified with sufficient certainty to allow for American retaliation.)

The parallel further breaks down with regard to attribution of the response. While an American response in space to a space attack may have telltale characteristics that make clear it is an American response, the difficulties of attribution in cyberspace would extend to any American response. The United States may find it hard to signal its commitment to Japan if the PRC is subjected to a variety of attacks by a host of players, especially if there are third parties (e.g., non-threatened regional states who are nonetheless antagonistic to China) or non-governmental entities (e.g., citizen hackers, Anonymous) who are also engaging in cyber attacks.

Conversely, it may be that the combination of attribution and multiple players makes limiting escalation in the context of extended deterrence also more difficult. For the United States, there is the problem of determining a proportionate response to a cyber attack on an ally. What would be the proper counterpart to a cyber attack that damaged Japanese Self Defense Force command and control networks? Would shutting down the entire PLA conventional forces’ C2 infrastructure (assuming it can be differentiated from its nuclear C2 structure) be proportionate or seen as opening the way for larger-scale American military strikes? This becomes much less problematic if the cyber and space attacks occur in the context of a larger military offensive, but that would return the focus to extended deterrence against conflict in general.

Extended deterrent responses in cyberspace also must address the dynamic nature of the cyber environment itself. In the first place, it is presumed that most cyber weapons can realistically only be used once; once exposed, the target is likely to take remedial actions that will negate any further attempts to exploit that particular weakness. It may be that some types of vulnerabilities may be harder to resolve than others (e.g., pervasive, hardware-based vulnerabilities would take longer to address simply because of physical constraints). Consequently, any decision to use a cyber weapon would effectively mean its removal from the inventory, making a decision to use such a tool on behalf of a partner a critical one.

Moreover, if one is seeking to respond to an adversary’s initial cyber attack, it is likely that the adversary will have already moved to limit their own vulnerability (e.g., moving to air-gapped systems, initiating stricter security protocols, etc.). Consequently, one cannot be sure if the pre-conflict array of cyber weapons and tools would be available once the conflict has started, especially if the adversary initiates them. As important, simply in the course of day-to-day activities, software patches, security updates, etc., may eliminate or reduce vulnerabilities. The ability to credibly (i.e., consistently and effectively) engage in extended deterrence in the cyber domain is therefore always subject to an adversary’s actions.

Chinese Perspective on Deterrence and the Space and Cyber Domains

Chinese views on deterrence, as noted earlier, differ significantly from Western views, beginning with the greater emphasis on coercion.[4] There is little evidence that the Chinese are focusing much effort on deterring actions in space or the cyber realm; instead, their writings suggest a much greater emphasis on coercing an adversary through actions in the space and cyber domains, often in conjunction with conventional and even nuclear forces.

Space Deterrence.[5] Space deterrence (kongjian weishe) is characterized by the PLA as the use of space forces and capabilities to deter or coerce an opponent, preventing the outbreak of conflict, or limiting its extent should conflict occur.[6] By displaying one’s own space capabilities and demonstrating determination and will, the PLA would hope to induce doubt and fear in an opponent so that they would either abandon their goals or else limit the scale, intensity, and types of operations.

It is important to note that space deterrence is not aimed solely, or even necessarily, at deterring actions in space, but rather, in conjunction with nuclear, conventional, and informational deterrence capabilities and activities, at influencing an opponent’s overall perceptions and activities. PLA teaching materials suggest that there is a perceived hierarchy of space deterrence actions, perhaps akin to an “escalation ladder” involving displays of space forces and weapons, military space exercises, deployment or augmentation of space forces, and employment of space weapons.

Displays of space forces and weapons (kongjian liliang xianshi) occur in peacetime or at the onset of a crisis. The goal is to warn an opponent in the hopes of dissuading them from escalating a crisis or pursuing courses of action that will lead to conflict. Such displays involve the use of various forms of media to highlight one’s space forces and are ideally complemented by political and diplomatic gestures and actions, such as inviting foreign military attachés to attend weapons tests and demonstrations.

Military space exercises (kongjian junshi yanxi) are undertaken as a crisis escalates if displays of space forces and weapons are insufficient to compel an opponent to alter course. They can involve actual forces or computer simulations and are intended to demonstrate one’s capabilities but also military preparations and readiness. At the same time, such exercises will also improve one’s military space force readiness. Examples include ballistic missile defense tests, anti-satellite unit tests, exercises demonstrating space strike (kongjian tuji) capabilities, and displays of real-time and near real-time information support from space systems.

Space force deployments (kongjian liliang bushu) are seen as a significant escalation of space deterrent efforts. They occur when one concludes that an opponent is engaged in preparations for war and involve the rapid adjustment of space force deployments. As with military space exercises, this measure is not only intended to deter an opponent, but also, should deterrence fail, is seen as improving one’s own preparations for combat.

Such deployments, which may involve moving assets that are already in orbit and/or reinforcing current assets with additional platforms and systems, are intended to create local superiority of forces so that an opponent will clearly be in an inferior position. They may also involve the recall of certain space assets (e.g., space shuttles) either to preserve them from enemy action or to allow them to prepare for new missions. This may be akin to the evacuation of dependents from a region in crisis as a signal of imminent conflict.

The Chinese term the final step of space deterrence as “space shock and awe strikes” (kongjian zhenshe daji). If the three previous, less-violent deterrent measures are insufficient, then the PLA suggests engaging in punitive strikes so as to warn an opponent that one is prepared for full-blown, comprehensive conflict in defense of the nation. Such strikes are seen as the highest and final technique (zuigao xingshi he zui hou shouduan) in seeking to deter and dissuade an opponent. Employing a combination of hard-kill and soft-kill methods, one would attack an opponent’s physical space infrastructure and data links. If this succeeds, opposing decision-makers will be psychologically shaken and cease their activities. If it fails, an opponent’s forces will nonetheless have suffered some damage and losses, which will help ensure victory in the course of open conflict.

Information Deterrence. According to PLA writings, “information deterrence” (xinxi weishe) conceptually includes deterrence in the cyber realm but goes further, encompassing all aspects of information and information operations. It is defined in the PLA’s terminological reference volume as “a type of information operations activity in which one compels the adversary to abandon their resistance or reduce the level of resistance, through the display of information advantage or the expression of deterrent/coercive information.”[7]

The 2007 edition of the PLA Military Encyclopedia defines “information deterrence” as those activities in which “threats that employ information weapons or which implement information attacks against an opponent, lead to shock and awe and constrain the adversary.”[8] Another Chinese study guide defines it as “a national display of information advantage or the ability to employ information operations to paralyze an adversary’s information systems, so as to threaten that adversary. This serves to constrain the other side, as part of the deterrent/coercive goal.”[9]

What is clear across these various definitions is that “information deterrence,” like the broader Chinese conception of deterrence in general, includes both dissuasion and coercion and embodies the idea of deterring through information operations rather than deterring operations in information space.

Information deterrence, as with all the various Chinese concepts of information warfare, is built upon the ability to establish “information dominance” (zhi xinxi quan), the ability to control information within a given time and region, including one’s own ability to obtain and exploit information, and denying the adversary that same ability.[10] Information deterrence, however, is more focused on influencing those who use information than on affecting the flow and exploitation of information, except insofar as the latter supports the former.

Information deterrence is largely tied to information offensive operations (xinxi jingong zuozhan), and especially network offensive operations (wangluo gongji li). Because they require little overhead and have multiple means of being implemented, information offensive operations are hard to defend against. Network offensive operations have the added advantage that the attacker has the advantage of the initiative.

Information deterrence is important in peacetime because it can help manage crises and limit the potential for the outbreak of war. Such operations have the added advantage over conventional or nuclear deterrence because they are more credible, since information offensive operations can be undertaken in peacetime without precipitating conflict.[11] They are important in the event of crisis because they can affect every aspect of an adversary’s decision-making process while also strengthening one’s own overall military situation.

Thus, not only will an adversary be influenced directly by information offensive operations, but the improvements in the relative balance between oneself and the adversary will reinforce the deterrent and coercive effects.

The use and threatened use of information warfare capabilities (including weapons and methods) are seen as an integral part of information deterrence efforts. In particular, by demonstrating to an opponent the ability to erode or deny information access, PLA analysts believe that this would jeopardize an opponent’s overall ability to conduct the joint operations essential to informationized warfare. “It may be said that in joint campaigns, without information dominance, one cannot sustain comprehensive battlefield dominance.”[12] The inability to conduct joint operations, in turn, would mean that an adversary would be operating at an enormous disadvantage and would likely concede or at least defer conflict.

The relationship between information dominance and space dominance is seen as especially intimate, for without reliable access to information on a timely basis, one cannot ensure that space weapons and information systems can safely operate or be controlled and used effectively in combat. “Therefore, without battlefield information dominance, there can be no battlefield space dominance.”[13]

Information deterrence is also closely tied to the psychological warfare aspect of information warfare. Local wars under informationized conditions already impose a significant psychological cost. Cognitive and emotional processes are often subject to serious interference and stress, given the more intense nature of such conflicts. The will of both top military and civilian leaders as well as the broader population will also be under much greater pressures from deliberate psychological warfare, as well as threats of attacks from various quarters (including network and electronic warfare).[14]

Particularly powerful tools for psychological warfare in support of information deterrence are the media (especially television) and the Internet, coupled with specifically provided information. News media, especially television news, is seen as having both a broad audience and a broad acceptance and authoritativeness, allowing it to generate broad reactions. Similarly, the Internet not only has permeated many societies, but is virtually impossible to control, so that messages aimed at eroding support are difficult to muzzle.

Implications for Extended Deterrence in the Asia–Pacific

Interestingly, some Chinese analysts seem to believe that a state of mutual “information deterrence” already exists in the Asia–Pacific region, at least insofar as disruptive attacks against each other’s information networks are concerned. It is noted that among states of roughly equal levels of information technology, and given the wide penetration of the Internet into all aspects of all nations’ societies, economies, and political structures, states will not engage in disruptive network warfare lightly.[15] This would suggest that with respect to computer network exploitation (i.e., cyber espionage), there is some degree of restraint against proceeding to erase data or physically destroy key elements of a potential adversary’s information networks, at least in peacetime.

More worrisome, some Chinese writings suggest that in time of crisis, one needs to remind an adversary of one’s ability to plant viruses or otherwise undertake information attacks (xinxi jingong) in order to warn them to cease their policies or otherwise coerce them. At a minimum, such moves are seen as promoting psychological pressures, as they will arouse fear and may undermine will.[16]

If there is a basic symmetry of perspective and capability in information capabilities on the two sides of the Pacific leading to a broad form of mutual direct deterrence, the same is not true for extended deterrence. The diverging political context for extended deterrence in the Asia–Pacific in the 21st century, compared with that in Europe during the Cold War, coupled with the different perspectives on extended deterrence in the space and cyber realms, has important implications for the United States.

Most importantly, the PRC is not focused on engaging in extended deterrence (given the lack of an alliance network), but on countering extended deterrence. In particular, the PRC sees itself at present as likely confronting the United States should it be compelled to consider the use of force against Taiwan or Japan. It therefore sees cyber and space weishe activities as seeking to coerce Taiwan and Japan to accommodate Chinese demands while ideally dissuading the United States from acting.

But such actions are unlikely to occur independent of larger efforts at both coercion and dissuasion. That is, it is unlikely that the PRC would rely only on space or cyber actions to message their intentions (although there may be only space or cyber activities at any given moment). As important, there is no evidence that the Chinese would be intent on deterring actions in space and/or cyber whether in a crisis or day-to-day, whether in a basic or extended deterrence framework.

For the United States, then, the issue in the Pacific does not really differentiate between basic deterrence and extended deterrence, and outer space and the cyber environment are only additional areas where signaling can occur. Beijing will look to American actions in the aggregate, including naval movements and air and ground force deployments, as well as activities in outer space and the cyber environment in assessing American commitments—the essence of “extended deterrence.” At the same time, it will also employ its own air, land, sea, space, and cyber forces to signal its own resolve and intentions.

—Dean Cheng is Senior Research Fellow for Chinese Political and Security Affairs in the Asian Studies Center, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] Alexander George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), p. 11.

[2] It is noteworthy that there is no entry for either “electronic deterrence” or “network deterrence” in the Chinese volume of military terminology.

[3] Ellen Nakashima, “U.S. Decides Against Publicly Blaming China for Data Hack,” The Washington Post, July 21, 2015, (accessed October 15, 2015).

[4] For a more extended discussion of Chinese views of deterrence, see Dean Cheng, “Chinese Views on Deterrence,” Joint Force Quarterly, Issue 60 (First Quarter 2011), pp. 92–94, (accessed October 15, 2015).

[5] This section is drawn from Jiang Lianju, Space Operations Teaching Materials (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2013), and Chang Xianqi, Military Astronautics, 2nd ed. (Beijing: National Defense Industries Press, 2005).

[6] Jiang Lianju, Space Operations Teaching Materials, p. 126.

[7] Chinese People’s Liberation Army Terminology (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2011), p. 262.

[8] Chinese People’s Liberation Army, National Defense University Scientific Research Department, Chinese Military Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., Military Strategy (Beijing: Chinese Encyclopedia Publishing House, 2007), p. 283.

[9] AMS Operations Theory and Regulations Research Department and Informationized Operations Theory Research Office, Informationized Operations Theory Study Guide—400 Questions About Informationized Operations (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2005), p. 15.

[10] Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Chinese Military Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., Military Strategy, p. 213.

[11] Chi Yajun and Xiao Yunhua, Essentials of Informationized Warfare and Information Operations Theory (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2006), p. 252.

[12] Li Yousheng, Joint Campaign Teaching Materials (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2012), p. 69.

[13] Ibid., p. 70.

[14] Chi Yajun and Xiao Yunhua, Essentials of Informationized Warfare and Information Operations Theory, pp. 302–304.

[15] AMS Operations Theory and Regulations Research Department and Informationized Operations Theory Research Office, Informationized Operations Theory Study Guide, p. 15.

[16] Chinese People’s Liberation Army, National Defense University Scientific Research Department, Chinese Military Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., Military Strategy, p. 283.


Dean Cheng
Dean Cheng

Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center