South China Sea conflict: China cyber war that is the real story

By Debra Killalea

China remains a major player in the South China Sea, but any conflict in future won't take place on water it's been predicted. Photo / AP
China remains a major player in the South China Sea, but any conflict in future won't take place on water it's been predicted. Photo / AP

It's a scary but potentially very real threat facing the world by 2030.

In fact one expert warns China's cyber war capabilities will in the future be more dangerous than anything else currently taking place across the region.

By the next decade, Beijing's cyber war capabilities could change the strategic balance in Asia, eclipsing the potential danger of rising tensions in the South China Sea.

That is the view of cyber security expert Greg Austin who predicts new technologies will "redefine both war and politics across East Asia".

The professor of cyber security, strategy and diplomacy in the Australian Centre for Cyber Security at the University of NSW told that while tensions were simmering in the South China Sea, the biggest threat to peace in the region was yet to come.

"Today, China is struggling to integrate cyber weapons and information dominance into its military strategies," he said.

"By 2030, China will have acquired a total war capability in cyber space against Taiwan.

"This will alter the strategic balance in the Western Pacific more than anything that is happening around the coral reefs in the South China Sea today."

Prof Austin, who addressed a two-day conference with a presentation on Shaping the Cyber Arms Race of the Future, yesterday also warned Australia was lagging behind.

China will have the capabilities of launching a cyber attack on Taiwan by 2030. Photo / Facebook
China will have the capabilities of launching a cyber attack on Taiwan by 2030. Photo / Facebook

Prof Austin said warfare in East Asia today could be described as cyber-enabled but this would change very quickly.

"After 2030, it will become 'cyber-dominant' and Australia will have to build systems that can survive in that environment of electronic torpedos and logic bombs," he warned.

He said it was vital Australia's military and naval technology could withstand any potential cyber threats in future.

"Australia's 12 new submarines, the first to be launched in 2030, at a total cost in excess of $30 billion, would have to operate in cyber space even better than they can navigate under the sea," he warned.

"Any major power that Australia confronts in conflict at sea after 2030 will use cyber attacks to try to prevent these boats from putting to sea, or failing that, to disable them or their weapons systems at sea.

"All of the critical systems will be cyber-controlled and therefore cyber vulnerable, even if it meant simply manipulating and falsifying data inputs into various systems."

Prof Austin, who touched on the arguments in a January 2016 paper Australia Re-armed: Future Needs for Cyber-Enabled Warfare, said China and the US had a confrontational relationship in regards to the South China Sea, especially in regards to Taiwan.

China was determined to maintain control over the island territory but not at the risk of a massive ground or air war with huge casualties.

However if China was to attack Taiwan now in a war it would ultimately fail as it would have backing from its powerful US ally.

Prof Austin said people were looking at the wrong place in terms of the next major US China flashpoint.

"The real issue here is cyber security," he said predicting how the future relationship would pan out.

"We're looking in the wrong place. It won't be in the South China Sea where the strategic interests of China and the US collide.

"Instead the place were these interests will collide is in cyber space.

While the US was already heavily investing in its cyber military capabilities, Beijing appeared to be lagging, but not for long.

"By 2030 China's military capabilities in cyber space will look significantly different to what they do today," Prof Austin said.

"By 2030 China will be more than capable of launching a militarily disabling cyber attack on Taiwan."

Such capability, without even needing an actual attack, would shift the balance of power enabling China to keep a firm grip on the Taiwan Strait.

The US on the other hand would not be keen to see Taiwan fall under greater Chinese sway, since a unified Chinese nation would have even more influence across the region.

"For China the biggest problem in terms of global and security affairs isn't the South China Sea, it's the reunification with Taiwan."

Why is cyber war a big deal

Military giants such as the US rely on its satellites for major communication, GPS and a range of other things.

"The aim of a cyber-enabled war would be to prevent these communication channels working," Prof Austin said.

He said like in any modern war, the key would be for a country such as China, controlling the communication channels.

"The concern for our government is how our defence forces will respond to what the US and China are doing," he said.

The US has an interest in the South China Sea and in protecting ally Taiwan. Photo / AP
The US has an interest in the South China Sea and in protecting ally Taiwan. Photo / AP

War in space

The idea of a major cyber attack being carried out in future is not new.

Last month, senior military experts predicted that space will be the next military flashpoint with China, Russia and the US all in on the race to dominate.

Writing for global intelligence agency Statfor, senior military analyst Omar Lamrani warned the race for dominance in space began some time ago but the race toward its weaponisation is accelerating at a rapid rate.

He also warned of the potential for US technology being attacked in orbit with its reliance of technologies entailing the greatest risk.

The US relies on satellites for navigation, intelligence collection, precision targeting, communication and early warning activities.

However Mr Lamrani noted the crucial point is China and Russia don't rely on space technology as much as the US.

Beijing is able to rely on ground-based radars and sensors in a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, leaving it at a massive advantage.


Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 24 Oct 2016 14:12:31 Processing Time: 624ms