China’s Development of Asymmetric Capabilities and Taiwan Strait Security 中國的非對稱能力的發展和台海安全

Gary J. Sampson 沙普瑞

National Sun Yat-sen University 國立中山大學

Author Note Gary J. Sampson, Institute of Political Science, National Sun Yat-sen University Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Gary J. Sampson, Institute of Political Science, National Sun Yat-sen University, 70 Lien-hai Road, Ku-shan District, Kaohsiung 804, Taiwan, ROC. E-mail:

CHINA’S DEVELOPMENT OF ASYMMETRIC CAPABILITIES Abstract China’s rapidly modernizing armed forces are focusing on acquiring and deploying so-called asymmetric capabilities such as anti-satellite weapons, anti-ship ballistic missiles, and computer network operations. A principal aim of these capabilities is to deny American forces access to the areas required to help defend Taiwan from a potential Chinese attack. Many analysts still believe that the Taiwan Strait is one of the most dangerous potential flashpoints in the world


today, one that in the case of a miscalculation could lead to nuclear conflict between the U.S. and China. What destabilizing effect does the development and deployment of the capabilities by China have on Taiwan Strait security? How can the Taiwan and the U.S. best prepare to counteract or mitigate the potential destabilizing effects of these Chinese capabilities? This research will draw salient information from the existing literature to bring forth several recommendations about how policymakers might mitigate the potential destabilizing effect on Taiwan Strait security. Keywords: asymmetric capabilities, Taiwan Strait security, China, computer network operations, anti-ship ballistic missile



中國的快速現代化的軍隊的重點是收購和部署所謂的非對稱功能,例如反衛星武器,反艦 彈道導彈,以及計算機網絡作戰。一個主要目的,這些能力是否認美國軍隊進入該領域需 要協防台灣從中國潛在的攻擊。許多分析人士仍然認為,台灣海峽是世界上最危險的潛在 衝突點,在當今世界,一個案件一個錯誤判斷都可能導致核衝突,美國和中國。破壞穩定 的作用是什麼意義上的發展和部署的能力的中國對台灣海峽的安全?如何為台灣和美國最 好的準備來抵消或減輕了潛在的破壞性影響,這些中文的能力?這項研究將突出信息從現 有的文獻,使提出的幾項建議決策者如何可能減輕了潛在的不穩定因素對台灣海峽的安 全。




China’s Development of Asymmetric Weapons and Taiwan Strait Security Many observers have documented China’s military modernization over the past two decades, in particular the special emphasis China has placed on so-called asymmetric weapons systems or capabilities designed in part to keep the U.S. from effectively intervening militarily in the event of a conflict over Taiwan. (Lampton, 2008, Wang, 2003) A few examples of these capabilities include anti-satellite weapons (ASAT), anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM), and computer network operations (CNO, commonly referred to as hacking or cyberwarfare). These capabilities are clearly of interest and some level of concern to the U.S. government, in that they occupy a prominent position in the most recent Congressionally-mandated Department of Defense (DoD) report on China’s military power (Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2009) and in the newest report of another Congressional committee, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. (U.S. - China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2009) Discussion of Chinese ASAT capabilities peaked immediately following a successful 2007 test in which they destroyed a non-functioning Chinese-owned weather satellite. (Kan, 2007, and Lieggi and Quam, 2007) This particular incident prompted the U.S. to conduct its own ASAT test the following year, causing many to worry about the escalating militarization of space. (Kaufman and White, 2008) More recently, a great deal of discussion has taken place in American military and defense circles about the threat from Chinese ASBMs, with Erickson and Yang’s (2009b) article serving as a good representation of the salient concerns.1 And continuously current in recent years is the issue of Chinese CNO – in fact, TIME Magazine, a popular American newsweekly, published an online article about CNO just before U.S. President Barack Obama’s much-hailed late 2009 visit to China, indicating that Chinese cyberwarfare is

CHINA’S DEVELOPMENT OF ASYMMETRIC CAPABILITIES the “dirty little secret” that cannot be discussed officially between the two countries. (Elegant, 2009) If CNO and other asymmetric means of warfare cannot be openly discussed between the U.S. and China, then what place do they hold in the realm of Taiwan Strait security? Lampton (2008: p. 41) posits that the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait and the trilateral relationship between China, Taiwan, and the U.S. remains a critical flashpoint and that U.S.


intervention in a potential crisis could potentially escalate as far as a nuclear exchange. It is clear, then, that that stakes in the Taiwan Strait security “game” are very high indeed. We must therefore ask, how does China’s development and deployment of asymmetric capabilities that purport to deny American military forces access to locations necessary to mount an effective military response to potential coercive actions by China destabilize this balance? And what should be done about it? Wang (2003) explores some of these questions under the general rubric of examining China’s “information warfare discourse.” However, Wang’s paper does not specifically focus on these three particular asymmetric capabilities and their implications, but instead on the broader phenomenon referred to as information warfare (IW) and how it affects Taiwan Strait security.2 Further, nearly seven years have passed since the publication of Wang’s paper and in the meantime China’s military modernization has continued apace, or perhaps even hastened, with greater and greater sums spent annually on defense driven by year after year of unprecedented economic growth. According to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, since 2000 China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has more than doubled and their military expenditures have more than tripled. (2009, p. VII) This paper aims to extend Wang’s view by arguing that these three capabilities in particular represent a destabilizing force more “clear and present” than do some of the more esoteric aspects of IW like financial crime, that, while potentially catastrophic

CHINA’S DEVELOPMENT OF ASYMMETRIC CAPABILITIES when viewed through the lens that acknowledges that China holds a tremendous stake in America’s financial health (via its large-scale purchase of American debt) (Ferguson, 2009) do not present a direct military threat to the U.S. or its allies. Therefore, this paper aims to explore the destabilizing effect China’s asymmetric capability development presents to Taiwan Strait security. Specifically, this will be done by reviewing the relevant literature to gain an understanding of the various capabilities under discussion and how they aim to “reset” the


playing field through asymmetric advantage. Note that the selected asymmetric capabilities to be examined are simply three in a wide array of capabilities that interest the Chinese that spans “ballistic and cruise missile systems; undersea warfare systems, including submarines and advanced naval mines; counterspace systems; computer network operations; special operations forces; and the “Three Warfares” concept.” (Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2009, p. 17) ASAT, ASBM, and CNO were selected for this research based on the author’s interests and previous exposure, narrowed from all capabilities listed above with some subjective assessment of these particular capabilities as being significant developments in terms of their ability to disrupt the balance of military power in the Taiwan Strait. A different analyst writing at a different time under different circumstances may find it more relevant to explore a different set of asymmetric capabilities. While exploring what the threat is and how it works, we will also examine documents from the U.S. Department of Defense to discover what the official threat perception is regarding these asymmetric capabilities in Washington. Finally, I will attempt to forecast how the U.S. and Taiwan might best counteract these Chinese threats to destabilizing the balance across the Taiwan Strait.3

CHINA’S DEVELOPMENT OF ASYMMETRIC CAPABILITIES Literature Review Chinese anti-satellite weapons (ASAT). Chinese ASAT capabilities are fairly well-understood, particularly when compared to


what is known about ASBM and CNO (both of which will be discussed later in the paper). This is because the Chinese boldly put the capability on display for the world in a successful directascent anti-satellite test in January 2007, which destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite in low-earth orbit. In an assessment prepared for members of the U.S. Congress soon after the Chinese ASAT test, Kan writes that China’s test was the first since during the Cold War when the U.S. and the Soviet Union both demonstrated the ability to knock a satellite from orbit. (Kan, 2007) There are a pair of security implications that arise from this bold declaration of capability: in the short term, it will probably take more than twenty years for the massive cloud of space debris to dissipate, which in the meantime poses a direct threat to all other space vehicles also in a low-earth orbit trajectory (including the International Space Station, American Space Shuttle missions, and any Chinese manned space flights). The long-term implication is more worrying to military analysts – this demonstrated capability (albeit under conditions controlled by the Chinese, as that it was their own satellite being destroyed) shows that the Chinese pose a realistic threat to take American satellites “off the net” in the event of a conflict. In fact, Kan’s Congressional Research Service report indicates that U.S. Department of Defense estimates say that by this year, China could have produced enough ASAT weapons to theoretically be able to knock out essentially all U.S. satellites in low-earth orbit with little or no warning, including reconnaissance and communications assets vital to the modern American “networked” way of war. (2009) This is precisely why these weapons are so provocative – by giving the upstart the

CHINA’S DEVELOPMENT OF ASYMMETRIC CAPABILITIES ability to take away or critically curtail an advanced capability of the dominant power, they provide a means for a rising power to quickly close the gap between the two. China’s ASAT capability has no direct effect on the Taiwan Strait during peacetime, but during a time of conflict it is likely that these weapons would be used in concert with other


capabilities4 by China in an effort to “blind” American satellites and destroy crucial space-based communications links. (Muradian, 2006, as cited in Kan, 2007) In light of the U.S. military’s performance in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, 1999’s Operation KEY RESOLVE in Kosovo, and in the more recent Afghan and Iraq Wars, it has been all too apparent to potential adversaries that American dependence on satellites and information networks are a “strategic Achilles’ heel.” (Lieggi & Quam, 2007; Wang, 2003) The Chinese have recognized this and it is likely that they would take action (including using ASAT weapons) during crisis to ameliorate what is seen as America’s space pre-eminence. The DoD’s 2009 report to Congress mentions China’s ASAT capability in several places, indicating that “China’s space activities and capabilities, including ASAT programs, have significant implications for anti-access/area-denial in Taiwan Strait contingencies and beyond.” (Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2009, p. 25) Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM). Chinese ASBM capabilities have been the subject of probably the most speculation as of late of the three capabilities here within examined. An ASBM differs from an ordinary anti-ship missile in its trajectory. An ordinary anti-ship missile is essentially a cruise missile that flies relatively low to the surface of the earth or ocean (generally only a few hundred feet in the air or less) and uses terrain to mask its approach.5 The ASBM is instead fired like a ballistic missile, i.e.

CHINA’S DEVELOPMENT OF ASYMMETRIC CAPABILITIES vertically up into the air, and after reaching a great altitude (perhaps into outer space), it comes down to earth essentially vertically, striking on the top of its target. Ordinary anti-ship / cruise missiles can be defeated with a variety of ship-borne countermeasures, mainly consisting of extremely high rate-of-fire, large-caliber Gatling-style cannons that literally put up a “wall of steel” between the ship and the incoming anti-ship missile. This type of defense cannot protect against an ASBM – in fact, really the only effective defense against an ASBM attack would be an anti-missile system such as the one found on U.S. Aegis class destroyers or a land-based system like the Patriot anti-missile battery that became prominent during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and that the U.S. recently agreed to sell to Taiwan (causing much uproar in China). (Jacobs & Ansfield, 2010) The Chinese are reportedly close to having such an ASBM system. The factor that has dogged successful adoption of the system until now has been accurate long-range targeting – after all, how do you track a moving ship (albeit a very large one) from the time of the launch of the ASBM, through flight into the upper reaches of the atmosphere and perhaps beyond, then have the ballistic missile in flight adapt to the changed course of the ship in order to strike it? (Typically, ballistic missiles are used against stationary targets like facilities, structures, or population centers, not moving targets.) The answer, it seems, lies in establishing a system of land-based over-the-horizon (OTH) sky-wave radar sites, which China is apparently now doing.


("Taiwan Matters to America", 2009) According to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (2009, p. 48), China’s ASBM, based on the CSS-5 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) has a range of over 1,500 km, “is armed with a maneuverable warhead, and when incorporated into a sophisticated command and control system, is intended to provide the PLA the capability to attack ships at sea, including aircraft carriers in the western Pacific Ocean.”



The primary value of the ASBM to China is in its capacity to deny access to an area. The area in question in this case would be the Taiwan Strait, and the objective would be to keep U.S. military forces (mainly naval) from getting close enough to effectively join the battle for Taiwan’s defense. Erickson and Yang (2009a, p. 54) state that “the very impression of such a[n ASBM] risk might deter carrier strike groups from entering the [Western Pacific] region in the first place.” Chinese computer network operations (CNO). Perhaps the least understood asymmetric capability currently believed to be in the Chinese “arsenal” is CNO. CNO is the doctrinal term used by the U.S. government that encompasses three related disciplines: computer network attack (CNA), computer network defense (CND), and computer network exploitation (CNE). Put simply, CNA is “offense,” CND is “defense,” and CNE is the “sneaky stuff” – trying to exfiltrate information for intelligence value undetected from a network. Given the significance of smoothly-running information networks in the modern day and age, it is no wonder that the topic of “hackers” is frequently covered in popular news outlets. (Bishop, 2006; Elegant, 2007; Gorman, 2009; Markoff, 2009) Much of what is known about CNO is highly classified and thus not available to the average researcher. Even so, Chinese CNO has been a topic mentioned for many years in the U.S. Defense Department’s annual reports to Congress on the military power of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The latest report (2009) is no exception. On Chinese CNO, it says that “The PLA has established information warfare units to develop viruses to attack enemy computer systems and networks, and tactics and measures to protect friendly computer systems and networks.” (Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2009, pp. 27 - 28)



The most recent report of the U.S. – China Economic and Security Review Commission also treats Chinese cyberwarfare. It states that “A large body of both circumstantial and forensic evidence strongly indicates Chinese state involvement in such activities, whether through the direct actions of state entities or through the actions of third-party groups sponsored by the state.” (U.S. - China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2009, p. 167) As a supplement to its main report, the Commission also released a separate report dealing exclusively with CNO. Its assessment of Chinese CNO strategy states that One of the chief strategies driving the process of informatization in the PLA is the coordinated use of CNO, electronic warfare (EW), and kinetic strikes designed to strike an enemy’s networked information systems, creating “blind spots” that various PLA forces could exploit at predetermined times or as the tactical situation warranted. Attacks on vital targets such as an adversary’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems will be largely the responsibility of EW and counterspace forces with an array of increasingly sophisticated jamming systems and anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. Attacks on an adversary’s data and networks will likely be the responsibility of dedicated computer network attack and exploitation units. (Krekel, 2009, p. 6) The biggest advantage of using CNO as part of an overall asymmetric strategy is that a great deal can be gained from a small investment. Up-and-coming powers can invest a relatively small amount of money on a cadre of hackers and some IT hardware to acquire a capability far in excess of buying a conventional capability, like a tank or a plane. Also, it is the most networkreliant powers (like the U.S.) that have the most to lose in a potential “Net War.”

CHINA’S DEVELOPMENT OF ASYMMETRIC CAPABILITIES Recommendations Much has been written about what these asymmetric capabilities are and what they can do, but not as much attention has been given to how these capabilities affect the balance across the Taiwan Strait. Not long ago, the conventional wisdom held that Taiwan’s armed forces,


outfitted with American weapons systems, would be able to more than hold their own against a large but relatively weak People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (Wang, 2003, p. 138). Now, only a few years later, this logic has essentially been turned on its head. Fueled by near-double-digit annual economic growth for most of the last three decades, China’s economic surge has passed along a gift to the PLA – rich funding for modernization. A great deal of investment has gone into asymmetric capabilities like the ones mentioned above, along with reductions in the oncedominant ground forces and expansion and enhancement of force-projection capabilities resident in the air, naval, and strategic rocket forces – exactly the types of forces necessary to, among other things, be successful in a conflict designed to re-take a so-called rogue province. Clearly, additional research needs to be done to fully explore the implications of Chinese developments in ASAT, ASBM and CNO on Taiwan Strait security, particularly in light of the warming relations between China and Taiwan since President Ma’s 2008 election. The author plans to continue to explore this topic in the years to come and produce additional research.



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Their main conclusions are that China’s purported ASBM capability, when operational, will indeed be a “game changer” – i.e. American aircraft carrier strike groups (the primary means used for naval power projection) may not be able to get close enough to the Taiwan Strait to make an effective difference in a possible China – Taiwan armed conflict. Writing in an influential military journal, Erickson and Wang maintain that it is not yet clear if the technology is proven nor that the Chinese have fielded the purported ASBM capability. An electronic version of the article is available at 2 Interestingly, the DoD’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (available at does not contain a definition for IW. Rather, the US military officially represents that IW falls under a broader classification known as information operations (IO). Information operations are defined as “the integrated employment of the core capabilities of electronic warfare, computer network operations [CNO], psychological operations, military deception, and operations security, in concert with specified supporting and related capabilities, to influence, disrupt, corrupt or usurp adversarial human and automated decision making while protecting our own.” (Accessed at; see also Joint Publication 3-13, Information Operations, 13 February 2006, pp. ix – x.) This definition incorporates some of what we will examine in this paper (for instance, CNO) but we must look elsewhere for a better working definition of IW. Wang’s definition incorporates a definition of IW first offered by Daniel and Julie Ryan (1994) and further amplified by Alger, writing in Schwartau (1994), which includes as a part of IW financial crime, intelligence gathering, and terrorist- and statebased threats, along with the traditionally accepted IW elements like CNO. 3 A note on sources: only open-source, unclassified materials will be used in this research. Access to restricted information in classified assessments may well render different judgments. 4 Ground-based lasers can be used to “dazzle” satellites, which can degrade or destroy a satellite’s ability to function properly without actually causing their physical destruction by way of means such as a direct-ascent missile that strikes them in orbit. 5 A well-known cruise missile, thought not an anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM), is the U.S. Tomahawk Land Attack Missile, or TLAM. This is the type of weapon that the U.S. often employs against small, precise targets in what can be called “decapitation” strikes intended to wipe out enemy key leaders or critical facilities in the opening stages of conflict, like at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. For an account of this incident, see “'Decapitation strike' was aimed at Saddam” at Accessed 12 January 2010.

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