Meeting China’s Emerging Capabilities: Countering Advances in Cyber, Space, and Autonomous Systems (Introduction)
Cover illustration by Nate Christenson

Meeting China's Emerging Capabilities
Countering Advances in Cyber, Space, and Autonomous Systems

by Bates Gill
December 15, 2022

This is the introduction to the report “Meeting China’s Emerging Capabilities: Countering Advances in Cyber, Space, and Autonomous Systems.”

According to the 2022 U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS), the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the United States’ “only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.”[1] Among the pathways to this objective, the PRC is “investing in a military that is rapidly modernizing, increasingly capable in the Indo-Pacific, and growing in strength and reach globally—all while seeking to erode U.S. alliances in the region and around the world.”[2] With regard to China’s military capabilities, the NSS is consistent with the U.S. National Defense Strategy, issued earlier in 2022, which states that the PRC is the United States’ “most consequential strategic competitor and the pacing challenge for the Department [of Defense].”[3]

China’s ongoing military modernization program—and particularly efforts to develop coercive and deterrent capabilities across multiple domains, such as in advanced aerospace (missilery), cyberspace, outer space, autonomous systems, and weapons of mass destruction—clearly presents a formidable challenge to the United States and its armed forces, especially in the Indo-Pacific. In addition, regional countries, including key U.S. allies and security partners, face similar, often more intense, concerns about China’s military capabilities. China poses an increasing threat to the sovereign, territorial, and security interests of many U.S. allies and security partners in the Indo-Pacific, including Australia, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, the Republic of China (Taiwan), and Vietnam.

However, persistent gaps exist between the shared security concerns of the United States and these partners, on the one hand, and the development and execution of effective collaborative measures these parties can take to counterbalance those concerns, on the other. While in principle officials and researchers understand the need to deepen cooperation with allies and partners in the region to counter China’s coercive capabilities, this is difficult in practice at bilateral and especially multilateral levels. In sum, one of the biggest challenges for the United States—but, if surmounted, one of its biggest potential advantages in the region—is developing a greater regionwide understanding and consensus on the security threats China poses and the collective action that can counter them.

To help address this challenge, the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency Strategic Trends Research Initiative, in 2020 initiated an innovative Track 1.5 research and strategic dialogue project under the title “Meeting China’s Military Challenge: Identifying Collective Responses among U.S. Allies and Security Partners in the Indo-Pacific Region.” Through commissioned research and dialogue activities, the project aimed to engage experts and government officials from a mix of regional allies and security partners with differing security environments, military capabilities, and relations with China, with a focus on Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

In its first year, the project delivered in-depth research, dialogue, analysis, and recommendations regarding China’s most threatening conventional deterrent, coercive, and warfighting capabilities; their effect on U.S. allies and security partners; and options for these governments to partner with the United States to effectively counter these challenges. This work was presented in an NBR Special Report released in early 2022.[4]

As in year one, the project’s second phase brought together senior experts and government officials from the United States and the same six Indo-Pacific countries—Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam—through a combination of commissioned research, a virtual workshop held in March 2022, and an in-person, two-day strategic dialogue held in Washington, D.C., in June 2022. In catalyzing research, informed exchanges of information and perspectives, and actionable responses, the project in year two narrowed its focus somewhat and generated critical insights and recommendations on the following questions:

  • What specific PRC cyber, space, and autonomous weapons systems present the most credible deterrent, coercive, and warfighting threats to regional security?
  • What are some specific scenarios in which the PRC has employed and likely will employ these capabilities against U.S. allies and security partners in the region?
  • What specific military policies and operational capabilities have been employed in response by U.S. allies and security partners in the region?
  • What specific mechanisms should be considered for Indo-Pacific governments, in partnership with the United States or among themselves, to counter these PRC threats?

This report presents the project findings and recommendations, including the detailed studies by the six country experts commissioned for this iteration of the project. On behalf of NBR, I would like to express my thanks and great appreciation to these experts whose work formed the basis of our strategic dialogue and who are at the very center of the project’s success: Francis Domingo of De La Salle University in the Philippines, Peter Jennings of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Yuka Koshino of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Nguyen The Phuong of Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics and Finance, Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan of the Observer Research Foundation in India, and Yisuo Tzeng of the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taiwan.

This introductory essay will provide an overview of the project’s findings in year two by focusing on five cross-cutting themes that emerged from the commissioned research and strategic dialogue sessions. It will also put forward a set of nine actionable policy recommendations for the United States that flow from the project’s research, analysis, and key findings. Readers seeking more specific country-by-country analysis and recommendations should dive into the excellent country studies—on Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam—which constitute the remainder of this report.

WIDE VARIANCE IN RESPONSE TO PRC THREATS

Through the project’s commissioned research and dialogue sessions, it became clear there is a wide degree of variance among the experts and government officials involved about the nature and extent of the threat emanating from the PRC’s cyber, space, and autonomous systems. Three principal factors appear to explain this divergence: (1) the extent and persistence of PRC threats in these technological realms relative to other threats, (2) the country’s ability to respond effectively, and (3) the broader strategic, political, and economic environment shaping a country’s relations with the PRC. As a result, risks of misunderstandings, misjudgments, and misaligned expectations persist between the United States and key Indo-Pacific partners in response to PRC threats in these realms.

In the case of Australia, for example, the country’s national security apparatus fully understands that the PRC presents a sophisticated cyberthreat—including through gathering intelligence and engaging in intellectual property (IP) theft, identifying vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure, and conducting covert actions to shape Australian public debate, undermine critics of the PRC, and promote pro-PRC perspectives. Australian strategists also understand that China is developing and deploying space-related and autonomous systems, which present major challenges for the Australian Defence Force (ADF). These systems pose a particular threat to its ability to operate in air and maritime environments, both close to home and as part of coalition operations in such areas as the South and East China Seas.

Australia has taken a number of measures that are in part a response to these developments. These have included substantial new investments in advanced military systems and offensive and defensive cyber capabilities as well as the establishment of the ADF Space Command in January 2022 with a strategy to ensure the armed forces’ access to assets in a “congested and contested space environment.”[5]

Japan has similar pressing concerns, with three in particular deserving special attention. The first concerns the growing kinetic and nonkinetic anti-satellite (ASAT) and cyberoffensive capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and their potential to disrupt and neutralize U.S., Japanese, and allied responses in times of heightened confrontation and conflict. Second, China’s rapid development of militarily-relevant space and autonomous technologies can significantly enhance the accuracy and decision-making speed of its offensive threats, especially its ballistic and cruise missiles, potentially undermining the ability to defend Japanese territory and raising questions about U.S. commitments to Japan, including in relation to extended nuclear deterrence. Third, Japan is also the target of persistent cyber-enabled espionage from the PRC, which can weaken the technological advantages of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF).

In response to these challenges, Japan has taken a number of important steps: it has improved jointness across the JSDF by integrating capabilities across multiple domains, including space and cyber; accelerated investments in capabilities to monitor and respond to Chinese activities in the space and cyber domains; expanded research, development, and deployment of autonomous systems that can deter and disrupt PRC advances, including unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), autonomous mine countermeasure systems, and unmanned combat aerial vehicles; and implemented a whole-of-government approach to deter and protect against attacks on government and commercial entities involved in national defense.

However, other countries in the region have more widely divergent responses to PRC threats in these realms. The Philippines, for example, is the target of cyber intrusions from China—including attacks to gather intelligence against the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Science and Technology, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and Philippine engineering and defense industries. Philippine territorial claims in the South China Sea are also threatened in part by the PRC’s vastly superior maritime domain awareness and weapons-targeting capabilities enabled by its space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).

Yet the Philippine military operates at a far lower level of technological sophistication and struggles to detect and respond to such threats from China, in part because it is focused on other pressing challenges such as domestic insurgencies. The Philippine response to PRC threats has also been hobbled in the past by government policies favoring closer political and economic alignment with Beijing.

Likewise, concerns in Vietnam arise from both past and potential future threats from PRC cyber, space, and autonomous systems. Given the malign PRC-based cyber intrusions targeting Vietnam in the past, Vietnamese strategists recognize that China can launch attacks against their country’s critical infrastructure and disrupt or distort the flow of information domestically, especially as Vietnam moves to digitize so many elements of its social and economic activities. China’s space and autonomous systems provide it with superior targeting and around-the-clock ISR capabilities, which improve its long-range precision-strike weapons, maritime domain awareness, and overall ability to assert and defend claims over territory and resources in the South China Sea that Vietnam also claims.

In spite of these challenges, Vietnam struggles to respond effectively. The chief obstacles include financial, technological, and human resource constraints; a slow-to-reform domestic defense industry; political limitations restricting cooperation in sensitive technology areas with advanced countries such as the United States and others; and continuing reluctance—in part due to party-to-party relations between Beijing and Hanoi—to openly confront China. As a result, for example, Vietnam must rely on foreign commercial sources for satellite imagery and has developed little in the way of concepts and indigenous manufacturing capabilities for sophisticated autonomous systems such as drones for military use.

Like the other countries surveyed in this report, India has increasing concerns about China’s technological advances in the areas of outer space, cyberspace, and autonomous weapons. Indian analysts see the PLA gaining strategic advantages and “technological asymmetries” that India will find difficult to counter. These concerns result in part from its vulnerability to PRC counterspace capabilities, even as India increases its dependence on space-based assets for social development and military purposes. India is also a victim of China-sourced cyberattacks (including against infrastructure facilities). In addition, Indian strategists are increasingly concerned about China’s ability to prosecute more fast-paced and lethal military campaigns enabled by artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous systems.

In recent years, India has begun establishing institutional, technological, and military responses to these threats. This includes measures to mitigate cyber intrusions, protect critical infrastructure, and develop and deploy ASAT weapons, autonomous systems such as drones and UUVs, and cyberwarfare concepts and capabilities. However, these steps face limitations. For example, regarding ASATs, one Indian test thus far is probably not enough demonstrated capability to deter China. These steps are also limited by budgetary constraints, an over-reliance on India’s own defense industrial base for the development of advanced systems, and the need to pour resources into a manpower-intensive defense of India’s disputed borders with China and Pakistan.

In comparison to the other five countries considered in this project, Taiwan faces the most persistent and dangerous threats from China’s space, cyber, and autonomous systems. These threats would be especially acute in the event of a concerted attack on Taiwan. China would likely employ advanced persistent threat and distributed denial-of-service attacks against critical infrastructure and cyber and counterspace attacks against Taiwan’s communications satellites and their ground stations. In addition, Taiwan would face precision missile attacks enabled by PRC satellite-based ISR, navigation and guidance systems, and deployments of aerial, sea surface/ subsurface, and ground-based autonomous systems for surveillance and strike missions. However, with the exception of developing greater resilience in its cyberdefenses, Taiwan has been slow to develop capabilities that can counter PRC threats in realms such as space and autonomous systems.

URGENT SENSE OF “FALLING BEHIND”

The commissioned research and dialogue discussions of this project reveal an increasing sense of urgency across the region that countries are falling behind in response to China’s technological advances in autonomous-, space-, and cyber-related military systems. Three principal factors can explain this situation: (1) a lack of investment in capabilities that could deter or counter PRC developments in these areas, (2) a lack of sufficient human and military-technical capacity in critical technology areas, and (3) hesitancy to openly counter or confront China’s military advances. Overall, participants in the project agreed that the rate of military technological change by China seems to be outpacing the necessary policy responses by regional governments.

In the case of Australia, for example, significant resources have been committed to deliver major weapons platform —“megaprojects” such as submarines and large surface ships—in the mid to late 2030s. However, China’s rapid advances in certain military technologies are forcing Australia to overhaul its force structure priorities in order to fill capability gaps in the near term. The most pressing priorities are those systems that can hold PRC assets at risk farther from Australian shores. These include such procurements as Tomahawk cruise missiles, long-range anti-ship missiles, and precision-strike guided missiles for ADF land forces. Importantly, Australia aims to develop an indigenous guided-weapons manufacturing capability, expand its over-the-horizon radar capability, and deepen cooperation with the United States in the development of hypersonic weapons. These steps will accompany significantly boosted investments in defensive and offensive cyber capabilities. But the planned procurements face a number of challenges and, at best, will take years to put in place.

At present, except for deployed forces, Australia has no current or planned capability for expanded ballistic missile defenses. It also scrapped plans to procure and operate a low-cost, multirole, long-endurance drone such as the U.S. MQ-9B SkyGuardian. Moreover, Australian strategists and political leaders continue to express concerns in the near term (the next five to ten years) about the survivability of forward-deployed maritime platforms and the ability of the national cyber infrastructure to withstand incursions from China. Without mentioning China by name, Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update warns that “new capabilities, including longer-range missiles, ballistic missiles, and offensive cyber and space capabilities have reduced strategic warning times.”[6] In addition, China’s development and deployment of large numbers of relatively inexpensive and expendable autonomous systems could overwhelm ADF platforms, which are high-performing but few in number.

This project’s research and dialogue revealed that for Japan the PRC’s growing capabilities in autonomous, space, and cyber systems may hasten the pace of its military modernization in ways that might undermine U.S. deterrence in defense of Japan. Concerns include Japanese vulnerabilities in the face of concerted PRC cyberattacks and cyber extrusions aimed at critical infrastructure and defense-related government agencies, research institutes, and companies, which could weaken the JSDF’s technological advantages. Participants also expressed concern that China may rush its development of autonomous military capabilities and use them in contingencies in the East China Sea and around Taiwan, even though they may be unsafe or unreliable and could unnecessarily escalate a military engagement with Japan.

Japanese leaders recognize these vulnerabilities, and support for expanding the country’s ability to close these gaps is on the rise—perhaps best illustrated by the government’s decision to increase defense spending to 2% of GDP in the next five years and invest more heavily in capabilities necessary for deterrence and warfighting in new domains such as autonomous, space, and cyber systems. However, serious challenges will restrain a speedy realization of these efforts. First, Japan still struggles with leveraging academic R&D for military end-use. Even though the 2021 Defense of Japan white paper placed an unprecedented degree of urgency on the need to strengthen the country’s defense-industrial base to achieve “technological superiority” in emergent military-technical realms, and the Ministry of Defense has established programs to foster basic academic research for defense purposes, academic institutions often remain reluctant to engage in this kind of work. Second, Japan’s weak information security system, including the lack of a unified vetting process for persons engaged in sensitive national security activities, undermines close collaboration within Japan across the government, industry, and academia and between these institutions and foreign counterparts.

Because they are close allies of the United States and relatively wealthy, Australia and Japan have comparatively greater access to systems and technologies that can counter PRC threats. This is not the case for others in the region. The Philippines, for example, lags far behind the PRC across the full range of military capabilities and especially in terms of space, cyber, and autonomous systems. It is still in the earliest stages of enhancing its ability to detect and respond to PRC threats enabled by these technologies. For example, Philippine national security agencies have only in recent years begun to develop cyber capabilities for defense purposes and aim to build the capacity to observe and assess the space related activities of others.

Philippine cyber capabilities are in their formative stages, and the country’s space program is modest at best. Moreover, the AFP will primarily concentrate on the development of more traditional conventional capabilities—such as naval platforms, anti ship weapons, and counterinsurgency warfare—before it considers more effective countermeasures to the PLA’s autonomous, cyber, and space weapons systems. Indeed, there is little to no evidence that the AFP is considering the use of or defense against autonomous weapons systems as part of its officially declared military modernization program. In fact, autonomous weapons systems are hardly mentioned in recent national security strategy documents.

Vietnam likewise faces a growing gap in its capabilities vis-à-vis China, particularly in more advanced military-technical areas enabled by space, cyber, and autonomous systems. Especially concerning for Vietnamese strategists is the lack of sufficient maritime defense awareness to monitor and effectively respond to activities in the South China Sea, which may threaten Vietnam’s national interests. Many gray-zone activities on China’s part—which seek to assert and secure PRC territorial claims in disputed waters without escalating to outright conflict—are enabled by its capabilities in the cyber, space, and autonomous realms and have already advanced the PRC’s de facto control over large areas of the South China Sea. Vietnam has been slow to respond to these developments due to political, budgetary, and human resource constraints. Meanwhile, the PLA continues to strengthen its capabilities in such advanced technologies.

In many ways, India and Taiwan face some of the most direct threats from China’s cyber, space, and autonomous weapons systems. Yet they too have been relatively slow to react, portending a widening gap between their capabilities and those of China.

As recognized by strategists in India, continuing development of these capabilities by the PLA may undermine Indian deterrence, thereby emboldening more assertive military action by China, especially in contested areas along the Sino-Indian border. India confronts the growing reality that increasing technological asymmetry favors China, including in the cyber, space, and autonomous realms, and that these developments have given China advantages that can tilt the military balance conclusively in its direction. It is true that the Indian government and its defense research establishment aim to prepare the Indian armed forces for next-generation warfare—particularly in reaction to PRC investments in emerging technologies—with the long-range goal to shift from a manpower-intensive to a technology-enabled force. But a significant gap remains between those objectives and the necessary procurements and deployments that India needs to keep up with its giant neighbor to the north.

Leaders and strategists from Taiwan are well aware of the growing capabilities gap they face vis-à-vis the PLA. In response, Taiwan has embraced such principles as “fortress Taiwan,” the “porcupine strategy,” and an overall defense concept, all names for approaches to deter and thwart a PRC invasion through the effective use of asymmetric warfare. This strategy aims to consolidate and build redundancy and resilience into Taiwan’s command, control, communications, computers, intelligence,
surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) infrastructure; bolster passive and active defensive countermeasures against aerial and maritime threats; and develop more lethal and longer-range precision counterstrike capabilities, including offensive cyber missions.

However, concerns persist in the United States and in Taiwan about Taipei’s commitment to these plans. For example, Taiwan has limited space-based or counterspace capabilities of its own and is highly reliant on foreign commercial space assets for much of its communications and intelligence. It is not developing any ASAT capabilities at this time. Notably, Taipei has increased its focus on the development of indigenous autonomous systems to counterbalance China’s advances in this technology area. However, in spite of that increased focus, Taiwan’s efforts remain far behind those of China and may be “too little too late.” In the words of one prominent strategist from Taiwan taking part in the project, “time is not on Taiwan’s side as China has been accelerating its military modernization in every domain, with salient progress in cyber, space, and autonomous weapons.”

DRAWING LESSONS FROM THE ONGOING WAR IN UKRAINE

In many respects, it remains too early to confidently predict the precise impact that the Russia-Ukraine war will have on regional security elsewhere. Clearly, that conflict has elevated the importance of space, cyber, and autonomous assets, and Indo-Pacific leaders and strategists are following these developments very closely in three areas in particular: (1) what the war reveals about the changing nature of modern warfare, (2) how it may affect the PRC’s calculations for asserting its interests in the region through military coercion or the use of force, and (3) what the war in Ukraine may portend for conflict across the Taiwan Strait.

Across the research and dialogue sessions of this project, there was widespread consensus that the war in Ukraine has further underscored the importance of new modes of warfare enabled by cyber, space, and autonomous systems. Such technologies have proved their value in supporting both surveillance and strike roles and acting as relatively inexpensive force multipliers. Much attention has been focused on how Ukraine has managed to use such technologies to its advantage against a more powerful Russian military. For example, it gained significant advantage in the field through the integration of relatively simple military and commercial drones with access to advanced targeting and intelligence inputs.

Of course, lessons from the war in Ukraine are not only useful to “underdogs.” Larger powers, such as China as well as Russia itself, are also drawing lessons from the conflict. China will undoubtedly further hone the use of its cyber, space, and autonomous systems. Such systems can be effective as gray-zone weapons, acting to strengthen coercion and deterrence without necessarily prompting an escalation to open conflict, and in many instances can overwhelm less capable forces in China’s periphery that do not have effective countermeasures in place.

Across the region, such developments are sparking new concerns about China’s military intentions and capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. In Japan, for example, Russia’s use of cyberattacks in the early phases of its invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022, including attempts to disable Ukrainian nuclear power plants, has raised concerns about possible PRC cyberattacks against critical infrastructure, including as means to deter Japan’s involvement in a Taiwan contingency. More broadly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the role of technological domains such as cyber, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and space-related assets in the conflict give greater momentum to arguments in support of increasing defense spending in Japan, including in these and other areas of future warfighting.

For Taiwan, the war in Ukraine has apparently catalyzed a far more focused discussion about how to achieve its porcupine strategy. At the same time, most Taiwan defense experts agree that direct and overly simplistic comparisons of the Ukraine and Taiwan cases should be avoided. Ongoing discussions, debates, wargaming, and tabletop exercises continue in Taiwan to carefully discern the current state of the PRC threat and the lessons that should inform its strategy going
forward.

Some early takeaways have gained traction in these debates. First and foremost, Taiwan must build resilience and redundancy across both physical and virtual domains, and building such resilience and redundancy takes time. In many respects, Taiwan is today more accustomed to hostile cyberoperations and is better prepared for them than Ukraine was at the outset of Russia’s
2022 invasion. However, unlike Ukraine, Taiwan is not connected to neighboring states via land-based fiber networks and must rely on undersea cables and satellites. This potential vulnerability leads Taiwan to try to learn from Ukrainian success in establishing multiple channels of communications redundancy, including, if possible, collaboration with like-minded governments for access to satellite communications and intelligence.

Second, the Ukrainian use of precision-guided weapons to sink Russian naval vessels, shoot down Russian aircraft, and destroy Russian armored columns helps bolster elements of Taiwan’s overall “porcupine” approach. In particular, these developments in Ukraine suggest that Taiwan is on the right track by increasing the procurement, storage, and protected deployment of seaborne
anti-ship cruise missiles, land-based mobile anti-ship and anti-air missile platforms, and the corresponding mobile radar surveillance, microwave communications, and decoy platforms.

But the war in Ukraine also underscores Taiwan’s immense need for large, readily resupplied stockpiles of light, mobile, precise weapons enabled by sophisticated intelligence and targeting assets, which should be prioritized over large, expensive, and sophisticated weapon platforms. While UAVs are in demand for Taiwan’s armed forces, Taiwan has a limited supply of U.S. MQ-9 and domestically produced drones. Perhaps more importantly, it remains highly uncertain whether, in the event of a conflict, Taiwan will have sufficient access to the battlefield intelligence, including from foreign sources, required to make such autonomous systems fully effective.

In addition, Taiwan has drawn important lessons in other areas. One notable example is the need to develop redundant and resilient offensive and defensive capabilities in relation to cyber, electronic, space, and autonomous systems warfare, as well as improving cognitive operations and the training necessary to effectively fight in conflict conditions defined by these technological realms. The conflict in Ukraine suggests that a greater demonstrated capability in these areas—possibly including through cooperative initiatives with the United States—could have a deterrent effect on the PRC.

IMPLICATIONS FOR DETERRENCE AND WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRCTION

The PRC’s emergent advances in space, cyber, and autonomous weapons systems have larger and potentially serious implications for the country’s approach to deterrence and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). As China continues to modernize across the spectrum of militarily relevant technologies, strategists in the United States and across the region are in the early stages of fully understanding how these developments affect Beijing’s evolving calculus of deterrence and its possible uses of WMDs. In some ways that lack of understanding and increased ambiguity alone may serve as a deterrent advantage for Beijing.

The integration of these technologies into China’s conceptual and operational calculus for WMDs makes a complicated situation all the more complicated. Importantly, the project’s deliberations identified an increasing regional concern over China’s ability to deter the United States and, moreover, to test the United States’ resolve, resilience, and responses beneath the
conflict threshold. In particular, the PLA’s successful integration of these technologies into its strategic and conventional operations may lower the threshold for WMD use by China—either by accident or by design—and can sow doubt in U.S. resolve, in U.S. extended nuclear deterrent commitments to allies in the region, and in the confidence other partners have in Washington’s defense commitments in the region more broadly.

Several key points deserve particular attention. First, China’s expanding constellation of land- and space-based assets has led to improvements in its nuclear weapons arsenal—including improved targeting, improved early-warning capabilities, and improved air defenses. These developments in turn open the door to adjustments in China’s long-standing “no first use” pledge, including the possibility of a “launch on warning” posture. Relatedly, project participants pointed out that, with China’s increased reliance on space- and cyber-related assets in support of its nuclear weapons, an attack on those assets could prompt an escalatory response from China if it believed those strikes were meant to compromise or disarm its nuclear deterrent.

Second, China is likely seeking to develop and integrate AI, autonomous capabilities, and cyber resiliency into its strategic weapons systems and supporting infrastructure. This could lead to greater confidence among PRC political leaders and military commanders regarding threat discernment, targeting, and launch decisions and the protection of their own command and control channels. This in turn raises the possibility of overconfidence and miscalculation in weapons use, at both the conventional and unconventional levels.

Third, if and as China gains confidence in the ability to deter the United States at the nuclear level, it may prompt greater escalatory measures on Beijing’s part in the conventional realm. If it can keep such a clash beneath the nuclear threshold, Beijing may believe that it can fight and win a conventional conflict by inflicting unacceptable damage on U.S. forces, especially in areas close to the PRC’s periphery where it wields many advantages in terms of proximity, concentration of firepower, and resupply logistics. Under these circumstances, China may be more likely to confront and combat the United States in increasingly threatening ways. This could include attacks on the long-serving multi-mission satellites and sophisticated cyber-enabled communications networks on which the U.S. military relies—strikes that Beijing may believe are “conventional” rather than “strategic” in nature.

Fourth, these technological and operational developments for China prompt concerns among U.S. allies about the scope and reliability of extended nuclear deterrence. Of particular relevance for the project’s focus on cyber, space, and autonomous systems, China’s test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle in 2021 raises new concerns about its anti-access/area-denial capabilities and prompt global strike (including nuclear strike) and the challenges they may pose to U.S. deterrence commitments.

EXPANDING PARTNERSHIPS WITH THE UNITED STATES AND OTHERS

The commissioned research and strategic dialogue discussions generally underscored a continuing strong demand for the United States to be more deeply engaged in the Indo-Pacific region, including in helping regional governments respond more effectively to the threats posed by the PRC’s development of cyber, space, and autonomous weapons systems. These discussions also revealed a greater degree of cooperation among regional governments and others, in addition to the United States, to counter PRC threats. Project findings further underscore a pressing need to deepen U.S.-Taiwan collaboration, especially in areas of advanced technologies where Taiwan lags considerably behind.

However, the extent and nature of those partnerships vary widely across the different countries assessed in the project. Overall, collaboration in these technological areas among regional partners remains in the early stages. It ranges from deepening military-technical and intelligence cooperation between the United States and close partners, such as Australia and Japan, to more modest measures, such as technological cooperation among civilian scientists and nonlethal defense equipment sales with countries such as Vietnam.

Australia will further deepen its long-standing military-technical partnership with the United States and with others. The Australia–United Kingdom–United States (AUKUS) partnership, announced in September 2021, is the most promising vehicle for strengthening Australia’s ability to counter PRC threats, including those in the cyber, space, and autonomous realms. Although much attention will be focused on Australia’s ability to develop and deploy nuclear-propelled submarines, the agreement also very importantly covers a wide range of other militarily relevant technologies and platforms such as undersea defense and long-range strike capabilities, quantum technologies, AI, electronic warfare, and hypersonic weapons.

In addition, Australia’s establishment of the Defence Space Command in 2022 and its release of a new defense space policy will help frame and deepen already-robust U.S.-Australia space-related cooperation. It is highly likely that such cooperation will continue to focus on countering PLA capabilities. U.S.-Australia cooperation in cyberspace remains close and involves both defensive and offensive elements. Interestingly, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States established a Senior Cyber Group to share information on cybersecurity, cyber resilience, and critical infrastructure protection in the Indo-Pacific. But given Australia’s relatively slow start in developing autonomous capabilities, it must cooperate far more closely with the United States and others, including to develop strategies to
counter the PLA’s growing capabilities in this technological realm.

Driven in large part by China’s growing military capabilities, Japan has been increasingly open to developing stronger bilateral and multilateral defense cooperation with the United States and others, including in relation to cyber, space, and autonomous systems. This is accomplished through strategic alignment mechanisms such as the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee (also known as 2+2) and through more specific official dialogue mechanisms on space and cyber cooperation. Importantly, the 2019 2+2 joint statement affirmed “that international law applies in cyberspace and that a cyber-attack could, in certain circumstances, constitute an armed attack for the purposes of Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.”[7]

At the 2022 2+2 ministerial meetings, both sides noted their “concerns about the large-scale development and deployment of nuclear weapons, ballistic and cruise missiles, and advanced weapons systems such as hypersonics”; flagged the “increasing malign activities in the cyber, space, and other domains”; and underscored the critical need for the alliance to strengthen “cross domain capabilities, particularly integrating the land, maritime, air, missile defense, space, cyber, electromagnetic spectrum, and other domains.”[8] It will be critical for the Alliance Coordination Mechanism, established in 2015, to step up to facilitate this kind of deeper coordination between U.S. and Japanese armed forces and defense establishments. Of particular note, Japan has also deepened defense-related cooperation with Australia and the UK in recent years through conducting joint exercises and by opening up the prospect for greater defense-industrial cooperation.

For the Philippines, the most practical and promising strategy to counter emerging technology threats from China is to strengthen its political-military alliance with the United States. That relationship sustained considerable damage in recent years, including during the administration of Rodrigo Duterte as Philippine president from 2016 to 2022.

That said, the Philippines still receives approximately $125 million each year in various military assistance programs from the United States. To date, however, this assistance has not given a strong focus to emerging technological areas such as cyber, space, and autonomous weapons systems. With a newly elected government in Manila in 2022, a fresh opportunity exists to open a range of discussions to bolster the U.S.-Philippines military-technical relationship, including in these technology areas.

In response to shared threat perceptions about China, India and the United States have deepened their partnership in emerging technology areas, including space and cybersecurity. It is possible, according to some indications, that the United States assisted India by providing intelligence during the clashes in Galwan and Ladakh. The United States has also increased its military-technical cooperation with India, including through arms sales and defense science and technology exchanges. As the Quad gains momentum, it also fosters cooperative exchanges between India and the United States (as well as the other two Quad partners, Australia and Japan) on a range of technology issues, including space and cyber.

In addition to its partnerships with the United States and other Quad members, India is stepping up partnerships with other countries on these critical and emerging technologies. On cybersecurity, for example, the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team, an agency under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, has concluded agreements with Japan, Malaysia, and Singapore to focus on trends in cybersecurity incidents, updated information on the latest threats, and best practices to augment cybersecurity.

Options for Taiwan to collaborate with the United States and others in the defense field are constrained by the unique and unofficial nature of Taiwan’s diplomatic relations and concerns over how the PRC will react to those countries’ ties with Taiwan. Nonetheless, the United States and Taiwan have deepened their partnership in recent years in both the political and defense spheres.

Arms sales form a high-profile aspect of those ties, but other official and quasi-official consultations in relation to Taiwan’s defense also continue. However, it is unclear in the unclassified realm to what degree this cooperation involves exchanges in the cyber, space, and autonomous domains. This project highlights China’s growing capabilities in these areas, the threats they pose to Taiwan, and the need for Taiwan to significantly bolster its offensive and defensive capabilities in the face of these challenges. This provides an opportunity for the United States to strengthen cooperation with Taiwan in the cyber, space, and autonomous realms, including demonstrable, public strengthening of the island’s deterrence posture.

Of the six countries considered in this project, Vietnam has the lowest degree of partnership and trust with the United States, especially regarding security and defense. While steadily improving since the countries established diplomatic relations in 1995, bilateral relations are still constrained by an undercurrent of strategic mistrust and lingering animosity, making it difficult to collaborate on sensitive issues, including military-technical cooperation and intelligence sharing. Moreover, Vietnam remains highly reliant on arms supplies from Russia, though it has opened its doors to defense-related exports from countries such as India, Israel, the Netherlands, and South Korea, as well as the United States.

Encouragingly, Washington and Hanoi are engaged in several defense-related collaborations that over time could build trust and facilitate more robust military-technical cooperation. These include U.S. assistance to remove unexploded ordnance, support through the Department of Defense Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, the State Department Maritime Security Initiative, the provision of Hamilton-class coast guard cutters, and exports of other defense items such as fire control, lasers, imaging and guidance equipment, military electronics, and UAVs. Much of this support aims to improve Vietnam’s maritime domain awareness. Owing to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions on Moscow, as well as to concerns about an over-reliance on Russian weaponry, debate continues among Vietnamese policymakers about possibly diminishing the country’s dependence on Russian arms exports.

POLICY RESPONSES

Based on the overarching themes outlined in the previous sections, and drawing from the detailed, country-specific findings in the following essays, this section presents nine actionable policy recommendations for the U.S. government and particularly for the U.S. Department of Defense. These recommendations are intended to help improve the ability of the United States, in collaboration with its Indo-Pacific allies and partners, to counter growing PRC coercive, deterrent, and warfighting threats enabled by cyber, space, and autonomous systems.

Recommendation 1. The Office of the Secretary of Defense, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and other relevant agencies should further deepen consultations with key regional partners in relation to cyber, space, and autonomous technologies and the threats they pose from China, with a focus on and appreciation for the particular circumstances these partners face. These discussions should be accompanied by greater intelligence sharing and public use of intelligence, as appropriate, to build regional consensus in both bilateral and multilateral settings in response to PRC threats in these technological areas. Official bilateral and multilateral statements in summit, “2+2,” and other senior leadership meetings should include specific mention of PRC provocations in the cyber, space, and autonomous spheres.

Recommendation 2. The Department of Defense, its relevant agencies, and key interagency partners should give even greater priority to investments in hardware, software, training, and joint operational coordination in partnership with regional allies—especially Australia and Japan—in the defensive and offensive application of cyber, space, and autonomous technologies, with PRC capabilities particularly in mind. Certain partners such as the Philippines and Taiwan should receive accelerated assistance in the development, procurement, and deployment of space-related and autonomous assets to support much-needed reconnaissance and precision-strike capabilities. This effort must focus on building resilience, redundancy, and resupply into the procurement and deployment of these and other military systems by the United States and its partners in the Indo-Pacific, especially for Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan. This urgent need can be met through expansion of joint R&D and manufacturing facilities, hardened infrastructure, and significantly increased pre-positioning of materiel in these and other partner countries in the region.

Recommendation 3. U.S. civilian and defense intelligence agencies should prioritize assessing China’s interpretation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In particular, they should study how U.S., allied, and Ukrainian responses have affected Beijing’s thinking about achieving its preferred outcomes through the threat and use of military force in the region, including toward Taiwan, but not exclusively so. Such information and analysis should be shared, as appropriate, with allies and partners to help build collective preparedness and shared purpose in the region.

Recommendation 4. U.S. civilian and defense intelligence agencies should actively consider and judiciously deploy “weaponized” intelligence to publicly expose PRC activities of concern and strengthen deterrence capabilities of the United States and its partners in the face of PRC threats. This effort should selectively reveal ongoing U.S. defense collaboration programs with key partners in the region; demonstrate U.S. and partner capabilities, including in the areas of cyber, space, and autonomous systems; and shed light on threatening plans and activities of the PLA prior to their execution.

Recommendation 5. Given the relevance of developments in Ukraine for Taiwan, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the American Institute in Taiwan, and other relevant defense and interagency partners should engage even more actively with Taiwan counterparts to develop coordinated communications and operational awareness platforms, expand the parameters for U.S.-Taiwan cybersecurity cooperation, enhance Taiwan’s reconnaissance and precision-targeting capabilities, and build resilience, redundancy, and resupply capacity, including in the cyber and autonomous domains.

Recommendation 6. U.S. civilian and defense intelligence agencies, in coordination with interagency analytical and policy communities, should invest greater resources in understanding and responding to the PRC’s calculus of deterrence and escalation control both above and below the WMD threshold. They should also invest resources in better dissuading and disrupting China’s growing confidence and risk-taking in its deterrence posture.

Recommendation 7. The United States should increase defense budgetary resources to bolster its deterrent and extended deterrence commitments, in both word and deed, including through diversification and strengthening of strategic conventional and nuclear weapons, delivery platforms, and supporting infrastructure. Greater capacities should also be developed, both unilaterally and in consultation with key allies, for holding critical PRC cyber and space assets at risk and signaling the will and capacity to do so.

Recommendation 8. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency should increase its engagement and support of allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region to develop capacities to monitor, assess, and counter WMD threats from the PRC, including China’s WMD-enabling technologies in the cyber, space, and autonomous realms. Special attention should be given to assist less-resourced allies and partners such as the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Recommendation 9. Despite the emergent and sometimes sensitive nature of cooperation in the cyber, space, and autonomous realms, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff J5 (Strategy, Plans, and Policy), and other relevant defense and interagency partners should give urgent priority to reversing gaps between PLA cyber, space, and autonomous capabilities and the ability of Indo-Pacific allies and partners to effectively counter them. The greatest priority should be focused on defensive and offensive cyber capabilities; improved reconnaissance, surveillance, and precision targeting; and the production, effective operational deployment, and resupply of autonomous weapons systems. It is especially urgent to support Taiwan in the acquisition and demonstrated use of such asymmetric capabilities as part of its overall defense operations concept.


Bates Gill is Executive Director of the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis. He is the principal investigator for the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) project “Meeting China’s Military Challenge: Identifying Collective Responses among U.S. Allies and Security Partners in the Indo-Pacific Region.” Dr. Gill previously directed the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and held senior research positions with the Brookings Institution and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Endnotes

[1] White House, National Security Strategy (Washington, D.C., October 2022), 23, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/ Biden-Harris-Administrations-National-Security-Strategy-10.2022.pdf.

[2] Ibid., 24.

[3] “Fact Sheet: 2022 National Defense Strategy,” U.S. Department of Defense, March 2022, https://media.defense.gov/2022/Mar/28/2002964702/-1/-1/1/NDS-FACT-SHEET.PDF.

[4] Bates Gill, ed., “Meeting China’s Military Challenge: Collective Responses of U.S. Allies and Security Partners,” National Bureau of Asian Research,
NBR Special Report, no. 96, https://www.nbr.org/publication/meeting-chinas-military-challenge-collective-responses-of-u-s-allies-and-partners.

[5] Royal Australian Air Force, Australia’s Defence Space Strategy (Canberra, March 2022), https://www.airforce.gov.au/our-mission/defencespace-strategy.

[6] Department of Defence (Australia), 2020 Defence Strategic Update (Canberra, July 2020), https://www.defence.gov.au/about/publications/2020-defence-strategic-update.

[7] “Joint Statement of the Security Consultative Committee,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Japan), April 19, 2019, https://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000470738.pdf.

[8] “Joint Statement of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee (‘2+2’),” U.S. Department of State, January 6, 2022, https://www.state.gov/joint-statement-of-the-u-s-japan-security-consultative-committee-22.