For reasons obvious and not-so-obvious, there is considerable interest in at least presenting China as a growing threat, particularly in the digital realm. Indeed, in recent weeks we've recently seen the U.S. and China bickering over China's restrictive online censorship, and a report that elements within China (but not proven to be linked to the Chinese government) have messed around with American satellites. Scary sounding stuff, kind of, but how serious is the threat of so-called cyber-warfare from China? According to a study published by Australian National University professor Desmond Hall, of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, not very, at least not right now.
Hall's extensive examination of China's cyber-warfare capabilities yields some surprising information, particularly the confirmation that they have "the most extensive and most practiced cyber-warfare capabilities in Asia". In 1997, China established what amounts to a black-ops hacking team 100 members strong, with a goal of finding ways to go after western (especially American) defense networks. Since then, that team has apparently used computer viruses against several military and public communications systems, engaged in DOS attacks against American, Taiwanese and Japanese government websites and even tried to take down the Dalai Lama's computer network with a Trojan horse attack.
However, despite the size of the team and years of experience, China remains fairly behind their international competitors. The study asserts that "they have evinced little proficiency with more sophisticated hacking techniques. The viruses and Trojan Horses they have used have been fairly easy to detect and remove before any damage has been done or data stolen." Furthermore, there's "no evidence that China's cyber-warriors can penetrate highly secure networks or covertly steal or falsify critical data. They would be unable to systematically cripple selected command and control, air defence and intelligence networks and databases of advanced adversaries, or to conduct deception operations by secretly manipulating the data in these networks."
Ultimately, the study concludes that China's cyber-warfare capabilities will remain inferior to those of rival governments for "probably several decades", and that their chief advantage would be in first attacks. (Which is a fancy way of saying that AMERICA IS STILL NUMBER ONE.) Luckily, China's ability to nefariously benefit from Western trade agreements via the ruthless exploitation of their huge migrant labor working under near-slavery conditions remains unparalleled. Obviously, the smart thing for Western governments concerned about China's growing power would be to panic, then severely curtail online civil liberties and repeal OSHA.
The published paper is short, but worth a longer look for its breakdown of the specifics of China's cyber-attacks. It does not, unfortunately, provide a way to describe asymmetrical computerized attacks without using the prefix 'cyber'.