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Will China Replicate Russia’s Cyber Offensives in a Taiwan Reunification?

The current situation in the Ukraine has garnered the world’s attention with stakeholders watching attentively as the crisis unfolds. Such regional hotspots have the potential of spilling over into neighboring countries and pulling in governments from all over the world in some capacity. The threat of armed conflict escalating into a major global engagement is always a possibility. China and Taiwan are eagerly watching the crisis as well, but largely for different reasons. While Taiwan is interested to see how friendly governments come to Ukraine’s aid, China is observing how Russia may go about reclaiming territory of the former Soviet Union, in the attempts of gaining insight into how such an act can be accomplished successfully, should Moscow do just that.

The Russia-Ukraine situation bears striking similarities to longstanding issues between China and Taiwan. Both scenarios feature a larger, stronger government seeking to claim territory that was formerly under its historical control. And while both boast some of the largest, most advanced militaries, it’s their cyber capabilities that have been discussed frequently in the press. Both China and Russia are highly cyber-capable, with a well-resourced and well-financed cyber apparatus in place able to conduct myriad types of attacks, from the most rudimentary to the most sophisticated. They also both have access to eager nationalistic and patriotic communities ready to be leveraged to support their respective government’s interests. However, while China has used its cyber capabilities primarily to support intelligence collection and intellectual property theft, Russia has been more ambitious trying to figure out how to implement more aggressive cyber attacks into real-world conflicts in which it seeks to achieve a strategic objective.

Many U.S. government officials expect that Russia will execute disruptive cyber attacks against key critical infrastructure targets like energy, finance, and telecommunications prior to executing an invasion in an attempt to incite civil unrest, confusion, and cause the Ukrainian government to divide its attention. Russia has been on the forefront of using cyber attacks during periods of geopolitical conflict from 2007 distributed denial-of-service attacks against Estonia to the 2017 NotPetya ransomware attack that first affected key Ukrainian targets, and several incidents in between. Moscow has achieved varying levels of success during these engagements where it has implemented cyber and information-enabled attacks into its hybrid warfare strategy. With each conflict, Moscow has learned what has worked and what has not, improving how to deploy these offensives against targets culminating in its successful annexation of Crimea in 2014. Follow on cyber and information-enabled operations in the form of disruptive attacks against Ukraine continued on this path. Looking at the current situation, further refinements will likely be exhibited should Russia decide to use military action. There may be no more interested party than Beijing should this happen.

If Ukraine has been a “test bed” for Russian cyber malfeasance, so has Taiwan at the hands of China. Taiwan has been a frequent target of Chinese-initiated malicious cyber activity that has ranged from nuisance type attacks such as web-page defacements, to information theft to support espionage or intellectual property theft, to more disruptive attacks. According to Taiwan officials in 2021, Taiwan faced approximately 5 million cyber attacks a day with nearly half originating from mainland China, though what they considered an attack was not shared, nor were the types of attacks that were recorded. Beijing has demonstrated a full-scope cyber capability and has long been considered the most pervasive cyber actor conducting global cyber campaigns.  According to a 2021 Annual Threat Assessment published by the U.S. Intelligence Community, China – not Russia – was the bigger threat, a determination swayed in part by China’s prolific cyber initiatives. Indeed, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to make China a cyber superpower in 2014. Per a 2021 report on states’ core cyber prowess, Xi is making good on his promises as China was ranked close behind the United States.

Some other notable examples of China-attributed cyber activity against Taiwan include but are not limited to:

  • According to a leading computer security company, between 2020 and 2021, a China-linked state-sponsored actor ran an espionage campaign targeting financial institutions and one manufacturing company in Taiwan.
  • In 2020, Taiwan government linked a series of hacking attacks to groups affiliated with the Chinese government. The cyber espionage activity targeted at least 10 Taiwan government agencies, affecting 6,000 Taiwan government officials’ accounts in order to steal important data.
  • Also in 2020, Chinese government-linked hackers targeted Taiwan’s CPC Corporation, a state-owned petroleum, natural gas, and gasoline company impacting customers’ ability to purchase fuel. In addition, 10 other critical infrastructure entities were targeted by these hackers. Taiwan government investigative agency determined that these organizations had been targeted by ransomware.
  • A Taiwanese cybersecurity company identified Chinese cyber activity stealing source code, chip designs, and other intellectual property from at least seven Taiwanese chip firms over a two-year period. The company indicated potential ties to the Chinese government but stopped short of direct accusation.

Whether purposefully or not, there is evidence indicating that China may have already followed Russia’s lead in getting accesses to targets of interest for follow-on operations. Recent revelations of China’s exploitation of India’s energy sector suggest that China is not only focused on cyber espionage for political and economic advantage, but also creating and maintaining accesses that could be used to facilitate more damaging attacks. Some have considered a power outage in Mumbai may have been a result of a Chinese executed cyber attack, although India denied the allegations.

Given that at least some of Taiwan’s critical infrastructure is connected to the Internet, experts firmly believe that China has already infiltrated key critical infrastructure networks that would enable Beijing to execute disruptive and/or destructive cyber attacks ahead of any invasion of the island. This would be consistent for Beijing who has developed various plans ranging from full military invasion to non-kinetic capture to accomplish this very goal. As a “first strike” weapon, cyber attacks would support either action against Taiwan, though they would have to be executed timely, using the right types of attacks (e.g., disruptive, destructive, influence, propaganda) and against the right targets. This is where Russia’s past experience has been an invaluable resource, and why their use of cyber and information-enabled attacks now will further aid Beijing’s understanding of what can be accomplished using these tools and to what degree they should be relied upon in its own territory reclamation effort. Effective cyber disruption, cyber destruction, propaganda, and internal and external influence messaging all must work in strategic harmony, a difficult feat to achieve. If and when Beijing pulls the trigger on Taiwan, it will so having been informed by the blueprint Moscow has provided. But as its own architect, Beijing will tailor it to suit its own needs.

 

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Twitter List For Tactical Information: This Twitter list of vetted resources that have reported accurately on tactical moves in the Ukrainian theater can be used to quickly capture the gist of a dynamic military situation.

C-Suite Guide: Improving Cybersecurity Posture Before Russia Invades Ukraine: The capabilities of Russia to conduct cyber espionage and cyber attack have been battle tested and are hard to thwart even during daily “peacetime” operations. They include well resourced capabilities of the military and intelligence services and also deep technical expertise in the Russian business ecosystem and in organized crime which operates as part of Russian national power. Proof points of Russian capabilities include the massive and sophisticated Solar Winds attacks which leveraged low and slow, well thought out plans to achieve access to multiple well-protected targets. Ransomware successes by Russian based criminal networks are also instructive as to the capability of Russian cyber threat actors. The use of malicious self replicating code (worms/virus/trojan) to spread malicious code into infrastructure is also well proven with decades of practice including fielding software that replicates from unclassified to classified systems in the military and spreads throughout critical infrastructure. This post goes beyond an articulation of the threat into recommendations leaders seeking to mitigate cyber threats from Russia including threats before, during and after a Ukraine invasion.

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Charity Wright on China’s Digital Colonialism: Charity Wright is a Cyber Threat Intelligence Analyst with over 15 years of experience at the US Army and the National Security Agency, where she translated Mandarin Chinese. Charity now specializes in dark web cyber threat intelligence, counter-disinformation, and strategic intelligence at Recorded Future. Her analysis has provided deep insights into a variety of incidents, activities and strategic moves by well resourced adversaries, primarily actors operating in China.

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Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello

Emilio Iasiello has nearly 20 years’ experience as a strategic cyber intelligence analyst, supporting US government civilian and military intelligence organizations, as well as the private sector. He has delivered cyber threat presentations to domestic and international audiences and has published extensively in such peer-reviewed journals as Parameters, Journal of Strategic Security, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, and the Cyber Defense Review, among others. All comments and opinions expressed are solely his own.