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The changes the international system has undergone from being tight bipolar to loose multipolar have resulted in the blurring of lines between traditional conceptions of hard and soft power. Military wars envisaged in the form of the two World Wars are distant memory; and new forms of warfare fuelled by technological advances have become the norm. Power now means the ability to shape other states’ behavior in accordance with a particular state’s own security needs. Information therefore, is of paramount significance in this context. What this has led to is the evolution of warfare, and information warfare has now become a reality of the 21st century’s international system.


In the context of information warfare, a mention of China becomes necessary which has made multiple strides in artificial intelligence, advancement of cyber technology and information gathering. Given the fact that the international system is realist in nature wherein states primarily rely on self help, espionage is a given for almost all states in the current international order. As far as China is concerned, the Government of China engages in espionage overseas primarily through the Ministry of State Security (MSS), which employs a variety of tactics including cyber spying to industrial espionage to human intelligence gathering among others. An example is that of the Lucky Cat hacking campaign in which a Trojan horse was inserted into a Microsoft Word file allegedly about India’s ballistic missile defense programme, allowing servers to connect and extract information. The attacks were subsequently traced back to a Chinese graduate student from Sichuan, and the Chinese Government was suspected of planning the attacks.


The question that arises is, how the actions of a graduate student could be connected to the Chinese Government’s espionage, and the answer to this lies in the usage of the ‘thousand grains technique’ by China. This technique is one of amalgamating disparate snippets of intelligence accessed from different sources. The Chinese diaspora provides it with a vast catchment area for collection of human intelligence, and the MSS uses companies, media agencies and banks for such espionage activities. The pile of information collected actually might seem useless unless viewed in conjunction with other pieces of information and analysed by an expert.


In February this year, a report from U.S. intelligence agencies presented to the U.S. Senate, stated that China’s intelligence services would exploit the openness of the American society, especially academia and the scientific community, using a variety of means. Similarly, concerns have been raised that Canada’s academic establishment has become a target for Chinese intelligence-gathering, as Beijing conducts a sweeping technological modernization of its armed forces. 


In the case of India, however, usage of the same technique is difficult for a variety of reasons including insignificant Chinese diaspora, miniscule Chinese students in India and a variety of languages used across the length and breadth of India. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to conclude that Chinese espionage in India is non-existent. Even though gathering human intelligence is difficult because of the stated reasons, the cases of Wang Qing and Pema Tsering prove that espionage does take place. Wang Qing was arrested in Dimapur in 2011. She had flown from Kunming to Kolkata on a tourist visa as an executive of a Chinese timber company, and allegedly held a meeting with a Naga insurgent leader. More evidence of Chinese espionage and blatant interference emerged in India in 2011 after the arrest of Anthony Shimray, a Naga separatist leader. The arrest revealed China’s linkages with the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) in Manipur and with the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) in Assam. In 2013, Pema Tsering was arrested in Dharamsala, after the Tibetan government in exile made a complaint against him. During interrogations, he admitted that he was a former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel. More recently, in 2018, Charlie Peng was arrested by Delhi Police’s special cell for operating an espionage ring in India.


Insertion of its own staff in another country is just one option that China exercises. In addition to staff insertion, China has also used its navy ships for the purpose. In July 2018, a Chinese navy spy ship entered Japanese territorial waters for the first time in over a decade, while tailing two Indian naval ships during the trilateral Malabar naval exercises between India, Japan and the U.S. Japanese P-3C patrol aircraft spotted the Dongdiao class intelligence vessel sailing in Japanese territorial waters to the west of Kuchinoerabu Island.


A month further back in June 2018, a flotilla of Indian warships comprising the newly inducted stealth anti submarine corvette INS Kamorta, a tanker, spotted a Chinese warship tailing them at a safe distance. The Indian Navy warships were leaving from Vietnam after exercising with the Vietnamese Navy.


In 2013, the Indian Navy spotted a Chinese spy ship near the Andaman Islands. Further back, in 2011, a suspected Chinese spy ship camouflaged as a fishing trawler had been detected by the Indian Navy near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to possibly keep an eye on Indian military activities in the area. 


Beyond insertion of its own personnel or ships in foreign territory, the other option that has been used by China in the past is that of honey trapping. This involves theft of information or extraction through other means by staging romantic encounters. This strategy attempts to create a one off opportunity to bug an apartment or to photograph documents. India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) has been the victim of such an operation in the past in 2008, as one of the staff members of the then station chief Uma Mishra had been honey trapped. The embassy reported that the staffer had been marked by two different Chinese agents and had his apartment bugged. However, even this form of human intelligence gathering by China is extremely precarious.


Therefore, cyber espionage becomes the preferred choice for China when engaging in espionage on India. In cyber espionage all that is required is a common ICT platform, which can be accessed at various command levels. China already has an army of cyber hackers at its disposal. In 2017 alone, 172 Indian government websites were hacked.  According to a report by the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), 35 per cent of cyber attacks on Indian sites are from China. The report further observed that China continues to “intrude” Indian cyberspace in a “significant” way. In 2017, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) in India warned that Chinese cyber spies are collecting confidential information about Indian security installations through popular mobile phone applications and devices. The advisory included a list of 42 popular Chinese mobile apps including WeChat, Truecaller, Weibo etc.


According to an IB report China has developed applications through which the internet habits of Indian officers are first tracked and understood, after which a honey trap is set in place. The report further adds that the usage of Chinese phones makes officers particularly vulnerable. The module apart from setting up honey traps are actively involved in hacking phones and systems of the Indian officials. The Chinese set up a chatting application through which they target phones using the Trojan malware, the report adds. The most lethal application is the Smeshapp which could be installed both on the desktop as well as the mobile phones.  Last year in 2018, in April India’s official Ministry of Defence website was hacked and a character in Chinese meaning “zen” or “home” appeared at the top of the web page implying that Chinese hackers were responsible for the cyber attack.


Despite the severity of the issue, discourses on Chinese espionage on India are rare. While China faces difficulties in gathering intelligence on India due to language barriers, low presence of students, professionals and diaspora in the country, the fact remains that the two countries do not share amicable relations. In fact the two have the world’s largest territorial dispute on their hands, and as stated earlier, 35 per cent of the total cyber attacks on India are from China. While China’s Huawei faces exclusion and bans from several quarters of the developed world, India is set to welcome Huawei and its 5G equipment in the country, in a reversal of its earlier stance. As stated by Indian officials, Huawei cannot be singled out in matters of security, especially since its rivals also source key components from China.


Given the fact that India has been at the receiving end of Chinese espionage in various forms, ranging from human intelligence gathering to signal intelligence to honey traps to cyber warfare, it is pertinent that India starts undertaking more in-depth studies to understand the challenge. In an international system that is based on self help, information warfare is only going to intensify, and India needs to be prepared to ensure its own security.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.