UPDATE 1-China PLA officers call Internet key battleground

Fri Jun 3, 2011 3:24am EDT

* Military says Internet can spread unrest

* "Blue army" exercises show PLA focused on cyber threats

* Clinton says allegations Google hacked from China "very serious" (Adds details about Chinese cyber-war efforts)

By Chris Buckley

BEIJING, Jun 3 (Reuters) - China must master cyber-warfare as the Internet emerges as a crucial battleground for opinion and intelligence, two military officers said on Friday, two days after Google revealed hacking attacks it said came from China.

The researchers from the People's Liberation Army's Academy of Military Sciences did not mention Google's statement that hackers apparently based in China had tried to steal into the Gmail accounts of hundreds of users, including U.S. officials, Chinese rights activists and reporters.[ID:nN02261322]

The essay by two PLA scholars, Senior Colonel Ye Zheng and his colleague Zhao Baoxian, in the China Youth Daily nonetheless stressed Beijing is focused on honing its cyber-warfare skills, and sees an unfettered Internet as a threat to its Communist Party-run state.

"Just as nuclear warfare was the strategic war of the industrial era, cyber-warfare has become the strategic war of the information era, and this has become a form of battle that is massively destructive and concerns the life and death of nations," they wrote in the Party-run paper.

Google said on Wednesday that the hacking attacks appeared to come from Jinan, which is the capital of China's eastern Shandong province and home to an intelligence unit of the People's Liberation Army.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Thursday dismissed Google's statement as groundless and motivated by "ulterior motives."

Recent Chinese reports about efforts to nurture a "blue army" of specialist troops to strengthen defences against hacking have also given a rare glimpse into the PLA's advance into online battle.

The Chinese military has been holding simulated cyber battles pitting a "blue army" unit using virus and mass spam attacks against "red teams" in an effort to strengthen troops' readiness for online attacks, the Liberation Army Daily said last month.

"I'd guess every defense ministry in the world has faced hacking attacks, and we also face attacks. So we've formed a blue army to train our military to deal with this," Xu Guangyu, a researcher at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association and a retired PLA major general, told Reuters.

"It represents the hacker threat, and other units using digital and Internet capabilities have to stop it. It uses lots of virus and other means to try to get into your website, and you have to prevent it," he said.

Last year, contention over Internet policy became an irritant between Beijing and Washington after the Obama administration took up Google's complaints about hacking and censorship from China. Google partly pulled out of China, the world's largest Internet market by users, after the dispute.

So far, neither Google nor Washington has outright blamed China for the hacking attacks. Both governments have sought to steady their relations after last year's turbulence, and they may want to avoid another escalating feud.

But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday that the "allegations are very serious."

DOMINO EFFECT

The PLA scholars, Ye and Zhao, said China has its own fears about the Internet being wielded as a tool for political challenges, and pointed to the anti-authoritarian uprisings across the Arab world as an alarming example.

The Internet "has become the main battleground of contention over public opinion," they said, citing the "domino effect" across the Middle East and north Africa.

China's ruling Communist Party fears it could become one of those dominoes, despite robust economic growth and stringent domestic security and censorship.

In February, overseas Chinese websites, inspired by the "Jasmine Revolution" across the Arab world, called for protests across China, raising Beijing's alarm about dissent and spurring a burst of detentions of dissidents and human rights lawyers.

China has also tightened censorship of the Internet, and it already blocks major foreign social websites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The latest Google hacking attempt follows a series of high-profile hacking cases, including an attack on the U.S. defense giant Lockheed Martin .

The PLA scholars said the threats to China come from more than sophisticated intelligence operations on the Internet.

"Cyberware is an entirely new mode of battle that is invisible and silent, and it is active not only in wars and conflicts, but also flares in the everyday political, economic, military, cultural and scientific activities." (Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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