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Maximizing Leverage: China’s Strategic Force Posture Choices in the Information Age



Fiona Cunningham, CISAC, Stanford University

Date and Time

May 9, 2019 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM


Open to the public.

No RSVP required


William J. Perry Conference Room
Encina Hall, Second Floor, Central, C231
616 Jane Stanford Way, Stanford, CA 94305

Abstract: How do nuclear-armed states coerce their adversaries in wars with limited aims without using nuclear weapons? I develop a theory of strategic substitution to explain why states use space, cyber and conventional missile weapons instead of nuclear weapons to maximize leverage against their adversaries. I also explain how they select space, cyber, and conventional missile force postures, defined as weapons and plans for using them. Threats to use space, cyber and conventional missile weapons are more credible sources of strategic leverage against adversaries in wars that do not threaten a state’s survival. I demonstrate the plausibility of the theory using China’s cyber force posture. China developed space, cyber and conventional missile weapons to solve a common problem: giving Beijing the leverage it could not gain from its nuclear weapons in a future war over Taiwanese independence involving the United States. Using original Chinese-language written sources and interviews conducted during extensive fieldwork, I show that Chinese leaders pursued cyber weapons to maximize their strategic leverage after the United States bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. As China’s vulnerability to cyber attacks grew during the 2000s, its appetite for risk in using cyber weapons declined, resulting in a change to its military cyber force posture in 2014.

Speaker Bio: Fiona Cunningham is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at CISAC. Her research interests lie at the intersection of technology and conflict, with an empirical focus on China. She received her PhD in September 2018 from the Department of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she was a member of the Security Studies Program. Her dissertation explained China’s development of space, cyber and conventional missile force postures as substitutes for using nuclear weapons to coerce adversaries. Her research is based on extensive fieldwork, including a year-long dissertation research fellowship at the Renmin University of China, Beijing, in 2015-6. She was a Pre-Doctoral Fellow in the Cyber Security Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, in 2017-8. Fiona’s research has been supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation, China Confucius Studies Program, and the MIT Center for International Studies. Her research on China's nuclear strategy has been published in the quarterly journal, International Security. Fiona holds a Bachelor of Arts in Politics and International Relations from the University of New South Wales and a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Sydney, both with first-class honors. She was a research associate at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney from 2009 until 2012, where she focused on extended nuclear deterrence in East Asia and nuclear nonproliferation. Fiona speaks Mandarin Chinese and French.

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