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China vs. India: the start of a cyber war?

Border conflict between China and India has ramped up in recent months. The 60-year struggle over one remote region came to a head in recent clashes on the ground and online. With both countries launching a series of cyberattacks against infrastructure, including hospitals, we’re starting to see the far-reaching effects of a digital assault. The internet is replacing physical battlefields; are we entering a new age of cyber warfare?

China vs. India: the start of a cyber war?

Why are India and China fighting?

The territory India and China are fighting over is called Aksai Chin, and the conflict’s roots stretch back across the last century. The month-long Sino-Indian War of 1962 resulted in China claiming Aksai Chin, but the region has remained a flashpoint. Since the war, Indian and Chinese troops have patrolled the border, clashing occasionally in small skirmishes.

Once again, things escalated in the summer of 2020. To play catch up with China’s construction and logistical advancements, India planned to construct a plethora of roads and infrastructure improvements along the border. This led to a build-up of forces on both sides of the border, a violent face-off between soldiers, and several deaths.

While physical skirmishes are still rare, cyberattacks between Indian and China are launched, with both nations trying to get one-up on each other with increasingly violent electronic incursions. So how does cyber warfare work in practice? And how worried should the rest of the world be about India and China?

The cyberattack timeline

While it’s hard to confirm who is responsible for the various acts of cyber warfare in the region, we can construct a rough timeline of hostilities.

  • February 2020: In an act of cyber espionage, state-backed Indian hackers coordinate a wave of phishing emails targeted at Wuhan organizations and hospitals.
  • June 2020: A study conducted by Recorded Future, an independent cybersecurity firm specializing in threat detection and analysis, shows that Chinese malware has infected Indian power control systems. Chinese hackers also enact over 40,000 hacking attempts targeting India’s technology and banking facilities across five days. The attacks are a combination of DDoS and Phishing attempts. The stock market is forced to close.
  • October 2020: Mumbai suffers a massive power outage from a power grid failure. Trains grind to a halt and hospitals have to rely on backup generators while the rest of the city plunges into darkness. The power out lasts for up to 6 hours in some areas. 10 essential Indian power stations are targeted, along with two ports.
  • March 2021: Chinese hacker group Stone Panda attempts to commit cyber espionage and disrupt Indian vaccine attempts. Bharat Biotech and Serum Institute of India are targeted, as hackers exploit vulnerabilities in their web servers. It is suspected that the act was meant to give China a competitive advantage over India in vaccine distribution; 60% of worldwide vaccine supplies originate in India, and China is currently promoting its own vaccine.

Cyber warfare across the globe

Cyber warfare isn’t confined to China and India’s conflict, of course. The more dependent any government becomes on the internet for storage, security, and national infrastructure, the more impactful a cyberattack can be. While some acts of cyber warfare are fairly minor — a disruptive DDoS attack against government websites, for example — others can have dire consequences.

The 2015 cyberattack on Ukraine’s electrical grid demonstrated the damage that cyber warfare can inflict. This was the first successful cyberattack on a country’s power supply that we know of, but it wasn’t the last. In 2019, the United States found Russian code hidden in their power grid. The Kremlin then accused the US government of carrying out a similar attack against Russia’s own infrastructure. Since then, relations have only grown more strained.

While cyberattacks between America and Russia can seem like Cold-War posturing, the situation around India and China is much more worrying. Their acts of cyber warfare are an extension of a very real, physical conflict, and as such they introduce a much greater threat of escalation. Although technically non-violent, a prolonged cyberattack can cause far more lasting damage than a ballistic missile.

What does this mean for the future?

If the situation along the Chinese and Indian border is a sign of future events, we can expect to see a steady shift away from physical fighting and towards online battles. While global superpowers like Russia and the US will continue to trade blows and test each other’s defenses, smaller countries may not be able to protect themselves.

What happens when superpowers like China turn their gaze away from India and onto a country that doesn’t have the resources or technology to repel them? Governments with advanced cyber capabilities could exert enormous influence over their neighbours, without ever accepting responsibility for their covert actions.

The silver lining to these revelations is that, with each attack, global awareness grows. The more the global community recognises the threat of cyber warfare, the faster individual country’s can improve their cybersecurity practices. In a future where hostile powers can shut down electrical grids and disrupt hospitals, cybersecurity could mean the difference between life and death.