The United States has no peer when it comes to capabilities in the realm of cyberspace, but China is rapidly gaining ground in terms of strategic competition, according to a new report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
The report released yesterday evaluates the cyber capabilities of 15 countries and how this intersects with international security, economic cooperation and military affairs.
The US' dominance in the cyber realm can be gauged from the 2013 leak that revealed the National Security Agency's sweeping surveillance system. The country has also demonstrated its ability to bring down critical civilian and military networks, such as when it disrupted Iranian nuclear enrichment activities.
In addition to its clear superiority in information and communications technology (ICT), the US' membership in alliances like the Five Eyes intelligence grouping gives it a significant advantage over its foes.
In contrast, China's cyber security industries are comparatively immature, and the country is hampered by its low skills base.
But given China's efforts to develop offensive cyber capabilities - something that Russia has also devoted resources towards - and the scale of its operations, its proven cyber espionage expertise and its political direction and doctrinal thinking, the country probably surpasses all other countries in terms of cyber capabilities except the US.
China and Russia are also unequalled in their adoption of cyber techniques for mass influence and subversion against adversaries.
However, while none of the 51 tech and telecom companies in the 2020 Fortune Global 500 are Russian, eight are Chinese - a number set to rise in the coming years.
The IISS studied 15 countries' cyber capabilities, and ranked them in three tiers based on qualitative scores in different aspects. These categories were: strategy and doctrine; governance, command and control; core cyber intelligence capability; cyber empowerment and dependence; cyber security and resilience; global leadership in cyberspace affairs; and offensive cyber capabilities.
Strength in the core ICT industries is the strongest determinant of whether a country moves up a tier, noted the international research institute, which focuses on military, geopolitical and geo-economic developments that could lead to conflict.
China is therefore best placed to join the US as the world's most cyber-capable nation if it maintains its current trajectory.
Conducted against a backdrop of intensifying international confrontation in cyberspace, the study ranked only the US in tier one based on its strengths in all the categories.
Australia, Canada, China, France, Israel, Russia and Britain were in tier two, attesting to their world-leading strengths in some categories. Within this band, Britain and Israel were ahead of other countries owing to a whole-of-society approach to cyber security and innovative approaches to increasing skills and growing their industries.
India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, North Korea and Vietnam fell into tier three, based on strengths or potential strengths in some categories, but significant weaknesses in others.
The study noted that Indonesia and Vietnam were more inclined to use their cyber capabilities for internal surveillance.
Malaysia has made strong moves on cyber security policy, but IISS said the country does not make a significant contribution to the global ICT sector and there is little evidence of its abilities.
S'pore not listed - but ahead of Asean peers in some areas
While Singapore did not figure in the International Institute of Strategic Studies' (IISS) new report on the cyber capabilities of countries, it is set to feature in an upcoming report on another 25 countries, according to IISS senior fellow Greg Austin, who authored the report.
Dr Austin said the IISS cyber team had not yet completed its assessment of Singapore, but indicated that the Republic is clearly ahead of several tier three states in important aspects of cyber power, especially compared with its Asean peers that were assessed, namely Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
However, Singapore is also behind its regional peers in some aspects of cyber power, he said.
"Since our tiering is very broad, we could also note some fairly obvious comparisons. Japan and India are both in our tier three category, and I think most people would recognise that the digital economy of Singapore, especially in raw ICT industrial power, is much smaller than that of India and Japan," said Dr Austin.
Elaborating on the nation's cyber strengths, he said: "Singapore is one of the most digital and networked countries in the world. It is globally recognised and respected for its leading position in cyber security and emergency planning. It has also demonstrated the most important quality that all small states must possess to maximise their cyber power - that is, a robust and effective cyber diplomacy and significant relationships with powerful states and industry providers."
There are reasons to believe Singapore has a very mature attitude and likely a matching capability in cyber situational awareness, though every country remains vulnerable to attack, he noted.
"Singapore already sees value in diplomatic efforts to maximise better joint cyber security response in an emergency," said Dr Austin. "All countries face a challenge in recruiting and training appropriately skilled people for cyber operations, so policies that can create effective multilateral or bilateral cyber defence responses, to combine resources and overcome national shortfalls, can be enormously important."
Ranking countries' cyber capabilities
• United States
• United Kingdom
• North Korea