China's approach to gaining coercive leverage in the limited wars that it has planned to fight against nuclear-armed adversaries differs from the choices of other states. A theory of strategic substitution explains why China relied on threats to use information-age weapons strategically instead of nuclear threats or conventional victories in the post–Cold War era. Information-age weapons (counterspace weapons, large-scale cyberattacks, and precision conventional missiles) promise to provide quick and credible coercive leverage if they are configured to threaten escalation of a conventional conflict using a “brinkmanship” or “calibrated escalation” force posture. China pursued information-age weapons when it faced a leverage deficit, defined as a situation in which a state's capabilities are ill-suited for the type of war and adversary that it is most likely to fight. China's search for coercive leverage to address those defi- cits became a search for substitutes because its leaders doubted the credibility of nuclear threats and were unable to quickly redress a disadvantage in the conventional military balance of power. A review of original Chinese-language written sources and expert interviews shows that China pursued a coercive cyberattack capability to address a leverage deficit after the United States bombed China's embassy in Belgrade in 1999. China's low dependence on information networks shaped its initial choice of a brinkmanship posture for large-scale offensive cyber operations. China switched to a calibrated escalation posture in 2014, following a dramatic increase in its vulnerability to cyberattacks.

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