By Chris Buckley
BEIJING, Jun (Reuters) - China must make mastering cyber-warfare a military priority as the Internet becomes the crucial battleground for opinion and intelligence, two military officers said on Friday, two days after Google revealed hacking attacks that it said came from China.
The essay by strategists 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, among them U.S. officials, Chinese rights activists and foreign reporters.
Google said on Wednesday that the attacks appeared to come from Jinan, capital of China's eastern Shandong province, home to a signals 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."
The essay by two PLA scholars, Senior Colonel Ye Zheng and his colleague Zhao Baoxian, in the China Youth Daily nonetheless stressed that 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.
The Chinese military has been conducting simulated cyber battles pitting the "blue army" against "red teams" using virus and mass spam attacks, the PLA newspaper Liberation Army Daily said last month.
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 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday that the "allegations are very serious."
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 targets of psychological warfare on the Internet have expanded from the military to the public," they wrote.
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.
Three Chinese dissidents told Reuters their Google email accounts had been infiltrated, although eight others who were contacted said they had no problems.
China has also tightened censorship of the Internet, and it already blocks major foreign social websites such as Facebook and Twitter. 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."
The latest Google hacking attempt follows a series of high-profile hacking cases, including an attack on the U.S. defense giant Lockheed Martin. A U.S. official familiar with progress on the investigation said there was increasing suspicion that attack originated with "someone in China."
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)