When British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed a new cyber-security pact with his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh last week, he was not just seeking to protect the highly sensitive personal data of millions of British households that is stored by Indian call centres and computer servers. He was looking to establish a vital strategic alliance that will help to protect Britain from the mounting threat posed by China's formidable cyber-warfare machine.
Of course, protecting individuals' private information is vital if Britain is to maintain its enviable position as a world leader in online services.
Untold damage can be done to our personal finances, and reputation, if access to such information falls into the wrong hands: it is estimated that a significant proportion of the £73 billion Britain loses to fraud each year is down to fake internet activity.
Yet the threat to our wellbeing caused by internet crime is relatively manageable when compared with the havoc that would be wrought if Britain were to fall victim to a sustained attack by China's growing army of cyber-warriors. In the unlikely event of a deterioration in relations between our countries, experts believe the Chinese have the capacity to launch a ''clickskreig'' against the British mainland, knocking out vital elements of our national infrastructure, such as power stations and cash machines, simply by pressing a button.
Even in today's more amicable climate, Chinese firms and state agencies have been implicated in a host of hacking attacks on targets ranging from leading industrial and technology firms, to the Pentagon and other US government agencies, to The New York Times and Coca-Cola.
So the threat posed by Beijing's growing expertise in this unprincipled art is certainly deserving of the Prime Minister's attention - and that of the rest of our security establishment. For the truth is that China is now firmly established as the world's leading perpetrator of cyber-attacks.
The origins of the country's love affair with this unprincipled form of warfare can be traced back to the 1990s, when the Chinese military, realising that it could never match the Americans in purely conventional terms, developed the concept of unrestricted warfare, whereby its enemies could be defeated without recourse to direct military confrontation. The two People's Liberation Army colonels who produced the new manual, whose title literally translates as ''warfare beyond bounds'', initially envisaged resorting to tactics such as economic upheaval and terrorism to achieve their aims.
From the late 1990s, however, this doctrine has been rigorously applied to cyberspace, where the Chinese have become adept at using the internet to defend their interests, as well as using their expertise for industrial espionage, by stealing technological know-how from Western competitors. Such is the official obsession with maintaining the country's position as the world's pre-eminent power in cyber warfare that the PLA regularly holds national hacking competitions, in which the winners are rewarded with an immediate commission into the organisation's highly secretive cyber-command.
Maintaining supremacy in the dark arts of industrial espionage has almost become a national obsession, with frequent accusations that state agents have resorted to blackmail and murder. The family of Shane Todd, a 31-year-old Californian electronics engineer, are convinced that his unexplained death in Singapore last summer is related to sensitive research he was doing for a Chinese company into high-tech chemicals.
What is beyond doubt is that, whether through fair means or foul, hardly a day passes without the Chinese being implicated in a high-profile hacking scandal. Major American defence contractors, such as Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon's main supplier, have been attacked on numerous occasions; in Britain, Chinese hackers have been accused of creating a new ''spyware'' program codenamed Beebus, which has been used to attack companies involved in the development of the next generation of drone aircraft.
Whether Mr Cameron's agreement with the Indians will help to counter threats, only time will tell.
But the gravity of the situation has become increasingly clear.
For years, China has consistently denied any involvement in such skulduggery. Today, those protestations of innocence ring less true than ever.
London Daily Telegraph