Note #26. China’s Globally Propagated, Narrated Warfare

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Asia-Pacific, Leadership, Security, Strategy
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China uses narrative warfare as an integral part of diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and social (DIMES) combined effects to seize disputed territories. This Note explains how this strategy is globally propagated, narrated warfare.

China’s Narrative Warfare

China’s narrative normalizes the ends, ways and means of a strategy that is cooperative and confrontational, physical and psychological, and preventive and causative. I’m defining narrative in terms of meaning, identity, content, and structure because those elements can create synergistic influence. This definition comes from Paul Cobaugh’s insightful chapter, “Narrative IS Strategy,” in the ground-breaking book, Dangerous Narratives, edited by Ajit Maan.

As an influence component of Chinese combined effects, narrative warfare is an ideological command and control system that manipulates information (see ICSL Paper #23). The narrative’s belief system (its meaning) is “China is a benign and blameless model of global cooperation.” The party-government weaponizes that constructed belief with a nationalistic identity: China is a victim of foreign imperialism seeking rightful respect as a great power. Moreover, only the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has the people’s authority to lead socialist modernization with Chinese characteristics. That revisionist exceptionalism resonates in heavily-censored China, particularly toward Taiwan but also for disputed territories in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

Chinese operatives insert narrative-reinforcing messages (the content) into a variety of DIMES-wide combined effect strategies. Then, with an appropriate venue (the narrative’s structure), the messaging can create desired information effects. For instance, informational compellence combines with economic security, inducement, and coercion. That combined effect imposes dilemmas on Belt and Road Initiative participants (see ICSL Paper #44). An example of a poor venue for particular content is social media and Winnie the Pooh. The party-government banned Pooh bear because Chinese netizens used the meme to highlight Xi Jinping’s portliness. Evidently, the paramount leader prefers Kung Fu Panda.

China’s narrative content is riddled with cognitive errors such as name-calling (ad hominem), selective and false evidence, and appeal to authority to preempt critical thinking. They can work well in authoritarian societies, particularly when the US stirs up mainland patriotism with high-level political visits to Taiwan. Censorship ensures that most foreign content is deleted or re-translated to party-government versions of history and current events. That the US never agreed to China’s interpretation of a “one-China principle” is irrelevant as long as the party-government’s narrative dominates. In a free society, an open media could create such relevance. However, few democratic media outlets delve into the profoundly important detail of the US “acknowledging” China’s position but not “agreeing” with it. Instead, partisan US media outlets over-simply the issue.

So, democracies commit all those cognitive errors too, but they occur in an open arena of different views with elected and accountable representatives of the people. Developing critical thinking skills can help citizens in democracies counter disinformation that, in authoritarian systems, go unnoticed or ignored just to survive or be left alone.

China’s Narrative in a Combined Effect Strategy

The other part of China’s grand strategy is more obvious, now that China is actively attempting to displace a rules-based international order. On that argument, see Rush Doshi, The Long Game, for his critical analysis and alternatives-testing of such a grand strategy. In disputed maritime territory, China’s combined effect seeks to prevent access and compel de facto annexation of territory. Actually, it’s probably re-annexation or liberation, since the party-government, which is infallible, chooses any expedient point in time to reinforce its claims. It also crushes dissent and rewrites history. The following chart shows activities that blend the basic elements of strategy (ends, ways, and means) on the left side with these three dimensions of strategy (coop-confront, phys-psych, prev-cause) across the top: 

To get used to generating combined effects, let’s name this strategy according to its desired effects, or ends. Depending on the context, this combination could be “coercive security, inducement, and defense.”  The strategy works well at times with some nations heavily dependent on trade with China. Since 2017 for instance, Malaysia and Indonesia have accepted China’s combined effect in the South China Sea. As long as Chinese coast guard and paramilitary vessels do not physically interfere with Malaysian and Indonesian drilling, these two large ASEAN states comply with China’s intrusions. Prompted by anyone’s seabed discoveries in the region, China dispatches its armed fleets to disputed, but uncontested, waters.

China’s recent massive maritime and air operations around Taiwan intend to intensify this combined effect. Firing live missile warheads into Taiwan waters and flying over Taiwan territory amplify the coercive scare of Chinese strategy. In the chart above, the desired causative end would be de facto control and ultimate absorption of Taiwan.  

Globally Propagated & Narrated Combined Effects

The narrative is the same, but more global. That scope should render the content clumsy in competitive democracies, if we can resolve our inherent divisiveness. So, Chinese diplomats continue to claim that 170 “countries” support its military response to Speaker Pelosi’s showcased visit to Taiwan.

In mainland China, the showcase is Party-controlled, so the “People’s Republic” citizens are not permitted to contest this figure. The CCP is specifically organized to propagate and enforce the party line at all levels of the party-government. Its incredible claims of international support count foreign statements by opposition members (not permitted in China) and fringe parties (not permitted in China) and ignores or changes the actual words used by national representatives (Party-permitted but not admitted). The party-government’s tiers of functionaries simply repeat the narrative. This systemic propaganda applies the unifying narrative to a variety of combined effects all around China and its expanding global interests.

As in all authoritarian systems, the CCP’s narrative is its greatest vulnerability. 

Author: Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.

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