Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF (ret.)
This paper uses concepts of complex warfare established in ICSL Paper #13 to analyze the world view, threat assessment, and combined effects strategy of China.
In doing so, we highlight superior combinations of effects. Subsequent papers on Japan and the Koreas will do the same, comparing threats and integrated effects with those of China.
China’s prevailing world view among elites is one of moral order, central authority, and expansive territoriality. These are competitively acquired values that reinforce the power of the sovereign, currently the Communist Party of China (CPC). In terms of our previous paper’s typology of individuals and groups, the Party behaves as Absence of Mutual Consent Idealists.
A righteous moral order is the product of over 4000 years of contested rule. For most of China’s history, subjects and outsiders were expected to pay tribute to a celestial emperor whose moral legitimacy to rule derived from a Mandate of Heaven (tianming 天命). Sovereignty rested on a combined effect—coercive persuasion, which arose from a moralistic “Han synthesis” of legalism and ideological order. That construction is basically rule by law, not rule of law. That is, laws served an ideology to expand rather than limit sovereign power. They still do.
Today’s leader, Xi Jingping, comes complete with his own ideology of 14 principles that demonize democratic rights. His recent call for civilized behavior exhorts citizens to “inherit the red gene.” The accompanying morality guidelines aim to induce compliance inward as China expands its territory outward.
The borders of Chinese civilization have expanded and contracted through warring states and dynasties, foreign invasions, nationalism and republicanism, communist rule and capitalist reforms. Signs of imperial weakness led rivals to demonstrate that they merited the heavenly mandate.
Today, CPC legitimacy propounds “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” to order relationships, enforce loyalty, and expand Beijing’s brand worldwide. A bitter sense of lost respect since the fall of the last imperial dynasty in 1911 motivates a righteous reckoning with rival empires long dead. Recrudescent imperialists are kept alive as villains at an early age in China’s standardized education system.
China’s Party-centered moral education (3, 11-13) promotes particularistic morals cloaked by universalist ideals. The Party determines the content of textbooks, requiring more political ideology and CPC-related activities as children ”progress.” The Party basically hijacks Confucianist virtues to program subservience to CPC authority. Such as, individualism is portrayed as selfish and CPC interpretations of what is good for the collective are always right.
Central authority contends with family authority rooted in Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Legalism and many other beliefs. Moral order promotes the authority of ethnic Han rule that began about 2100 BC in the Yellow River valley. The continuity of a Chinese civilization subject to central authority promotes hopes for a permanently unified people, and the expectation that strong elites must lead change and resist foreign influence.
The ruling CPC, the only permissible political party, exploits that expectation to cultivate nationalism that justifies totalitarian rule. Elections are symbolic as the CPC selects its own for the institutions that matter: the seven members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo and the 24-member Politburo. The Party admits no mistakes other than to blame members for purging, usually on charges of corruption. The primary task of military leaders is to uphold the absolute Party leadership over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Beijing regularly invokes memories of its “century of humiliation” (1839-1949) and unequal treaties at the hands of western and Japanese powers to reinforce the need for central authority. Fixated on this past, the CPC blames China’s weaknesses on predatory others and weak central authority.
To remedy this constructed problem, Xi Jinping led the removal of term limits so he might be leader for life. He now holds all three key positions of power—President (The State), General Secretary of the Communist Party (The Party), and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (People’s Liberation Army). Xi maintains control in the old style of the Warring States period (475 – 221 BC) — political warfare.
The three types of political warfare—public opinion, psychological, and legal—are weaponized by controlling information. Diffuse technologies and reformist ideas challenge CPC authority, akin to barbarian innovations (Mongol or Manchu or Western) that brought down civilized Han dynasties. As a result of this vulnerability, the CPC-directed PLA informatization of warfare includes running cyber actions against citizens.
For the CPC, directing activities in the information environment also works well to empower the PLA’s domestic rival, the Ministry of State Security (MSS). Competing influencers abound, so it’s imperative for the CPC to expand the actual and virtual territory under its control.
Beijing’s moralistic narrative promotes an authoritative territoriality with expansive characteristics. Geographic territory in China has always represented power and rightful authority. By expansive characteristics, we mean that classic territoriality, “the process whereby individuals or groups lay claim to [such] territory,” now applies to all domains.
The CPC, having succeeded in maintaining a narrative as an historically victimized “developing nation,” aggressively conducts complex warfare. The similarities to the irrevocable expansion (639) strategy of the founding dynasty, the Qin (221-206 BC), are striking. Winning without violence is a myth. It’s just not the only tool of warfare.
The Qin spent 100 years setting conditions for external conquest while its rivals wrecked one another in fruitless wars. When Qin Shi Huang Di (the First Qin Emperor) unleashed territorialism, he changed the how and why of waging war. He unified China by destroying the sovereignty of all the warring states. The strategy produced multiple, simultaneous effects on opponents: enveloped rival strategies; split alliances; devastated armies; and occupied sources of wealth. Shi Huang Di’s short reign established more lasting effects as well—outward migration, integrated roads, and bureaucratization of the government.
China’s subsequent dynasties rose and fell due to corruption, indefensible borders, and technological inferiority. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644), which defeated the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), is revered as China’s Golden Age — the last dynasty ruled by ethnically Han Chinese. Ming coercive expansion included Dai Viet (present-day Vietnam). The Ming’s successor, the Manchu-led Qing dynasty (1644-1911), doubled China’s territory before collapsing from Western and Japanese invasions enforcing their own sense of ownership (including extraterritoriality).
Today the People’s Republic of China’s exclusive geographic claims exceed that of any previous Chinese empire. Moreover, Beijing’s Information Age territorialism applies to air, space, cyber and surface domains, and is diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and social in scope. Spot the DIMES…
…CPC actions contradict its deceptive Diplomacy as China lays claim (via theft) to Information that disregards foreign intellectual property rights (11-12), enables a knock-off Economy of others’ products, and harvests government and private sector secrets (see Chapter 3). Domestic law-fare lay the great investment trap, luring un-recoupable foreign investments into China, where they must stay (see Chapter 3). Military-backed construction of illegal territory steals space in disputed waters. Social media-stirred justifications of the new territorialism complete the DIMES-wide strategy.
China’s leaders assess a variety of permanent threats to the above variously acquired (cultivated, programmed, practiced) values. Externally, threats against sovereign borders include: information that contradicts the CPC narrative; foreign presence in claimed territories; slowdowns in economic growth; independent ownership; competition over resources; and challenges to social control. Domestically, threats are also ubiquitous, including any ideas that violate cultural sovereignty and challenges to CPC political, economic and social authority.
CPC control of all forms of media and cyber surveillance (such as the social credit system) cultivates a sense that China is surrounded by threats. Cameras, informants, a massive internal security apparatus and a selectively censored internet deter overt dissent and induce politically passive behavior. The CPC’s narrative is expanding globally via the training of journalists and buying up shares in foreign media.
External threats against territorial claims include states that assert international or national rights that undermine Beijing’s control—the US, Japan, Vietnam, the Koreas, India, and the Philippines. With border disputes all around China’s periphery and a long history of imperial expansion (portrayed as defensive) and contraction (portrayed as heroic), it’s easy for the CPC to ascribe predatory intent today. Taiwan is considered a threat to sovereignty as well, but as a renegade province, therefore a domestic threat. China’s territory now includes cyberspace.
Threats to, from, and in cyberspace are by that domain’s nature, global. Slaved to CPC ideological guidance, the PLA and MSS are working to ensure China becomes a “strong internet power” to defend public opinion against online exposure and to compel acceptable behavior. Workarounds such as virtual private networks are banned but widespread. “Great Firewall” activities include state-funded hacking, distributed denial of service attacks on offending websites, and large-scale surveillance, censorship and propaganda to defend and compel public opinion.
Threats to economic growth and access to resources are framed as part of a US containment strategy. Never mind that the Clinton administration led the effort to admit China in the World Trade Organization. What about obvious inefficiencies of modernization under a one-Party command economy? Such threats include manufacturing over-capacity, real estate over-investment, massive debt to gross domestic product ratio, current account dependence, closed capital accounts, and opaque foreign exchange reserves. These are disregarded, blamed on corruption, or used to highlight the need to change an unfair international order.
Party elites recognize the need for more economic reforms to avoid the mistakes of the Soviet Union, and a few dare to speak out. Most discuss China’s global role in a new world order that will be more harmonious. That means acceding to China’s claims.
While mouthing multilateralism, Beijing prefers bilateral approaches to influence rival powers. Small powers, a term Beijing often uses when referring to Southeast Asian states, are expected to behave as such. They are threats to the extent they might band together against China’s interests.
Such assessments of external threats provide justification to eliminate internal threats.
Domestic threats against Chinese culture are blamed on toxic Western ideals and their acceptance among misguided youth and disloyal subjects. A number of security-related values pushed by the Communist Party of China are acquired in a “patriotic curriculum.” This effort involves social persuasion and compellence of values such as love of the Motherland, honoring Red Army martyrs, and loyalty and obedience to the Party.
Persistent threats to Han Chinese culture include religious and ethnic minorities.
In Xinjiang Autonomous Region, “ethnic unrest” includes hundreds of thousands of Uighur, Kazakh and other minority Muslims who are interned in camps and prisons (the CPC sees these as job training sites). Offenses include expressing incorrect opinions on social media. Signs of separatism are taken very seriously, to the point Xi Jinping has called for showing no mercy and waging “people’s war” in the region.
China’s National Defense White Paper 2019 (Part I) blames external separatist forces for pushing Tibetan independence and creation of East Turkestan, while Xi Jinping insists that “Religions in China must be Chinese.” The CPC’s ethno-racist construction of threat is clear: Tibetan Buddhism is not Chinese.
In Hong Kong, a pro-democracy movement threatens the Party’s agenda as Beijing breaks the 1997 agreement with Great Britain to respect Hong Kong’s domestic autonomy until 2047. What began as a protest against an extradition bill ordered by Beijing-selected Chief Executive Carrie Lim, ignited a months-long movement. Beijing’s actions provided the propellant, such as its re-interpretation of Hong Kong Basic Law to disqualify elected politicians refusing to take an oath to China. Beijing frames the self-made threat as a matter of sovereignty.
Taiwan is regarded as a fight against separatism that is becoming more acute. The main adversaries are the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and US foreign influence. The Defense White Paper states, “The Taiwan independence separatist forces and their actions remain the gravest immediate threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the biggest barrier hindering the peaceful reunification of the country” (Part I).
The lack of a primary health care system in China is a less publicized threat. Rising violence against medical professionals erupt from an increasingly frustrated population. The shortage of general practitioners and and low pay is being addressed by Healthy China 2030, but modern diseases are on the rise.
Let’s turn to combinations of effects Chinese strategy manages to wield against these threats.
Combined Effects Strategy
China’s combined effects strategies against external threats have been analyzed in depth in a previous article. In this paper, by considering China’s world view and threat assessment, we can add desired effects against internal threats.
To understand the comprehensiveness of Chinese strategy, the following diagram summarizes the diversity of basic effects at play in the information environment. To compete across all domains, strategists need to master these eight effects.
Types of Cooperative and Confrontational Effects
In this model of complex warfare, there are four types of cooperative effects and four types of confrontational effects. As we shall see, Chinese strategy produces all of them, and at a strategic level of significance. The eight total types of effects derive from two analytic decisions.
- Decide the degree to the effect causes and/or prevents actions. This primary concern of strategy needs to be clarified and re-clarified, especially in dynamic environments.
- Decide the extent to which the effect uses psychological or physical means. This concern intends to broaden our perceptive and operational apertures. Both analytical decisions can help specify the ends (or the false ends, in deception) of strategy.
Beijing manages to produce these all of these effects from a moralistic, territorial perspective that justifies centralized authority and is prone to perceive permanent threats. This is a long-term view of strategy.
Historical Combined Effects
Here are several historical combinations of effects (in bold type) that inhibit the ability of opponents to act effectively:
- Coerce an occupation of Tibet (1950), then persistently compel absorption into China as the Tibet Autonomous Region (1965).
- Secure British non-intervention while seizing Aksai Chin from India (1962), then induce Pakistan to cede part of India-claimed Kashmir to China (1963).
- Defend against strengthening Soviet-Vietnamese ties and coerce a split in the Soviet-Vietnam and Soviet-Cambodia ties (1979 invasion of Vietnam).
- Compel polarized politics in Taiwan, then induce that dilemma with DIMES-wide threats tailored to vulnerabilities (ongoing).
- Dissuade Japanese business from supporting Tokyo’s claims to the Diaoyu Islets and persuade US elites of Beijing’s legitimate counter-claims (ongoing Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute).
Now, let’s add a few desired effects to the historical combinations above, derived from our review of China’s internal threats. This creates synergistic effects.
Adding Effects for Synergy
Countering internal threats to the authority of the Party relies on three problematic lines of effect. The general problem for security strategy is maintaining those acquired values in China’s world view — moral order, central authority, expansive territoriality. The solution is to create synergistic combined effects.
- Compel respect for the Party’s version of morality.
Example: Historical Combined Effect #1 (Tibet).
Problem—espousing “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” (a modern, harmonious, better life, etc.) while capitalism produces the wealth and freedoms are suppressed, is filled with contradictions. How to uphold moralistic claims of Chinese culture?
Solution—add to compel respect: induce Han Chinese businesses into Tibet (1995); socially coerce and persuade Tibetans to accept “Chinese” culture and law. This synergy increases the impact of China’s occupation and absorption of Tibet.
- Persuade and induce nationalism to strengthen CPC authority.
Example: Historical Combined Effect #4 (Taiwan)
Problem—nationalism is volatile and can turn against central authority as situations develop. The ability to get other than forced loyalty from citizens relies on fabricating threats and cultivating Party elites, particularly when economic growth falters.
Solution—add to persuade and induce: deter Taiwan from declaring independence, amplifying that effect via national media to strengthen induced nationalism on the mainland. This synergy increases risks for Taiwan and presents a dilemma to the main two political parties.
- Induce global economic participation in Chinese activities in liberated territory.
Example: Historical Combined Effect #5 (Japan)
Problem—Japanese firms are subject to Tokyo’s influence and Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) allied with the US will defend against attacks.
Solution—add to dissuade Japanese business and persuade US elites: induce global interest in joint ventures near Diaoyutai, incentivizing Japanese business and daring JSDF-US forces to attack non-hostile vessels. This risky synergy provides pressure for opportune moments.
Conclusions and Implications for US
China’s world view, threat assessment and combined effects help us understand and prepare for the arenas of cooperation and confrontation in complex warfare.
Overall, Beijing’s combined effects blend cooperative inducement with confrontational coercion, presenting dilemmas that can be opportunistically managed to gain advantageous outcomes. This type of warfare fills in a long-term national strategy that out-competes, out-confronts, and out-cooperates what passes for US grand strategy today.
In response to complex warfare, the US eschews confrontation and conflict in the arenas that China has chosen to contest.
We observe that China roams through all of four of the complex warfare blends introduced in ICLS Paper #13.
- Violent Mutual Consent (conflict [violence] waged according to established norms of warfare). These have been conflicts in the Koreas (1950-1953), India (1962), and Vietnam (1979).
The US prepares for this type of warfare. China will likely avoid engaging this way until the opportunity presents itself to win battles and achieve strategic effects.
- Violent Absence of Mutual Consent (conflict [violence] and confrontation not deemed as warfare by at least one side). Chinese use of violence with other forms of confrontation have targeted Vietnam and the Philippines in disputed waters of the South China Sea.
The US has ceded this arena to China because we do not regard it as legitimate warfare.
- Non-Violent Mutual Consent (cooperation and competition based on accepted rules).
The US continues to cooperate and compete with China in areas where China follows international norms.
- Non-Violent Absence of Mutual Consent (confrontation and competition not deemed as warfare by at least one side). Chinese operations include the seizure of disputed territory, cyber theft and attacks on infrastructure, and persistent misinformation and disinformation campaigns against public and private entities.
US efforts seem focused on defensive resilience—developing the capability to absorb attacks as inconsequential.
The fundamental problem for the US is that we are competing and cooperating with China, while China competes, cooperates, and confronts us with complex warfare that we don’t even recognize as warfare. Until it becomes conflict.
The US needs to organize and create integrated effects. China’s world view and threat assessment produce strategies that combine effects and integrate them. From an effects-based perspective, successful integration means achieving synergistic effects. Integrated effects are more powerful than coordinated lines of effort, synchronized operations, and combinations of different effects that are simply additive.
The next two papers on Japan and the Koreas, respectively, will progressively compare the threats and integrated effects of complex warfare.