Paper #44. China’s Belt and Road Initiative as Combined-Effects Strategy: How Democracies Can Compete

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Asia-Pacific, Leadership, Security, Strategy
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ICSL Paper #41 developed “concepts of influence,” a critical component to effective strategy. Concepts of influence are the ways and means that act on will and capability to bring about the ends of strategy. They may be entirely human created, or assisted or created by artificial intelligence. This paper applies concepts of influence to show how China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) operates as a combined-effect strategy. This will inform the next post, a resumption of AI-assisted strategy development.

Why Do We Need Combined-Effects Strategy?

The combined-effects strategy framework is built to manage multiple types of ends, ways and means. Why? Because competitive strategies tend not to be purely cooperative or confrontational, or only physical or psychological. They are blends that together create better effects than do separate, uncoordinated, or independent efforts. Yet, binary thinking about cooperation and confrontation persists. One need look no further than the idealistic assumptions of cooperation=peace, and confrontation=war.

Based on such naïveté, the American tendency to expand initial goals in a military confrontation and expect to win with military ways and means has produced one failed strategy after another. Witness Victory in Iraq[1] and the tragic Bush to Obama to Trump administrations’ flip-flop-flip of counterrorism-counterinsurgency-counterterrorism in Afghanistan.[2]

The US failure is not one of execution, which by any operational standard has been superb and courageous. The failure is strategy, based on an over-simple on-off switch mentality of peace or war that that cooperates or confronts, respectively. Effective strategies in a competitive environment require committed blends of both. There is nothing automatic about American exceptionalism or that it produces sound strategy, if one even believes the narrative. In Afghanistan, for instance, both counterterrorism and counterinsurgency are needed with the societal will to sustain it. As in Vietnam, inconsistent US strategy and lack of will failed to compete against a consistent “talk-fight” strategy and sustained resistance.

Analytical distinctions between cooperation and confrontation, and between physical and psychological, are particularly essential to success in a complex competitive information environment. Yet, analysis is only part of the job. To avoid what John Boyd referred to as being a half-wit, we need to synthesize. At their best, the ends of combined-effects strategies comprise a preventive and causative synthesis that poses dilemmas for opponents while minimizing the same to oneself.

Coding Combined Effects

To pull that off, we need to see the basic strategy at a glance because we need to manage its dynamic effects. Consider the eight effects produced by the 16 basic concepts of influence introduced in Paper #41. The eight effects are highlighted in bold in the following figure:

We’ll make three visual distinctions to highlight differences among effects. 

First, we italicize the cooperative effects and leave the confrontational effects in normal case. So the eight basic effects shown in Figure 8.1 above are DissuadePersuade, Deter, Compel, SecureInduce, Defend, and Coerce. 

Second, we abbreviate the above effects as DsP, Dt, Cp, SI, Df, Cr. This provides a instant view of the combinative features, which we need to see in order to be proactive with respect to the competition.

Third, we denote basic categories of diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and social effects. The latter is added because we ignore it so much. Personal note: one well-indoctrinated person tried to persuade me that “social” was not authorized by the DIME approach. Anyway, these large categories overlap, but they at least provide a reasonably parsimonious starting point:

D: Diplomatic

I:  Informational

M: Military 

E:  Economic

S:  Social 

With these distinctions, even without programming them into an AI, we can code the types of effects simply.

For instance, one of the most common cooperative combined effects is to use diplomatic persuasion, informational dissuasion, military security, and economic inducements. An example of this approach is:

  • a diplomatic communique that announces a strategic partnership
  • an information campaign against domestic opponents of that partnership
  • a military exercise featuring new capability
  • lucrative acquisition contracts with key stakeholders  

This combined effect strategy is coded as d P  Ds  S  I. Note that it’s missing social effects. Perhaps those are a taken-for-granted civil society, or considered off-limits in democracies. By comparison, authoritarian regimes easily add social surveillance, state-sponsored youth leagues, ideological narratives, and social media controls.

Consider the Nature of Effective Strategy

There are important reasons to represent a strategy in terms of combinations of effects. For now, consider the interrelated principles of holism, agility and asymmetry. These arguably constitute the enduring nature of effective strategy throughout history.

Holistic Strategy

From a holistic perspective, the effects of strategy interact with one another as parts to produce new wholes. Thinking in terms of a synthesis of effects, consider that diplomatic communique, which should be strengthened by the particulars of the military exercise, not weakened by them. Such as moving an aircraft carrier without coordinating with an affected ambassador. It follows that the US should not exercise a nuclear capability in support of its ally Japan, unless that also strengthens domestic support and regional allies.  

Agile Strategy

Such interactions must be anticipated and planned for in terms of agility. Is the alliance agile enough to tailor the military exercise activities and coordinate an information campaign to support the diplomatic communique, and enhance all of that with economic inducements? This relates to holism. The alliance needs to be comprehensive enough beyond military capabilities and solutions.

Asymmetric Strategy

Finally, contending strategies also interact, sometimes in asymmetric ways that confer advantage. In the above example, China and US ally South Korea have separate territorial disputes with Japan. They are likely to portray Japan as a common historical threat. In reality, the Korean peninsula has been subject to tributary state status under China and a colony of Japan. By emphasizing Japanese colonization rather than China’s own imperialism (both Koreas have territorial disputes with both states today), Beijing seeks to undermine the US extended nuclear deterrent to both Japan and South Korea.

In this manner of thinking about concepts of influence—how means and ways affect will and capability—we can get a comprehensive representation of combined-effects to inform discussions about their feasibility, too.

Armed with simply represented combined-effects strategies, let’s consider the BRI.  

Why Apply Combined Effects to China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a signal example of an overtly cooperative strategy that works with confrontational compellence and coercion operating in the background.

As indicated our figure above, cooperative-physical concepts of influence demonstrate will and exercise capability, and the effects are to secure and induce. Cooperative-psychological concepts of influence assure will and enhance capability, and the effects are to dissuade and persuade. How? 

An actor with resources and a concept of influence targets a competitor’s will and/or capability, then follows through by managing an advantageous synthesis. The success of this effort depends heavily on intelligence. 

Influencing the will of a person or group demands insight into human factors and organizational dynamics. It’s not a one-and-done affair. The commitment to win requires an ongoing effort that considers a variety of actions, reactions and counter-actions. 

Influencing the capability of a person or group requires technical intelligence about systems. It’s not a one-and-done either, but the follow-through has largely been considered to be more straightforward than in human intelligence. After all, the indicators tend to be mechanical, chemical or electro-magnetic observables rather than inscrutable intent, don’t they?

Not so fast. The digital technology revolution brought human-created software, complex connectivity, cloud information processing and artificial intelligence. The result is a fusion of capability and will that changes rapidly and resists scrutiny. That’s another reason for leaders and organizations in democracies to master combined effects.

For cooperative concepts of influence, this means that demonstrating and assuring will, and exercising and enhancing capability, are highly interrelated.

For instance, military exercises are a common cooperative way to demonstrate alliance will and capability. This, however, is far from an automatic result. Instantaneous information flows ensure that military exercises’ effects are not neatly confined to the target or the intended result. They affect other relationships and influence other outcomes. A combined-effects approach can take these into consideration. To illustrate how, take a closer look at China’s BRI.

Belt and Road Initiative

On its face, the BRI is cooperative and physical, backed by confrontational physical and psychological strategies that operate in the background. Physical cooperation promotes China’s geopolitical and economic security and provides inducements tailored to participants on a global scale. At the same time, confrontation creates informational compellence and financial-economic coercion.

These two effects not only converge, but also combine to complement one another.

A Party-orchestrated information campaign, for instance, actively spins physical cooperation as “green”[3] and confrontation as as cooperative, at least from a socialist ecological perspective.[4] 

To represent this complexity, we code the combined effect in terms of its simpler elements: e S I i Cp e Cr.  

Shortly after assuming control in 2013 General Secretary of the Communist Party, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and President Xi Jinping advocated building a “Silk Road Economic Belt and a “21st Century Maritime Silk Road.” Both plans connect China to Central and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe via six economic corridors. These are: (1) the New Eurasian Land Bridge; (2) the China-Central Asia-West Asia Corridor; (3) the China-Pakistan Corridor; (4) the Bangladesh-China- Myanmar Corridor; (5) the China-Mongolia-Russia Corridor; (6) the China-Indochina Peninsula Corridor. The core infrastructure consists of roads and rail, ports and power plants, 5G networks and fiber-optic cables. BRI has expanded to include 140 countries on four continents: 

Source: https://www.cfr.org/blog/countries-chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-whos-and-whos-out?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIqpz82rn58AIVcwutBh1MaQqvEAAYAiAAEgI33_D_BwE

Influencing Will and Capability

Given Xi’s portfolio of grandiose titles, his persistent push of BRI is a clear expression of Party and State will. As for exercising capability, BRI’s mechanisms of cooperation induce debt and import-dependence via foreign direct investment, development loans and portfolio investments. Some of these are backed by memoranda of understanding and strategic partnerships, but many are informal and non-transparent as one would expect from a single-Party dictatorship. 

One can track some indicators of BRI inducements on the Council on Foreign Relations’ Belt and Road Tracker to see how the strategy changes economic relationships. Countries with the greatest debt to China as a percentage of GDP are Djibouti (79%), Kyrgyzstan (42%), Tajikistan (24%), Mongolia (23%), Cambodia (22%), Laos (19%), Turkmenistan (17%),  Ethiopia (17%), Maldives (17%), Belarus (15%), Bosnia Herzegovina (15%) and Kazakhstan (12%).[5] Of the 140 or so countries that participate in BRI, there are a variety of motivations that fold into related projects, such as Made in China 2025. 

Several democratic states such as Italy, Luxembourg and Portugal have signed on to participate in the BRI, but the details are subject to the vicissitudes of popular politics. While political pluralism frustrates getting a durable deal, China exploits the indebtedness of liberal democracies as a weakness. Loans provide security and in return, debtors tend to comply politically as well. That’s natural, but what does this do from a combined-effects perspective?

The circumstances of political divisiveness (aggravated by disinformation) and demand for loans transforms China’s inducements into economic coercion and political alignment. Chronically indebted Greece, for instance, has blocked an EU statement condemning China’s human rights violations. Piraeus, the oldest port in Europe, is owned by China’s stated-owned shipping firm, Cosco. The Greece-Danube Canal project and others would bring China’s freighters from the eastern Mediterranean into Central Europe.[6]  

Debt-ridden authoritarian regimes — the top three in corruption are Somalia, South Sudan and Syria[7]—trade geographic access for politically conditional Chinese industrial and telecommunications investment. Wealthy authoritarians tolerant of opacity also are subject to Chinese inducements. A prime example is the United Arab Emirates, a Gulf state autocracy that leverages its security interests in developing renewable energy sources in exchange for expanding the BRI.[8]

Wealthy democratic states[9] and states in territorial disputes with China are less cooperative, or at least more conditionally cooperative, with the BRI. There are eighteen of of the latter surrounding China,[10] a result of two thousand years of Chinese imperial expansionism. Depending on a state’s societal views of China and capacity to govern, a BRI participant’s strategic options vary. They range from principled non-cooperation (Australia)[11] to pragmatic cooperation that seeks to protect security-related areas (South Korea).[12] Given the sheer size of China’s economy, even a superpower with anti-authoritarian public sentiment finds it difficult to disengage, offshore or even diversify interconnected supply chains.         

By creating points of unsustainable debt along a “string of pearls,” the Communist Party of China’s dream is to control geo-economic choke points without firing a shot. How? It’s all based on information. Deals with China come with obligatory data streaming and data storage in China. Enterprise cloud services from Alibaba and Tencent include mandatory data sharing with the Party. 

A well-funded disinformation campaign induces academics in democracies to join Chinese counterparts in supporting authoritarianism. The campaign is two-pronged, exploiting liberal values of environmentalism and global governance.  

First, Chinese academics select those aspects of environmentalism that reinforce authoritarianism. One example is espousing the need for “mutually agreed coercion” as the only way to force collective ecological policies.[13] Such slick environmentalism hits the sweet spots of liberal deconstructionist and post-structuralism narratives that portray capitalism as ecologically irresponsible. 

Second, Beijing’s calls for new global governance boils down to providing capital loans and technical advice to secure non-transparent infrastructure deals. The Party’s plan is to expand regional trade and economic development based on government authority rather than on transparent rules. A network of interconnected business and government elites reinforces Beijing’s single-Party authority and diminishes that of democracies. In the contemporary information environment, China’s imperial model depends on massive information. 

Connection to Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Massive state surveillance and control generate a massive intake of information. While feigning concern for individual privacy, the Communist Party of China compels just the opposite. Systematic collection and analysis of facial recognition and daily patterns of life form the core competency. As western democracies debate how to set global standards that protect privacy, China’s effort feeds a New Generation Artificial Intelligence Plan to become the leading AI power by 2030. What does this mean for the BRI?

Becoming an AI superpower facilitates economic security, inducement and coercion, and informational compellence by improving its concept of influence in two respects.

First, the setting of technical standards shapes BRI participants’ will to accept an expanding market share for Chinese companies under Party control. That expansion becomes regarded as rules-based if participants also accept Beijing-centered bargains and information collection as trustworthy.

Second, Chinese surveillance technology coerces social compliance in China and along the BRI route where possible.[14] Beijing’s diplomatic demands to not criticize China, combined with its willingness to use economic coercion against states that do (Australia, South Korea) portend an era of AI-powered combined effects warfare. How can democracies compete?

The Challenge for Leaders

Analysts and strategists can use China’s e S I, i Cp, e Cr combined effect to characterize the information environment. A systems approach is beneficial in this regard. Looking for systems, objects and processes that influence the BRI’s cooperative and confrontational strategy can lead to red-teaming Chinese strategic improvements and to developing competitive counter-strategies. As I’ve argued since ICSL Paper #38, a competitive strategy in the information environment requires defining “information” broadly: “the values of characteristics in the input, change, or output of processes.”

A Brookings Institution study points to “the potency of the forces of agglomeration, specialization, and migration”[15] in which Chinese workers move east to new market gateways in the south and west. If this trend holds, China’s ability to execute e S i Cp e Cr has to deal with increasingly mobile labor both in China and among BRI countries. 

For Beijing, this would seem to require loosening its political restrictions while maintaining social control. Or, increase social repression with technology. This predicament is a self-induced domestic dilemma, and one that a competitive counter- or preemptive strategy could exploit.

The next task is to compare combined-effect strategies to one another. First, we have to have one that goes beyond “big m” diMes strategies even if they are all-domain..

Here’s a challenge that’s achievable with leadership and a competitive approach to strategy that cooperates and confronts:


[1] National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, The White House, November 2005, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/infocus/iraq/iraq_strategy_nov2005.html.

[2] “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,” The Washington Post,  https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/documents-database/.

[3] The Central University of Finance and Economics in Beijing administers the “Green Belt and Road Initiative Center,” https://green-bri.org/about-us/.

[4] On China’s “coercive environmentalism” and the Chinese Communist Party’s asserted goal of a socialist ecological civilization, see Yifei Li and Judith Shapiro, China Goes Green, Policy Press, 2020.  

[5] Belt and Road Tracker, Council on Foreign Relations, 8 May 2019, https://www.cfr.org/article/belt-and-road-tracker.

[6] Philip Chrysopoulos, “China’s Extravagant Plan for Canal Trade Route from Greece to Central Europe,” 6 July 21,  https://greekreporter.com/2021/07/06/china-canal-trade-route-greece-danube/.

[7] On China’s “all-inclusive” approach without transparent preconditions, see L. Venkateswaran, “China’s belt and road initiative: Implications in Africa,” https://www.orfonline.org/research/chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-implications-in-africa/. On Sino-Syrian relations as they related to Chinese ambitions, see Giorgio Cafiero, “China plays the long game on Syria,” 10 Feb 20, https://www.mei.edu/publications/china-plays-long-game-syria.

[8] Angus McNeice, “Abu Dhabi’s energy chief confirms cooperation on BRI plan,” China Daily Global, 17 Jan 21,  https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202001/17/WS5e211387a3101282172719fd.html.

[9] See Jack Nolan and Wendy Leutert, “Signing up or standing aside: Disaggregating participation in China’s BRI,” October 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/signing-up-or-standing-aside-disaggregating-participation-in-chinas-belt-and-road-initiative/.

[10] Brunei, Bhutan, Cambodia, Indonesia, India, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, North Korea, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Vietnam.      

[11] Wing Kuang, Jason Fang, and Hannah Jose, Australia’s move to scrap Victoria-China Belt and Road agreement goes viral on Weibo, 22 April 21, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-04-22/australia-china-belt-road-initiative-cancellation-viral-weibo/100086594. 

[12] See the “middle ground” argument made by Adam Cathcart, “Chinese Strategy and South Korea,” in An Emerging China-Centric Order: China’s Vision for a New World Order in Practice, Nadége Rolland, ed., NBR Special Report #87, August 2020, pp. 19-32, https://www.nbr.org/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/publications/sr87_aug2020.pdf.

[13] Li and Shapiro, China Goes Green, p. 29.

[14] Peter Layton, “Artificial Intelligence, big data and autonomous systems along the belt and rod: toward private security companies with Chinese characteristics?” Small Wars & Insurgencies, 2020, 31:4, 874-897, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09592318.2020.1743483.

[15] Indermit Gill, Somik V. Lall and Mathilde Lebrand, Winners and losers along China’s Belt and Road, 21 June 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2019/06/21/winners-and-losers-along-chinas-belt-and-road/.

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

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