Stick & Rudder #5. A Basic Strategy Toward China: Rules-based Competition that Cooperates & Confronts

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Asia-Pacific, Commercial, Security, Strategy
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Competing effectively with the authoritarian regime in Beijing requires a superior blend of cooperation and confrontation.

Unfortunately, our diplomatic and military approaches to competition and warfare form an inferior US strategy. In an understandable but unrealistic complementarity, ”cooperation where our interests align” and “should deterrence fail” shirk confrontation as an element of competition.

The Need to Specify Broad Strategy

We can see this competitive shortfall with a language of combined effects strategy. This approach makes three key distinctions about the ends (Effects), ways (Targets) and means (Activities) of strategy. In today’s deeply interconnected and highly contested information environment, strategies are characterized by:

  • cooperative (italicized bolded) and confrontational (bolded) Activities and Effects
  • preventive (left side) and causative (right side) spectra of Effects
  • psychological (upper half) and physical (lower half) Activities, Targets and Effects

We fail to use this language in a systematic way, even though the model (Ch 1) is derived from international security theory and joint operations design. It seems that tje two organizational cultures speak different dialects.

Diplomatic language in the document, United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China, cites the National Security Strategy’s four pillars (protection, prosperity, peace, influence). Rejecting any particular “end state” for China and in response to China, State’s approach emphasizes cooperation, fair competition, respect for the Chinese people, and avoiding confrontation or conflict. There are two objectives:

  • improve US resiliency to prevail against China
  • compel Beijing in accordance with vital US national interests and those of our allies and partners

Military operational planning language sounds more proactive. The standard joint method designs activities to create effects that support objectives and set conditional end states (alas, delimited as military) to serve strategic priorities and goals. DoD language in the National Defense Strategy also cites the National Security Strategy (NSS) but focuses on optimizing capabilities to deter and defend against revisionist powers—specifically China and Russia. Defense’s military approach is necessary, but insufficient. Despite having the language to do so, the NDS fails to effect its eleven military objectives into broader NSS-level priority conditions.

Taken together, our diplomatic-military approach avoids first-order strategic clarity: what we want to prevent and what to cause. The documents referenced above are unclassified versions, so surely more is being done. Is it happening via all-domain, whole-of-government processes that combine superior combinations of effects?

To do that, we need to specify effects to craft not only how to Deter and Defend but also how to Dissuade, Secure, Persuade, Compel, Induce and Coerce — when appropriate. This process should include confrontational and cooperative combinations of effects, sometimes at the same time. Our ubiquitous goals of “stability” and “security” are too vague. We need to specify desired effects in terms of what to prevent and what to cause. A language of all-effects strategy is also needed to grasp China’s multi-faceted strategy and defeat it with superior combined effects.

Drawing from the aforementioned national strategy documents, the United Nations’ Global Compact and Declaration of Human Rights, and the World Trade Organization principles, let’s posit the following desired effects:

  • Prevent China’s infringement on the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of other states (such as Beijing’s seizing/building territory in disputed waters)
  • Cause China to comply with international standards of non-discriminatory free trade, fair competition, and human rights (such as Beijing’s industrial policies, currency manipulations, and brutality against non-Han ethnic minorities)

Now let’s look at what China is doing to wage all-effects competition and warfare. For simplicity’s sake, the information is organized into diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and social (DIMES) aspects. In reality, all of this overlaps.

China’s Combined Effects Strategy

“Do not repeat tactics which gained you victory in the past, but let your tactics be molded by the infinite variety of circumstances.”

Sun Tzu, quoted in The Thirty-Six Strategies of Ancient China by Stefan Verstappen

China’s combined effect is insidious. By itself, each principal effect has not triggered an effective US national security response, even though the effects combine into a synergistic, potentially historic transformation.

Principal Effects

diplomatic & informational Persuasion and Dissuasion;
economic Inducement;
military Coercion;
social Compellence

Diplomatic-Informational Persuasion and Dissuasion (d i P Ds). Empowered by growing trade and finance, Beijing uses diplomatic-informational persuasion/dissuasion to sweeten concessions and undermine democratic politics, inhibit freedom of speech and press, skew judicial decisions, and propagate a narrative of China as a benevolent model of cooperation. With a diplomatic narrative of fairness and justice, Communist Party of China (CPC)-directed activities leverage false narratives and disinformation to persuade individuals and businesses to conduct industrial espionage, steal commercial and military technology, and abide by the Party line.

Economic Inducement (e I). China pursues protectionist mercantilism to acquire technology and resources, subsidize domestic advantage, set technical standards, and build credit. The principal effect of increased wealth and energy demand is to induce deficit-ridden and commodity economies to depend on China. Increased ties secure Arctic routes, trans-continental and maritime networks, and military bases. CPC-run Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Development activities (321) manipulate successful companies, such as privately-owned Huawei, to offset unequal development and high debt risks, and gather intelligence.

Military Coercion (m Cr). The PLA’s status as the Party’s functionary ensures a politicized military. PLA operations and bases openly deter and defend, but indirectly, coerce compliance with economic security & inducement and diplomatic-informational compellence (strategy #8) . Across a range of activities from enforcing domestic laws to liberating claimed territory in disputed areas, the PLA is a civil-military organization. Operations support economic, political and informational influence, spun by a narrative of national sovereignty, security and development (5). Xi Jinping’s overt intent of China becoming the dominant global power is underscored by an expanding coercive PLA presence.

Social Compellence (s Cp). Beijing’s extensive social surveillance and compliance incentives shape behavior among political dissidents, environmental activists, ethnic minorities, and entrepreneurs. Threat constructions treat freedom of expression as the Party’s exclusive right. Anti-Party voices and non-Party wealth are framed as threats and corrupt values. Externally, the calls for new global governance and critical infrastructure are betrayed by disregard of local conditions and the environment, obvious disinformation, bribing of elites, and the value vacuum of a phony ideology.

Combined Effect: InducementPersuasionDissuasion – Coercion – Compellence

As a holistic combination, InducementPersuasionDissuasion-Coercion-Compellence (I P Ds Cr Cp) is transforming the integration of Eurasia. Economic inducement is powered by the Belt and Road Initiative, and regional & national development banks. Both garner support from international institutions (34) invested in the belief that growing economies become market economies. Combining that with diplo-info persuasion and dissuasion is realizing a “new continentalism” ripe with opportunities. Combining all of that with military coercion and social compellence leaves scant space for cooperative competition based on universalist rules. Instead, Party elites push a particularist socialism with Chinese characteristics. The reality of this rhetoric is that CPC authoritarian power rules.

As a result, new technologies are not automatic amplifiers for cooperation. Consider block chains. Like early expectations of the internet, block chain technology distributes the responsibilities and costs, and concentrates the benefits, of divisible goods. The system works based on members’ consent. All Beijing has to do to control benefits is acquire more than 50% of the membership. The founding assumption is that benefits are based on a trusted security ensured by transparency. Can Beijing be trusted? CPC-directed investment in such cutting edge technologies (block chain, quantum science, 5G connectivity, artificial intelligence) receive the highest priority because they are sources of national advantage.

For China’s trusting competitors, results have included unsustainable loans, resource dependencies, self-censorship, populist resistance, and economic entanglement that disincentivizes decoupling from China’s suppliers. As Chinese businesses go trans-continental, an integrated Eurasian “super-continent” has the population and resources to out-compete the Americas, Australia and Oceania, Africa, and Antarctica. What blend of cooperation and confrontation will this competition be?

As US allies, partners and neutrals become dependent on China and BRI coop-frontation, there is considerable ambivalence and growing mistrust about China‘s geo-strategic intent. Evidence may be found in forums such as the 17 + 1 framework, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and preferential free trade agreements. China attempts to shape agreements in a general pattern: (1) initial concessions but limited access to China’s market; (2) vague or no dispute mechanisms; (3) increased dependence on China. Successful results support at least three elements of China’s broad combined effect (I P Ds Cr Cp) in four ways.

  • China’s globalized protectionism narrows “common areas of agreement” that Beijing claims as benevolent cooperation (such as the BRI)
  • Concessions induce businesses to assume imprudent risks of borrowing from China’s banks (such as non-transparent loans that increase debt vulnerability)
  • Beijing leverages the agreement to persuade more participation among desired businesses (such as ambitious locals who would benefit politically)
  • As dependence on China expands, Beijing uses the PLA to coerce a convenient target (such as another claimant in the South China Sea) into another deal (such as denying equity for erasing debt to obtain a seaport)

Do we recognize the emergence of a combined effect here? The economic agendas of China-US-allies-partners are converging enough to share technology supply chains, despite significant differences with respect to regulatory constructs, financial reforms, privacy issues, and human rights.

While there are uncertainties, there is ample evidence of an all-effects China strategy. Notwithstanding policy differences among CPC elites, a socio-economic consensus supports the overriding goal of economic growth and technological advantage. These in turn generate political influence and military power.

Proposed US Combined Effects Strategy

In view of the preceding US goals and China’s strategy, this section proposes diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and social elements of a combined-effect US national security strategy. The basic idea is to subsume China’s strategy.

Principal Effects:

diplomatic Compellence, Persuasion, Security, Inducement;
info Persuasion, Dissuasion, Security, Inducement, Deterrence, Compellence, Defense, Coercion;
military Persuasion, Dissuasion, Security, Inducement, Deterrence, Compellence, Defense, Coercion;
economic Persuasion, Dissuasion, Security, Inducement, Coercion;
social Persuasion, Inducement, Defense

Diplomacy – democratic values, defended with more than military effects

If the US is to develop superior combined effects, diplomacy must embrace confrontational as well as cooperative approaches. The blend depends on circumstances and strategic goals.

Diplomatic Compellence (d Cp). The ”America First” approach of the current NSS is frank in its assumption that any nation-state’s top priority is to serve its own polity, and that any multilateralism is based on such considerations. The problem for strategy is, America First is not a compelling diplomatic effect. It’s a domestic political effect. What to do?

Specify America First to highlight democratic values, a comparative advantage over authoritarianism. Then US security strategy could more credibly encourage civil society in China. This would confront authoritarianism with globally compelling values and attract more international support to moderate the CPC‘s de facto rejection of international norms.

Diplomatic Persuasion, Security, Compellence and Inducement (d P S Cp I). The US National Defense Strategy’s (NDS) emphasis on lethality should be broadened via effects that place defense objectives in strategic context. Our should deterrence-fail approach, which we hear time and time again from senior military and political leaders, does not sufficiently complement our diplomacy. Diplomacy seeks multiple effects: persuading China’s leaders to eliminate unfair industrial policies and state-owned enterprise advantages; persuading China’s populace that the US has a global perspective consistent with UN principles; securing allies and partners with military engagement; compelling China’s leaders toward free and fair trade with economic sanctions and export controls; and inducing social freedoms and free media in China.

To strengthen each of the preceding diplomatic effects, military activities can respectively: demonstrate capability to interdict supply chains; conduct humanitarian relief; defend allied territory; enforce sanctions and controls; and freely express ideas that would be prohibited in China.

Information – communicated in all-effects language

Informational Persuasion and Dissuasion (i P Ds). US information operations are a blend of public diplomacy (mainly Department of State) and information warfare (mainly Department of Defense). State’s Agency for Global Media (AGM) promotes values of freedom and democracy with informative, balanced and accurate news via the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and the Open Technology Fund. Whether AGM is partisan or not is debatable, a transparent divisiveness exploited by China‘s information campaign (tracked here).

Informational Persuasion, Dissuasion, Security, Inducement, Deterrence, Compellence, Defense, Coercion (i P Ds S I Dt Cp Df Cr). Defense’s information warfare is always in flux. The Joint Concept for Operating in the Information Environment provides a broad conceptual framework for anticipating and influencing a range of perceptions related to military operations. Lessons from Joint Task Force Ares’ Operation Glowing Symphony against the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria emphasize the need to impose costs, create uncertainty, and incentivize behavior in operations below the level of armed conflict. Just-released US Air Force doctrine annex on Joint All-Domain Operations is forward-looking. The document integrates information advantage and capabilities to create effects across domains under conditions that are cooperative, competitive and/or conflictual. The latter, however, is still defined narrowly as armed conflict, which is a vulnerability.

Information from State, Defense, and others needs to be shared in all-effects language so that the NSS, NDS and assorted specific strategies (from Aviation to Weapons of Mass Destruction) can collaborate to develop superior combined effects.

Military – more than deterrence and defense

Military Persuasion, Dissuasion, Security, Inducement, Deterrence, Compellence, Defense, Coercion (m P Ds S I Dt Cp Df Cr).

Joint all-domain operations need to be superior in terms of military effects, but they also must contribute to a superior all-effects security strategy. There is no such thing as an isolated military effect. For instance, the multi-domain integrated sensor grid and joint all-domain command and control system seek breakthrough capabilities across eleven technology areas in the National Defense Strategy (6-7). However, our dominant security culture defaults to deterrence and defense under limited conditions. Military deterrence against ”multiple domains and from numerous avenues of approach” is assumed to be based on the military capability to defeat such attacks: we cannot deter what we cannot defeat. This premise is too narrow for the realities of complex warfare.

Defeat is more than a military engagement. Strategically, defeat means achieving significant preventive and causative effects. All-effects deterrence can be a combined effect. For instance diplomatic compellence, economic coercion, social inducement, informational persuasion, and military coercion can occur after the fact if military defeat of an attack fails. The latter occurred on 9/11, when a simple synthesis of known capabilities combined to create synergistic effects. Nearly 19 years now, and counting.

By itself, military victory does not result in desired strategic effects. Allied freedom of navigation operations and exercises, for instance, have not prevented Beijing’s continued militarization of artificial structures in disputed and non-China territory. The capability to achieve military victory remains foundational to achieving effects, but it’s the strategic effects that matter. Instead of avoiding horizontal escalation to preserve that State-Defense complementarity, consider the combined effects of:

  • expanding military exchanges, exercises and basing agreements with ASEAN
  • achieving a basing agreement with the Philippines
  • increasing ASEAN members’ capabilities to defend their territorial claims
  • leading humanitarian responses in the region
  • conducting allied maneuvers with Australia, Japan
  • participating in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership

With such activities in place, dynamically adjusted to context, strategic opportunities can produce successes.

Economic – international rules, financial interests, negotiated protectionism

Economic Persuasion, Dissuasion, Security, Inducement and Coercion (e P D S I Cr).

Economic instruments of power should comply with internationally accepted rules if they are to advance a rules-based system against China’s power relationship-based bargains. To the extent that US sanctions against China are unilateral and decrease global GDP, they place US allies in untenable positions. Resilient alliances should include trade agreements to secure wealth and induce further growth, a common interest. The US should support the World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute process as we simultaneously press for reform. To do otherwise strengthens China‘s narrative.

A competitive and reliable US dollar depends upon responsible fiscal and monetary policies, and taking account of US and allied financial interests even in volatile markets. US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership down-graded this consideration without providing an alternative arrangement. US engagement in multilateral development banks in Asia is needed to assure dollar-denominated deals that dissuade more trade conducted in renminbi (RMB).

Economic growth and added value is the bottom line for a sustainable competitive strategy. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, US GDP growth registered ten years of expansion averaging 2.3% from 2009-2019. The 5% annual rate decrease in GDP since, and increased awareness of supply chain dependence on China, have shifted US economic policies. Tech supply chains deemed critical to national security have propelled protectionism. At the same time, the US competes with China’s strategies that seek to set enterprise and international standards and to achieve manufacturing dominance.

Coercive measures should be multilateral, realizing that a coalition of the willing requires leadership. The rest of these recommended economic effects are cooperative. The initiatives comprise a growth strategy that considers international rules-based sanctions, allied financial interests, and negotiated protectionism.

Social – selectively broad engagement, rule of law

Social Persuasion (s P). Interconnectivity empowers societies against disinformation and authoritarianism. Social connections are a competition that should be maintained even during sanctions. A reasonable approach is to maintain selectively broad engagement with somewhat independent publishers (Caixin), civil society networks (NCP Life Support), non-Party-directed private enterprises (Huawei is indirectly influenced), and non-Party-controlled individual academics and research institutions (China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations is directly influenced). Although they are penetrated by the Party‘s huge surveillance apparatus, some social connections resist control. Even in strictly monitored China, crowd-sourced common grievances emerge before they can be suppressed.

Social Inducement (s I) Beijing’s greatest perceived vulnerability is losing control over public opinion, and in ways that threaten compliance with Party rule. To sustain social effects that induce democratic values and human progress, US social strategy per se should emanate from the diversity and strength of accredited academic institutions. Indeed, America’s criteria for academic accreditation are the antithesis of ideological dogma. Relying on peer review, they require institutions to have clear educational missions ethically conducted with quality learning that is assessed, and effectively planned and administered.

Social Defense (s Df). Government involvement in educational institutions tends to meet academic resistance, but some oversight is needed to defend against persistent China-sponsored espionage, disinformation, and cyber attacks. An apolitical Department of Justice is also necessary to make legal determinations about what is threatening espionage and what is shared scientific discovery. A number of recommendations from the European Commission and Australia also merit consideration— consumer legal protections, a digital education plan, fact-checking and research platforms, investment in strategic communication, and campaign finance, counter-interference and espionage laws.

The basic logic of this recommended strategy is, economic power generates military capabilities and political influence that undergird a rules-based international system. In authoritarian Beijing, interactions are fundamentally unelected elites forcing outcomes. To maintain a rules-based system takes leadership; leadership of a better strategy. The kind that produced effects-based operations (Lt Gen Dave Deptula) and joint all-domain operations (Gen David Goldfein), but at the political level of authority. Otherwise, piecemeal policies such as tariffs and export controls are more likely to slow Chinese and global growth than to induce desired changes or achieve advantage in critical technologies.

Information is the key enabler in organizing a whole-of-government-plus combined effects strategy. Consider a whole-of-government example. China’s free trade zones produce unfair benefits because there is no exemption or suspension from import duties as in US and EU foreign trade zones, respectively. Is that information part of a comprehensive narrative (loc 419 of 2956, Kindle version) for relevant experts (diplomatic, public affairs, economic, information warfare, and military information support officers, etc.) to propose integrating effects? With combined effects information and strategy leadership, a national security community can manage superior strategy.

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

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