Small Wars Journal

China’s All-Effects All-Domain Strategy in an All-Encompassing Information Environment

Mon, 10/14/2019 - 7:28pm

China’s All-Effects All-Domain Strategy in an All-Encompassing Information Environment

Thomas A. Drohan

China is wielding strategies that envelop opponents with an all-effects all-domain approach to national power. These effects are neither precise nor pre-ordained because they occur in an uncertain information environment that encompasses behavior by all sensors – living, or artificial. Drawing from a rich tradition of hybrid stratagems and holistic information, China’s leaders use a variety of asymmetric approaches that exploit weaknesses in opponents’ strategies.

In contrast, US strategy is fixated on lethal capabilities for armed conflict with information considerations perhaps sprinkled on top. We make great progress at precision destruction, but too often fail to convert battlefield victories into strategic success. It should not come as a surprise then, that US military doctrine still defines “asymmetric” in terms of dissimilar capabilities and methods, rather than with respect to effects. Our doctrine does not recognize hybrid warfare by unarmed actors either, even as they proliferate impactful information effects.

The essence of Chinese strategy consists of waging complex wars that exploit opponents’ expectations of warfare. Operations create preventative and causative effects that blend confrontation with cooperation, imposing dilemmas on opponents. Such asymmetric effects win wars by producing information that changes opponents’ behavior. Let’s see how this concept works.

This paper builds upon previous work on Chinese combined effects that recommended the US integrate advanced technologies into holistic synergies beyond combined arms warfare. Having failed at that, we now need more proactive solutions.

We know that information is key to integrating effects, domains, and functions. In 1995, Air Force Chief of Staff General Ron Fogleman described information operations as the 5th dimension of warfare, joining land, sea, air and space. The idea was, whoever could act and assess faster, won battles. Today, cyberspace is presented as the 5th domain of warfare. In 2017, then-Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford designated information as a 7th warfighting function, joining command and control, intelligence, fires, movement and maneuver, protection, and sustainment. The idea was, information integrates functions.

Beyond information as a dimension, domain, or function of warfare, information is central to managing uncertainty and influencing the will and capability of an opponent. Whether the effect is kinetic or non-kinetic, the information conveyed by any effect is what influences behavior. In a world of pervasive uncertainty, the information environment subsumes the operational environment. That is, operations spawn a variety of effects, some anticipated and some not, that are greater than the operations themselves. This all-effects all-domain way of thinking is not new. Chinese strategists have been doing this for over 2000 years.  

Combined Effects Warfare, Sunzi-style

Chinese strategy is based on Sunzi-like distinctions that produce complex warfare:

There are no more than five cardinal notes, yet in combination, they produce more sounds then could possibly be heard; there are no more than five cardinal colors, yet in combination, they produce more shades and hues than could possibly be seen; there are no more than five cardinal tastes, yet in combination, they produce more flavors than could possibly be tasted. For gaining strategic advantage in battle, there are no more than ‘surprise’ and ‘straightforward operations,’ yet in combination, they produce inexhaustible possibilities.

The logic of combined effects in complex warfare is to select tools that target an actor’s will and capability to create effects that present dilemmas for the opponent. This causal chain also spawns unintended consequences.  Tools are basically psychological (includes cognitive and moral) and physical. An authoritarian Party-state such as China can execute this strategy more easily than decentralized power configurations, although oppressive governance seeds its own societal vulnerabilities and pressures for democracy.

So how do confrontational and cooperative stratagems work, both psychologically and physically, and in preventive and causative terms? We will focus on activities as agents of cause and effect and present a few countervailing stratagems.

As an example of mainly psychological activities, consider Beijing’s domestic social creditworthiness program. Applied to party rivals, the social credit score can confront opponents by intimidating their will and neutralizing their capability to deter “corrupt” behavior (such as curtailing opposition to Xi Jinping) and to compel desired behavior (such as complying with government controls over “instability”). This example of simultaneous deterrence and compellence can be a convincing combined effect when both component effects complement each another. A counter to this stratagem could be to decouple the combined effect, perhaps by revealing pervasive corruption in the government’s enforcement of social controls.

As a follow up action to the preceding confrontational combined effect, or applied to new targets (such as dissidents), the social credit score can work more cooperatively as well. The spin might be, assure will and enhance capability in order to dissuade “unfair competition” (such as preventing trade secret infringements) and to persuade correct teaching (such as promoting patriotism, core socialist values, and love for the Motherland). This combination of dissuasion and persuasion can be influential when the latter involves early-in-life programming of state definitions (such as “unfair competition”). Critical thinking is the best antidote to this perversion of education.

Now let’s consider mainly physical activities that also can generate confrontational and cooperative effects. Warship-backed trawlers in disputed territory can confront opponents by punishing will and denying capability to defend against aggression (such as territorial incursions by fishing boats), and to coerce desired policies (such as conceding disputed sovereignty to China). Defending and coercing may reinforce one another in the absence of effective resistance. Given China’s rejection of the international tribunal in The Hague that ruled in favor of the Philippines against China’s territorial predations in the South China Sea, defeating this combined effect would require credible protection against China’s aggression.

At the same time as China physically confronts, China physically cooperates with partners to achieve combined effects. Such as demonstrating will and exercising capability to secure one another (such as China-Russia air patrols that violate the territory of Korea and Japan) and to induce desired behavior (such as cultivating favorable foreign attitudes toward Chinese peacekeeping operations followed by a military basing agreement). This combined effect is sequential: securing China and Russia interests against historical rivals and Inducing favorable attitudes and basing agreements in a strategically positioned state.   

Such combinations of effects stem from the three basic distinctions about strategy identified earlier: confrontation and cooperation; psychological and physical means; and preventive and causative actions:


The People’s Republic of Combined Effects

The language of combined effects reveals a strategy that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has waged since its inception to re-assert territorial claims. This behavior is consistent with China’s 2000-year history of imperial expansion and contraction. The historical vignettes that follow describe 14 cases of border disputes, plus three more globalized examples. Each case begins by identifying the targeted state and ends by describing that state’s dilemma. We emphasize external effects, although each case involves domestic effects (usually to instill ideological unity).

China’s overall pattern has been to lead with various types of inducements or forms of coercion and follow up with other combined effects to isolate, divide, and force compliance. The underlined titles of the cases follow the convention in the map’s legend.


Image 2


  • Cooperative effects are italicized
    Psychological effects: Dissuade Ds; Persuade P; Deter Dt; Compel Cp
  • Physical effects: Secure S; Induce I; Defend Df; Coerce Cr
  • Types of activities to create effects: dimes (diplomatic, informational, military, economic, social)

1. Tibet: Military Coercion and Diplomatic Compellence; Economic Inducement and Social Coercion

China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950 coercively occupied the country and compelled the Seventeen Point Agreement, which promised autonomy. After suppressing revolts against national policies and control in 1954 and 1959, Beijing established the Tibet Autonomous Region in 1965. Economic inducements powered an influx of Chinese workers and businesses, increasing ethnic tensions. Now social programs and security forces coerce compliance with Chinese laws and culture.

Dilemma: against this four-part effect, the Dalai Lama-backed government in exile has had to advocate nonviolence for 50 years, while seeking autonomy for Tibet.

2. Tachen Islands: Diplomatic Compellence and Military Coercion

In 1954, China’s artillery bombardment of offshore islands, Taiwan-occupied Kinmen and Matsu, overtly meant to coerce the inhabitants to surrender. As Taiwan bolstered its garrisons, Beijing’s diplomatic posturing and propaganda compelled Taiwan and US attention away from a surprise assault on Yijiangshan Island in 1955. That invasion coerced an evacuation operation conducted by Taiwan and US naval forces, followed by China’s unopposed takeover of the rest of the Tachen Islands.

Dilemma: US and Taiwan alternatives were to retake the island or evacuate the 30,000 civilians and troops in the archipelago. President Eisenhower chose the latter, adding a nuclear threat and obtaining the Formosa Resolution from Congress to deter an invasion of Taiwan.

3. Burma: Military Coercion and Diplomatic Persuasion

Clashes along the China-Burma border in 1955 led to the Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Non-Aggression of 1960. The Union of Burma’s priority in consolidating control over communists and separatist groups complemented China’s interests in denying territory to Chinese Nationalist Party guerrillas. A pressing need to demarcate the border provided the pretext for the PLA to attack and eliminate Chinese nationalist forces in Burma. The military-diplomatic effect strengthened bilateral ties while signaling to India that China might cooperate on border issues.

Dilemma: Burma could cooperate with China, or face seizure and occupation of its territory by superior Chinese forces without any leverage to negotiate the border.

4. India: Diplomatic Inducement and Military Coercion

In 1954, China and India signed the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence Agreement to permit trade and religious visits in Tibet. These terms induced India to recognize China’s occupation of Tibet. When the next major Tibetan uprising occurred in 1959, anti- Chinese sentiment in Tibet induced anti-Indian sentiment in China. China completed the combined effect by invading India-claimed Jammu and Kashmir in 1962, defeating outnumbered Indian forces to seize the Aksai Chin region.

Dilemma: The Indian government had to either support Tibetan rights thereby inflaming India-China relations and affording Beijing a convenient excuse to seize disputed territory, or back off on Tibet and lose Buddhist support.

5. USSR: Military Deterrence and Defense; Informational Persuasion

During an extended period of border conflict and broad Sino-Soviet tension (1960-1989), the PLA deterred the Soviet Union’s higher-tech conventional and numerically superior nuclear weapons with massive ground forces. Revolutionary doctrine portrayed this posture as defensive People’s War. Subsequent modernization enabled the PLA to deter and defend against threats on more favorable terms. Current Party and military doctrine infuses ideological persuasion, sloganized today as national development to safeguard sovereignty.

Dilemma: The Soviet Union’s logistical and manpower limitations on its eastern front while heavily deployed to its west, left two undesirable alternatives against massive Chinese forces: nuclear threats or high-attrition conventional warfare.

6. Pakistan and India: Diplomatic and Military Inducement

China’s defeat of India in 1962 induced Pakistan to strengthen relations with China to isolate India, with whom both states had contested borders. China’s seizure of Aksai Chin was consistent with a British proposal made to China in 1890, while India’s claims were supported by a British survey in 1865. That ambiguity and China’s military victory against India induced Pakistan to cede Pakistan-occupied (but India-claimed) Kashmir to China. PLA incursions in the Himalayas are timed to exert diplomatic leverage.

Dilemma: India was presented with a lack of British or other credible western support for claims in Kashmir, and credible Chinese will and capability to intervene militarily. That result, compounded by closer China-Pakistan ties, isolated Indian attempts to prevent Pakistan’s cession of disputed territory to China.  

7. Russia: Social Inducement; Military Coercion; and Diplomatic Persuasion

China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a social movement instigated by CCP Chairman Mao Zedong to purge Party rivals, induced the PLA to attack Soviet troops in 1969 along the disputed Sino-Soviet border. Mao then used the PLA to coerce order on Red Guard ideologues who began the socially disruptive, economically disastrous campaign in the first place. Subsequent diplomatic negotiations (1995, 2003, 2008) persuaded the Russian Federation to return some of the territory imperial China had ceded to czarist Russia.

Dilemma: in the context of the logistical and manpower limitations on its eastern front, the collapse of the USSR, and technologically superior US forces, Russia faced seemingly eternal border skirmishes with China. Compromise with China provided an escape from this multi-faceted problem.

8. South Vietnam: Military Inducement and Coercion

In 1974, Chinese fishing vessels infiltrated South Vietnam-occupied Paracel islands as US forces withdrew from South Vietnam. Chinese fisherman baited South Vietnamese forces into the area. Chinese naval forces lurking nearby induced maneuvers that led to engagements, and reinforcements from Hainan coerced a thorough defeat. China absorbed the winnings as part of Hainan Province established in 1987. The following year the PLA Navy sunk three Vietnamese ships, killing 70 soldiers enroute to Johnson South Reef in the Spratlys.

Dilemma: Vietnamese forces faced abandonment by the US and isolation by China, and chose to engage deceptively superior Chinese forces. Vietnam-US relations today help Hanoi balance against Beijing’s continued aggression in disputed territory.    

9. Vietnam and USSR: Military Coercion; Persuasion and Defense

In 1979, China invaded Vietnam in retaliation for: oppressing Chinese minorities; strengthening Soviet ties; and eliminating China’s client Cambodian regime. The PLA suffered heavy casualties but demonstrated the Soviet Union’s unwillingness to support Vietnam. The operation exposed technological weakness in the PLA, enabling China’s leader Deng Xiaoping to neutralize die-hard advocates of a People’s War force. The overall effect coerced two splits—USSR-Vietnam and USSR-Cambodia—and persuaded PLA modernization to begin.

Dilemma: China’s invasion again isolated Vietnam, this time from Soviet support. The USSR’s option to assist Vietnam implied defending Cambodia as well, and the Kremlin demurred. These dilemmas and the domestic effect conferred a relative advantage to China as the PLA withdrew its forces.

10. Vietnam: Diplomatic-Economic Inducement and Military Coercion

Following China’s withdrawal of forces from Vietnam, Beijing increased bilateral ties to facilitate China-contracted drilling in Vietnam-claimed portions of the Spratly islands. An oceanographic outpost was established in 1978, ratified by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). That action enticed Vietnam to conduct counter-surveys, which escalated into one-sided naval battles won by China.

Dilemma: China’s expanded economic and military presence in disputed territory baited Vietnam into responding lest Hanoi fail to stand up to its historical invader. These unfavorable alternatives presented to Vietnam induced conflict with China, resulting in another coercive assertion of sovereignty in disputed waters.

11. Myanmar: Diplomatic Dissuasion and Economic Inducement

Beijing dissuaded Myanmar military governments (1988-2010) from broadening its external ties and induced Chinese business through military relationships, oil pipelines, hydroelectric power and mining projects. Myanmar’s democratic government is less receptive to China’s pursuit of port access to the South China Sea.

Dilemma: Myanmar’s military government faced the prospect of economic reforms or increased Chinese control, choosing the latter. Since 2010, a post-authoritarian government seeks democratic consolidation and expanded economic relations to counter China’s efforts to leverage relationships with influential military leaders.

12. Philippines: Diplomatic and Military Coercion

In 1995, China invaded Mischief Reef in the Spratlys. Subsequent China-Philippines diplomacy negotiated a Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that was frequently breached by Chinese fishing vessels shadowed by armed ships. China seized other reefs, including Scarborough Shoal. In 2012 a Philippine Navy frigate trying to arrest a Chinese fisherman with an illegal catch was blocked by China Maritime Surveillance ships. This incident precipitated the Philippines’ legally successful challenge to China the following year.

Dilemma: Filipino leaders faced Chinese seizures of territory, and a US commitment strictly interpreted for instances of “armed attack” per the bilateral Mutual Defense Treaty. Despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration of the Hague’s finding against China, Beijing continues to seize or consolidate new territories in disputed space.

13. Taiwan: Diplomatic, Informational, Economic and Social Persuasion; Military Deterrence; Military and Economic Inducement

China uses an array of statecraft to assure Taiwan that reunification is inevitable, enhance trade and investment, and promote a common cultural identity. At the same time, Beijing leverages political and economic interests in Taiwan to reverse pro-independence “splittist” policies. Demonstrations of China’s will and capability to use force include firing of unarmed missiles just north of Taiwan in 1995-6 to intimidate first-ever free presidential elections, military exercises simulating island attacks, and expansion in the South and East China Seas that encircle Taiwan.

Dilemma: China’s persuasion of reunification and deterrence of independence polarizes Taiwan domestic politics. When induced by the threat of military force, this dilemma strengthens rightist domestic pressure to integrate with China. How long Beijing will tolerate its renegade province’s de facto independence is uncertain.

14. US / Japan: Diplomatic, Informational and Economic Dissuasion; Military and Economic Deterrence against the US / Diplomatic, Informational and Economic Persuasion; Diplomatic and Military Inducement; Military and Economic Deterrence against Japan

China’s operations toward the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyutai, in Chinese), annexed by Japan during the Sino-Japanese War (1895), target the US and Japan with an information pincer attack. One movement has China’s diplomats and state-funded academics urging US policy elites to agree with Beijing’s claims to the islets, while Chinese PLA and proxies conduct territorial incursions. The other maneuver uses similar operations to stir up Japanese public opinion and goad Japan Self-Defense Forces into overreacting against China’s probes.

Dilemma: Chinese operations attempt to persuade US public opinion and decision makers of its claims, and dissuade and deter US military support of Japan “for the sake of a few rocks.” Beijing also seeks to: provoke Japan into recognizing the existence of an international dispute (creating possibilities for UN involvement); intimidate Japanese public opinion against the use of force; and bait Japan’s self-defense forces into using force. This isolation and inducement stratagem poses disadvantageous choices for Japan and the US, and constitutes a broad dilemma that China can opportunistically exploit.    

15-17. Various Targets: Economic and Military Inducement and Coercion

China operates an expanding financial and military network that induces targeted governments into debt traps, arms sales, and a coercive military presence. The terms of infrastructure assistance, humanitarian aid, and technology transfer are influenced by crime-ridden state owned enterprises. A professionalizing PLA plays a coercive role while modernizing under Party oversight. Authoritative cultural narratives propound the China Dream, a harmonious society, national development, strategic rights, China’s peaceful rise, and an innocuous Belt and Road Initiative.

Dilemma: the key to inducing and coercing audiences into making desirable decisions is fabricating competitive advantages that erase alternative decisions. The perception of advantages such as China’s inevitable economic and military predominance is more important than reality when Beijing’s narratives are unopposed.


China is creating strategic effects such as defend and coerce, deter and compel, dissuade and persuade, secure and induce, in combinations that threaten to paralyze the ability of democratic states to act effectively. The signature of Beijing’s strategies is the combination of inducements and coercion, which show up 11 and 13 times, respectively, out of the 17 cases sampled here. China’s use of expedient instruments of power relies on competitive advantages that could be countered by superior technology and strategy. In the absence of such focus and patience by opponents, China’s combined effects present dilemmas that produce outcomes advantageous to Beijing.

In all of the preceding sample cases of PRC territorial expansion, effects in the information environment matter most. When faced with superior combinations of effects, China’s targets (decision makers) made choices in harmony with Beijing’s preferences. Some of those choices were compromises such as delineating the Sino-Russian border, Pakistan’s cession of portions of India-claimed Kashmir to China, and Myanmar’s democracy-powered reversal of subservience to China. Choices are still in play: how Japan resists China’s incursions in the Senkakus; how Taiwan maintains quasi-independence from China; and how the Philippines leverages its US relationship to deter more violent Chinese actions. The bottom line: all types of operations generate information effects that influence decisions.

My previous paper (mentioned in the introduction) recommended a countervailing US strategy that confronts Chinese aggression with regional cooperation, leveraged by a collective commitment to dilemma-inducing effects that ensure access to international space and preserve legitimate claims of all states. The five-pronged design consisted of: diplomatic compellence; informational persuasion; military security, defense and inducement; economic inducement; and social dissuasion. The idea was to sustain a combined effect to shape Chinese decision making toward trusted, shared leadership in the region.

Now that we have identified the dilemmas posed by various combined effect strategies, we can develop more specific recommendations regarding how US leaders might conduct strategic statecraft.

Combined effects strategy can work if the US pursues competitive advantages with respect to effective and efficient results. What does this mean? In this paper, results are relative to those China produces. It’s the results of complex warfare that are contested, and that matter most, yet we focus on the battles of ways and means. The real strategic question here is, how do competing combined effects interact?

Consider the ongoing Senkaku - Diaoyutai dispute. China’s combined effect is Dissuasion (Ds) and Deterrence (Dt) against the US, and Persuasion (P), Inducement (I), Compellence (Cp) and Coercion (Cr) against Japan. Current US-Japan strategy consists of Japan’s component and the US component. Japan seeks to Persuade (P) public opinion to support its claims of sovereignty over the Senkakus, and Induce (I) US support. Japan also Defends (Df) and Deters (Dt) the use of force by China via the US-Japan security alliance.

In this case, comparing each combined effect clearly shows the weakness of Japan’s strategy. China’s combined effect is Ds Dt P I Cp Cr, and Japan’s combined effect is P I Df Dt. As these effects interact, China’s robust and asymmetric approach subsumes that of Japan, whose straightforward strategy is constitutionally restrained from using force except in self defense. Japan does not permit itself to respond in kind to China’s compellence and coercion. Therefore the best Japan can do is muster an interdependent deterrence and defense that imposes operational constraints on China. China’s strategic dilemma, however, has potential to degrade the US-Japan alliance and control the disputed territory.

The inferiority of Japan’s strategy becomes acute when the US commitment is perceived to be shaky.  A detailed explanation of these competing strategies from a combined effects perspective, to include lines of effect rather than lines of activities (efforts), may be found in Chapter 7 of the author’s book on complex warfare. Clearly we need to compare strategies in terms of how complex effects interact, rather than just in terms of how combined arms interact.

To do that, US leaders need to expand multi-domain operations into a proactive strategy that imposes strategic dilemmas on China throughout the information environment. The solution is grand strategy based on international norms, superior combinations of effects, and technology-based competitive advantage.

By presenting China’s overall success in terms of all-domain all-effects strategy in an all-encompassing information environment, we clarified the need for better strategy and how to compete. By focusing on our strategies in the information environment, we can develop more proactive yet sustainable effects that seize and maintain the initiative at the strategic level of significance.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Tom Drohan, Director of JMark Services Inc.  International Center for Security and Leadership, is a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general and professor emeritus of military and strategic studies, USAF Academy. His 38-year career as a pilot and permanent professor included operational campaigns and commands, undergraduate and graduate-level teaching, and educational leadership. His academic experience includes B.S. in national security studies (USAF Academy), M.A. in political science (University of Hawaii), Ph.D. in politics (Princeton University), Council on Foreign Relations fellowship in Japan, mentor at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, visiting scholar at the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies, and dean of the United Arab Emirates National Defense College. He is the author of American-Japanese Security Agreements (McFarland & Co., 2007), A New Strategy for Complex Warfare (Cambria Press, 2016), and various publications on security and strategy.



Fri, 09/24/2021 - 9:49am

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