Small Wars Journal

Competing to Win in the Information Environment: Complex Warfare with Chinese Characteristics

Thu, 12/12/2019 - 3:02am

Competing to Win in the Information Environment: Complex Warfare with Chinese Characteristics

Thomas A. Drohan

Complex warfare is high stakes competition in learning, and the United States is being out-thought and out-fought by China. Why is this so, and what can we do about it?

First, we need to recognize what warfare looks like in the contemporary information environment (IE). It’s complex warfare, and it involves all instruments of power across all domains. The common context is the information environment:the aggregate of individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information.” Who are the actors? All life-forms and technologies that perform these IE functions. Therefore the contemporary IE is where any agent (human, animal, artificial) wielding any instrument of power (survival, statecraft, financial, intelligence, law enforcement) may create effects. Many US elites do not recognize China’s non-violent effects—such the use of American investments to modernize the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) —as threats.

Second, we need to think and act broadly to win complex warfare. Contemporary warfare involves land, sea, air, space, cyberspace, the electromagnetic spectrum, and a host of biological and social micro-environments. Here, too, information is what creates and influences behavior. Information is as basic as DNA, the blueprint for the replication and construction of life itself (Chapter 1). Advanced life-forms upgrade their genetic software by learning. So we compete in the IE with applied concepts. The PLA applications of “unrestricted warfare” (1999) we see today are built upon 2000 years of holistic thought. How do we compete?   

Basic concepts such as strategic, operational and tactical help us to make sense of what’s happening and to shape outcomes. To gain advantage in operational domains, we apply factors such as terrain elements, sea states, properties of air, cyber infrastructures and electromagnetic frequencies. We attribute meaning to those features by consuming and creating information. Even at the quantum level of photons, we create informational constructs (digits and qubits) to understand particles and waves. Given its ubiquity and importance, the IE is the best place to evaluate competition in warfare.

We do that in two steps. Part I develop concepts and strategies for competing and waging warfare throughout the IE. Part II analyzes a highly honed variant — complex warfare with Chinese characteristics.

Concepts and Strategies of Complex Warfare

Basic Concepts

Let’s consider four broad terms central to understanding differences among the various actors waging complex warfare — security, effects, integration, and security bargain.


We use the following conception of security—the absence of threats, and the fear of threats, to acquired values. This values approach to security encourages different perspectives to understand threats, values, and interests. Why do we care about this? Unknown or ignored differences matter, as we sometimes learn when we make bad assumptions. We use a comparative prism to avoid mirror imaging others’ behaviors and desired effects.


As for effects, we apply the US joint military doctrinal concept, placed into the following hierarchy designed to shape the IE: activities create effects in support of objectives in support of desired end states in support of strategic priorities. Why so many, in support of’s?

Well-intentioned people at all levels of command hardwire themselves to be “the supported” instead of “a supporting” person or organization. This thinking avoids hard work, but more importantly it reinforces rigid identities. Better to cultivate flexible organizational identities to promote learning that enhances strategic thinking. The bottom line is to out-compete strategies that are producing better combinations of effects. Leaders can improve their organization’s effects by promoting integration.


If our strategies are to prevail against clever threats, we need to be more than adaptive. Out-pacing adversaries in effective ways requires more than having a faster OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop. We need integration of effects. By integration, we refer to combining ends, ways and means to produce synergistic advantages.

While we might integrate ways and means well, integrating the effects of causes is more difficult. For instance, we may recognize that Communist Party of China (CPC) state-owned enterprise financing of mercantilist practices and intellectual property theft cost us jobs and profits. From a CPC perspective, lost American jobs and diminished advantage in critical defense technologies (such as machine tooling and low observables), form a longer term integrated effect. The two effects combined, reinforce each other. How can we do this?

A Hierarchy of Effort framework (adapted from JMark Services Inc.’s Information Environment Advanced Analysis course) can in theory orchestrate multi-level aims of strategy. These aims or desired outcomes are effects, objectives, end-states and strategic priorities. In practice, democracies struggle to specify strategically significant aims because we value differences and freedom of expression. Opponents don’t have to try very hard stirring up opposed causes to affect such divisiveness. In a general cause-and-effect sense, effects are what matter in strategy.   

Therefore, to reflect the reality of competing aims, our analysis describes alliances and partnerships in terms of desired effects, which may be different for each side. Rather than assuming simple agreement on common threats, we specify the actual bases of cooperation and confrontation. Why?

Allies, partners and various others exchange different interests as well as embrace identical ones. For instance, the close relationship among the Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, and the United States) is often assumed to be based on areas of mutual interest. However, there are areas where each state bargains over the terms of cooperation or does not cooperate at all. Areas that are deemed to be sovereign matters (elections, borders, heads of state) are potential areas of confrontation and conflict…perfect for an adversary to target. 

Security Bargain

Therefore we use the term security bargain to describe agreements based on differentiated exchanges of political, military and economic interests. It’s not unusual to miss complex exchanges of unlike contributions to mutual security. The actual basis for agreement is typically covered by a veneer of common-threat language that negotiated away, or papered over, persistent differences. We need to identify opportunities to exchange different interests that are hiding behind conventionally accepted assumptions.

For example even the current US National Security Strategy (NSS), remarkably blunt in asserting “America First,” does not necessarily mean “America Only.” On is face, the NSS permits exchanges of different national interests: reciprocity in economic relationships (Goal 2, Objective 2); competitive cooperation in diplomacy and statecraft (Goal 3, Objective 3); new partnerships (Goal 4, Objective 1); and better outcomes in multilateral forums (Goal 4, Objective 2). A Hierarchy of Effort analysis of the NSS clarifies this implicit logic. Why is this important?

An effective long-term global strategy makes room for legitimate differences and non-security-related competition to accommodate change without war. Otherwise, how can we expect to find new partners, and retain legacy allies and partners, as we seek reciprocity, competitiveness, and mutual interests?

Therefore, to expand our options for effective strategy, and to see effective adversary strategies that already exist, our approach permits security bargains that exchange different interests. We need not cede that concept and practical space to opponents. We have to be in all relevant arenas to wage to win complex warfare.

What is Complex Warfare?

Arenas of complex warfare blend confrontation and cooperation in struggles to achieve national “security” (relative to any value) objectives. Complex warfare is not necessarily violent. This broader-than-military warfare is consistent with East Asian-style Sunzi art of warfare, as distinct from Western-style Clausewitz on warfare. Sunzi warfare is heavy on deception and indirect use of force to subdue adversaries, while Clausewitz warfare is heavy on the use of force against adversaries to get them to submit.

If this complex fusion of confrontation and cooperation is real, it follows that violence and consent can also be mixed together. Doesn’t make sense? No problem in China, where the proverbial 36 Stratagems of War teach children early about combining opposites to yield opportunistic, deceptive, and holistic results. To understand this way of thinking, consider the following combinations. Complex warfare can be competition (without violence) as well as conflict (with violence), and can be cooperation (mutual consent) as well as confrontation (absence of mutual consent).

Competition and conflict, cooperation and confrontation…aren’t these contradictory? Only if we assume a perfect either-or, friend-or-foe, peace-or-war, world. In reality, actors can be adversaries (who wage warfare) and competitors (who seek advantage) at the same time or in different circumstances.

So, is China an adversary or a competitor? Yes; yes. Is North Korea an adversary or does Pyongyang compete for influence at times legitimately? Yes; yes. We chart this imperfect reality of complex warfare next.

Blends of Complex Warfare

Consider two factors that help explain human behavior: (1) actors’ will with respect to consent; and (2) actors’ capabilities with respect to the actions they take. If we do this, we can anticipate blends of warfare:


Blends of Complex Warfare

Let’s briefly step through each blend and example, from Violent to Non-Violent characterizations.

1. Violent Mutual Consent. Conflict cooperatively waged according to established norms; legitimate warfare. States recognize this as war limited by the law of armed conflict and the like.

Such as formally declared wars: US Congress passes several declarations of war from 1941-1942 at the outset of World War II.

2. Violent Absence of Mutual Consent. Conflict confrontationally waged as illegitimate warfare. The side that wages such warfare as a legitimate form of warfare has a domestic advantage.

Such as Russia’s violent hybrid warfare against Ukraine since 2009.  

3. Non-Violent Mutual Consent. Cooperation and competition based on accepted rules. Actors cooperate and compete within international norms to achieve advantages its adversaries regard as complex warfare.

Such as Iran’s inducement of the UK, France and Germany to implement INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) to circumvent US sanctions relying on SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications).  

4. Non-Violent Absence of Mutual Consent. Confrontation and competition according to rules that are not accepted and therefore of contested legitimacy. The use of variously defined criminal or terrorist networks by state and non-state actors yields such methods.

Such as China’s de facto seizure of disputed territory, advanced cyber espionage and theft, and persistent disinformation campaigns.

If we take the extreme blends of complex warfare characterized in each box, we can see the fundamental importance of information used in various and nefarious ways. Competing narratives and practices can reinforce each other, and condition people to think without thinking.

Idealists of Complex Warfare

Now imagine a group or individual that fits a blend of complex warfare. This helps us anticipate strategies of actors. We denote each as “idealists” in the sense that they view their perspective of security—their acquired values—as ideals to protect.

Violent idealists (quadrants 1, 2) want perpetual war of either Violent Mutual Consent or Violent Absence of Mutual Consent. Anarchist-terrorists fit this type.

Example: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Mutual Consent idealists (quadrants 1, 3) want an enforced peace based on either Non-Violent or Violent Mutual Consent. The prime value is consenting (no dissent allowed) to authority, as in tribe and/or religion-based autocracies.

Examples: Qataris while in Qatar, and Emiratis while in the United Arab Emirates.

Non-Violent idealists (quadrants 3, 4) want peace with Non-Violent Mutual Consent, or Non-Violent Absence of Mutual Consent. They eschew violence, even in totalitarian states.

Example: civil disobedience pacifists in China.  

Absence of Mutual Consent idealists (quadrants 2, 4) want a world of enforced peace in terms of either Non-Violent or Violent Absence of Mutual Consent. They are universalists looking to impose their will on the unenlightened.

Examples: jihadists (Al Qaeda) and imperialist state leaders (Russia’s predations against sovereign states in the “near abroad”).

For each blend of complex warfare and idealist group above, shaping an information narrative is critically important, for two inter-related reasons.

First, justifying a strategy of conflict and confrontation by providing meaning (“Narratives are About Meaning, not Necessarily the Truth”) is essential to maintaining domestic support where rule is fragile.

Examples: China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia.

Second, generating the will and capability to create and sustain a superior strategy depends upon the internal and external strength of the narrative strategy, which can be contested.

Example: oppressed minorities in China who consent to, but do not believe, Beijing’s anti-imperialist narrative.

A superior strategy combines a variety of effects that are difficult for your opponent to counter, or even recognize as warfare. Such as Chinese construction of illegal territory and Russian cyber subversion of democratic elections. This is peace and war. The how is complex warfare that subsumes cooperation, confrontation, competition and conflict.

Complex Warfare Strategy in Peace and War

Complex warfare seeks competitive advantage over threats and can involve conflict, but does not have to. The US struggles to create acceptable operating space for effective complex warfare.

For instance, a cooperative US strategy could involve diplomatic persuasion and economic inducement to convince the PLA to forgo its ongoing cyber attacks. As we have seen, only the economic piece has teeth and that is difficult to muster. Tariffs on Beijing began in 2018, and continue to be a controversial instrument of power in the US. Whether this strategy is regarded as warfare depends partly on whether a worldview regards such actions as a threat to security.

Another example is even more contentious. What if the US cooperated with Beijing in one arena (not criticizing use of force against Hong Kong demonstrators) to prevent cyber attacks on critical infrastructure? Or, what if President Trump criticized President Xi Jinping for failing to respect human rights, and at the same time announced another increase in tariffs? In between these extremes, what combinations of cooperation and confrontation would be consistent with US values and be effective? If we do not consider all alternatives, then we are unilaterally disarming ourselves.

Threat perceptions are key to such “grey zone” decisions. If China is not perceived to pose a threat, then non-violent cooperation and competition is not regarded as complex warfare. The difference between peace and complex war is a matter of trust—whether an actor is perceived to be a threat. Both peace and war are relative conditions in the IE. We usually have a bit of both.

Peace is a blend of cooperation and legitimate competition, with limited conflict and confrontation. War is an opposite—little cooperation and legitimate competition, and a lot of conflict and confrontation. State actors such as China are planning their terms for relative peace by waging effective complex warfare within different restraints than ours.

Strategy is constrained by the laws of war and peace, for those states that adhere to them. Consider the impact of the law of armed conflict that grew from conventions, treaties and other agreements. Legal constraints such as jus in bello are rules of conduct during war. Jus ad bellum are justifications for the use of force and limits on forces. Jus post bellum are post-conflict legal norms.

Western laws of war do not recognize complex warfare that mixes cooperation with confrontation to achieve security objectives. Laws of armed conflict are written for violent warfare. This condition is a vulnerability when facing Chinese strategies that blur the attribution of violence via protests, proxies, and other means.

What about laws of unarmed competition? These laws are the accepted practices that rule economic standards and markets, set diplomatic norms, judge narrative warfare, and proscribe military operations other than war. Again Chinese strategies exploit such gaps in nefarious ways, such as lawfare that creates justifications for unarmed and armed operations. A range of Chinese activities, from pirated products and cyber theft to trade practices and terms of foreign investment, ignore international standards of accountability while claiming to uphold them.

To understand this complex warfare with Chinese characteristics, we turn to Part II. Take a look at China’s world view, threat assessment, and combined effects strategy.

China’s World View, Threat Assessment, and Combined Effects Strategy

World View

China’s prevailing world view is one of moral order, central authority, and expansive territoriality.  These are competitively acquired values among elites that reinforce the power of the sovereign—currently the Communist Party of China (CPC).

In terms of complex warfare blends, the CPC values conflict and confrontation, and confrontation and competition. What’s missing? Cooperation. The CPC behaves as Absence of Mutual Consent Idealists.

Moral Order

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 established 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 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. A bitter loss of 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 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 hijacks Confucianist virtues to program subservience to CPC authority. Individualism is guilted as selfish and CPC interpretations of what is good for the collective are always right.

Central Authority

Central authority contends with family authority rooted in Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Legalism and other beliefs. Moral order promotes authoritative ethnic Han rule that began about 2100 BC in the Yellow River valley. The continuity of a Chinese civilization subject to central authority creates an expectation of permanence and resistance to foreign influence.

The CPC exploits that expectation to cultivate nationalism that justifies totalitarian rule. Elections are symbolic as the CPC selects its own for the institutions that matter: seven-odd 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 political: 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. Mindful of 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 for himself. Perhaps leader for life, he holds the 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, Manchu, 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.

Expansive Territoriality

Beijing’s moralistic narrative promotes an authoritative territoriality with expansive characteristics. Geographic territory in China has always represented power and rightful authority. The new territoriality now applies to all domains.

The CPC, having succeeded in maintaining a narrative as an historically victimized developing nation, aggressively conducts complex warfare. Similarities to the irrevocable expansion strategy (639) 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 lasting effects — 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 and harvests government and private sector secrets (Chapter 3). Domestic law-fare lay the great investment trap, luring un-recoupable foreign investments (Chapter 3) into China, where they must stay (see Chapter 3). Military-backed construction of illegal territory problematically steals space in disputed waters. Social media-stirred warfare completes the DIMES-wide strategy.

Threat Assessment

China’s leaders assess a variety of permanent threats to its 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 journalist training and share purchases in foreign media. 

External Threats

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, an organization whose standards Beijing ignores. What about obvious inefficiencies of modernization under a one-Party command economy? 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.

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 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, as modern diseases are on the rise.

We turn to combinations of effects Chinese strategy manages to wield against these threats.

Combined Effects Strategy

In a previous SWJ article, we analyzed 17 of China’s combined effects strategies against foreign opponents since 1950 . Here, we consider China’s world view and threat assessment to add more desired effects, which are more or less aimed at internal threats.

To understand the comprehensiveness of Chinese warfare, we again provide the following diagram. This model of combined-effects complex warfare (CECW) shows the 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

Chinese strategy produces all eight types of CECW effects, four of which are cooperative and four of which are confrontational. To produce these effects at a strategic level of significance, it follows that someone or some group must make two decisions.

1. 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.

2. 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 wields these effects from a moralistic, territorial perspective that justifies centralized authority and is prone to perceive permanent threats. We can understand how this long-term view of strategy can work in different cases by looking at simpler constructions of China’s historical combined effects.  Here are three examples.

Historical Combined Effects

The following combinations of effects (in bold type) inhibit the ability of opponents to act effectively:

1. Coerce an occupation of Tibet (1950), then persistently compel Tibet’s absorption into China as an autonomous region (1965)

2. Compel polarized politics in Taiwan, then induce that dilemma with DIMES-wide threats tailored to vulnerabilities (ongoing)

3. 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)

Next we add a few desired effects to the historical combinations above, derived from our analysis of China’s world view and threat assessment. Why? To discern how a more holistic strategy can create synergistic effects.

Adding Effects for Synergy

Historically, countering internal threats to the authority of the Communist Party of China relies on three problematic lines of effect:

I. Compel Respect for the Party’s Version of Morality
II. Persuade and Induce Nationalism to Strengthen CPC Authority

III. Induce Global Economic Participation in Chinese activities in Liberated Territory

We’ll break down of the three lines of effect above into an historical Example, the Problem for strategy, and a synergistic Solution. In general, China’s problem for security strategy is maintaining those acquired values in China’s world view — moral order, central authority, expansive territoriality. The best solution is to create synergistic combined effects.

I. 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 while capitalism produces the wealth and freedoms are suppressed, is filled with contradictions. How to uphold moralistic claims of Chinese culture?

Solution—add the following to “coerce an occupation...” and “compel absorption...” — induce Han Chinese businesses into Tibet (1995), and socially coerce and persuade Tibetans to accept “Chinese” culture and law. This synergy increases the impact of China’s occupation and absorption of Tibet.

II. Persuade and Induce Nationalism to Strengthen CPC Authority

Example: Historical Combined Effect #2 (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 the following to “compel polarized politics...”and induce that dilemma...” — 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.

III. Induce Global Economic Participation in Chinese Activities in Liberated Territory

Example: Historical Combined Effect #3 (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 the following to “dissuade Japanese businesses...” 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

Competing to Win

As demonstrated above, China’s world view, threat assessment and combined effects can 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 contributes to a long-term national strategy that out-competes, out-confronts, and out-cooperates US grand strategy today. In response to China’s complex warfare, the US eschews confrontation and conflict in the arenas that China has chosen to contest.

We can observe that China produces all of four of the ideal-type complex warfare blends introduced in our previous SWJ article.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

In comparison to the breadth of China’s strategy, US efforts are focused on defensive resilience—developing the capability to absorb attacks as inconsequential. There is a fundamental problem with this. We may be preparing to win a kinetic fight but we are not competing to win complex warfare.

Instead, 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. Strategy ought to be more proactive than that to secure a democratic, rules-based relative peace.

The competition from China is clear. Beijing’s world view and threat assessment produce strategies that combine effects and integrate them. Successful integration is achieving synergistic effects that we are neither preventing nor countering. Overall, China’s characteristic approach to complex warfare is more holistic than US multi-domain operations that coordinate and synchronize lines of effort limited to achieving military effects.

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 - 8:42am

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