Small Wars Journal

Irregular Warfare:  Undermining the CCP’s Dangerous and Illegal Activities in the Indo-Pacific

Sun, 11/12/2023 - 4:00pm


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Irregular Warfare:  Undermining the CCP’s Dangerous and Illegal Activities in the Indo-Pacific

by Dr. Lumpy Lumbaca


To address the dangerous and illegal actions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the Indo-Pacific, the United States Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) requires a comprehensive Irregular Warfare (IW) campaign strategy. The word “campaign” is used since this is an enduring effort that requires constant assessment and refinement to ensure effectiveness.  The first part of this paper outlines strategic focus areas that the IW campaign should be built upon. The second part of this paper describes specific lines of effort that may be used as building blocks toward strategic success.  The emphasis on the second part of the paper is to inspire new, creative thinking toward undermining CCP malign activity.  This paper is activity-focused rather than an academic or theoretical study. Furthermore, the actions suggested here are bold, risky, and will unsettle some military and civilian leaders.  To be clear, this is not to suggest that the US and its partners do anything illegal, unethical, or contrary to international law.  Instead, the objective is to think “out of the box” and take calculated risks.  If deemed impossible or too risky, the alternative to this strategy is to keep doing what we are doing now with minor variations - falsely advertised as innovation - a path that has yet to significantly deter or diminish China’s dangerous and illegal behavior throughout the region.  This strategy is no way intended to destabilize China or the lives of the Chinese people.  This campaign is specifically designed to undermine malign, dangerous, and illegal CCP authoritarian activities as well as the individuals and networks that enable them.      


First, a note on definitions.  While the argument over definitions and terminology in this space knows no bounds, and this paper will surely not rectify the matter, two definitions are necessary as the foundation for the IW strategy that follows.  First is the concept of Political Warfare.  As defined by George Kennan, Political Warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation's command, short of war, used to achieve national objectives. Kennan posited that it ranges from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures, and "white" propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of "friendly" foreign elements, "black" psychological warfare, and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.  For clarity, the author of this article will add that an important difference between Political Warfare and traditional statecraft is that the former is executed with some level of hostile – not necessarily violent - intent.  The second definition required for this strategy paper is that of Irregular Warfare itself.  Simply put, Irregular Warfare is the military’s contribution to Political Warfare.  It is centered on military efforts to support an actors’ Political Warfare objectives of influencing populations (toward the actor and away from the adversary) and affecting legitimacy (in favor of the actor and against the adversary).  Irregular Warfare requires deep understanding of human dynamics and creative thinking toward solving problems. With Political Warfare and Irregular Warfare defined, the remainder of this paper will focus solely on the US military’s Irregular Warfare strategy in the Indo-Pacific while acknowledging that any such strategy must complement traditional/conventional military initiatives as well as overarching, whole-of-government and whole-of-society Political Warfare objectives.


American Irregular Warfare in the Indo-Pacific involves four strategic focus areas.  The first focus area is designed to “shape” the environment.  Shaping in general includes many complex geopolitical undertakings like promoting good governance, enabling economic prosperity, developing security sectors, etc.  Only some of these initiatives are the primary responsibility of the US Defense Department.  In many cases, other agencies like the State Department, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), or others, are the lead while the military serves in a supporting role.  Specifically for the military, the priority of shaping activities leans heavily on developing informational and operational environments.  In the information space, shaping is accomplished by sharing U.S. values and ideals, building relationships with key influencers, and countering adversarial propaganda and disinformation.  It also involves US and partner “naming and shaming” every time the CCP performs its illegal and dangerous stunts like ramming Philippine ships, placing hazardous obstacles in the open ocean, flying recklessly close to  aircraft, cyber espionage hacking to undermine economies and steal trade secrets, injecting fentanyl and other opioids to undermine western society, and the like.   Emerging space and cyber technologies are tools to be used to (a) help enable information shaping operations and (b) disrupt adversarial information efforts.  In addition to informational shaping, the other major part of IW shaping is in the operational space.  This requires developing innovative US and foreign military operational capacity, growing intelligence collection assets, and building clandestine networks to support contingency/conflict scenarios so they may be effectively exploited and employed immediately when crises occur.


The second strategic focus area of the IW strategy is to deny sanctuary. This should not be understood in the narrowly-focused way that it is in counter-terrorism.  In the case of strategic IW, denying sanctuary applies more broadly to malign state and non-state adversaries that operate without fear of consequences. China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and violent extremist organizations (VEO) - collectively referred to as the “four-plus-one” – all have a presence in the Indo-Pacific and must be denied sanctuary to operate freely with malign intent.  Denied sanctuary among and within networks.  Denied sanctuary within financial systems.  Denied sanctuary in international waters where they execute illegal ship-to-ship transfers of sanctioned materials.  These sanctuaries and others allow for the movement of people, finances, communications, nuclear and conventional weapons, ammunition, fuel, and other resources amongst revisionist and rogue powers. While the entire four-plus-one network of malign adversaries pose varying levels of threat, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is by far the most dangerous and illegal actor, and the primary focus of the IW campaign.  This second strategic focus area of denying sanctuary requires disrupting CCP networks, interdicting its illicit activities, and denying it access to critical people and resources.


The third strategic focus area is empowering traditional partners and connecting with new, non-traditional ones.  The US must build capacity and capability in partners to conduct both offensive and defensive IW activities from the tactical to strategic levels to foster enduring regional stability.  This is accomplished through continued training, educating, equipping, intelligence sharing, and relationship sustainment that most are already familiar with.  But the American military must break the mold and devise more creative methods of empowering partners with non-traditional support. This requires imaginative and inspired thinking and risk-taking, things that the US military is not renowned for. Furthermore, the American military must expand beyond its comfort zone of working primarily with domestic and foreign government agencies and militaries.  It must seek to expand the realm of public-private partnerships as well as occasionally work with questionable partners, something that will be extremely unsettling for some leaders.  New and innovative solutions to IW problems cannot be realized by partnering with the same old friends and conducting only traditional operations and activities that are well known.  Every state and non-state actor’s position must be considered conditional, changing, and self-serving.    


The fourth strategic focus area is to degrade or defeat the CCP’s ability to operate with malign intent.  It is often stated that Irregular Warfare, Gray Zone, Hybrid Conflict, and other related terms are used to describe an environment that exists “between peace and war.” This is incorrect.  IW activities persist regardless of any state of peace, competition, or conflict.  Look no further than the conflicts making headlines today to see that both conventional and irregular methods are being utilized before, during, and even after major combat ceases.  IW activities are constant. What does differentiate them from conventional methods is that IW activities alone are unlikely to elicit a large-scale military response. Executed well, this fourth strategic focus area supports both deterrence and/or the reduction of an adversary’s ability to conduct irregular and conventional military operations.  If degradation and deterrence fail and conflict becomes unavoidable, the aperture for this IW focus area opens up to kinetic strikes, advising resistance forces, and other tailored special operations to achieve specific objectives outlined by the Combatant Commander, and possibly in multiple geographic regions around the world.  In degrading and defeating the CCP, the US strategy must adopt new and greater risk.  This is not to suggest that reckless risks should be accepted, but calculated ones are in order.  Some military and Congressional leaders may be uncomfortable with this. 


With the four strategic focus areas in mind, the remainder of this paper outlines several – not all - lines of effort that should be acted upon so Irregular Warfare in the Indo-Pacific can support larger military objectives in undermining the CCP’s dangerous and illegal behavior inside and outside of China. Most of these lines of effort overlap considerably and could be categorized differently.  Several distinct lines are highlighted while acknowledging that there is considerable diplomatic, informational, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and law-enforcement layering amongst them.



  1. Undermining CCP sponsorship and funding for illicit/illegal activities.  Select Americans, proxies, or foreign nationals infiltrate and disrupt illicit networks involved in illegal fishing, human trafficking, weapons trafficking, or cybercrime. This is accomplished by recruiting and deploying the right personnel within targeted networks to provide real-time information on operations, key players, and emerging and future activities.  The military may provide intelligence to appropriate domestic and foreign financial agencies and international economic governing bodies to disrupt money laundering operations, freeze assets, and expose financial transactions linked to criminal enterprises.  Cyber and space capabilities will be used hack into communication channels, disrupt online platforms used for illegal transfers, and expose sensitive information.  When feasible, precision raids may be executed on key locations associated with illicit threats such as illegal fishing vessels, human trafficking hubs, or cybercrime networks.


  1. Military Information Support Operations aimed at the CCP.  Utilizing psychological operations elements, the US will undermine the morale and cohesion of CCP actors and proxies, target specific audiences to create internal divisions, sow distrust among key players, and discourage participation in China’s operations.  The military will launch aggressive, offensive information campaigns to expose and counter disinformation spread by the CCP, provide alternative messaging, shape public perception, and influence narratives. This includes naming and shaming dangerous and illegal PLA, PLAN, and proxy operations.


  1. Civil Affairs engagements.  During Community Relations (COMREL) events, which are often conducted throughout the region in conjunction with major exercises, construction projects, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) efforts, and other stand-alone activities, the military will connect with local communities, build trust, and raise awareness about the negative impacts of malign influence and misinformation.  These initiatives must be executed subtly to ensure that the legitimacy of the overt operation is not undermined. This requires a very sophisticated effort that will ultimately empower local communities and strengthen resilience against both internal and external threats. 


  1. Support to legal action launched against the CCP to defeat its “lawfare” strategies.  The military will provide information and evidence gathered during overseas deployments to appropriate legal and international bodies.  Americans will collaborate with such bodies to explore legal avenues for holding individuals or entities accountable for their involvement in dangerous and illegal CCP activities. This may include advocating for sanctions, indictments, or other legal measures in international or host-nation courts. 


  1. Countering CCP Maritime Gray Zone Activities.  Select Americans, partners, proxies, or foreign nationals deploy stealth reconnaissance assets, including unmanned underwater vehicles and drones, to monitor and gather real-time intelligence on Chinese maritime militia activities.  When possible, they conduct targeted and non-attributed interdiction operations, seizing or disabling maritime militia vessels engaged in illegal activities such as illegal fishing, harassment of regional vessels, plundering of natural resources, or encroachment into disputed territories.  Cyber and space assets are employed to degrade CCP ships’ abilities to communicate and operate.  Through a combination of operations, persistent presence, and strategic messaging, this line of effort helps deter future aggressive actions by the CCP’s maritime militia and showcases the capability and resolve to respond swiftly to provocations. 


  1. Logistics Interdiction.  Inside and outside of contested space, friendly elements identify and disrupt the logistical support networks that sustain maritime militias and other CCP criminal activities.  This is accomplished primarily by targeting supply chains and their human facilitators through direct, indirect, and virtual operations.  In addition, the PLA’s entire logistic network must be mapped well before contingencies arise, and selected targeting can create dilemmas for the PLA that will reduce support to malign activities.  


  1. Countering CCP elite capture.  Select Americans, partners, proxies, or foreign nationals employ a combination of intelligence operations, diplomatic engagement, and discreet protection to shield key individuals from undue influence. This involves a clandestine effort to fortify the integrity of local leadership, ensuring they remain true to their nation's interests. Establish an overt counterintelligence program that provides incentive for those who the CCP targets for recruitment to report those targeting efforts so they can be countered and exploited.


  1. Conducting offensive elite capture against China.  Select Americans, proxies, or foreign nationals deploy to identify, cultivate, and build relationships with key individuals in foreign countries. This does not necessarily have to be in China itself.  Through a combination of intelligence gathering, targeted persuasion, and strategic alliances, IW assets will subtly influence Chinese decision-makers overseas to align with American and Indo-Pacific partner interests. The intent is to subtly shape the perceptions and loyalties of those Chinese officials, businessmen, and others in positions of power.


  1. Countering narcotics and precursor production.  Select Americans, proxies, or foreign nationals conduct high-stakes raids on clandestine labs.  This can be accomplished by working closely with local law enforcement to gather intelligence, and by using advanced technology to track illicit supply chains. By targeting production hubs and distribution networks, the aim is to cripple operations at their core. This represents a coordinated effort to stem the flow of illegal narcotics, safeguarding not just national security but also the well-being of communities affected by the drug trade.  This effort will directly counter the CCP’s active subversion campaign against western countries as it tries to erode societies from within through the drug trade.


  1. Countering CCP-sponsored Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) emanating from the Mekong. Select Americans, proxies, or foreign nationals deploy to disrupt human trafficking, weapons smuggling, wildlife trafficking, illegal logging, and drug trade networks connected to Chinese-affiliated establishments and micro-communities along the Mekong River.  They will work closely with law enforcement, intelligence agencies, non-traditional partners, and the international community to gather actionable intelligence and conduct precision virtual or physical disruptive operations. By targeting the various facets of the CCP’s criminal enterprise that destabilizes the Mekong River Basin, this line of effort aims to create a ripple effect, disrupting the interconnected networks that fuel these illicit activities. This requires a multifaceted approach to safeguarding the region from the detrimental impacts of transnational crime. Separate but related, CCP damning operations that have destabilized economies and the environment along the lower Mekong – while supplying water to China itself - can be targeted for virtual and physical destruction. 


  1. Publicly naming and shaming CCP dangerous and illegal activities.  Select Americans, partners, proxies, or foreign nationals will leverage open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques to gather publicly available information on Chinese actors involved in illegal and dangerous activities. This includes monitoring social media, news articles, and public records.  Friendly public-private partners will launch targeted attribution campaigns, publicly exposing specific individuals or entities responsible for malign activities. This will involve releasing evidence, reports, documentation, documentaries, infographics, YouTube videos, and testimonials linking individuals and the CCP to nefarious actions.  Online platforms and databases will be developed and maintained support the effort and serve as centralized resources for governments, media, and the public to access information on CCP-sponsored violations. 


  1. Support for diplomatic efforts.  American military elements will support diplomatic programs by providing intelligence briefings and information to relevant US and partner-nation diplomatic agencies, assisting them in taking a public stance in international forums against Chinese malign activities and influence. 


  1. Support to resistance.  In the case of Taiwan, Uighurs, Tibet, Hong Kong, and other cultures and areas experiencing oppression, genocide, or threat of invasion at the hands of the CCP, select American military, partners, proxies, and foreign nationals will build resistance capabilities amongst populations inside and outside of China.  This effort will not build capacity in military and paramilitary units alone, but among civilian populations as well.  This is done to create a deterrent factor and, if deterrence fails, to enable resistance against China’s authoritarian regime.


The first part of this paper outlined key strategic focus areas for an INDOPACOM Irregular Warfare campaign strategy.  Part two described specific lines of effort needed to put the strategy in action.  This IW campaign should be a critical component of the overarching US national security strategy in the Indo-Pacific. It serves as a roadmap for employing IW to achieve not only Combatant Commander military objectives, but to support State Department, intelligence community, partner nation, and other American interagency objectives aimed at CCP malign behavior. This is a living strategy that requires sound understanding of the physical environment, population/human dynamics, and economic drivers to counter China’s willingness to engage in dangerous and illegal stunts that could easily lead to war in the Pacific. Some of the activities in this strategy require a change in current authorities and permissions granted to the US military.   This is a new era of threat and competition that requires a new strategy for our military that is grounded in US and international law.  In short it requires an Irregular Warfare Campaign.


The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the United States Government.



About the Author(s)

Jeremiah “Lumpy” Lumbaca, PhD, is a retired US Army Green Beret officer and current Department of Defense professor of irregular warfare, counterterrorism, and special operations at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS). He can be found on X/Twitter @LumpyAsia.