Feature Photo: Chengdu Global Center is the largest building in western China. It contains a mall, hotel, conference center, and water park.
Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in south-central China, is a lighthearted community. Famous as the home of the Giant Panda conservation program, Chengdu occupies an important place in the heritage of greater China. The attractive and prosperous city is also known for the beauty of its women, the spicy heat of its food, and the self-effacing sense of humor of its inhabitants. They will need it. In many ways, Chengdu is a microcosm of China’s rise and may also serve as a canary in the coal mine should the country’s experiment with capitalism begin to fall apart.
Founded during the warring states period by Lord Kaiming as a capital for his dominion, Chengdu means “Becoming a Capital.” With 15 million inhabitants and 3.87 million cars, the youth there sarcastically refer to it as “Becoming a Carpark.” The city’s traffic is indicativeof the transformation that has affected China as a whole. Since the 1980s, an entire generation of rural Chinese has migrated to the cities looking for work in the new economy. Their flight has emptied the countryside, changed family dynamics across China, and forced a residential construction boom like the world has never seen. In Chengdu, the pace of change is so astonishing people joke they sometimes go to work in the morning and get lost on the way home because everything changes so quickly. The joke is not far from the truth.
Growth and Prosperity
The rapid transformation of China from a rural Communist backwater in the 1980s to the economic powerhouse of today is arguably the single greatest human endeavor since the Second World War. Since 1978, an estimated 800 million Chinese people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. China’s adult literacy rate in 2012 was 95.1% and climbing with youth literacy reaching 99.65%. Its infant mortality rate dropped from 4.2% in 1990 to 1.2% in 2012. Life expectancy in 2012 was 75.2 years, up from 69.5 years in 1990. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita increased an average of 9.3% annually from 1990. In the space of a single generation hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens stopped having to worry about survival and became concerned about enjoying life. A Chinese version of the American Dream took hold in which young couples marry for love, own their own homes, and expect to retire comfortably without dependence on their children. This “Chinese Dream” once ignited, cannot be extinguished without calamity, forcing Beijing to seek resources to satisfy its growing industry and appetite for consumption.
China’s political aspirations have risen with its economic power. There is a sense at every level of Chinese society that after centuries of shameful disunity and perceived exploitation by outsiders, it is finally time to reclaim China’s place at the “center of the universe.” An air of inevitability and a disregard for short-term consequences now permeates Beijing’s foreign policy, but China lacks the cool confidence exhibited by Japan or Thailand, the only two Asian nations that were never colonized. Instead, China bullies its neighbors with incomprehensible urgency. Shamelessly and without hesitation, Beijing attempts to divide and conquer in political and economic matters, raising the level of uncertainty in the region and leaving little doubt it will act militarily if required. East and Southeast Asia are regrettably vulnerable to this approach, leaving only the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the US system of alliances to thwart Chinese hegemony in the region. In this way, the US Navy’s 7th Fleet is the ultimate regulator of China’s military, economic, and political aspirations—and this makes Beijing restless.
In response, China’s military expansion is almost as astonishing as its economic growth. Since 1989, the budget of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has increased an average 9.56% per year though some estimates put the figure much higher. China has the luxury of focusing its military efforts against a single paradigm: the United States Military. In pursuit of parity, the PLA has acquired nuclear weapons, carrier and stealth aviation, modern command and control systems, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and special operations capabilities. Some believe the Chinese may actually lead the world in cyber, anti-ship ballistic missile technology, and even quantum computing—a capability that could obviate any attempt at communications security. Though the United States Military is a large and robust rival, China’s drive for parity requires only that it learn from the Pentagon’s successes and avoid its mistakes. Accordingly, Chinese officers miss no opportunities to study America’s weaknesses and develop countermeasures. For them, parity is only a matter of time and persistence, something the Chinese are more comfortable with than Americans are. It is not surprising then that the PLA is not just a military force, it also carries political and economic weight within the Chinese system.
China’s Future: Unite or Ignite?
Unfortunately, China simply cannot sustain the economic growth required to keep it all going. The problem is dire. Even a moderate reduction in the pace of growth will profoundly affect tens of millions of workers. If a contraction stratifies and unbalances China’s economy, the country’s fractures will begin to re-emerge. Income and quality of life will become a matter of struggle between ethnic groups and geographic regions. China’s coastal cities are extremely important to its economy; those in the interior are less so. Profound cultural differences exist between those from the north and those from the south as well as between east to west. Xinjiang and Tibet already dream of an independent future as do some in Hong Kong and of course Taiwan. Igniting rebellion in these places requires only a spark. More profoundly, if the Chinese economy stagnates, there is simply no way to keep 600 million military aged men busy, unified, and politically obedient without expansion and conquest. Economics may thus force China to decide between conflict at home and conflict abroad.
China’s Communist Party leadership is already preparing for this eventuality. Efforts to control information and stamp out dissent serve to inoculate the country against the centrifugal forces that threaten to spin it apart. The PLA appears to have three principal goals: develop a power projection capability, use that capability to solidify control of energy supply lines, and build positive relationships with the Chinese people through disaster response. China recognizes it will need all these things if it decides to embark on a policy of conflict overseas. Though at the moment Beijing pushes its territorial ambitions incrementally, it openly experiments with hard power solutions in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and elsewhere. Any disruption in the quality of life in Chinese cities like Chengdu may provide an early warning as to whether Beijing will militarize its foreign policy. In the lengthening list of things that Chengdu is becoming, perhaps “canary in the coal mine” is the most significant.
Hybrid Warfare is the stuff of nightmares for the military and political leadership of NATO. Ambiguous and hard to detect, it falls short of NATO definitions of armed conflict and therefore below thresholds on the decision to use force against it. Hybrid Warfare can be described as a plausibly deniable attack by a state using all its tools of national power to achieve a political result, as opposed to conventional warfare in which the state takes military action overtly and directly.
Allegedly employed by Russia against the Crimea in 2014, Hybrid War was intended to resemble a grassroots response by an ethnic Russian minority oppressed by the Ukrainian government. In reality, the Crimean campaign, like all Hybrid Warfare, required specific conditions for its success and great preparation to guarantee its effectiveness. It is not reactionary, it is revolutionary, and it is a foreign policy tool of the Russian state.
But Hybrid War as seen in Crimea — and later in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine — is not new nor is it unique to Russia. Other states and non-state actors have used similar tactics to overthrow governments in the past and they will do so again. What makes the Crimean case especially troubling is that it was used to carve off a piece of a state rather than overthrow its government entirely. This precedent opens a large number of sub-state trouble spots globally to new and tempting possibilities. Nowhere is this more relevant than in the South China Sea where many of the requisite conditions exist for Hybrid War to succeed in the hands of China, which has gone a long way towards developing the mindset and the tools required to wrest control of relevant pieces of territory from its neighbors.
Any responsible discussion about Hybrid Warfare should begin with a definition. Unfortunately the NATO heads of state and government began using the buzzword to describe policy responses to Hybrid War before the Alliance had time to define the term. The result is a broad spectrum of seemingly disparate Allied and national activities designed to counter Hybrid War. Everything from the American deployment of a tank brigade in the Baltic states to establishment of a Strategic Communications Center is described as a counter to the Hybrid threat.
Terrorists are said to use Hybrid tactics, and naval vessels and fighter planes are training against Hybrid War scenarios. It seems at times to be the embodiment of a “something must be done” defense policy — a damaging and self-defeating knee jerk. In some ways however, NATO’s broad response may actually be appropriate.
Canadian scholar Paul Taillon argues Hybrid War is simply a new manifestation of the Soviet concept of “political war” more commonly known as “active measures”:
‘a forceful expression of national policy that forces a nation state to submit by eroding its will and capability‘, active measures include a ‘spectrum of politico-military stratagems including, among other things, employment of overt and covert operations, agents of influence, subversion, special operations, propaganda, foreign-policy manipulation, deception, and psychological operations, as well as orchestrating the support of foreign elements to act as proxies‘. (Taillon 2014)
Though the force of choice for implementing these stratagems on foreign soil are Special Operations Forces (SOF), the stratagems themselves are mostly political tools supported by very carefully controlled military operations and not the other way around. Victory however is not assured. These stratagems depend on pre-existing conditions or weaknesses in the targeted society: “resistance potential.”
Though never specifically defined, the basic conditions of resistance potential are not difficult to deduce. First and foremost there must be a disaffected community with an identity distinctly different from the one in power. The disaffected must have a communal grievance and a geographic concentration that links their identity and grievances to the terrain. Critically, success in Hybrid Warfare requires weak governance in targeted areas, particularly in matters of security. In this way, corruption, lack of resources, and uneven wealth distribution become important aspects of resistance potential. Though these conditions are more or less easily identifiable, measuring them in order to effectively allocate and prioritize resources is a fine art that requires great experience and cultural understanding. In other words, Hybrid Warfare works best between neighbors.
Resistance potential was high in the Crimea in 2014 where the ethnic-Russian community comprised 67% of the population. Though Russian speakers comprise only 17.3% of Ukraine’s total population,they had a distinct geographic concentration in the Crimea and the cities of the Donbass where they had latent but well-known grievances setting them apart from those in power in Kiev. They felt threatened by the transfer of political rights to the growing Muslim Tatar population, and had concerns about linguistic marginalization. Their general disconnectedness from the central government forced Kiev to rule through local structures. In addition to the Crimean Parliament, which implemented wide autonomy under the Ukrainian constitution, the Tatars also had their own governing council called the Mejlis. By comparison, Kievan governance seemed remote, filtered, and corrupt.
Even with such a seemingly clear-cut case of high resistance potential, Russia required most, if not all of the active measures stratagems to achieve its desired political result. Shortly after the Maidan Uprising that ousted then-President Yanukovych of Ukraine, masked, uniformed, and mysteriously well-armed troops began occupying government buildings across Crimea. The uniformity, professionalism, high-tech equipment, and coordination strongly suggested they were more than pro-Russian Crimean self-defense forces as they were described by Russian news sources. Supported by crowds of Russian-speaking thugs, these forces systematically dismantled the tools of Ukrainian state sovereignty in Crimea, blocked a Ukrainian military response, installed pro-Russian politicians (many with known links to Russian organized crime), and hastily arranged a Crimea-wide referendum on whether to declare independence or simply “rejoin” Russia. Emboldened by — or perhaps intimidated by — a Russian authorization to deploy troops to “Ukrainian territory” to protect vulnerable ethnic Russians, voters approved the referendum to rejoin Russia with a 97% majority before any international observers could arrive to verify the results. The true legality of the situation may never be known as Crimea is now effectively a part of Russia which claims, however implausibly, its actions were a defense of the self-determination of peoples.
To be certain, Russia has used more aggressive tactics in similar situations in the past. The 2008 invasion of Georgia is just one example, leading us to ponder why, if Ukrainian governance was so weak in Crimea, Moscow used Hybrid Warfare there instead of the more muscular actions applied in South Ossetia. The reason of course, is Ukraine’s physical and political proximity to NATO made any overwhelming use of conventional force by Moscow a potential threat to the Alliance. The imprecise calculations of deterrence politics so close to NATO’s Article 5 frontier meant the seizure of Crimea had to fall well below the Alliance’s decision thresholds for the use of military force lest Russia’s actions provoke an overwhelming defensive response by Brussels.
When so much of Hybrid War’s success or failure relies on the manipulation of perceived identity and grievance, it is nearly impossible for any government, let alone a large and diverse 28-nation alliance, to be completely certain of the legal appropriateness of using force. It is precisely this ambiguity and the incremental, arguably legal nature of Hybrid stratagems that makes them effective and attractive as a foreign policy option.
Divide and Confuse
Thoughtful observers of global security are naturally alert for signs Hybrid Warfare is proliferating from its home in Crimea to other parts of the world. There is certainly no shortage of resistance potential as stateless nations and disaffected minorities everywhere find their voices amplified by the internet. As long as there is potential for resistance, relevant actors — state and non-state — will maintain a capability to exploit it using Hybrid Warfare. Among these are the United States and China which both maintain organizations trained and equipped to use the stratagems of active measures. In China, Hybrid War is the domain of the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, the Coast Guard, and an organization called the Maritime Militia which has an ambiguous legal status linking it to both private industry and the military.
Having capability however, does not prove it is being used for Hybrid Warfare and even if it is, proving that its use is somehow connected to Russian success in Crimea is another matter entirely. Knowing this and scanning the world for Hybrid War, our eyes continually return to the area where the two Hybrid superpowers collide: the South China Sea.
The South China Sea is one of the world’s richest arenas for competition between the economic and cultural spheres of India, China, the United States, and to a lesser degree, the Islamic Middle East. Claimed by no fewer than five nations on its periphery — six counting Taiwan — two of which, Vietnam and Indonesia, are rising regional powers, and one, China, which aspires to global relevance, the South China Sea is a resource rich and geographically severe choke point. Its waters are managed on two levels: nationally by claimant states, and internationally by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Though ASEAN’s grip is divided and intentionally weak, it is one of the mechanisms by which the United States seeks to prevent China from turning the entirety of the South China Sea into its territorial waters, barred to the innocent passage of American warships of the 7th US Fleet which, for the moment, is the real power that polices the region.
ASEAN and its member states all exhibit resistance potential which China attempts to exploit by isolating Vietnam and the Philippines, and weakening rival-nation control of areas adjacent to the Spratly, Paracel, and Pratas Island chains. To the extent that we can consider ASEAN a unified political entity, it is a fractured one at best. Its member states feature extreme cultural differences and long histories of conflict with one another. There are numerous examples of ongoing territorial disputes between them, many of which affect the waters of the South China Sea itself. In this way, each claimant state resembles an identifiable minority group with a geographic concentration and grievances against its neighbors if not against its capital in Jakarta. ASEAN’s governance is weak. Its decision-making processes are not rule based and are subject to the corruption of horse-trading. It has no police, no intelligence service, no Army or Navy. Its raison d’être is in keeping its members from interfering in each other’s internal politics and thus it is vulnerable to having parts of its territory carved away by active measures.
The situation is far less certain at the national level. Resistance potential within Southeast Asian nations resides largely in a very visible Chinese minority –- the Straits Chinese -– that has throughout history been the target of violent mass grievance inflamed for cynical domestic political reasons. China largely ignored the plight of the Straits Chinese for centuries except for a historically brief period between 1949 and 1972 when Beijing supported Communist movements throughout Southeast Asia.
Despite its historical ambivalence, China’s claim to the South China Sea is based in part on the exploratory voyages that brought the Straits Chinese to Southeast Asia to begin with. It is not a stretch therefore, to imagine that the Straits Chinese may represent a conduit for Hybrid Warfare. To be certain, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines all harbor this concern about their Chinese minorities though there is no evidence China is even considering agitating the Straits Chinese for political purposes.
Beijing is cautious for good reason. Resistance potential of the Straits Chinese is not as high as it may seem. The peninsular and archipelagic states of Southeast Asia do not provide useful areas of sanctuary where insurgents can thrive. Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia all successfully defeated ethnic Chinese-led insurgencies since the Second World War and if anything, the potential for resistance has decreased since then. Ethnic Chinese citizens of Southeast Asian nations (other than Singapore) do not dominate any geographic regions nor do they control any of the institutions of state. Perhaps surprisingly, their cultural connection to China is not to Beijing, but to Fujian and Guangdong provinces, from which their ancestors fled privation or persecution, in some cases at the hands of the government in Beijing. Furthermore, the Straits Chinese have enjoyed a relatively high standard of living when compared with their fellow countrymen from majority groups.
Though Southeast Asia is home to a number of other disaffected, even insurgent groups, these are all ideologically or culturally opaque for Chinese Hybrid Warfare actors. None of these groups reside in the uninhabited seascape under contention. Unlike in Crimea where Russia was able to weaken and replace Ukrainian governance with ethnic Russians as a prelude to a political maneuver, Chinese Hybrid Warfare can at best weaken rival-nation control over the South China Sea. The situation simply lacks the finality offered by a follow-on political ploy.
Though the situation in the South China Sea differs from that in Crimea primarily because the area under contention is an uninhabited seascape, there is no doubt China uses Hybrid Warfare to enable its increasing control. Whether these techniques and the motivation to use them are inspired by the Crimean case is a much harder question to answer. Indeed the 2014 drama between China and Vietnam over a drilling rig played itself out at a grassroots level with fishermen deployed from both sides to either harass or defend the rig. To what extent this can be considered government-sponsored Hybrid Warfare is debatable but it gives an indication that disputes in the area will be fought by actors of ambiguous legal status and authority. As in Crimea, where Hybrid War is used to advance Russian territorial ambitions without sparking a response by NATO, China calibrates it use of similar tactics to ensure its adversaries in the region do not draw the United States too actively into the contest.
Again, use of Hybrid Warfare tactics in the South China Sea does not prove a connection to events in Crimea. Indeed, publication of “Unrestricted Warfare” by the Chinese War College demonstrated a willingness to use Hybrid Warfare techniques as far back as 1999. However, the substantive difference with today’s efforts is that while Unrestricted Warfare was aimed at countering another state, today’s efforts in the South China Sea have sub-state territorial goals. If there is an observable connection between Russia’s success and China’s efforts, it is only in the mindset required to apply active measures for limited territorial gains. Though reassuring in the sense that Hybrid Warfare minimizes violence, herein lies the real danger to international security; that use of the techniques may proliferate to other states with similar territorial ambitions, exacerbating existing tensions or turning competition into conflict.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC
China has become a sensation in Western discourse, representing fears of economic displacement, military rivalry, and social upheaval. In many English language social media discussions about China, commentary can quickly escalate to the point that it is alarmist, ignorant, condescending, or racist. China is a vast country, with the largest population in the world, and they have experienced as much social, demographic, and environmental change in just the last generation as the West has in the last 100 years.
Despite what you may read in social media, analysis of China does not easily boil down to 140 characters or less. The “Middle Kingdom” is a vast land of contradictions, and much of what is said about the People’s Republic contain various levels of truth. An example of China’s extreme contrasts: although there is extreme poverty in many rural areas, Beijing just surpassed New York City in number of billionaires. Too often, commentators on social media try to dilute the facts into neat clichés and virtual soundbites rather than accept the complexities of the subject.
In an ever more globalized and interconnected world, words matter. Words and ideas compete for consideration and propagation on the internet. Opinions are shared, mimicked, and replicated quickly, often reaching unintended audiences, which is why so much commentary about China on social media is alarming. An opinion (educated or not) that is true to some extent in limited context can then be extrapolated and applied to other unrelated situations. The explosion of memes as acceptable political discourse on topics from the U.S. presidential primaries to the Refugee Crisis is a visible example of the problem of relying on social media for political information.
Where English language opinions are more informed, they are often limited in scope and origin to the expat enclaves of Beijing, Shanghai, and the Pearl River Delta, where Westerners can experience China without the polarizing filter of the media. Popular opinion is therefore a reflection of the shallow observations often repeated by our major media organizations, whose footprints in China are, at best, a field office in Beijing or Shanghai, and at worst, simply echo the opinions of the major papers.
The problem is, the Chinese people are listening very closely. Many Chinese leaders and thinkers view America as an example of a successful great power, and they seek to imitate that success while still preserving their socialist system. The U.S. is observed by many with near obsession, curiosity, and often with some degree of apprehension. Clearly unaware of the impact of their statements in social media, the last thing Westerners, and Americans in particular, should be doing is disparaging or dismissing arguably rational Chinese actions in the media.
Imagine two brothers, where the younger brother imitates the behavior of the elder. If the elder brother rejects and mocks him, how will the younger brother then act in the future? If the Chinese political and economic leadership do not feel like Americans respect them, they may change course and find another less palatable model for future development. The Sino-American geopolitical relationship is the most important one in the 21st Century, and the U.S. should not neglect its leadership role in the region through ignorance and careless internal public dialogue.
The Loud Voices in the Room
Here are some examples from social media to demonstrate the problems with careless internal dialogue:
Opinion 1: The Chinese cheat (at business).
This type of message invokes a value of fairness, and claims that China is not playing fair: in business, military technology, etc… Allegations of cheating aside, consider that China has leapfrogged the industrial revolution right into the information revolution. While some would argue the fairness of China’s approach to modernization, it is nothing new. The idea of appropriating methods and technologies from more advanced nations has occurred over and over again throughout history as many now-developed nations also stood on the shoulders of the trailblazers who went before.
Sharing of intellectual property in jointly owned enterprises has been a condition of investment in China since Deng Xiaoping’s open door policy of 1980. Western companies have willingly entered into such agreements, making significant profits while American consumers benefited by being able to buy cheaper goods. Furthermore, a large number of Chinese businesses do not cheat and steal, so their reaction to such insults on social media is predictably and understandably defensive. Dismissive and disrespectful behavior on social media has serious potential to have a negative effect on the economic relationship between the U.S and China.
Opinion 2: Chinese products are terrible quality.
There is a lot of evidence to support the fact that some Chinese goods are low quality. There have been instances of fake milk powder tainted with hazardous chemicals, contractors reducing the quality of construction in schools, and “gutter oil” used for cooking, issues that have instigated mass social movements in China in response.
However, China as a nation is also capable of producing at high quality. The passenger rail system is not without flaws, but it has come an impressively long way. Most notably, the P.R.C. maintains a manned space program and in September 2013 sent an unmanned rover to the moon, which set the record in October 2015 as the longest operational lunar rover. When Westerners apply this opinion categorically, it becomes insulting and arrogant, asserting that the Chinese cannot do anything of quality, and the reaction is naturally negative with potential repercussions both in diplomacy and in business.
Opinion 3: China is a global threat.
The following comments came from a Facebook page on the People’s Daily discussing the ongoing fielding of the Liaoning, China’s new Ukrainian-made aircraft carrier:
This is an extreme instance of this opinion, where the commenter uses the anxiety around China’s rise to compare the P.R.C. to the Imperial Japanese, a comparison sure to promote defensiveness and hostility from Chinese readers. The memory of the brutal Japanese occupation is immortalized in film, monuments, and memorials throughout China, just as the communist resistance to the Japanese is celebrated as a legitimacy narrative. Tensions continue to run high between the two countries as was evidenced by the response to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in 2014. Arguable racist undertones aside, the commentary on China’s rise seems to swing to both extremes: Either China is a terrifying dragon, or China is a bumbling panda bear.
Rival or Partner?
If China is really a threat, then it could be a very serious one. When analyzing potential threats, analysis should be broken down into two components: capability of doing harm, and intent to do harm in the pursuit of a specific goal. Despite a large military, China has limited capability to threaten others in its immediate vicinity; the benefits of aggressive action are low and international connectivity makes the costs are still too high to make such policies palatable to the Chinese leadership.
The second component of threat analysis is often lacking in most Western discourse about China. Namely, do they even want to cause us harm? If/when they have the capability, would they want to use it? What would they achieve by doing so? Hostile and anxious comments about China shape and promote the kind of defensive hostility in China that the West does not desire. We should expect fear-mongering about China in the West to be mirrored, leading to further aggressive posturing and the increasing possibility of confrontation, perhaps leading to a fostering of the intent to do harm which does not currently exist.
An Avoidable Collision
Fear-mongering can be counteracted through education. The more accurate information is spread about China, the more we Westerners will realize the limitations of our knowledge. The Chinese people are awakening to the outside world thanks to the influence of the internet, but they remain rooted in their customs, history, and have their own unique challenges. Other countries need not consent to China’s strategic positions or praise their business practices. Understanding the Chinese in context, and cooperating or challenging as appropriate is the key. The current hostile and dismissive discourse is one avoidable factor unnecessarily escalating tensions between two civilizations which are leading towards an aggressive rivalry, rather than a rewarding partnership.
MAJ Mike Kendall is a U.S. Army Engineer Officer with combat experience and extensive training in forcible entry and humanitarian relief operations. He graduated from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou China as part of the Olmsted Scholar Program, and is currently attending the German Armed Forces General Staff College and Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, Germany. He holds a B.S. in International Relations, an M.S. in Engineering Management, and an MPA in Non-Traditional Security Management. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation.