The USA, China, and the “Whole of Society” approach

Still catching up on the backlog of podcasts. I listened to episode 34 of the Irregular Warfare podcast weeks ago – and jotted down a few notes. This episode was on “China’s Strategically Irregular Approach.”

Before I even listened to it, I opined that there would be a discussion or comment about how “good” China is at irregular warfare and how “bad” we are at it.

The discussion was more nuanced than that, thankfully. But there is one area in which I think we (the US) continue to get a bad rap.

And that’s on the topic of the “whole of society” approach.

In any discussion on China’s approach to competition, their ability to marshal their entire society in lockstep towards their political goals is touted as a huge advantage. A top-down approach, where the CCP dictates the direction, and often the pace and style.

To the outside observer, it can appear as if they’re “doing it well” or “doing it better.”

Wolf-warrior diplomacy, banning video games, social credit systems. It’s all in the name of winning.

And what do we have to counter that?

A system that appears (to outsiders and insiders) to be falling apart, constantly at odds with itself, and seemingly incapable of coming together for a common purpose.

If you believe the above and swallow it whole, you’re missing the bigger picture.

The USA already does the whole of society approach – and does it incredibly well.

Here, we trust our people with free speech, to make decisions in their best interests and pursue what makes them happy. This is mission command at a societal level.

We don’t need to tell our people that they need to go out there and counter adversarial aggression. Instead, we provide the space and the means for people and organizations to thrive.

And they create things. Entertainment. Sports. Fashion. Philanthropy. Finance.

Hollywood. College sports. Non-profits. The iPhone.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe – an American media franchise – is worth billions of dollars worldwide, but more importantly, carries the power of American culture, creativity, innovation, and humor across the world.

If you’re on the outside looking in, American society, with all its cracks and fissures, is a behemoth. It is worth envying.

We don’t need to try to recreate something that “gets everyone on board.” We don’t need to force it.

Do the right thing, speak the truth, and trust your people.

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All the reasons we’re bad at irregular warfare

Image Source: army.mil

The Irregular Warfare Initiative is back on its game and recently released episode 33 (AN UN-AMERICAN WAY OF WAR: WHY THE UNITED STATES FAILS AT IRREGULAR WARFARE).

Incidentally, they just released episode 34 as well (CHINA’S STRATEGICALLY IRREGULAR APPROACH: THE ART OF THE GRAY ZONE).

I haven’t listened to the latter yet, but I’m willing to bet it will feature a discussion about how sly and cunning the Chinese are at IW (as opposed to the US).

I’ll say up front that the reason our adversaries rely on irregular warfare is because they have to — they really don’t have many other options.

And the reason they’re “good” at it is because they are not constrained by the same moral/ethical/legal boundaries that we are.

They’ll weaponize anything.

They also don’t have to contend with the political ramifications – as we do – of foreign exploits because of the authoritarian nature of their governments.

This doesn’t mean that we’re “not good” at IW, it just means we have to work a whole lot harder.

On to the podcast.

There were some great points made in the epsidoe and areas worth exploring further. These indlcude:

  • We never fight the war we want (tanks/troops in the open, fire for effect)
  • The difficulty training for irregular warfare (a day in the field represents a month 🤦‍♂️)
  • An argument to send military “observers” to other nations/conflicts to build knowledge
  • How personnel systems lose wars (this one is so true – and needs to more attention)
  • The importance of language skills for SOF personnel
  • The fact that SOF is and should be the primary actor in GPC – competing in the gray zone prior to conflict

Finally, towards the end there is a question posed as to what SOF should look like in IW. I’d offer it looks like a lot of things, but one of those is highly trained SF/CA/PSYOP forces out there doing there jobs. It’s the investment in human capital, not impressive tech, that will move the needle.

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Weaponization of benign activities

Chinese tourists take a ‘selfie’ at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on November 14, 2016, as Sikh devotees mark the 547th birth anniversary of Sri Guru Nanak Dev. Guru Nanak was the founder of the Sikh religion and the first of ten Sikh gurus. / AFP / NARINDER NANU Getty Images

Late last year, the Marine Corps released MCDP 1-4 ‘Competing.’ It’s a great pamphlet that captures the nature of the global competition we find ourselves in today. I would recommend it as a primer for anyone who wants to know more about what ‘great power competition’ looks like. It’s well-researched and well-written.

Over the summer, I plan on lifting a few things from Competing to explore a little further. The first of these is mentioned on page 4-10 as a part of the ‘common characteristics of our rivals approach to competition.’

‘Weaponization of benign activities.’

While a definition isn’t offered, if you have been paying attention, the concept is almost immediately apparent.

Competing provides a short vignette two pages later which discusses the idea in the context of tourism.

Weaponization of Benign Activities: Tourism in Targeted Countries

Palau is an island nation strategically located east of the Philippines, has only 20,000 citizens, and maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan. About 2014, China put Palau on its approved list for overseas tourism.

By 2015, Chinese tourists flooded Palau, created a Chinese- funded hotel construction boom, and bought up buildings and apartments. Chinese-owned restaurants and small businesses also started, displacing local enterprises. Chinese tour groups were typically self-contained, staying in Chinese-owned hotels and bringing their own tour guides, which froze out locally owned tourism businesses. The influx of Chinese tourism created divisions between Paulauans benefiting from the tourism and those threatened by the displaced businesses, increased living costs, and damage to the local environment brought by the tourism flood.

In late 2017, Beijing placed Palau off-limits for package tours, dramatically affecting Palau’s economy. The off-limits order was reportedly an effort to put pressure on Taiwan via their relationship with Palau. China used tourism to create an economic dependency and then manipulated it to help them achieve their aims.

MCDP 1-4 Competing p. 4-12

If you follow the footnotes, you’ll land on a 2019 assessment from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments titled ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail.’ This is what they have to say about the subject:

Weaponization of benign activities. In conducting their political warfare operations, Russia and China have weaponized many normally benign activities. These include but are not limited to diplomatic discussions; conventional and unconventional media operations; tourism into targeted countries; flows of students; visit diplomacy; the establishment of “friendship societies” and similar front organizations; the purchase of well-located pieces of land, key infrastructure, and strategically important companies; accessing, often by stealing, protected intellectual property; managing trade and investment flows; exploiting education systems, and manipulating immigration arrangements.

Ross Babbage, ‘Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail

The weaponization of benign activities will serve as the constant, slow-burn tactic of great power competition. These are events and processes that unfold over years and will be a nuisnance to military, diplomatic, and political leaders who will feel compelled to “do something” in response.

There is a related tactic that we already see every day – and that’s the weaponization of benign information. If you spend any amount of time on social media, you see this when someone includes a screenshot that provides ‘evidence’ of some transgression, however slight or implied. This is a tactic employed by provacateurs and trolls alike. Irrelevant personal details might be tossed on the fire to smear someone. Those details may not add anything useful, but they work as an accelerant with the target audience, carrying unseen weight.

You also see this tactic when headlines are contorted by different organizations to feed a certain narrative.

And of course, you see this when conspiracy theorists posit that some trite piece of information contains hidden meaning.

Words are already loaded with history and stories behind them. Arranged in the right way, they can convey the meaning you want to the right audience and they won’t even have to read the article. Important here, is that this technique is not likely to shift global opinion or ‘win the war.’ Rather, it might nudge the dial just a little bit over time.

More consequently, the weaponization of benign activities/informtation could result in an overreaction, which is why I argue we all need to be a little more patient and let the dust settle when there are bombastic information flare-ups.

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IW: Confronting Chinese info-ops in the Pacific

Things are happening. Things have been happening. They don’t always get attention.

In case you missed this from last week.

The Joint Task Force Indo-Pacific team will be focused on information and influence operations in the Pacific theater, a part of the world receiving much the military’s attention because of China’s growing capabilities.

Special Operations team in Pacific will confront Chinese information campaigns

Good.

The team is poised to work with like-minded partners in the region, Gen. Richard Clarke, commander of Special Operations Command, said before the Armed Services Committee. “We actually are able to tamp down some of the disinformation that they [China] continuously sow,” he said of the task force’s efforts.

And finally:

The forward defense concept isn’t just applicable to cyberspace. Clarke described Special Operations Forces, specifically Military Information Support Operations professionals, that are deployed forward and work closely with embassies around the world.

“By working closely with those partners to ensure that our adversaries, our competitors are not getting that free pass and to recognize what is truth from fiction and continue to highlight that to using our intel communities is critical,” he said.

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Some recent articles on Chinese political warfare

I’ve been digging into the “Ministry of Truth” series from War on the Rocks discussing Chinese political warfare.

It’s a three part series, and to date, the first two have been released.

Each is packed with links and sources. You can go deep down the rabbit hole if you’re interested in building a better understanding of Chinese political warfare.

A couple of choice excerpts below.

Part I Contrasting China’s and Russia’s Influence Operations.

On the fact that political warfare is “standard operating procedure” for Russia and China:

The operational differences, for all their practical implications, may be less important than the simple recognition that Beijing and Moscow both approach influence operations and active measures as a normal way of doing business. 

On the different approaches Russia/China take in regards to political warfare:

Undoubtedly, more can be said about how to understand the distinctions between Chinese and Russian influence operations and political warfare. Perhaps the best way to describe the differences between the two approaches is that the Chinese are human- or relationship-centric while the Russians are operation- or effects-centric. 

Part II China’s ‘three warfares’ in perspective.

Looking at the PLA in strictly military terms lacks a true understanding of their purpose:

When analysts look at the PLA, they are looking at it as a military — at its warfighting capabilities and the resulting security implications. It is a purely military view that lacks a clear concept for appreciating political warfare.

Influence operations are directly connected to political power:

The party leads, the PLA follows. The purpose of influence operations is political power.

Lessons learned from watching the US in the Persian Gulf war (emphasis in bold mine). I’d love to see more on this, by the way:

The Persian Gulf War to expel Iraq from Kuwait taught the PLA the value and power of information in the modern context. Most obviously, precision-guided bombs blowing out buildings on CNN cameras demonstrated the value of targeting intelligence and guided munitions. However, the PLA also drew lessons from the George H.W. Bush administration’s diplomatic effort to paint Iraq as the aggressor and to rally an international coalition, including Iraq’s Arab neighbors. They also admired the psychological warfare efforts to induce Iraqi commanders to surrender or retreat without fighting.

Related, a short (and kind of choppy) article in Small Wars Journal that couches China’s approach as war, not competition. The author seems to be inferring that we should not be using the “great power competition” construct because our adversaries aren’t.

Image at the top: “The Boss” mentoring “Naked Snake” (MGS3).

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