Great Power Competition in the Middle East

mural depicting saddam victory in jerusalem

We’ve heard this before. Competition between states is going to happen in other places – not directly in or on the borders of those same states.

“It is quite clear that the Middle East is a critical arena for China.”

Linda Robinson (see Infinite Competition)

This episode of the IWI podcast dives into the concept of competition between states in other places – specifically Russia, China, and Iran.

Here’s the question that had me listening more closely:

“What are the skill-sets and capabilities needed to implement integrated deterrence in the CENTCOM area of responsibility given the character of these threats?”

The answer? Language and culture.

If you don’t understand the language of the people you’re dealing with, if you don’t understand their culture, then you’re going to have a really hard time appreciating how a particular action plays out in that culture, or doesn’t play out.

Rear Admiral Mitch Bradley, ~44:15

The conversation goes on from there stressing the importance of education in developing leaders who can truly understand their environments and the implications of their actions or inactions.

This, of course, is refreshing to hear.

The challenge is two-fold. First, to truly develop the skills that we’re talking about (language proficiency beyond building rapport and cultural understanding beyond the surface level) we are talking about an immense investment of time. A short course on language or culture isn’t going to do it. This stuff takes years – decades even.

Which brings me to the second challenge: incentives. If we are saying that what we want is the above, are we incentivizing this? Are we promoting and rewarding those who have put in the work?

It goes back to the infinite competition episode and another great question: “Do you think the system is promoting the right types of leaders and talent to engage in political warfare or great power competition?”

The desire is there. The need is there. Now it’s about aligning incentives to meet it.

Lastly, I love it anytime senior leaders talk about the need to develop our own “Lawrence of Arabia.”

“…not only a Lawrence of Arabia, but a Lawrence of Africa… and I would say, a Lawrence of southern Arabia, and all of these other places where the Chinese and the Iranians and the Russians are trying to compete…”

I appreciate the further parsing – knowledge that is useful has to be extremely granular. And developing that granular knowledge takes time.

Lawrence’s education began well before he stepped foot in Arabia as a military man.

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What if the PLA doesn’t need NCOs?

chinese flag that says ai on it

I’ve been a long-time reader of the Army’s “Mad Scientist Blog,” but I’m fairly certain I’ve never shared anything of theirs before – at least not on this blog.

From the ‘about’ page:

The Mad Scientist Laboratory blog is a marketplace of ideas about the future of our society, work, and conflict.

There’s something about the old-school ‘Web 1.0’ style of the posts that gets me all kinds of nostalgic.

Anyway, they also have a podcast that I only recently discovered. I started with this episode on How China Fights.

The format of the podcast is a bit different from many other national security podcasts I’ve listened to. There really isn’t a host that is driving the conversation – although they have a pretty intense announcer. Each episode has a main topic and then subtopics which are addressed by “subject matter experts.” It flows nicely.

There were a few things that struck me in this episode. The first is what gives this article its title:

What if the PLA doesn’t need NCOs?

This was said in response to a common retort one may hear about what makes a good Army. They may have the tech, and they may have the numbers, but they might be missing something. In the US, we hold our NCO corps in high regard and assume that is one of the things that gives us a qualitative advantage.

What if our adversaries can find a way to function without that? Is that possible?

Probably – but it’s an assumption that doesn’t often get challenged.

Two other things: China’s establishment of the “Strategic Support Force” and the concept of “information superiority” (think “air superiority”) during a crisis. I’ve never really thought about information that way – but I think there can be some relevancy – as the guest stated, in a crisis.

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PRC Info-Ops – in their own words

Wow.

Written by the PRC’s National Defense University (NDU) faculty, with assistance from the General Staff Operations Department and the Academy of Military Sciences, this text contains instructional material for NDU Commander’s Course, Staff Officer, and PLA-wide Information Operations Advanced Studies Courses. Forward looking, and deliberately very comprehensive on concepts of information operations at the campaign level in the joint form, the 2009 edition contains extensive review/revisions from its previous publications.

In Their Own Words: Lectures on Joint Campaign Information Operations

What a great project. This stuff is out there and available. This is professional development. It’s not necessarily going to be a “fun” read or one that you need to do.

But if you’re a professional, it’s one that you absolutely should do.

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Weaponization of benign activities

chinese tourist selfie stick
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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