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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‎Army Myths: Chechens

A ruined Grozny, 1995.

Reminded during a recent Team House podcast of a very-GWOT myth: Chechens.

For some reason, “Chechens” became a bogeyman. I heard this in both Iraq and Afghanistan (Related: Juba).

“I heard there is a Chechen sniper in our AO,” someone might say with a knowing gravity.

“Oh damn, really?”

Given the influx of foreign fighters in both countries, of course there would be Chechens. I always wondered though – why, exactly?

What is it about “Chechens” that makes them particularly scary or fearsome? Why is it that when someone would invoke the Chechens, faces became sullen and serious?

I never figured that out.

Maybe someone has a better take on this, but I remember growing up in the 1990s watching the news of the war in Chechnya. It was brutal, and the Russians pulled no punches. I had a notion of what was going on, and there is a part of me that thinks much of the myth-making here is attributing mystical fighting prowess to Chechens because we (collective we, soldiers) really don’t know much about it.

It also feels very conspiratorial any time Chechens are invoked. The presence of “Chechens” points to something darker going on that I never quite bought into. Other leaders might roll their eyes – “This guy again with the Chechens…”

I am sure there is a kernel here, something going on that got this ball rolling. But the power the myth has does not seem warranted.

Would love to know more about the reality here, if anyone can point me in the right direction.

Details about the referenced podcast below.

Wesley Morgan details the history of US military operations in the Pech valley in Afghanistan, a place of deadly battles and unforgiving terrain. We start with the history of the valley and America’s first forays there in 2002, then get into the larger conventional and special operations campaigns that have taken place there with all sorts of unexpected twists and turns.

‎The Team House: Deadly Special Ops missions in the Pech Valley with Wes Morgan, Ep. 85 on Apple Podcasts

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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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