How does China operate in the space between war and peace to gain strategic advantage in Asia and globally? What do these gray zone activities look like, and how do they facilitate China’s influence in the region? What are the consequences of inconsistent US policy and posture in the Pacific in countering China’s rise?
Episode 34 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast explores what China’s efforts in the gray zone mean for the United States, setting a foundation for understanding where and how the United States might choose to counter these activities. Our guests begin by characterizing the manner in which China engages in a strategically irregular approach and why this approach is logical given China’s weaknesses relative to the United States. They then discuss what these efforts mean for other Asian nations, and how those effects matter in the US competition for influence. They conclude by critiquing inconsistencies in US policy in the Pacific, recognizing that countering China’s influence requires building and maintaining consistent relationships over time.
Ambassador David Shear served for thirty-two years in the US Foreign Service, most recently as the US ambassador to Vietnam, and has also worked in Sapporo, Beijing, Tokyo, and Kuala Lumpur. He was the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs from 2014 to 2016, when he performed the duties of principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy. Ambassador Shear is the recipient of the State Department’s Superior Honor Award and the Defense Department’s Civilian Meritorious Service Award. He is currently an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Dr. Zack Cooper is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies US strategy in Asia, including alliance dynamics and US-China competition. He teaches at Georgetown University and Princeton University, codirects the Alliance for Securing Democracy, and cohosts the Net Assessment podcast. Dr. Cooper was previously the senior fellow for Asian security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He served as assistant to the deputy national security advisor for combating terrorism at the National Security Council, and as a special assistant to the principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy at the Department of Defense.
The Irregular Warfare Podcast is a collaboration between the Modern War Institute and Princeton University’s Empirical Studies of Conflict Project. You can listen to the full episode below, and you can find it and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, TuneIn, or your favorite podcast app. And be sure to follow the podcast on Twitter!
Image credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan J. Batchelder, US Navy
Let us consider the following definition of irregular warfare — found in our Irregular Warfare Annex to our National Defense Strategy — and, then:
a. Consider whether the term "irregular warfare" —
b. Thus defined —
c. Can actually, accurately and/or usefully be used to describe the actions and activities that China is taking versus the U.S./the West and our interests today.
First, our definition of irregular warfare:
"Irregular warfare is a struggle among state and non-state actors to influence populations and affect legitimacy. IW favors direct and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities, in order to erode an adversary's power, influence, and will. It includes the specific mission of unconventional warfare (UW), stabilization, foreign internal defense (FID), counterterorism (CT), and counterinsurgency (COIN). Related activities such as military information support operations, cyberspace operations, countering threat networks, counter-threat finance, civil-military operations, and security cooperation also shape the information and other population-focused areas of competition and military operations, and security conflict."
Based on this such definition of irregular warfare, now let us consider whether China is, for example,
a. Employing "unconventional warfare" against the U.S./the West today. (Unconventional warfare definition: "Activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, or guerrilla force in a denied area." See JP 3-05.1.)
b. Employing "stabilization" against the U.S./the West today? (Stabilization definition: "Stabilization is the process by which military and nonmilitary actors collectively apply various instruments of national power to address drivers of conflict, foster HN resiliencies, and create conditions that enable sustainable peace and security." See JP 3-07.)
c. Employing "foreign internal defense" against the U.S./the West today? (Foreign Internal Defense definition: "Foreign internal defense [FID] is the participation of civilian agencies and military forces of a government or internal organization in any of the programs or activities taken by a host nation [HN] government to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, violent extremism, terrorism, and other threats to its security." See JP 3-22.)
d. Employing "counterterrorism" against the U.S./the West today? (Counterterrorism definition: "Activities and operations taken to neutralize terrorists and their organization and networks in order to render them incapable of using violence to instill fear and coerce governments or societies to achieve their goals." See JP 3-26.)
e. Employing "counterinsurgency" against the U.S./the West today? (Counterinsurgency definition: "Comprehensive civilian and military efforts designed to simultaneously defeat and contain insurgency and address its root causes. Also called COIN." See JP 3-24.)
Bottom Line Question — Based on the Above:
Would I be wrong in suggesting that, in fact, China is actually employing NONE of items — that we use above to help describe and define irregular warfare above — against the U.S./the West and/or our interests today?
(This suggesting that some other definition of irregular warfare is desperately needed; this such definition to include those actual matters/programs/techniques that our opponents/our competitors are using against us today?)
As an alternative thought/consideration/suggestion, re: the matters that I have described above, might we consider that the term "irregular warfare" simply cannot be used to describe China's actions versus the U.S./the West and our interests?
Some other term, thus, to correctly describe and define these such action, must now be put forward?
For the sake of argument, let us consider that my item "e" "counterinsurgency" — in my initial comment above — THIS best describes the type of irregular warfare that China is employing against the U.S./the West today.
This such suggestion considered most appropriate based upon, for example, the following from Dr. Robert Egnell:
"One problem is that counterinsurgency is by its nature conservative, or status-quo oriented – it is about preserving existing political systems, law and order."
As Dr. Robert Egnell notes more clearly in the following paragraph, the U.S./the West is seen as the "revolutionary" entity today; that is, the entity seeking to transform the states and societies of the world (to include China?) more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines:
“Robert Egnell: Analysts like to talk about ‘indirect approaches’ or ‘limited interventions’, but the question is ‘approaches to what?’ What are we trying to achieve? What is our understanding of the end-state? In a recent article published in Joint Forces Quarterly, I sought to challenge the contemporary understanding of counterinsurgency by arguing that the term itself may lead us to faulty assumptions about nature of the problem, what it is we are trying to do, and how best to achieve it. When we label something a counterinsurgency campaign, it introduces certain assumptions from the past and from the contemporary era about the nature of the conflict. One problem is that counterinsurgency is by its nature conservative, or status-quo oriented – it is about preserving existing political systems, law and order. And that is not what we have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, we have been the revolutionary actors, the ones instigating revolutionary societal changes. Can we still call it counterinsurgency, when we are pushing for so much change?”
(From the 2013 Small Wars Journal article “Learning From Today’s Crisis of Counterinsurgency” by Octavian Manea, an interview with Dr. David H. Ucko and Dr. Robert Egnell.)
Sir Adam Roberts, in the first paragraphs of his 2006 “Transformative Military Occupations: Applying the Laws of War and Human Rights,” describes this "revolutionary" activity of the U.S./the West from the perspective of (violating?) international law:
“Within the existing framework of international law, is it legitimate for an occupying power, in the name of creating the conditions for a more democratic and peaceful state, to introduce fundamental changes in the constitutional, social, economic, and legal order within an occupied territory? …
These questions have arisen in various conflicts and occupations since 1945 — including the tragic situation in Iraq since the United States–led invasion of March–April 2003. They have arisen because of the cautious, even restrictive assumption in the laws of war (also called international humanitarian law or, traditionally, jus in bello) that occupying powers should respect the existing laws and economic arrangements within the occupied territory, and should therefore, by implication, make as few changes as possible.”
Dr. Jennifer Lind, in her Foreign Affairs [Mar/Apr 2017 edition] article "Asia's Other Revisionist Power: Why U.S. Grand Strategy Unnerves China.") tells us just how this such U.S./Western "non-conservative"/'revolutionary" activity threatens and strikes fear in China:
"Since the end of World War II, the United States has pursued a strategy aimed at overturning the status quo by spreading liberalism, free markets, and U.S. influence around the globe. … the United States' posture stokes fear in Beijing and beyond." …
"But at its heart, U.S. grand strategy seeks to spread liberalism and U.S. influence. The goal, in other words, is not preservation but transformation." …
"The United States has pursued this transformational grand strategy all over the world." …
"In each of these regions (Europe, the Middle East, East Asia), U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military policies are aimed not at preserving but at transforming the status quo. (Items in parenthesis here are mine.) …
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
If counterinsurgency — as defined by the Oxford Language Dictionary — is "military or political action taken against the activities of guerrillas or revolutionaries," then:
a. Given the significant evidence of U.S./Western "revolutionary" activity noted above
b. Should we not consider that "counterinsurgency" may, indeed, best describe the type of irregular warfare activity that China is pursuing against the U.S./the West today?
To possibly further support my suggestion above — that:
a. Given the "revolutionary" nature of U.S./Western activities throughout the world
b. "Counterinsurgency" must be consider as the type of "irregular warfare" that China (and others) are employing against the U.S./the West today —
To possibly further support this such argument, consider what such important former military figures as LTG (ret.) Charles Cleveland and GEN (ret.) Joseph Votel, et. al, seem to describe as "the American Way of Irregular Warfare:"
LTG (ret.) Cleveland:
"In the same way that the conventionally focused American way of war is defined by America's technical and industrial capacity and technological edge, the American way of irregular war is tied to our notions of religious pluralism, democracy, and, above all, human rights. And although the American way of war protects us against near-peep powers and guarantees the lanes of global commerce, the American way of irregular war protects our way of life by both promoting our worldview and giving people the tools to realize the same opportunities that we have had. … "
(See beginning at the last paragraph of Page 5 of the Introduction chapter to Rand paper by LTG [ret.] Charles Cleveland entitled: "The American Way of Irregular War: An Analytical Memoir.")
GEN (ret.) Joseph Votel, et al.:
"Advocates of UW first recognize that, among a population of self-determination seekers, human interest in liberty trumps loyalty to a self-serving dictatorship, that those who aspire to freedom can succeed in deposing corrupt or authoritarian rulers, and that unfortunate population groups can and often do seek alternatives to a life of fear, oppression, and injustice. Second, advocates believe that there is a valid role for the U.S. Government in encouraging and empowering these freedom seekers when doing so helps to secure U.S. national security interests."
(See the National Defense University Press paper "Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone" by Joseph L. Votel, Charles T. Cleveland, Charles T. Connett, and Will Irwin)
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
What LTG (ret.) Cleveland and GEN (ret.) Votel, et. al, above seem to be portraying — this, as "the American Way of Irregular Warfare" — this would seem to be consistent with "fomenting revolution," or, stated another way, with "conducting unconventional warfare" ("Activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, or guerrilla force in a denied area." See JP 3-05.1.)
The proper "counter" to these such "revolutionary" activities, might we agree, is "counterinsurgency?" (Comprehensive civilian and military efforts designed to simultaneously defeat and contain insurgency and address its root causes. Also called COIN." See JP 3-24.)
As an alternative idea, let us consider that "political warfare" may be the best way to describe (a) the actions and activities that China is taking versus the U.S./the West today and, indeed, (b) the actions and activities that the U.S. is taking versus China also.
In this regard, let us look as this definition of "political warfare" — offered, in this case, by George Kennan during the Old Cold War:
"Political warfare is the logical application of Clausewitz's doctrine in time of peace. In broadest definition, political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation's command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both overt and covert. They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures (as . . . the Marshall Plan), 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."
(See George F. Kennan's, Policy Planning Staff Memorandum 269, Washington, D.C.: U.S. State Department, May 4, 1948.)
A somewhat similar(?) description of this type of warfare — in this case, with a more specific Old Cold War slant — seems to have been offered by Hans Morgenthau back in 1967:
"The United States and the Soviet Union face each other not only as two great powers which in the traditional ways compete for advantage. They also face each other as the fountain heads of two hostile and incompatible ideologies, systems of government and ways of life, each trying to expand the reach of its respective political values and institutions and to prevent the expansion of the other. Thus the cold was has not only been a conflict between two world powers but also a context between two secular religions. And, like the religious wars of the seventeenth century, the war between communism and democracy does not respect national boundaries. It finds enemies and allies in all countries, opposing the one and supporting the other regardless of the niceties of international law. Here is the dynamic force which has led the two superpowers to intervene all over the global, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes openly, sometimes with the accepted methods of domestic pressure and propaganda, sometimes with the frowned-upon instruments of covert subversion and open force.
(See Hans Morgenthau's "To Intervene or Not to Intervene.")
Question: Should we take care to note here that:
a. While in Kennan and Morgenthau's description of political warfare above, one nation or the other, as being "weaker" than the other, this IS NOT used to explain a nation's use of irregular approaches. While in sharp contrast,
b. In the introduction page to our podcast above (see the second paragraph), China's weakness vis-a-vis the U.S., THIS IS used to explain China's use of irregular approaches?
"Episode 34 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast explores what China’s efforts in the gray zone mean for the United States, setting a foundation for understanding where and how the United States might choose to counter these activities. Our guests begin by characterizing the manner in which China engages in a strategically irregular approach and why this approach is logical given China’s weaknesses relative to the United States. … "
Bottom Line Question — Based on the Above:
In Kennan and Morgenthau's descriptions of political warfare in the Old Cold War above, would it be correct to say that IT WAS THE NATURE OF THE POLITICAL OBJECTIVES OF THE PARTIES CONCERNED — as related, for example, to (a) the expansion of one's own political, economic, social and/or value model and (b) the containment of "the other's" such model — THIS is what these authors used to explain each nation's use of such things as irregular (etc.) approaches back then?
If so, then might it likewise be correct to say that, once again today, IT IS THE (SIMILAR?) NATURE OF THE POLITICAL OBJECTIVE OF THE PARTIES CONCERNED that, once again, must be used to explain both "our," and "their," use of irregular (etc.) approaches today?