Editor’s Note: This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020. More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.
William Freer is currently reading at War Studies at King’s College London. He was a European finalist in the KF-VUB Korea Chair Writing Competition in 2018. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing How Countries Can Compete with Chinese Hybrid Tactics Below the Threshold of Armed Conflict
Date Originally Written: July 24, 2020.
Date Originally Published: September 28, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is a soon to be graduated War Studies student reading at King’s College London who strongly believes in the upholding of the rules-based international order.
Summary: Beijing’s continued use and development of coercive tactics below the threshold of armed conflict, sometimes referred to as ‘Hybrid’ or ‘Grey Zone’ conflict, threatens to undermine the existing rules-based international order. Rather than responding to Beijing at the tactical level, her competitors can instead develop their response on the strategic level and do so multilaterally.
Text: Hybrid warfare is nothing new. States unable to compete (with the United States) in conventional military terms have long been evolving their capabilities below the threshold of armed conflict from cyber warfare to ‘Ambiguous’ warfare and everything in between. The world has seen these tactics in use for decades in attempts by revanchist states to undermine the existing international order, yet there is little agreement on which tactics work best to counter them. In order to successfully compete with Beijing below the threshold of armed conflict, countries in South/East Asia can look to developing their responses on the strategic level and in a multilateral way.
The main problem this strategic level response poses is that it will require a great deal of multilateral cooperation. Beijing prefers to target states with its diplomacy and hybrid warfare individually rather than collectively. By doing so, Beijing can maximise its coercive potential. When compared to Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and even India or Japan, China’s economic and military strength is far greater. These Chinese strengths have seen the placing of oil rigs in the claimed waters of other states or regular intrusions into the claimed waters of other states by Chinese naval vessels (from fishing boats to warships). These tactics are difficult to counter. The Vietnamese, for example, attempted to interfere with a Chinese oil drill’s operation in their waters through harassing it with coast guard cutters, but this did not prove effective in deterring Beijing’s activities. Simply responding in kind to Beijing’s tactics like this will in fact further serve to undermine the rules-based international order.
It is hard for individual states to counter these activities on the tactical level. The same cannot be said for the strategic level, however. Through more meaningful multilateral engagement, states can use their collective power to more effectively compete with Beijing, this multilateral engagement can (and must) come in many different forms.
The most important way in which states can help each other to compete with Beijing is through intelligence sharing. Good intelligence is vital in allowing for states to effectively combat tactics below the threshold of armed conflict. The less wealthy of China’s neighbours are severely restricted by the resources at their disposal and can therefore seek to pool their intelligence capabilities as much as possible. This pooling would not be a simple task; it will involve highly sensitive information and states typically jealously guard their secrets. To be able to stand a chance in competing against an adversary, especially in the use of hybrid warfare, knowledge of Chinese activities is essential. There is already a great deal of the necessary diplomatic framework in place for this sharing to happen. The Association of South East Asian Nations could provide a useful starting point for its members to better share intelligence. There is also talk of the Five Eyes program being expanded to include Japan, which is a step in the right direction.
Much of the competition between China and other countries is playing out across the Indo-Pacific region (from Japan and the central Pacific to the western end of the Indian Ocean), this is an inherently maritime region. As such, any meaningful multilateral cooperation by those countries that compete with Beijing will need to include a maritime element.
This maritime angle presents many possibilities. For example, the joint patrolling of each other’s waters or joint responses to intrusions by Beijing’s naval assets is one way this could be done. Another would be to embed military personnel into each other’s forces. Actions like these would serve an important purpose in disabling Beijing’s ability to target countries bilaterally and thus minimise the leverage that Beijing could bring to bear on its competitors. If these actions were taken, Beijing would have to seriously re-evaluate when and where they employ coercive tactics. Already moves in this direction are being made as Japan, India, the United States and others conduct regular joint exercises. These joint exercises could be taken to the next stage in the form of regular joint deployments and should even go as far as to include joint coast guard duties. This strategy could also include land-based options, military observers embedded with Indian forces along their contested borders with China for example.
The main problem in making a success out of multilateral engagement will be overcoming trust issues. Many of the countries that will need to support each other have their own disputes and complex histories. Take the Spratly Islands for example, it is not only China and Vietnam who have claims there, but also the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan. Even so, these countries could learn to put aside their differences for now. Some countries appear to be trying to avoid competition with Beijing, but whether they like it or not Xi Jinping’s China will compete with them. Unless the countries of the Indo-Pacific work together, Beijing will be able to target them bilaterally at will.
The U.S. could encourage and support these actions and indeed this may be a necessary component for success. However, for it to work it is vital that the US does not take a leading role, but instead allows the regional countries to take these steps on their own initiative. In this way, these countries will not feel pressured towards an unwanted confrontation with Beijing by the US. If successful, this non-leading role for the U.S. will avoid tit-for-tat responses and the further undermining of international norms.
Beijing has become adept at making use of hybrid warfare, so why try and play them at their own game? By taking the competition with Beijing below the threshold of armed conflict to the strategic level, countries can prevent bilateral coercion from Beijing. If Beijing believes that actions against one country will result in involving many others into the situation, they will be far less likely to do so. Increased multilateral cooperation can have many different facets, in terms of competition with Beijing, the intelligence and maritime domains are the most important and so these would be the areas for countries to prioritise.
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