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It’s war. But not as we know it.

Decades of writings by China’s top tacticians reveal this to be so.

“National security leaders should look closely at what Chinese officials’ words and China’s military actions say about how the People’s Liberation Army might actually fight a war,” a US military academy analysis warns.

They say it’s a war already well under way. That means the start of any ‘conventional’ conflict will be murky and confused. And, even once the shooting starts, sowing doubt and disbelief will be a significant weapon in its arsenal.

It will involve police.

It will involve militias.

It will involve civilians.

And all will serve to pave the way for the People’s Liberation Army’s more traditional weapons to find its target.

It’s called the “Grey Zone”.

It’s the space between peace and war.

It’s where coercion, intimidation, propaganda and manipulation are at play.

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“Democracies’ fear of escalation is a significant deterrent against the use of violent military options in the grey zone, and that is exactly the fear that authoritarian states … wish to instil,” wrote retired British army colonel Richard Kemp.

It’s about twisting democratic values – such as the rule of law – against itself.

“The PLA is engaging in irregular warfare today,” the West Point paper asserts. “China is employing lawfare to achieve strategic aims. The maritime militia is enforcing China’s sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas against US partners and allies.”

And it has already weaponised international information flows and channels of influence, along with cyber, economic – and psychological – tactics.

Divide and conquer

“Russia and China plan on winning the Great Power Competition by undermining the US, sowing discord, and continuing a secret war until the positions in the world order are reversed,” an essay by US navy analyst Derek Bernsen argues.

Polarisation. Conspiracy. Hate.

They already exist. But a few well-placed social media posts and complicit “influencers” can nudge them in beneficial directions.

“Many elements of irregular warfare, such as psychological warfare, legal warfare, and cyberwarfare, are central to the PLA’s concept of information warfare and its theory of victory in a conventional conflict,” the Modern Warfare Institute analysis argues.

Beijing’s military has a name for it: The Three Warfares.

Public opinion. Morale. Legal processes.

All are manipulated to achieve Beijing’s ends.

The purpose is to “stifle criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, spread positive views of China (and influence governments) in ways favourable to China”.

The outcome is to sow discontent and confusion ahead of any direct conflict.

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“In the run-up to and during a conflict, we would expect Chinese forces to ramp up these efforts, especially against nations hosting US forces,” the West Point think-tank warns. “China could promote narratives about US military abuses of a local population, some exaggerated and some imagined, to turn the population against its government’s support to the United States.”

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) agrees.

“There is also a lucrative market of influence-for-hire service providers, to which state actors can outsource propaganda distribution and influence campaigns to obfuscate their activities,” a new ASPI report reads. “These commercial actors are increasingly part of the fabric of political campaigning in many countries. However, the lack of transparency around these activities risks corrupting the quality of democracy in the environments in which they operate.”

Coercive diplomacy

How do you win friends, influence governments – and eliminate dissent?

In the case of Beijing, Chairman Mao Zedong’s idea of “magic weapons” plays a role.

Specifically – weaponised stories.

“The genius is that these narratives condition us to accept Chinese policies meekly even if they are against our national interests,” argues United States Studies Centre analyst Dr John Lee.

No matter how outlandish any particular claim, argument or quote may be – they must reinforce five essential messages. Simple repetition embeds it in the public consciousness.

1. China is a historically dominant civilisation.

2. The Chinese Communist Party is permanent and unchanging.

3. Nothing can deter Beijing.

4. China is prepared to pay any price to achieve its core objectives.

5. The US is in a terminal state of decline.

“If we accept these propositions, the motivation for regional states to resist or counter even the most coercive policies is greatly diminished even if we profoundly disagree with China’s behaviour,” Dr Lee writes.

“Indeed, the message from Beijing underlying the cascading threats against Australia is that we would do better to make the best of this imminent Sino-centric future – as New Zealand apparently is doing – than fight against it.”

It’s about the temptation of winning the biggest slice by signing up early.

But not all is as it seems.

“China and the CCP have weaknesses, vulnerabilities and dependencies that have been carefully and cleverly concealed to perpetuate the preferred narrative,” Dr Lee writes.

Political attrition

Beijing is trying to grind down its neighbours.

Relentless pressure is employed on its borders with India, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Military aircraft, warships, fishing militia, sand-dredging and even housing estates are all part of Beijing’s power play.

No shots have been fired. But every incursion demands a response. Otherwise, it’s a tacit victory for Beijing.

Either way, China wins.

For example, Taiwan’s small and ageing air force cannot intercept every aggressive probe from the mainland. “We are considering the war of attrition issue,” Taiwan’s deputy defence minister Chang Che-ping told parliament last month.

“China’s never presenting any overt military threat with this, but it’s clearly steadily eating away at Taiwan’s military readiness and affecting the balance of power,” Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) analyst Greg Poling said.

The Philippines is still struggling to find ways to oust a fake fishing fleet from its territorial waters.

“We hope the Philippines will look at this objectively and correctly, immediately stop wanton hype … and avoid casting negative influence on bilateral relations and the overall peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.

As if it was Manila’s fault.

Meanwhile, India’s striving to challenge the advance of every Chinese platoon high in the Himalayas. And Japan is wondering what to do about the ever-increasing number of deceptively named Chinese Coast Guard ships in its waters.

“Beijing never really presents you with a clear deadline with a reason to use force. You just find yourselves worn down and slowly pushed back,” Mr Poling said.

Digital disruption

“The first shots of this war happened years ago,” Mr Bernsen argues. “Information warfare provides the perfect mechanism to erode US power without resorting to direct conflict.”

A Russian cyber attack on the US Department of Defence in 1999 cost the nation millions of dollars and exposed a damaging trove of data.

“Yet there was no retaliation from the US. This lack of retaliation showed Russia that it could conduct information warfare against the US with impunity.”

China saw this, and seized the opportunity.

Last year, New Delhi accused Beijing of a cyber attack that cut power in India’s biggest city.

Such ‘unrestricted warfare’ is designed to win a fight before any shooting starts.

But it’s not all about sabotage.

It’s also about espionage.

Beijing “no longer sees utility in the conventional ‘people’s war’ approach, which involved human-wave attacks in land-centric battles,” the MWI argues. “The PLA is now preparing to fight concurrently across multiple domains, is focused on winning what it calls ‘informationised wars,’ and takes information superiority as the driver of operational planning.”

That means stealing intellectual property.

That means digital disruption.

That means propaganda.

“Information warfare, combined with political and economic acts of aggression, comprises the majority of actions between the United States and Russia, and the United States and China,” Mr Bernsen says.

“Cyber and information operations also have the advantage in difficulty of attribution. A sublimely executed information warfare operation would erase its own tracks and sow doubt about whether it even happened, or spread misinformation about an operation that did – or didn’t – happen.”

Pushing the limits

Militias. Partisans. Mercenaries. These have long been used to offer an air of ‘implausible deniability’ in international conflict.

Beijing has embraced the idea.

It has also formalised the concept.

It has established the People’s Armed Police (PAP), along with the better-known Maritime Militia.

The militia is Beijing’s ‘grey zone’ force for asserting Communist Party control over its commercial fishing fleet – and dominance over contested territories.

“These actions fit a recent pattern of Chinese leaders turning to irregular warfare to achieve strategic aims in the South China Sea: China sends its maritime militia to a location in the South China Sea to reinforce Chinese sovereignty claims and then ratchets up control with little involvement by conventional forces,” the West Point IWM essay argues.

It puts opposing nations – such as Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia – off-side. They face a propaganda barrage if warships are deployed in response. And there’s the risk of giving Beijing an excuse for escalation.

And, once the shooting starts, these nominally civilian units will have a role.

“Chinese writers discuss a number of wartime missions for the maritime militia, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), counter-ISR, sabotage, anti-aircraft missions, raiding and electronic warfare,” the IWM report warns. “Irregular warfare activities are so fully integrated with conventional tactics and operations that they are not identified as ‘irregular’.”

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel

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