Hybrid War on China
The G7, NATO and US-EU summits that took place in the first half of 2021 provided plenty of evidence that the US, faced with the emergence of a multipolar world order, is growing increasingly desperate to arrest the decline of its hegemony.
History has shown us that whenever the US government seeks to bolster its global dominance, it raises the spectre of a “common threat”. But it suffices to consider the failure of the “War on Terror” — its staggering cost, estimated at $5 trillion, have far outweighed the geopolitical gains — to realize the ineffectiveness of basing foreign policy and military interventions on the inflated assessment of a threat. Not only did the War on Terror do nothing to prevent the erosion of the US global status and competitiveness, many argue it actually accelerated it. Unfortunately the US has a complicated relationship with history and refuses to learn from it.
While the US is saddled with an enormous amount of debt and hellbent on spreading its liberal ideology to the farthest reaches of the globe, China has quietly overtaken Japan as the world’s second largest economy by forging a unique model of development, socialism with Chinese characteristics. The country has lifted millions of its citizens out of poverty, keeps building state-of-the-art infrastructure and finances mutually beneficial projects around the world.
But China’s rise, accompanied by a growing reputation as a reliable partner for both developed and developing countries, has put Washington on high alert. The economic interdependence that once underwrote the US-China relationship is now deemed a threat and a new space race in technology — 5G, artificial intelligence, and fintech — is in full swing.
Unable to destabilize China from within and sabotage China’s advance in strategic fields, the US resorted to the old expedient of conjuring up yet another global threat, this time a “threat to Western values, rule-of-law and democracy” to create a united front against China.
Behind the rhetorical smokescreen lies distress and alarm over rapidly changing power relations and US allies have been told to shape up. A document titled “NATO 2030” states it in unequivocal terms: “NATO must devote much more time, political resources and action to the security challenges posed by China.”
Though NATO is a military alliance, one that has extended its scope and reach far beyond its original mission, the way it may respond will likely fall into the category of hybrid warfare rather than direct military engagement. Among NATO countries there are considerable differences and painting China as a security threat risks exacerbating them. Disagreements will not vanish overnight, nor will the perception that the US-led unipolar world is gone for good. Some NATO countries and US allies will probably continue to seek strategic autonomy from Washington.
Within the US the situation is rather different: China is one of the issues that receives bipartisan support. The Biden administration has accepted and ratified Trump’s policies, is expanding the trade war and is deeply committed to tackling China by presenting the US-China relationship as a zero-sum struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.
Since personnel is policy in Washington, it’s worth taking a close look at the composition of the current National Security Council (NSC) to know which way the wind is blowing. As the magnitude of the task exceeds the scope of this article, I will consider only new directorates and NSC members who have been publicly involved in the hybrid war against China. Those who advise the president on trade issues have also been excluded: though trade war and the weaponization of financial tools are an integral part of hybrid warfare their analysis requires a set of skills i don’t possess.
Kurt Campbell, one of the architects of the US “pivot to Asia”, leads the Asia-Pacific team (referred to as Indo-Pacific in Washington circles) and is considered the key strategist behind Biden’s hawkish policy towards China. A former Pentagon official with an intelligence background, he was co-founder and CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank widely represented in the current NSC. Campbell is also a member of the Aspen Strategy Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Trilateral Commission.
During a period broadly described as ‘engagement with China’ in his role as former Chairman and CEO of the Asia Group, Campbell helped advance US financial and economic interests both in China and in the rest of Asia. Now that the U.S. policy toward China is operating under a different set of strategic parameters and the dominant paradigm has become competition and confrontation rather than cooperation, he has advised the Biden administration to bolster ties with Japan, South Korea and other countries in Asia. Under his guidance, trade restrictions and sanctions against China will be devised in such a way to minimize damage to US supply chains, economic and financial interests and maximize their cost for China.
In January Kurt Campbell co-signed an article in Foreign Affairs titled “How America Can Shore Up Asian Order” (its style suggests it was actually written by Rush Doshi) reiterating the US intention to contain China by playing a more assertive role in the Asia-Pacific region. Under the pretence of defending a mysterious “Asian order” allegedly challenged by China, the US should try to make its imperialism in the region appear legitimate by appealing to “shared democratic values” and throwing a few carrots at South Asian and South-East Asian countries.
Rush Doshi is a talented writer and outlined this strategy with great imagination and flair, but i summarized it for the busy readers who doubt Asia needs more hot air. My guess is that the few carrots mentioned in the article, such as Western companies relocating production lines to these countries, “humanitarian aid”, the promise of infrastructure that will never see the light of day, new trade deals won’t be sufficient and the US-NATO is already ramping up both military presence and influence operations in Asia-Pacific.
Most worringly, the US and its allies will carry on doing what they do best: sow chaos and destruction to destabilize the region. Colour revolutions were already attempted in Hong Kong, Thailand and Myanmar and their instigators are unlikely to throw away the blueprint.
Kurt Campbell’s team is not only a new addition to the NSC, it is also the largest and most influential among regional NSC directorates, a clear sign the NSC is prioritizing China and Asia-Pacific issues. But work on China expands into every NSC directorate: teams in charge of technology and national security, global health security and biodefense, democracy and human rights, defence, and international economics are all involved in shaping the US-China policy. It’s worth noting that the majority of China experts in Campbell’s Asia-Pacific directorate in recent months have written articles that call for a tough approach to China.
Laura Rosenberger is the NSC senior China director and reports directly to Campbell. She is a dyed-in-the-wool democracy crusader whose expertise is “Authoritarian regime interference in democracies and state-backed disinformation.” Rosenberger at the German Marshall Fund first focused on Russian “interference” in the US and Europe and later expanded her focus to include Chinese activities. She also played a central role in a project that tracks Russian and Chinese information campaigns on Twitter and YouTube. In 2020 she co-authored an article in Foreign Affairs titled “Democratic Values Are a Competitive Advantage” calling on the US to double efforts to export its superior “values and rule-of-law” to the barbarians who haven’t been fully converted yet.
She openly advocated putting pressure on foreign politicians and business leaders who maintain good relations with China and Russia and accused Beijing and Moscow of “weaponised corruption”. She made the suggestion to publicly name and shame individuals deemed too close to “authoritarian regimes”, lack of evidence being no obstacle to the widespread practice of trial by media. After all, an imperial power that orchestrated a global campaign about an imaginary genocide in Xinjiang can certainly cook up phony proofs of corruption to smear those who don’t toe the line. (1)
Laura Rosenberger was also particularly outspoken about the Chinese government’s actions to restore order in Hong Kong and has attacked Chinese diplomats’ use of social media. She tweeted: “Chinese diplomats going full Russian — spread multiple, conflicting conspiracy theories, not to convince people of an explanation but to create the idea that it’s impossible to know the truth. First time I’ve seen CCP pursue that approach, and a ominous sign of where it might go.”
During an event at the Brookings Institution on April 8, 2021 Rosenberger stressed the work the Biden administration has done to “rebuild and restore” the foundations of US alliances and partnerships in Europe and Asia. She also added “the global community should work to expand Taiwan’s international space for its appropriate participation in international institutions.”
Another expert on democracy promotion, information warfare and the influence of the Internet on democracy and China is Shanthi Kalathil, the NSC coordinator for Democracy and Human Rights. Like Laura Rosenberger she is a member of CNAS’ Digital Freedom Forum. Kalathil is responsible for incorporating human rights and international democracy concerns as central elements of the Biden administration’s foreign policy. She is a National Endowment for Democracy (NED) veteran — at NED she was director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies and a senior member of the Center for International Media Assistance. Kalathil was also a Democracy Fellow at USAID, a consultant for the World Bank and the Aspen Institute. While officially employed by The Wall Street Journal and based in Hong Kong she was also writing reports for the Foreign Service Journal. She wouldn’t be the first nor the last of her kind to use a journalist cover to travel to mainland China, meet officials, business leaders and do “research”.
Her research on China’s media and digital ecosystem, Internet influence campaigns is widely cited. Her latest article “The Evolution of Authoritarian Digital Influence: Grappling with the New Normal” is required reading at the Cyber Command, US Department of Defence. (2)
Kalathil maintains that media outlets, civil society groups, and technology enterprises in democratic countries should “accelerate and scale up operations to rebuff Beijing’s sharp power”. Nothing new under the sun, founding and funding anti-China entities is something NED and its spin-offs are already doing, but no effort will be spared to promote these entities and silence critics on news and social media platforms. As she believes that the US is at risk of losing its propaganda advantage despite its Orwellian Ministry of Truth we should expect a criminalization and persecution of independent voices to protect the official anti-China narrative.
In 2002, during her speech at the annual Aspen Institute Roundtable, Madeleine Albright famously argued that “CNN is the sixteenth member of the U.N. Security Council” stressing the role of US media on shaping the perception of world diplomats and policy-makers. Kalathil, a member of the same exclusive Aspen club, reinforced that message by later adding “power depends not only on whose army wins but also on whose story wins” and calling for greater private-sector involvement in managing the narrative.
Tarun Chhabra, NSC senior director for technology and national security has been focusing on the geopolitical and security implications of emerging technology, with an emphasis on China. He and Rush Doshi co-led an initiative at Brookings that explored China’s growing global influence. In 2020 Chhabra co-authored reports on how the US must rely on democratic alliances to shape the future of AI. At the time of writing, his Twitter profile displays the logo of Apple Daily, a show of support for a now defunct US-sponsored publication that played an integral part in dividing Hong Kong society, fostering an anti-China sentiment and laying the groundwork for a colour revolution.
Rush Doshi, NSC China director, was the former director of the Brookings China Strategy Initiative, a former senior fellow at CNAS and advised US investment management firms on issues such as China’s growing influence in the international system and the importance of alliances in pushing back. Doshi has written extensively on Chinese global strategy, on China’s Belt and Road Initiative and border disputes, technology, economics and the US-China relationship. His viewpoints generally align with Kurt Campbell’s on how to address China in the areas of security, economics, and human rights. Unlike other Biden administration officials who weigh their opinions on issues prominent in mainstream media sources, such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang, he focuses his research on broader ‘grand strategy’ issues…and writes many of the articles signed by Campbell. Still waters run deep and soft-spoken Doshi is one to watch for the very reason that he can build more persuasive arguments than his colleagues.
Samantha Power was nominated Administrator of the Agency for International Development (USAID), after a decision was made to include the agency in the NSC. In her previous role as ambassador to the UN she embodied the US moral superiority complex: often resorting to emotional, tearful appeals, she eschewed facts and truth in favour of ethical judgements and moral grandstanding. In a recent article published in Foreign Affairs Samantha Power argued that President Biden should make anti-corruption “a centerpiece of his international agenda” which nicely dovetails with Rosenberger’s suggestions of smearing those who work with “authoritarian regimes that weaponise corruption”.
Ms.Power maintains that “humanitarian support, democracy assistance, economic development are critical if we are to see a more stable and just world exist.” Stable and thriving just like Libya and Syria? These countries come to mind because that’s where she pushed for military intervention on humanitarian grounds. (3)
By now it’s abundantly clear that “democracy assistance” is simply a codeword for influence campaigns, political interference and regime change. As to US humanitarian aid, its recipients must have become used to the scores of intelligence officers and democracy preachers who help deliver it. Those Freedom biscuits have gone a bit stale.
Last year Samantha Power taught a “Geopolitics, Human Rights, and the Future of Statecraft” course at Harvard that examined the interplay of geopolitics and human rights, the security and human consequences of the rise of China, divisions within the UN, and the challenges facing democracies. The same year, with her husband Cass Sunstein, she also taught “Making Change When Change is Hard: the Law, Politics, and Policy of Social Change”. To train those interested in ‘making change’ within social movements, organizations, governments the Power/Sunstein team drew from pop psychology, political science, law and economics and tried to answer loaded questions such as “Why do revolutions occur.” Basically the Ivy League equivalent of a CANVAS or Oslo Freedom Forum workshop. In 2008 Sunstein, a legal scholar, co-wrote a paper proposing that the US government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-independent advocates to ‘cognitively infiltrate’ online groups as well as other activist groups. He certainly knows a thing or two about “why colour revolutions occur”.
The Samantha Power team could take the weaponization of human rights and humanitarian aid to a whole new level. For a long time USAID has been used as a smokescreen for pursuing US interests abroad. Though the employment of foreign aid as a political tool for subordinating other countries politically and economically is certainly not a new strategy, the elevation of USAID to the NSC will enable its director to better coordinate foreign aid with other tools of influence and interference.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, who was bullish on Libyan and Syrian military interventionism, is a major proponent of “rescuing” and “reclaiming” American exceptionalism, that delusion that has delivered much of our modern woes. He recently named as one of his goals “to rally our allies to combat corruption and kleptocracy and to hold systems of authoritarian capitalism accountable for greater transparency and participation in a rules-based system.” In translation it means “smearing adversaries and recalcitrant leaders of allied countries with accusations of corruption and kleptocracy”, a form of not so gentle pressure aimed at isolating China and Russia and all those who insist on cooperating with them.
In a bizarre interview he gave in October 2019 Jake Sullivan discussed how the US needed a clear threat to rally the world and play the role of saviour of mankind, a threat akin to an alien invasion (!) and then added that climate change, a disease, the possibility of terrorists getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction, or a global economic depression could provide the US with that needed impetus. But then he admitted that it was all too abstract and China could be that organizing principle for US foreign policy. The problem, according to him in 2019, is that people don’t believe that China is a threat, their view of China is too positive and the US would need a “Pearl Harbour moment” or a 9/11, a real focusing event to change their mind, something that in his words “would scare the hell out of the American people”. Realising that he had said too much, he hurriedly added that he personally didn’t like this prospect but one shouldn’t dismiss the worrying reports coming from the intelligence community about Chinese infiltration and interference in the US. (4)
Judging by the selection of these and other key people in Biden’s foreign policy team — NSC, State Department and Pentagon — the US intends to pursue an aggressive policy based on the rigid assertion of liberal ideology. In this framework, China and Russia are deemed the main adversaries, and countries that maintain good relations with them could become candidates for regime change, even if they are NATO members, because the US is now hellbent on strengthening the ideological cohesion of NATO.
If the goal is the destabilization and isolation of “deplorable regimes” we should expect an even tighter control of the narrative and the use of smear tactics to undermine the power and reputation of political and business leaders who maintain relations with them. The information war will get hotter as Americans try to use their digital advantages to the maximum— after all they control the majority of international media agencies and social media platforms.
DIMEFIL (diplomatic, information, military, economic, financial, intelligence and legal) instruments of national power will continue to be used in hybrid warfare. However the importance of non-military instruments will increase, with the information domain asserting the most influence.
But as many societies have developed antibodies against the messianic promotion of US-style liberal democracy as a cure-all, especially in developing countries, disruptive covert operations and cyber attacks might be intensified.
Since hybrid warfare blurs the lines between war and peace, military and civilian, domestic and foreign, public and private, physical and digital, we see clear evidence that NGOs, media and tech companies have become de facto global contractors and the information-industrial complex is supporting the military-industrial complex in both a defensive and an offensive role. That’s why the control of this highly integrated complex is vital for the US.
The level of interpenetration between state departments, NGOs, think tanks, media outlets and universities has increased so much that the revolving door model, whereby roles were performed in sequence, have been replaced by an updated version: now players occupy more roles than in the past and at the same time, and they can easily structure their overlap to create a coincidence of interests.
The composition of the current NSC is a case in point. Most members of the NSC honed their skills in Atlanticist think tanks where the line between intelligence, media and academia is blurred. These “experts” have internalized exceptionalist narratives so thoroughly that no atrocity, however shocking, can shake their faith in the West’s moral and civilizational superiority. Theirs is a veritable Moral Superiority Complex, a belief that their actions are justified by having a higher moral value than others’. This delusion makes them extremely arrogant, unreasonable and detached from reality.
Many of them are skilled in digital influence operations, a range of activities in the information space that include psychological warfare, fake news, disinformation, propaganda, coordinated inauthentic behavior, defamation campaigns and cyberwarfare. These deeply networked malign activities are designed to manipulate, censor, and degrade the integrity of the information space for strategic purposes and they are not limited to bots, or automated online programs. In fact, digital influence efforts leverage all elements of the information space, including through ownership of online media outlets and tech platforms, business and advertising pressure, and traditional censorship techniques.
NSC members have suggested further supporting and developing investigative journalism and civil society institutions, including not only in Russia and China, but also in countries that cooperate with them. In effect, this is a call for global and local civil society organizations sponsored by the West to interfere in the affairs of other countries. They have made it clear that the promotion of liberal democracy will be their top priority.
This new generation of American “China Experts” shares a profound prejudice against China and believes that although the Trump administration appeared to be aggressive, it was still essentially defensive. In their opinion, the US should increase offensive tactics and use subsidies and other incentives to reduce the US overdependence on Chinese imports, while continuing to use human rights issues, the World Trade Organization system and allies to put pressure on China.
Washington has a long tradition of weaponizing foreign aid in order to exert pressure and control over countries desperate for humanitarian assistance. Foreign aid is regarded as just another tool for subordinating other countries politically and economically. This trend will continue and receive new impetus with Samantha Power in the NSC.
It is likely that the Biden administration will devote more energy to thwarting Russia-China cooperation because the Pentagon and the CIA are aware that the synergy that this partnership generates is going to amplify the impact of both actors, which is far greater than the sum of its parts.
Compared with the previous generation of China experts, the new generation focuses on “today’s China” and “possible China” rather than historical China. Not only is their research output coloured by a strong ideological prejudice, their entire careers were built on misrepresenting rather than understanding China. If they display a distinct tendency towards confrontation it is sadly because they have a superficial knowledge of China and Chinese history. Otherwise they would know that China is unwilling to export its ideology and governance architecture to the world, recognizing that just because “socialism with Chinese characteristics” works for China, it does not mean that framework would work elsewhere. China, in fact, encourages other countries to find a model that fits their circumstances or realities.
- The Evolution of Authoritarian Digital Influence: Grappling with the New Normal > Sixteenth Air Force <br> (Air Forces Cyber) > News (af.mil)
- USAID officials prepare for higher-profile role under Samantha Power | Devex
- An Alternative Vision of U.S.-China Relations with Jake Sullivan — SupChina
© Laura Ruggeri