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Mark Thomas: The Chinese Roots of Hybrid Warfare


By Mark Thomas, for CEPA

For more than two decades, a little-noticed text foreshadowed China’s unusually broad approach to conflicts with its enemies, notably the West.

“What is modern warfare? What should the army be prepared for? How should it be armed? These are the questions posed by General Valery Gerasimov in Voeynno-Promyshlenny Kurier (The Military-Industrial Mail) in 2013, and to which many credit the foundation of the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine. More importantly, the article laid the theoretical groundwork for Russia’s development and later use of hybrid warfare.

Yet neither Russia nor Gerasimov were the first to ask these questions or to see the strategic imperative to adapt strategic military doctrine to a new era characterized by economic interdependence, technological interconnectivity and the importance sub-state and supra-state actors. to help or hinder the security of nation states.

Rather, it is two Chinese military theorists, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, whose Unrestricted War, published in 1999, which first posed the same questions and presaged Gerasimov over 10 years on seeing that the First Gulf War had marked the end of the era of “might does good” and that the world had entered a new era of “unrestricted warfare”, a war in which the hacker, financial and business transactions (or lack thereof) and the media have all become weapons of modern warfare, i.e. say the means for a country to protect and achieve its own interests. As Qiao and Wang wrote: “All friendships evolve; the only constant (in international relations) is self-interest”.

The duo defined the future battlefield as an “expanded domain,” not a battlefield where lethality takes precedence, but one in which the goal of any nation-state (or sub-state actors) is to “ cripple and undermine the enemy” by degrading the will of its people and the state to wage armed conflict in the first place. The “extended domain” is what we now call cyberspace, but they called the electromagnetic spectrum. The modern warriors are the banks and anyone the state can enlist or coerce into using to advance its own interests (think of all Chinese corporations, regardless of their public declarations of independence). write “The world of information sharing makes the media an integral and immediate part of warfare”.

Their third key claim is that nuclear weapons have made war both unfightable and unwinnable. Yet, paradoxically, the sheer “incombatability” of war has not lessened competition among nation states and has instead driven countries to find new methods of waging combatable warfare that is played out not on the battlefield. traditional, but over an extended domain. Therefore, Qiao and Wang posit a “new concept of weaponry”, which places less emphasis (especially less than the US) on lethality and more on ways to “inflict material and psychological casualties on the enemy.” ‘enemy”. This new weaponry includes the tools of the electromagnetic spectrum, that is, hacking and information operations akin to media depictions of slain US servicemen being dragged naked through the streets of Mogadishu; trade warfare and financial warfare, all of which they claim to have already employed by the United States.

If we accept the assumption that despite global interdependence and global interconnectedness, nations are still in competition to achieve their own interests and remember von Clausewitz’s saying that “war is a continuation of politics by other means,” then Qiao and Wang’s words surely also contain an echo of Sun Tzu’s words that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” and “victorious warriors gain strength. first then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win”. The novelty in Qiao and Wang’s work is that there is no novelty. They simply adapt the age-old basic tenets of seminal military theorists to a new strategic environment awash with new technologies.

Qiao and Wang’s most important lesson is that if ancient military theorists and generals “fight the fight that fits the weapons, it’s better to build the weapons to fit the fight.” The latter requires a vision that goes beyond adapting to lever technology. Instead, the true strategic thinker envisions the nature of the new war, drives the research and development community to build the next generation of weapons, and develops doctrine before strategy to achieve victory. Their words are, like those of Gerasimov in 2013, a challenge to the military, the industrial base and the government to see beyond the horizon the potential of the extended domain.

Writing in 2022, after watching Western democracies fight hybrid warfare in all its permutations, whether it’s ‘little green men in Crimea’, disinformation operations to influence political outcomes, attacks by ransomware against businesses or denial of service attacks against critical infrastructure, none of this may seem like a revelation.

Hybrid warfare is simply now a fact of life, a staple in the national security regime of the nation state. What stands out is that it was not the Russians who first developed this vision of hybrid warfare. They were two Chinese thinkers writing two years before 9/11 and five years before the United States entered Iraq for the second time.

The Chinese actually started waging hybrid warfare in the early 2000s or at least performing proof-of-concept testing using cyber exploits against businesses and critical infrastructure around the world. Today, this is evident when engineers assess supply chain risks. Hence the current concern about the Chinese telecommunications firm, Huawei. We can even see it in the impact Chinese companies have had by investing in Hollywood, where movies have become a weapon of information warfare.

The threat of hybrid warfare is prolific and persistent. And, like fireworks and tea, it is a product that China has exported around the world.

Gerasimov and Russian military thinkers only developed Hybrid War 2.0. Is China currently developing Hybrid War 5.0?

By Mark Thomas, for CEPA

Dr Mark Thomas is a lecturer in political science. He got his doctorate. in political science from the University of Notre Dame, where he also earned a master’s degree in international relations. He also holds an MBA from the American Graduate School of International Management.

Pictured: Chinese soldiers practice marching in formation before the military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing, China September 25, 2019. Credit: Naohiko Hatta/Pool via REUTERS

Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic political debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or of the Center for European Policy Analysis.