Small Wars Journal

China Has a Problem That Needs Solving – What their problem-solving solutions mean for AUKUS and the US

Fri, 06/16/2023 - 12:15pm

China Has a Problem That Needs Solving

What their problem-solving solutions mean for AUKUS and the US


Chess has only two outcomes: draw and checkmate.  The objective of the game…is total victory or defeat – and the battle is head-on, in the center of the board.  The aim of Go is relative advantage; the game is played all over the board, and the objective is to increase one’s options and reduce those of the adversary.  The goal is less victory than persistent strategic progress.”

                                                                                        ~Dr. Henry Kissinger, On China


Mentally pin the quote above to your sub-conscious, as you read this essay.    


This is the second essay in our series addressing Unrestricted Warfare[1].  How far we will take this series is yet to be determined.  It will likely form the basis of a 4Sight seminar or roundtable.  The previous essay stressed the need to accurately define and contextualize problems, in order to develop a common operating picture.  We provided a brief caution on mirroring and introduced the concept of the Cognitive Domain, as it relates to Irregular Warfare.  This and the previous essay are primers for understanding and responding to Unrestricted Warfare.  As we begin to examine Unrestricted Warfare, it is essential to understand what drives its application.


David Maxwell presented his China thesis in two pieces written in 2020 and 2023 and multiple speaking engagements. It should be clear to everyone reading this: “China exports its authoritarian political system around the world in order to dominate regions, co-opt or coerce international organizations, create economic conditions favorable to China alone, and displace democratic institutions.”[2]


I Will Survive….”


Gloria Gaynor’s hit from 1978 frames the initial motivation behind China’s One Belt/One Road initiative.  It is key to understanding the problem the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is trying to solve.  When we go through Unrestricted Warfare, it is easy to lose sight of how it all fits together with China’s problem-solving process.  So, let’s start there.


From a single-cell amoeba to the 193 member states of the United Nations, all living systems are self-organizing structures that process information, matter and energy to sustain life.  They live to survive.  In the various things living systems do to sustain life, stress is a constant.  Stress is inherent in the actions of a living system to balance the needs and wants of its sub-systems.  Every living system has a baseline of how it creates and adjusts the balance.  Not every sub-system gets all it wants, but it gets what it needs to contribute to the survival of the system.  This is the origin of internal instability.  Living systems also live in a state of constant stress with their neighbors over obtaining information, matter and energy (power, land, people, wealth).  This is the origin of competition that leads to warfare.  Stress from competition arises when a living system needs more information, matter or energy to grow or just remain healthy.


China’s One Belt/One Road project is a world class example of non-violent competition.  If China does not secure the resources it needs to grow, it will start to shrink because the greatest Chinese stress is the competition between population growth and economic growth.  There is no steady state.  If that sounds Malthusian, it essentially is.


What we find intriguing about China is that internal stresses are driving external stresses.  The CCP cannot fail to satisfy the needs of an enormous population, or it will fall.  But to satisfy those needs, it must put stress on its neighbors to obtain the matter and energy because China is not blessed with enough land and land-based resources to be self-sufficient.  Chinese leaders are riding a rocket that is destined to explode…but not yet.  The CCP concluded its threat and risk assessment a couple of decades ago.  They have a problem and they are determined to solve it, just to survive.


As an aside, think about globalization.  It is very close to a zero-sum view of the world at any given time.  We observe that it contains few incentives to enlarge the wealth of the world.  Nations prosper by maximizing what they do best and selling it to buy what they lack.  The Chinese want a bigger share of other people’s wealth because they are at the limits of what they can do self-sufficiently.  The Chinese are not interested in the moralizing and social engineering of the globalists.  They just want to keep fuel in the rocket.  That is driving their problem-solving process.


 Enter the Dragon


Looking at China strictly through the lens of the CCP will limit assessments, as well as opportunities for Irregular Warfare responses.  Although Chinese communism is both the state religion and ideology regulating their world view, the CCP is itself governed by a much more powerful force.  Every country has a unique and enduring operational code, or Op Code.  It is like a fingerprint.  The Op Code is what drives a nation’s cultural approach to crisis management and decision-making processes.  An accurate understanding of Op Codes provides a roadmap for analysts and planners regarding a nation’s crisis management decision-making.  If you breakdown the One Belt/One Road initiative in historical terms, such as the Great Wall, the Silk Road and China’s history of external and internal instability, you can get a greater sense of the geographic and political space in which China is setting up its Gō Board.  Remember, you were supposed to pin Dr. Kissinger’s Chess vs. Gō reference.


China has never been historically adept at cross-border military operations.  They did build a Great Wall, after all.  They are now on a steep learning curve. 


Watch the Gō Board 


We will gloss over the details of the last thirty years and provide a simplified, broad-brushed snapshot of how things have shaped-up.  Unrestricted Warfare was published in February 1999.  China’s membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) began in December 2001.   With its financial and industrial engines igniting, farming the continent of Africa began in earnest.  China has a massive population to feed, clothe and house.  It needs resources to satisfy the members of its system.  The world brought its industries to China.  It was up to China to bring in the natural resources necessary to survive.  To do that, a modern (one-way) Silk Road was required.  As the One Belt/One Road initiative became a full-fledged project, so did the initiative to fortify it.  Given Chinese history, the leadership likely felt compelled to protect it from perceived aggression.   As in Gō, China began the process of encircling and claiming territory (i.e., expansion of South China Sea military outposts), all in the name of China’s sovereign territory.  The concept of sovereignty is a key component in how the situation is evolving.


By claiming as sovereign territory and militarizing the islands in the South China Sea, China discovered that despite international condemnation, the world seemed to lack the will to intervene and enforce maritime law and treaties.  A transition occurred. 


China’s trajectory has shaped into one of survival and security though global dominance.


Whether the transition was pre-planned or evolved with the process is irrelevant.  The One Belt/One Road has morphed into the One Belt/One Road, One Road/One Belt.  This subtle play on words has significant implications.  In this case, China’s trajectory has shaped into one of survival and security though global dominance.        


One section of the Gō board affords an instructive overview of the whole.  The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a key component on the Gō board with the Lines of Actual Control being a potential [read likely] trigger for conventional, Irregular and unconventional warfare.  China needs oil resources.  The CPEC bypasses the strait of Malacca and shortens the distance from the Gulf to China considerably.  It also allows China to practice Sun Tzu’s strategy of the sheathed sword, because the strait of Malacca could be blocked by the naval forces of China’s competitors in wartime.  If that fails, they may have the port in Gwadar, Pakistan as a back-up. 


Unfortunately for China, the CPEC roads and rails cut right through Kashmir.  According to India, the CPEC was constructed in “occupied territory.”  Recall what we said about external stress. 


To the east of the CPEC is that famously disputed territory known as the Line of Actual Control.  At stake is control of water that flows through the Yellow, Yangtse and Mekong Rivers into China.  Over half a billion Chinese depend on that water.  As a matter of interest, China uses approximately the same volume of water as the United States.  The “so what” is China’s population is over five times that of the United States.  From the same area, the Brahmaputra River feeds into India.  India has between 18-19% of the world’s population, just over China.  Unfortunately for India, they only have 4% of the world’s water resources.  Both China and India have competing dam projects in the area.  The need for fresh water has made China’s disputed Line of Actual Control with India an issue of China’s sovereignty.  India is now preparing for a three-front war scenario.  China is also concerned with internal instability in Pakistan and the potential for sabotage in a very dangerous neighborhood.  Wars of politics and ideology can be nasty.  Wars over water (survival) can be brutal.  With increasing water scarcity and desertification, China has a problem that needs solving.    


Now more than ever, China is compelled to remove as many opposing pieces off the Gō board as possible.  This is where things start to get interesting.  When the scope of Chinese trade deals, diplomatic activities and construction of new military installations come into view, we see how the geographic Gō board is taking shape.  Up to this point, China has maintained the initiative.  It has been successful, in part, by their application of Irregular Warfare through the blueprint of Unrestricted Warfare.


AUKUS, the US and the Gō Board          


Another transition is taking place.  China is gaining confidence.  They know they still lack the conventional power to dominate militarily.  They know that conventional military actions jeopardize the fragility of the One Belt/One Road.  They also must contend with increasing violent internal instability problems in countries with the vital natural resources for China’s [in this instance, read CCP’s] survival.  This is where David Maxwell’s China Thesis kicks in.  China is attempting to create the conditions for global dominance. 


A three-pronged, extra-regional threat “dares” to operate on China’s Gō board – the Australia-United Kingdom-United States trilateral security pact – AUKUS.  We are only highlighting AUKUS, as a means to introduce Unrestricted Warfare.  China knows the AUKUS members are reconfiguring budget resources and force structures to respond to China’s expansion, particularly in the Pacific.  They know the United Kingdom and the United States are having to adjust to the loss of military stocks sent to Ukraine – Russia makes for a useful idiot.  China sees both a growing threat and window of opportunity.


The AUKUS members are at a critical juncture regarding defense budgets and force structures.  After two decades of focusing on counter terrorism and low intensity conflict, the world is now faced with its first industrial-scale war since World War II.  What has been alarming to many is the realization that Putin’s War has the element of expansion built into it and it is preoccupying the thoughts of senior decision-makers and policymakers alike, with good reason.


With Putin’s War in the background, the focus on conventional forces seems like a necessary response to the China threat, during an arms race.  It is easier for policymakers and budget minders to get their heads around counting people and things set for conventional warfare.  When procurement officers can visualize a likely result of a purchase, it is very reassuring.  Unfortunately, multiple wargames concerning an AUKUS intervention to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan were not reassuring.  General Vo Nguyen Giap had something to say about that, “The United States has a strategy based on arithmetic.  They question the computers, add and subtract, extract square roots, and then go into action.  But arithmetical strategy doesn’t work here.  If it did, they would already have exterminated us with their airplanes.”  The wargames were a wake-up  call, but not a reason to panic. 


Keep in mind, China, itself, is facing a potential kinetic war with India, all the while it is attempting to secure its lifeline (One Belt/One Road), planning for Taiwan, watching its border with North Korea, etc.  In other words, it is necessary to take a moment and consider the most efficient means to deal with the threat, which itself is preoccupied, from multiple approaches.    


There is a real, active threat for the AUKUS members that is present but not all too clear to some policymakers.  The scope of that threat requires clarity of thought and dominance in the cognitive domain.  The cognitive domain encompasses all domains in multi-domain warfare.  AUKUS can ill afford to allow Putin and Xi to get in the heads of its decision-makers.  China is playing Gō and they are arranging their pieces on the board.  AUKUS does not have to play Gō.  AUKUS must simply recognize the game China is playing and do its best to seize the initiative.  The Taliban played Gō and the United States and NATO attempted to play a version of chess based on an ill-defined problem [see the previous essay].  That did not turn out favorably.     


This finally brings us to the focus of this series.  There are, multiple components to Irregular Warfare.  Of concern here is the aspect of Irregular Warfare being a combination of psychological judo with kinetic feints and left hooks.  As China desperately builds its conventional forces, it is conducting effective Irregular Warfare.  Gordon Chang is on top of it, so we will leave it to you to check out what he has to say on the subject. 


China singled out the United States in the publication of Unrestricted Warfare in 1999.  Therefore, the United States needs to do many things to address the geopolitical and security conditions presented by China.  Despite the tendency to place greater emphasis on building conventional forces, there is a tremendous need to build capacity for Irregular Warfare.  The United States and its AUKUS allies should be alert to not throw babies out with bathwaters. 


Some hold things they do not understand in contempt.  Irregular Warfare is one of those things, especially during budget competitions.  On the one hand, Irregular Warfare seems intellectually stimulating.  On the other, it can be perceived as adventurism or less impactful than new ships, planes and tanks.  After Afghanistan, some decision-makers do not want to hear any  more T.E. Lawrence quotes.  That said, there are some in the conventional arena and the intelligence community who want pieces of the Irregular Warfare mission for different reasons.  We will leave that alone. 


We assess that the Irregular Warfare mission is more appropriately placed where it can benefit doctrinally and operationally – the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).  After two decades of counter terrorism, some policymakers should recall that USSOCOM is inherently designed to house and develop the Irregular Warfare mission.  Such a move would actually be turn-key. 


In fact, USSOCOM is in the best position to nurture and employ the Irregular Warfare capabilities of the United States, as well as those of the AUKUS security pact.  That maybe a big ask with Chinese warships and aircraft projecting territorial claims, but there is an opportunity to up-end the Gō board.  It would be a shame if that opportunity is missed over budget battles and inter-service rivalries.  Decision-makers and policymakers failed to appreciate the warnings about Osama Bin Laden prior to September 11, 2001.  They should pay attention to the active Irregular Warfare threat currently being waged from China. 


On New Warfare


We conclude our series primer with the title of the first chapter of Unrestricted Warfare, “On New Warfare.”  That title frames the sentiment of the authors concerning the perceived state of warfare in 1998 and the intent of their work which became the blueprint for China’s application of Irregular Warfare. 


The conclusion of the authors’ preface provides the lead-in for the next installment of this series:


Even in the so-called post-modern, post-industrial age, warfare will not be totally dismantled.  It has only re-invaded human society in a more complex, more extensive, more concealed, and more subtle manner.  It is as Byron said in his poem mourning Shelly, ‘Nothing has happened, he has only undergone a sea change.’  War which has undergone the changes of modern technology and the market system will be launched even more in atypical forms.  In other words, while we are seeing a relative reduction in military violence, at the same time we definitely are seeing an increase in political, economic, and technical violence.  However, regardless of the form the violence takes, war is war, and a change in the external appearance does not keep any war from abiding by the principles of warIf we acknowledge that the new principles of war are no longer ‘using armed force to compel the enemy to submit to one’s will,’ but rather are ‘using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.”[3]


4Sight is a veteran-owned, boutique private intelligence firm that builds internal, organic capacities.  They are dedicated to improving specific cognitive skills and analytical judgments.  4Sight specializes in violent internal instability, analysis of war preparations and early warning architectures.


[1] See To Solve a Problem, You Need to Define it…Accurately – Small Wars Journal, 31 January 2023

[2] State Department Plays Key Role in New U.S. China Strategy, David Maxwell, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Policy Brief, 23 June 2020 and An Unconventional Warfare Mindset. The Philosophy of Special Forces Must Be Sustained, David Maxwell, Small Wars Journal, 29 May 2023 

[3] Unrestricted Warfare, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, February 1999

About the Author(s)

4Sight is a veteran-owned, boutique private intelligence firm that builds internal, organic capacities.  They are dedicated to improving specific cognitive skills and analytical judgments.  4Sight specializes in violent internal instability, analysis of war preparations and early warning architectures.