Small Wars Journal

Resistance and Resilience in Asia – Political Warfare of Revisionist and Rogue Powers

Wed, 10/21/2020 - 4:45pm

Resistance and Resilience in Asia – Political Warfare of Revisionist and Rogue Powers

David Maxwell

Remarks as delivered for the SOCPAC Conference on Resistance and Resilience in Asia, February 4-6, 2020 in Monterey, CA.

Before I begin let me say many speakers at these types of conferences will offer the caveat that they are not speaking for their organizations and are only speaking in their personal capacities. Now that I am retired as US Special Forces officer, I too speak in a personal capacity in that I am not longer constrained by doctrine, by funding, or by a chain of command so I can tell you how I really feel. However, I do work for a foundation that seeks to defend democracies and democratic institutions. We were founded just after 9-11 by the late Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick, the late Senator Jack Kemp, and our current president Cliff May to defend against terrorism and the threat it posed to the US. However, Ambassador Kirkpatrick conceived of our organization well before 9-11 because she recognized that we were not at the end of history and liberal democracy had not achieved total victory.

We are a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute committed to supporting US national security and foreign policy and provide support to our like-minded friends, partners, and allies. Our unofficial mission is to do what we can to hinder and interrupt the activities of our adversaries.

I think my organization, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has a lot in common with our Special Forces motto: to free the oppressed. Though if I were king for a day, I would say it is to help the oppressed free themselves.

We have all kinds of terms to describe the global security environment in the 21st Century from the gray zone, to hybrid conflict and irregular warfare, to great power competition and major state on state war. What is common to all these forms of war, to include major state on state warfare, is that political warfare is a critical component. A key component of political warfare is resistance, including political defiance, political resistance, and political violence.

I am heartened to see SOCPAC take the lead in this effort. While I do not consider this a SOF problem, or more specifically a SOF-only or SOF-unique problem, I think the collective SOF community, US and its allies, brings together experience and expertise, intellectual grounding, and a passion for these types of problems that can make important contributions to US national security as well as the national security of our friends, partners, and allies.

I am going to frame my remarks in three parts: Appreciate the Context, Identify the Problem, and Develop an Approach. Hopefully some of you are familiar with this.


1. Let me begin with an appreciation of the context


Special Operations Forces (SOF) must continue to focus on high end counterterrorism (CT) operations which have been raised to a high art form. However, SOF must also focus on the modern SOF trinity of irregular warfare (IW), unconventional warfare (UW), and support to political warfare. Advanced CT and other high end SOF capabilities combined with the new SOF trinity is where SOF must invest in organization, manning, equipping, training, and education. Not only must we outfight our enemies we have to outthink them. As T.E. Lawrence said, “irregular warfare is far more intellectual than a bayonet charge.”

All great concepts come in threes: Fear, honor, and interest; Passion, reason, and chance, (or people, government, and the military); life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; federal democratic republic; the legislative, executive, and judicial; federal, state, and local; presence, patience, persistence; political defiance, political resistance, and political violence; ends, ways, and means; strategic, operational and tactical, and many more. It is time for SOF to have its own “trinities.” As previously stated, the first is an overall SOF construct: irregular warfare, unconventional warfare, and support to political warfare. The second is the comparative of advantage of SOF: governance, influence, and support to indigenous forces and populations. Political resistance is at the heart of both of these SOF trinities.

When we describe resistance we generally think in terms of political resistance in which a segment of a population is aggrieved, believes it has been wronged, is disenfranchised, or is oppressed by the ruling regime. It may try to engage in the lawful political process but when it does not achieve political satisfaction it may resort to illegal political means to attain its objectives. It may organize itself into political parties and action arms, usually an underground and auxiliary, as in the latent or incipient stage and later it might organize guerrilla forces to conduct indirect insurgent operations against the government, which results in a stalemate. If it gains strength, possibly with external support, it may develop conventional military forces to conduct direct operations against the government’s army. This is Mao’s classic protracted warfare and while still applicable today as a form of political warfare it is not what I am going to talk about today. I am going to talk about a modern form of political warfare that is focused on resisting revisionist powers who seek to undermine democratic nations around the world though their own political warfare strategies. Like minded nations need a superior political warfare strategy though I acknowledge this is difficult for democratic nations to execute. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes seem to always have an advantage in this area. But I would argue it does not have to be the case.

The US national security and national defense strategies sum it up quite well. We face an era of a return to great power competition. There are two revisionist powers (PRC and Russia), two rogue powers (Iran and north Korea) and violent extremist organizations. There are some common traits within these threats. And yes, I call them threats. Among them is they seek to undermine the international system that the US and the west championed following World War II. They did not have a role in establishing it and now they want to redefine the international system in terms favorable to them. In particular they seek to unhinge the US alliance system and separate the US from its friends, partners, and allies.

The focus on great power competition and conflict has been interpreted by many as justification to return to organizing, equipping, and training the U.S. military for major combat operations and theater level war against peer or near peer competitors. There is no doubt that war with the revisionist powers is the most dangerous threat to the U.S. and may even be considered existential. Therefore, it is logical and justified to invest in the military capabilities to defeat these threats. However, we should also consider that the PRC wants us to focus and invest in the high tech and expensive equipment to counter these threats while it may have no intention of every fighting us directly in state on state warfare.

However, the reverse is also true. Such wars will be existential threats to the revisionist and rogue powers. While this may temper their desire for large scale conflict, these powers have the common objectives to weaken the U.S., reduce the U.S. spheres of influence, alter or destroy international institutions, force the U.S to withdraw from contested locations, undermine the U.S. economy, separate the U.S. from its allies, and when possible inflict casualties to affect domestic support for overseas presence and operations. They may use our military desire for planning for great power state on state war to distract us from what is really a political warfare strategy. At the most basic level U.S. adversaries turn the historical Clausewitzian theory on its head. Most national security practitioners will tout that “war is a continuation of politics and policy by other means.” However, for U.S. adversaries it is “politics is war by other means.”

This is more than semantics or a change to the order of words. It is the essence of Sun Tzu in three ways: (1)“all warfare is based on deception;” (2) “it is the acme of skill to win without fighting;” and (3) “what is of supreme importance is to attack the enemy’s strategy.” U.S. adversaries have different views of warfare. For them the psychological or influence operations take precedence over the kinetic and influence may or may not be supported by kinetic operations.  The U.S. places priority on kinetic operations.  It has a strong aversion to leading with “influence.” Nowhere is this more evident than in what some PSYOP officers lamented to me when I was last at Fort Leavenworth. It is easier to get permission to put a hellfire missile on the forehead of a terrorist than it is to get permission to put an idea between his ears. U.S. adversaries have no qualms about maximizing their ability to operate in the human and information domains.

Military professionals and national security practitioners should know better. Napoleon said in war “the moral is to the physical as three is to one.” In the 21st Century, “the psychological is to the kinetic as ten is to one.” Unfortunately, there is no constituency in Congress for influence operations and there is no huge budget line that translates to congressional districts for influence operations. There are only critics and naysayers who view influence mistakes as somehow more damaging than kinetic ones. Getting a message wrong may be embarrassing but we can recover from it. Getting a kinetic strike wrong is unrecoverable for those on the receiving end.

Assuming U.S. adversaries seek to win without fighting (or with fighting that will be below the threshold of war) and achieve objectives through influence how should this be characterized? First, the U.S. absolutely must recognize that this form of “warfare” is dangerous and prone to miscalculation by any party involved which could result in major combat operations. Therefore, the U.S. cannot sacrifice high-end military readiness.

The U.S. must maintain a force that is capable of fighting and winning high intensity conflict at the theater and global level. Yet it must also maintain the ability to compete with and counter the revisionist and rogue powers below the threshold of major combat where they prefer to operate. They seek to maintain competition and conflict in the so- called gray zone. The want to achieve influence and dominance and accomplish their objectives below the threshold of conflict to prevent a kinetic response. The U.S. and its friends, partners, and allies must be able to strategically operate in this area known as political warfare. And just as important as conducting a superior form of political warfare, the US must help its friends, partners, and allies resist our common adversaries’ political warfare by developing resiliency among political institutions and the population. It takes resiliency to conduct resistance.

The U.S. also cannot be afraid to call this warfare. It is fashionable for some national security practitioners to say the military wants to make every competition and conflict a war. Some say Foreign Service Officers do not like the use of war and warfare to characterize the national security environment. It should not be forgotten that it was a diplomat who emphasized the requirement to conduct political warfare during the Cold War, George Kennan. However, it is not the U.S. who is using politics as a continuation of warfare by other means. U.S. adversaries believe this and operate this way and policy makers and strategists ignore this to the peril of the U.S. We have to see the world as it really is and not as we would wish it to be. The fact is U.S. adversaries are doing everything they can to undermine the American and western way of life and the international system which has maintained relative and sufficient order since WWII. They seek to harm the U.S., and its friends, partners, and allies and it would be the height of irresponsibility for the U.S. to not have the capabilities to defend America in this realm and counter and defeat adversaries.

SOF has its comparative advantage in a number of areas. As illustrated over the past two decades there is no force with a greater capability to capture and kill high value targets than U.S. SOF. But it is not just kicking down doors that makes SOF world class. It is the creative employment of high- and low-tech equipment, from UAVs to cyber to electronic warfare to immediate sensitive site exploitation and much more. These capabilities continue to evolve as units develop new concepts and SOF R&D develops new equipment. And most important is the SOF operator on the ground who can establish requirements and solve problems. The essence of all SOF operations is simply the ability to solve problems. Sometimes it is a targeting problem. Sometimes it is an intelligence problem. Sometimes it is an infiltration problem. Sometimes it is a breach problem. And sometimes it is about solving or contributing to solving complex political military problems.

Setting aside the major theater combat operations against near and peer competitors, or in reality America’s enemies, the following concepts and ideas will have application before, during, and after major combat operations. SOF’s greatest contributions will come both before and after peer and near-peer conflict (as well as in the gray zone) though it will make significant contributions during major combat operations as well.

However, in addition to capturing and killing high value targets and all the complex operations surrounding that mission SOF has a comparative advantage in three areas: governance, influence, and support to indigenous forces and populations. These areas are represented by civil affairs, psychological operations, and selected SOF from all the services which are optimized to conduct unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, and counterinsurgency.

It is governance, influence, and support to indigenous forces and populations that play the greatest role in modern irregular warfare, unconventional warfare, and support to political warfare. SOF may be best described today along this spectrum of capabilities. First and foremost, SOF is designed to solve problems in the human domain which no other branch or service of the U.S. military can solve. These are complex political- military problems that are strategic in nature. Second, SOF conducts operations to prosecute strategic targets. Third, SOF conducts irregular warfare, advises and assists or defends against resistance movements or insurgencies, and provides support to the U.S. government’s political warfare strategies.

What is irregular warfare? The 2007 DOD definition is lacking: “violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.” It said that IW consisted of UW, foreign internal defense (FID), CT, counterinsurgency, and stability operations (SO). This was a compromise definition because at the time there was such controversy about the use of warfare within the interagency.

Congress suggested a better definition of irregular warfare in the 2018 NDAA. I think this describes much better what we need to do in terms of support to resistance and resiliency. US military forces along with other elements of the interagency conduct operations “in support of predetermined United States policy and military objectives conducted by, with, and through regular forces, irregular forces, groups, and individuals participating in competition between state and non-state actors short of traditional armed conflict.” This is describing operations in the so-called gray zone below the threshold of major conflict and combat operations and is designed to support specific US strategic objectives. This is where the competition with the revisionist and rogue powers is taking place. And this is the fertile ground for violent extremist organizations. This is where we should focus our efforts on developing resistance and resilience.

Let me just touch on the joint definition of Unconventional Warfare. It is characterized by activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary or guerrilla force in a denied area.

The essence of UW is found in revolution, resistance, and insurgency and may manifest itself eventually in civil war. It is about seeking political change. It is about Robert Helvey’s political defiance, it is about political resistance, and it is about political violence. In From Dictatorship to Democracy Gene Sharp described Helvey’s political defiance. He writes, “‘Political defiance’ is nonviolent struggle (protest, noncooperation, and intervention) applied defiantly and actively for political purposes. “The term is used,” Sharp continues, “principally to describe action by populations to regain from dictatorships control over governmental institutions by relentlessly attacking their sources of power and deliberately using strategic planning and operations to do so.” An example of one the techniques employed is the call for massive withdrawal of funds from Hong Kong banks to target the economic instruments of Chinese power.

As an aside, what is another term for political violence? Terrorism.

Bruce Hoffman defines terrorism as the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change. All terrorist acts involve violence or the threat of violence. Terrorism is specifically designed to have far-reaching psychological effects beyond the immediate victim(s) or object of the terrorist attack. It is meant to instill fear within, and thereby intimidate, a wider `target audience' that might include a rival ethnic or religious group, an entire country, a national government or political party, or public opinion in general. Terrorism is designed to create power where there is none or to consolidate power where there is very little. Through the publicity generated by their violence, terrorists seek to obtain the leverage, influence and power they otherwise lack to effect political change on either a local or an international scale. Terrorism is not something separate to be treated outside of irregular warfare. It is an integral part of it.

What is the fundamental aspect of UW? It is political resistance by disaffected groups who are seeking a change in governance, usually from an oppressive government or a government that does not meet the terms of the social contract. It is all about governance. Yes, it is a fight for legitimacy and a huge component of that fight is influence. The revisionist and rogue powers are exploiting the conditions of political defiance, political resistance, and political violence to create conditions that support their strategic objectives to create instability, weaken US influence, and tear down international institutions. For the US we either support those resistance movements or insurgencies that align with our interests or we advise and assist our friends, partners, and allies to defend against them. But with revisionist and rogue powers exploiting these conditions they are conducting their own forms of unconventional warfare. The Russians are conducting New Generation or non-linear warfare. We are well aware of the Iran Action Network and the UW conducted by the IRGC/Quds force. The Chinese conduct unrestricted warfare and its “three warfares:” psychological warfare, media warfare, and legal warfare or lawfare. And of course, my favorite is the subversion, coercion, and extortion conducted by the Guerrilla Dynasty and Gulag State of north Korea. This is why in the 2016 NDAA Congress included Section 1097 directing DOD to develop a strategy to counter UW. Counter-unconventional warfare.

This is the way I would describe what is taking place in the 21st Century.  From the Gray Zone to Great Power struggle is a spectrum of cooperation, competition, and conflict in that space between peace and war. We seek and desire cooperation, we have to be able to compete, and while we want to avoid conflict, we must prepare for it.  One of the important forms of conflict can be described by revolution, resistance, insurgency, terrorism, and civil war (RRIT & CW)) with our adversaries from AQ to ISIS to the Russian Little Green Men to the Iran Action Network or PRC’s PLA and the Guerrilla Dynasty and Gulag State of north Korea all executing strategies of modern unconventional warfare and more specifically political warfare, with their own unique characteristics to include application of conventional force, to exploit the conditions of political resistance to achieve their strategic political objectives. The US must wage irregular warfare in this environment against these threats.

Here is one way to characterize US SOF in this environment: We face competition, not only among state actors and state and non-state actors but also in two competing ideas - one is the national interest to maintain a stable international nation-state system based on respect for and protection of sovereignty. This idea can be supported in part through the application of one of the major special operations activities: foreign internal defense in which SOF and other US government agencies seek to assist friends, partners and allies in their own defense and development programs so that they can defend themselves against lawlessness, subversion, insurgency, and terrorism that would threaten their sovereignty. The other idea is a fundamental human right which is the right of a people to seek self-determination of government and this can be supported by the one of the core special operations activities: the application of unconventional warfare. These two competing ideas must be reconciled through the correct application of national statecraft (i.e., political warfare), supported by SOF in the gray zone.

But the bottom-line problem is this: We face threats from political warfare strategies supported by hybrid military approaches that exploit the political resistance found in the human domain.

This brings us to the third leg of the trinity: political warfare.

In 1948 George F. Kennan defined political warfare as “the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace.” While stopping short of the direct kinetic confrontation between two countries’ armed forces, “political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation's command… to achieve its national objectives.” A country embracing Political Warfare conducts “both overt and covert” operations in the absence of declared war or overt force-on-force hostilities. Efforts “range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures…, and ‘white’ propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of ‘friendly’ foreign elements, ‘black’ psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.”

I am partial to Paul Smith’s definition. In 1989 he defined political warfare as the use of political means to compel an opponent to do one's will, based on hostile intent. The term political describes the calculated interaction between a government and a target audience to include another state's government, military, and/or general population. Governments use a variety of techniques to coerce certain actions, thereby gaining relative advantage over an opponent. The techniques include propaganda and psychological operations (PSYOP), which service national and military objectives respectively. Propaganda has many aspects and a hostile and coercive political purpose. Psychological operations are for strategic and tactical military objectives and may be intended for hostile military and civilian populations.

Political warfare is not a SOF mission.  It is a national mission. It is statecraft. SOF provides support to political warfare. It applies its comparative advantages to support national objectives: contribute to solving complex political military problems, applying influence, supporting governance, and advising and assisting indigenous forces and populations.

In addition to SOF and selected DOD organizations conducting irregular warfare a 2018 RAND study on political warfare identified two other elements of an American Political Warfare capability:

First is expeditionary diplomacy: DoS and USAID would become the proponents for expeditionary diplomacy, which would entail diplomats working in “fluid situations without a strong central host government or U.S. embassy infrastructure to promote the local government’s rule of law, reconstruction and economic development, and delivery of services.” This would include support to military forces during military operations and as part of a whole-of-government approach in pre-conflict or post conflict settings, functioning as a “form of asymmetric warfare in crisis countries, particularly those with crumbling regimes or new unstable governments.”

Second is covert political action: The Intelligence Community remains the proponent for covert political action, which would cause “economic dislocation, distortion of political processes or manipulation of information.” In addition, the Intelligence Community would continue to provide intelligence to support operations in situations short of armed conflict; however, this intelligence collection and analysis may become increasingly focused on understanding how civilian populations and partner forces may be influenced using nonlethal means.

In 2015 USASOC published a white paper on SOF support to Political Warfare and described and SOF and DOD’s role in this way:

A whole-of-government endeavor, Political Warfare is best led by agencies beyond DoD and can only succeed if it is conducted in a way to “elevate civilian power alongside military power as equal pillars of U.S. foreign policy."

SOF is well suited to lead DOD's contribution to Political Warfare’s activities, because they are relatively knowledgeable experts in this form of warfare.

The overall Political Warfare effort relies on persuasive and coercive diplomacy, economic coercion and engagement, Security Sector Assistance (SSA), Unconventional Warfare (UW), and Information and Influence Activities (IIA).

Everything outlined in the discussion already exists within the SOF community. SOF needs to employ its comparative advantages in support of the National Security and Defense Strategies. SOF leaders and operators must continue to innovate. The 21st century security environment is complex and dangerous. SOF has all the tools and capabilities and most important the trained and educated force to operate in this environment. My recommendation is to consider using the “trinities” as organizing principles both to frame special operations and communicate how the force supports the national strategy. Governance, influence, and support to indigenous forces are the comparative advantage that provide the foundation for the trinity of irregular warfare, unconventional warfare, and support to political warfare. This is all in the DNA of SOF.

2. Understand the Problem.

Now that we have examined the big picture in context, we should assess what is the fundamental problem in Asia. I think it is Peoples Republic of China (PRC). More specifically it is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that is a threat. I am not afraid to say it. The CCP seeks to undermine US and western influence and the influence of individual freedom and liberty, liberal democracy, free market economy, and human rights and human dignity of all. These are the common values the and like-minded countries share.

We should all take some time and reread Unrestricted Warfare which was written by two Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) colonels in 1999 as an academic exercise on how to counter a superpower. It was based on their assessment of the US military in the post- Cold War World and in particular the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs which we were chasing in the 1990’s. I think this was a very prescient book using all means available in an unrestricted manner. When I received my letter from OPM after the Chinese hacked all our security clearance forms, I returned to Unrestricted Warfare and I was amazed at how many references there were to hacking and obtaining data for later exploitation. Again, this was written in 1999.

In 2004 when I was at the National War College the Chinese Minister of Defense addressed the students. I asked only one question at these distinguished leader presentations all year long. I asked the Defense Minister that since Unrestricted Warfare has proved so prescient is the PLA using it to inform its doctrinal development and strategic and operational concepts? He walked off the stage and conferred with his handlers and returned to tell me the book has been debunked and I should not believe everything I read. My inside voice said: “He doth protest too much.”

Let me present a long passage here from Unrestricted Warfare to illustrate why it was so prescient and is so important for us to understand. The first part is discussing the economic instrument of national power exercised by seemingly philanthropic “foundations.” The second part discusses the “new terror war.”


Thus, we can get at least an inkling of the magnitude of financial war's destructive power. Today, when nuclear weapons have already become frightening mantlepiece decorations that are losing their real operational value with each passing day, financial war has become a "hyperstrategic" weapon that is attracting the attention of the world. This is because financial war is easily manipulated and allows for concealed actions, and is also highly destructive. By analyzing the chaos in Albania not long ago, we can clearly see the role played by various types of foundations that were set up by transnational groups and millionaires with riches rivaling the wealth of nation states. These foundations control the media, control subsidies to political organizations, and limit any resistance from the authorities, resulting in a collapse of national order and the downfall of the legally authorized government. Perhaps we could dub this type of war "foundation-style" financial war. The greater and greater frequency and intensity of this type of war, and the fact that more and more countries and non- state organizations are deliberately using it, are causes for concern and are facts that we must face squarely.

New Terror War in Contrast to Traditional Terror War: Due to the limited scale of a traditional terror war, its casualties might well be fewer than the casualties resulting from a conventional war or campaign. Nevertheless, a traditional terror war carries a stronger flavor of violence. Moreover, in terms of its operations, a traditional terror war is never bound by any of the traditional rules of the society at large. From a military standpoint, then, the traditional terror war is characterized by the use of limited resources to fight an unlimited war. This characteristic invariably puts national forces in an extremely unfavorable position even before war breaks out, since national forces must always conduct themselves according to certain rules and therefore are only able to use their unlimited resources to fight a limited war. This explains how a terrorist organization made up of just a few inexperienced members who are still wet behind the ears can nevertheless give a mighty country like the U.S. headaches, and also why "using a sledgehammer to kill an ant" often proves ineffective. The most recent proof is the case of the two explosions that occurred simultaneously at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The advent of bin Ladin- style terrorism has deepened the impression that a national force, no matter how powerful, will find it difficult to gain the upper hand in a game that has no rules.

Even if a country turns itself into a terrorist element, as the Americans are now in the process of doing, it will not necessarily be able to achieve success.

Again, keep in mind this was written in 1999 so it was before 9-11. It is part strategic and operational concept, part threat analysis and part anti-American propaganda.

We should know the Chinese Communist Party’s “Three Warfares” just as our brethren from Europe know Russian’s next generation or non-linear warfare and its little green men.

  • Psychological Warfare seeks to disrupt an opponent’s decision-making capacity; create doubts, foment anti-leadership sentiments, deceive and diminish the will to fight among opponents.
  • Legal Warfare (“lawfare”) can involve enacting domestic law as the basis for making claims in international law and employing “bogus” maps to justify PRC’s actions.
  • Media Warfare is the key to gaining dominance over the venue for implementing psychological and legal warfare.

And more importantly we need resistance and resilience to counter them.

We should know One Belt and One Road (OBOR) and the economic strategy behind it that causes debt traps for vulnerable countries. Just ask Sri Lanka how PRC gained controlling interest of its major port. And this is happening not just in Asia but in Latin America and Africa as well.

We should understand CCP investment strategies and the industries in which it invests. Sure, economically it makes sense for PRC to invest in energy and other resources and we know it is a very “extractive” investor – takes all the benefits and provides very little in return. But in places such as Republic of China (ROC) or Taiwan it has made major investments to achieve controlling ownership of media companies. We should ask is this purely for profit or does this provide the Chinese Communist Party with important capabilities.

We need to be aware of Chinese espionage operations and its attempt to recruit pies in our countries. The thousand talents and the thousand grains of sand concepts are designed to gather information and knowledge for the PRC. The Confucius Institutes provide money to cities, towns, and school districts in return for providing education in Chinese language, culture, and history. Local governments become “addicted” to these funds which in turn allows the PRC to conduct aggressive influence operations at the grass roots level. The PRC has a vast intelligence network. They have infiltrated governments, militaries, businesses, the media, non-governmental organizations and much more. It is very difficult to keep information from the Chinese Communist Party since they seem to have eyes almost everywhere. However, this can have a positive benefit because the development of resistance capabilities and resilience in society will show the CCP their strategy is not working, and it may give them pause from pursuing it further or even shifting to more violent operations and actions.

We should think about our political processes. While we know what Russia has done and is doing to undermine the democratic processes in the US and European countries, we should be observing Chinese actions. Although I do not have specific data and evidence, I think it is something that we must defend against especially because I think the Chinese will be more subtle and sophisticated than the Russians.

One of the reasons we should consider is the long term “shaping operation” the Chinese are conducting in the world of entertainment, not only movies, but also gaming. We have seen the CCP censorship of Hollywood movies such as Red Dawn where the enemy had to be changed from PRC to north Korea. But one of the most insidious influence operations ever conducted is the Chinese takeover of the gaming industry.

There are perhaps only a few people in this room who partake in massive multi-player online gaming. Yet for some of the championship games the amount of the amount of people watching is many times greater than the super bowl audience. But what is really important about these games is the CCP are shaping the narrative story lines creating Chinese character heroes and favorable descriptions of PRC versus negative portrayal of the US and the west. This is shaping a whole next generation of youth who see PRC in a very favorably light based on false information and propaganda. The questions is how do we resist this and how to develop the resiliency necessary to counter act this?

I would offer an excerpt from our 2017 National Security Strategy that I think applies now only to the US but also to our friends, partners, and allies.

"A democracy is only as resilient as its people. An informed and engaged citizenry is the fundamental requirement for a free and resilient nation. For generations, our society has protected free press, free speech, and free thought. Today, actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies. Adversaries target media, political processes, financial networks, and personal data. The American public and private sectors must recognize this and work together to defend our way of life. No external threat can be allowed to shake our shared commitment to our values, undermine our system of government, or divide our Nation."

This is one of the forms of resistance and resilience that needs to be developed in our countries among all our people to defend what is the most fundamental attack by PRC: attacks on sovereignty.

Lastly, I would make one point to provide a different view to my previous remarks. It is important to see how the coronavirus changes PRC’s strategy. We do not know for sure what happened. I do not want to be a conspiracy theorist and say PRC was developing a bioweapon though we understand there was bio lab 30 miles from Wuhan. In fact, bio experts have told me that it makes no sense to use this type of virus as a bioweapon.

However, it may not have been deliberate, perhaps there was an accident at the lab. Or perhaps it was some kind of test that went wrong. Or maybe it was a deliberate test to see the response and reaction or perhaps to deplete resources on a global scale. If it was a deliberate act PRC appears to already be suffering blowback. When the stock market reopened it lost billions of dollars in value. The question is if this was deliberate what do we do about it? In addition, although I am loath to exploit tragedy, it is obvious even if it was not deliberate, the Chinese reaction to the problem illustrates the vulnerability of authoritarian regimes. The lack of transparency allowed the virus to spread. The Chinese system is not one designed to take care of the people. It is a system designed to protect and keep in power the Chinese Communist Party at the expense of its people.  That should be a key theme and message in any information and influence activities campaign.

3. Develop an Approach.

Lastly, we must consider new approaches (as well as recall old approaches that are still likely to be relevant and effective). I hope to just give a few ideas that might lead to further development in the working groups and breakout sessions. This is by no means a thorough approach.

First there are really only three options for a country facing PRC’s political warfare strategy.

1. Accept and acquiesce. Accept that PRC can’t be stopped, accept their investment and influence which will undermine the government’s legitimacy and lead to PRC’s objective of creating instability and insecurity among US friends, partners, and allies.

2. Create a civil-military resistance capability to defend your country.

3. Develop a civil military resistance and conduct a counter subversion campaign and actively subvert the hostile power.

I would posit that there are three elements to resistance and resiliency we need to focus on. Resiliency of governments and institutions to withstand attacks on their legitimacy. Resiliency of the people to maintain their values and belief in their nation and form of government (as imperfect as all our governments are), and third, a civil-military resistance capability to resist both Chinese political warfare while contributing to their own country’s superior form of political warfare and ultimately having a developed resistance that will deter military adventurism and if deterrence fails it will contribute to the defeat of an attack. Nations and their people must undertake these tasks themselves. No one can do it for them. However, since we are like minded countries that share values, share interests, and share strategies the US can provide advice, assistance, and support in some areas to help countries protect their sovereignty.

The first thing we need to do is change our mindset. We need to take a campaign approach rather than a preparation approach. It is good that our strategic planning process has eliminated the standard phasing template that begin with Phase 0 and preparation. What we have to shift to is to be able to conduct a campaign within that time and space we once called Phase 0. We need to conduct a political warfare campaign that has as part of its foundation developing resilience in government and society and developing a civil-military resistance capability.

The second thing is we need to attack the Chinese strategy. The first step in that is to expose its strategy. We need to bring sunshine on the strategy. By doing so we can inform, educate, and influence the population – we can in fact inoculate the population against the Chinese strategy because if they know it, they can recognize it and take measures not to succumb to it.

We have to develop aggressive, comprehensive, and sophisticated information and influence activities campaigns to counter Chinese propaganda. One thing I understand that Taiwan is doing is fact checking Chinese content but using humor. This apparently is an attention getter and is useful for exposing propaganda. And it apparently upsets the Chinese so we know it must be working.

Countries must strengthen their human rights to serve as an example for those in authoritarian countries. This will allow them to have the moral high ground when they contribute to international efforts that focus on Chinese human rights with the Uighurs, other ethnic minorities, and Hong Kong. There should be no hesitation among free nations of the world to call out the Chinese Communist Party’s terrible human rights record. It is one of the most subversive acts we can conduct.

We have to be aggressive in cyber space, not only in defense but offense as well. We should consider combined cyber task forces to counter PRC cyber enabled economic warfare, its online espionage efforts, its infrastructure attack capabilities and its influence operations. We need to take back the on-line gaming and entertainment industries to shut off a key propaganda line of effort. Simultaneously we need to inoculate our youth against CCP propaganda in on-line gaming because they will continue gaming operations.

We need to develop civil-military resistance capabilities along some similar lines. This is especially true for Taiwan. As I see the terrain of Taiwan, I get the sense that if Taiwan were ever to be invaded it would be a black hole, meaning what goes in will never come out. Taiwanese conventional military capabilities are insufficient to defend against a PLA attack. However, a civil military resistance could create devastating conditions for the PLA. Taiwan SOF could move away from direct action commando type operations to a more UW focused posture. It could lead an effort to organize, train, and equip local civil defense forces. It could learn from the Poles and the Swiss and the development of their civil defense and stay behind forces. US SOF could advise Taiwan SOF in this work. The number one purpose is for local civil defense. But such a plan would also contribute to governance and most importantly influence.  The civil military linkage would reinforce government legitimacy. From an influence perspective due to the large number of Chinese spies this could not be done in secret. However, it will be good for the PRC to observe this effort as it could deter Xi from attacking and if he does attack this capability can mean the end to many Chinese bloodlines as the one child policy will result in the massive loss of families’ only sons. A Taiwanese “Tom Clancy” could write a fictional account of the invasion of Taiwan and illustrate it as a “black hole” and it could tell the stories of the demise of Chinese soldiers who are the end of their parents’ bloodline. I used Taiwan as an example, but it could be applied to Thailand and Mongolia and other countries. If we show the PRC the populations of Asian countries cannot be pacified during a PLA occupation the PRC might come to the conclusion that the price tag for its political warfare strategy is simply too high. This is what Robert Jones at USSOCOM J5 has called Unconventional Deterrence.

Since the PRC has infiltrated so many government and military organizations a counter- intelligence program could be devised that would cause the PRC to lose trust in all its recruited spies.  A very simple program could be to establish a policy that says if you are recruited to become a PRC agent what you must do it report it to the proper authorities. If you report a legitimate foreign intelligence operative, you will be allowed to keep his payment and you will receive a matching stipend from the government. You will also be required to provided approved information from your government. Since some countries are so infiltrated by PRC spies this program will be immediately compromised and will be very difficult for the PRC to thoroughly vet ever person they recruit. It will not put an end to PRC espionage, but it will reduce the number of recruits the PRC can recruit, train, and deploy.

These are just a few ideas that hopefully will stimulate discussion.  The bottom line is the US and its friends, partners, and allies face an aggressive and hostile PRC that is operating well below the threshold of conflict operating in the so-called gray zone. It is conducting a form of political warfare that seeks to undermine the international nation- state system and attack many of the international institutions for which the US had a large role in developing.  The SOF “trinities” of irregular warfare, unconventional warfare, and support to political warfare along with governance, influence, and support to indigenous forces and populations can play a role in helping to advise an assist in these areas. Most important is we need to adopt a new campaign approach and learn to lead with influence so that we can execute a superior political warfare strategy built on the foundation of resistance and resilience to protect the sovereignty of democratic countries in Asia and around the world,


About the Author(s)

Dave Maxwell is the Editor-in-Chief of Small Wars Journal. He is the Vice President of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy (CAPS) and a Senior Fellow at the Global Peace Foundation (where he focuses on a free and unified Korea). He is a 30-year veteran of the US Army, retiring as a Special Forces Colonel. He has worked in Asia for more than over 30 years, primarily in Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. Colonel Maxwell served on the United Nations Command / Combined Forces Command / United States Forces Korea CJ3 staff where he was a planner for UNC/CFC OPLAN 5027-98 and co-author of the original ROK JCS – UNC/CFC CONPLAN 5029-99. He later served as the Director of Plans, Policy, and Strategy and then Chief of Staff for the Special Operations Command Korea. He commanded the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines (JSOTF-P), served as the G3 for the United States Army Special Operations Command and culminated his service as a member of the military faculty at the National War College. Following retirement, he served as the Associate Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Colonel Maxwell is a fellow at the Institute of Corean-American Studies, and on the Board of Directors of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the International Council of Korean Studies, the Council on Korean-US Security Studies, the Special Operations Research Association, the OSS Society, and the Small Wars Journal. He earned a B.A. in political science from Miami University, and an M.A. in Military Arts and Science from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and from the School of Advanced Military Studies, and an M.S. in National Security Studies from the National War College. Colonel Maxwell teaches Unconventional Warfare and Special Operations for Policy Makers and Strategists.