Small Wars Journal

Sound the Clarion! Hybrid Warfare Has Arrived in the Asia-Pacific

Sound the Clarion! Hybrid Warfare Has Arrived in the Asia-Pacific

Ian Li

Ever since Russia’s rapid annexation of Crimea in 2014 during the height of the Ukraine Crisis thrust the term “hybrid warfare” into mainstream consciousness, predictions of its imminent spread westward have been fervently propagated. The perceived threat of hybrid warfare has however since evolved into something more universal and far-reaching, and in recent years it would seem as if the tendrils of this virulent threat have finally traversed the vast expanse of the globe to arrive in the Asia-Pacific. Already, the clarion call has been sounded across the region. In Singapore for example, its military has as early as 2015 taken measures to modernise its defence systems and bolster its arsenal in preparation for the possibility of dealing with this particular type of conflict, and almost half a decade on, the concerns over the perceived threat of hybrid warfare remain unabated. The same fears over a looming hybrid war have been echoed in Thailand while some would argue that an intensely contested hybrid war is already underway over the South China Sea.

It would seem therefore that hybrid warfare is the one singular threat that the region should be most concerned with moving forward. A closer inspection of the context behind each of the cases highlighted above however reveals a far more heterogeneous threat dynamic at play. Behind the umbrella term of hybrid warfare comes a whole range of security threats such as cyber-attacks, irregular adversaries, local insurgencies, and grey zone operations. Indeed, these other terms have often been used interchangeably with hybrid warfare, lending to the overall definitional confusion. In turn, this ambiguity in detail surrounding how the term is defined does little to help with its analysis. Certainly, enough commonalities apply across most definitions such that the term can be broadly understood in common parlance. However, more often than not, hybrid warfare is used as a catch-all, a convenient explanation for most of the world’s current (or potential) conflicts. Because it can mean many things, it becomes associated with everything. The result is an irrational paranoia that can lead to a hunt for the proverbial monsters lurking under every bed, a modern McCarthyism of sorts.   

But what exactly is hybrid warfare? While the search for a definitive answer is likely to remain elusive, a broad observation is that most definitions focus on two aspects – its means and outcomes. With regard to the means, hybrid warfare can be said to blend the use of military force, both conventional and irregular, with the full complement of non-military tools available to the hybrid actor. In this sense, hybrid warfare is very similar to what the Cold War-era American diplomat George Kennan coined as political warfare. According to Kennan, political warfare was the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, both overt and covert, to achieve its national objectives. In terms of outcomes, the definition given by Singapore’s Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen is informative. According to Dr Ng, hybrid warfare is “an orchestrated campaign to fracture the solidarity of the target nation through undermining its defences in civil, economic, social, psychological and military spheres”. While the targeting of a state’s structural integrity by exploiting its non-military vulnerabilities is nothing new, a coordinated assault on any combination of these could have catastrophic results. In extreme cases, like with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the national paralysis induced is so complete that resistance to external encroachment almost completely collapses.

What is harder to grasp is the point at which the covert elements of hybrid warfare transit to overt conflict. The overt phase of hybrid warfare is fairly straightforward, and roughly corresponds to aspect of hybrid warfare which the military historian Peter Mansoor defined as “an armed conflict involving a deliberate combination of conventional and irregular forces that work together to achieve a common political objective”. Make no mistake – despite the vaunted benefits of hybrid warfare’s non-military components, there is an inescapable kinetic endpoint upon which the conceptualisation of the entire campaign converges, even if the enthusiasm to reach that destination may not be forthcoming. Russia’s actions in Ukraine support this point, and suggest a very real possibility for the escalation of its operations into overt war. It is also this endpoint which sets apart hybrid warfare from being merely just one of its many component parts. Without the orchestration alluded to in Dr Ng’s earlier definition, there is no glue to bind each component together, all of which are self-containing in their own right.    

But it is not easy perceiving this overt endpoint. While not quite the unqualified era of peace prophesised by political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, there is a convincing argument that in the wake of the Cold War, there has been a significant decline in the prevalence of “traditional” interstate war. Overt conflict of course does not equate directly to conventional war, and if anything recent developments suggest that any supposed decline in interstate conflict has been made up by an increased frequency of other less conventional forms of warfare, each no less violent in nature. War and violence thus continue to remain very much embedded in the fabric of the human existence. But if overt conflict is to be the defining marker by which to identify hybrid warfare, then until the prognosis has become reality, it is almost impossible to call an actual case of hybrid warfare for what it is.

What is seen instead are a myriad of potential symptoms, such as the cyber-attacks that took place during the Ukrainian Crisis, the use of innocuous social media platforms such as Facebook to spread fake news and disinformation, the strategic application of economic measures, and the support of proxy combatants just to name a few. All these play on the vulnerabilities that are inherent in many states across the Asia-Pacific. As the region’s digital footprint grows, countries that develop increasingly higher levels of internet-dependence inherently become vulnerable to cyber threats. The risk likewise extends into the military sphere as more regional militaries embrace the advantages of network-centric warfare, a shift only made possible by the region’s growing economic affluence and technological maturity. At the same time, the diverse cultural, ethnic and religious make-ups characteristic of numerous post-war states within the region contain pronounced societal cleavages that can potentially be exploited by a hybrid actor. This is particularly true for states which inherited the social contradictions resulting from the construction of artificially-conceived plural societies during the colonial era, many of which have failed to entirely rationalise those contradictions even today. The situation is further complicated by the advent of globalisation, and while greater interconnectivity has for the most part been a boon to regional economies, it has been accompanied by a growing movement of people, altering established social networks and creating new vulnerabilities to transnational influences. It is in this context that the threat caused by fake news and disinformation becomes heightened.       

However, just as a fever might be itself a self-contained ailment or the symptom of a larger and more severe malady, looking at the possible components of hybrid warfare leaves one none the wiser as to whether something more sinister is actually afoot. It does not help that the majority of hybrid warfare’s non-military actions take place in what has been aptly termed as the “grey zone”. The defining feature of this paradigm of conflict is ambiguity, and actions that occur in the grey zone are designed to take advantage of that. Non-attribution is the name of the game, and even if it is possible to make a good educated guess as to who a perpetrator is, the lingering uncertainty prevents the victim or its allies from taking firm decisive action or arbitrarily meting out retribution. While the resulting gains for the hybrid actor are understandably small and incremental, the ponderous necessity of this “long game” is mitigated by the relative safety afforded by the shroud of non-attribution. The recent series of protests in Hong Kong is an interesting case in point. On the one hand China has accused the West of supporting the protests as a means of attacking its strategic interests and destabilising its own backyard. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those that allege that China is benefitting from the protests while evidence suggests that China is itself trying to shape events in Hong Kong via its own proxies and the use of a state-run information campaign. Is Hong Kong therefore an organic eruption of civil disorder or the tip of a concerted hybrid war-shaped iceberg? There is simply too little evidence at the moment to arrive at any conclusive answer, and the same conundrum applies to numerous flashpoints across the region.

This is the reason why almost anything seems attributable to hybrid warfare these days, particularly in the Asia-Pacific where escalating US-China tensions will inevitably lead to a resurgence in great power machinations. In the Cold War-style long peace that will likely ensue, fraught with simmering tension, operations intended to alter the status quo will increasingly shift to the grey zone, as will the greater use of hybrid warfare’s more covert options. And with the prospect of overt war looming behind every seemingly innocuous feint in the grey zone, the response by regional state governments can only be one of eternal vigilance. Prevention will be preferable to cure, necessitating the strengthening of the state apparatus to inoculate against the possible undermining of state sovereignty and national solidarity. But beyond just the state, the breadth of hybrid warfare requires that all the relevant components of society be mobilised and actively prepared to respond collectively when required. While there might not be a monster lurking under every bed, it does not hurt to carry a loaded gun to sleep.  

Categories: hybrid warfare - Asia

About the Author(s)

Ian Li is a Research Analyst with the Military Studies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore.