After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a new military jargon appeared on the strategic studies scene: hybrid warfare. It has been used since then as a theoretical framework to depict a new way of conducting warfare. Unlike asymmetric warfare, which simply relies on the use of the so-called indirect approach – e.g. non-conventional means of war, such as terrorism, insurgency, and cyber warfare – hybrid warfare distinguishes itself for the simple fact that it envisages the multiple, simultaneous use of different types of operational systems, which range from the conventional to the unconventional spectrum. The key word that defines it at the operational and strategic level is “simultaneity.” In other words, hybrid warfare, to be such, requires the ability to exploit interoperability between different military as well as civilian sectors, all at the same time. Due to its highly flexible operational construct, hybrid warfare’s final objective is to deceive the opponent by merging both conventional and unconventional operations within the so-called “grey” areas, that is, blurry areas where it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish peacetime from wartime operations and vice versa.
China, thanks also to its historical ability to perform asymmetric warfare, as attested to during the civil war and beyond, is becoming a crucial actor in deploying hybrid warfare capabilities. The domains where Beijing’s role is becoming central are: Chinese maritime actions in the South China Sea; Chinese diplomacy; and finally, Beijing’s cyber warfare doctrine.
China’s maritime doctrine has developed enormously in the last twenty years, allowing the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to acquire new technological tools and military capabilities. Its strength, coupled with Beijing’s objective to extend its geopolitical reach throughout the South China Sea, make the PLAN a formidable tool to increase China’s regional assertiveness. However, in order to reach these geopolitical objectives, since 2014 Beijing has also heavily relied on the so-called maritime militia (海上民兵 – haishang mingbing), whose main objective is to harass other countries’ navies that transit through the South China Sea. Also called the little blue men (in relation to the Russian little green men, e.g. Moscow’s special forces deployed in Crimea), the Chinese maritime militia represents the symbol par excellence of the Chinese hybrid warfare doctrine as it combines both conventional military operations (when operating in tandem with the navy) and unconventional ones (when, disguised as Chinese fishermen, they attack other ships transiting through or operating in the South China Sea). The simultaneous use of fishermen as civilians who turn themselves into active military personnel and vice versa, according to the different military scenarios they are confronted with, clearly highlights how Chinese hybrid warfare operates.
At the same time, Chinese hybrid warfare is applied both at the strategic and tactical level in the maritime domain. For instance, Beijing is adopting the so-called “salami-slicing” strategy, which envisages the use of “non-linear operations” to slowly and progressively gain more and more pieces of land. The building of artificial islands is one case in point. China is gaining as much territory as possible by using unconventional techniques in order to gain control over those contested territories without provoking a military escalation that might lead to a systemic, international war. At the tactical level, Beijing is also employing the so-called cabbage tactics, which refers to the deployment of all maritime forces (both conventional and unconventional) to physically encircle contested islands so as to block all types of access and exits to bring the targeted islands to their knees.
However, as the nature of hybrid warfare attests, to be successful, one has also to move beyond the purely military spectrum, as it needs to be able to operate also at the diplomatic/political level. Within this context, China issued in 2003 a document, the “Political Work Guidelines of the People’s Liberation Army”, which described the application of the so-called “three warfares” (三种战法 – san zhong zhanfa) to be applied both during peacetime and wartime operations. The first one – psychological warfare (心理战 – xinli zhan) – refers to the application of both military and diplomatic measures aimed at disrupting adversaries’ will to oppose China’s foreign policy objectives. The second type – opinion warfare (舆论战 – yulun zhan) – concerns the implementation of overt and covert media manipulations, e.g. the use of distorted information, spread out through the media, with the objective to influence the international as well as the domestic audience about the rightness of Chinese foreign policy conduct. Finally, the third type – legal warfare (法律战 – falü zhan) also labelled lawfare – refers to the exploitation of all international norms to make sure of fulfiling China’s objectives while also undermining other states’ foreign policy goals through the international fora.
Surprisingly or not, we already witnessed China’s application of the three types of warfare in two crucial areas for the aggrandizement of Chinese political and military power, such as the South China Sea and Taiwan. For what concerns the SCS, China has constantly shifted from conventional operations – such as the military clashes with Vietnam (1974) and the Philippines (2012) – to unconventional ones – as attested to above by the construction of artificial islands as well as fishermen’s paramilitary operations – with the objective of exerting psychological pressure on its adversaries. At the same time, in order to influence public opinion at large, Beijing has constantly been using historical narratives, shown through the media, to justify its stance in the South China Sea. And finally, just to cite a case at hand, the legal dispute between China and the Philippines in 2016 over the Scarborough Shoal, which ended in the Philippines’ favour, still motivated Beijing to push for a reform of the international legal system.
By following the same strategic pattern, Beijing has also targeted Taiwan. At the psychological level, China has constantly threatened Taipei with a military invasion if the island unilaterally declares formal independence from Beijing. In order to influence public opinion in favour of the return of the island to China, Beijing is disseminating fake news to undermine Tsai Ing-wen’s political agenda; the latest political defeat of the DPP during the November 2018 local elections might also be read through this lens. And finally, at the legal level, China is constantly pressuring the island to make sure that the 1992 Consensus (a document signed by both parties acknowledging the existence of one China represented by Beijing) continues to be respected.
Lastly, a fundamental component of hybrid warfare is represented by the adoption of cyber warfare. China has developed a holistic approach to it. Specifically, and in line with its past revolutionary experience, the government has promoted the creation of cyber warrior units directly composed of university students and civilians at large. This responds to two fundamental Chinese strategic principles: the people’s war doctrine (人民战争 – renmin zhanzheng) and civil-military fusion (军民融合 – junmin ronghe). The first one refers to the idea that the wider population could be mobilized for warfare operations mainly through ideological campaigns, which sparks in turn a strong commitment to protecting the sovereignty of the Communist Party. The second element, connected to the first one, and directly responding to the principle of hybrid warfare, concerns the need to acquire a higher and more sophisticated military flexibility. One of the instruments to achieve it is by merging the civilian sphere with the military. This means having big corporations or industries directly affiliated with the government and therefore the military world. The case of Huawei is relevant, as it is both a telecommunication giant and a military partner.
Chinese hybrid warfare, then, in line with what we are witnessing right now on the world stage in terms of military transformation and technological advancement, represents a crucial component of what the future of geopolitics would bring. The unconventionality of Beijing’s military operations, ranging from the maritime to the cyber domain, passing through psychological and information operations, is destined to affect future states’ strategic interactions with unpredictable consequences.