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China already ‘engaging in irregular war’ with US in the ‘grey zone’

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It’s war. But not as we know it.

Decades of writings by China’s top tacticians reveal this to be so.

“National security leaders should look closely at what Chinese officials’ words and China’s military actions say about how the People’s Liberation Army might actually fight a war,” a US military academy analysis warns.

They say it’s a war already well under way. That means the start of any ‘conventional’ conflict will be murky and confused. And, even once the shooting starts, sowing doubt and disbelief will be a significant weapon in its arsenal.

It will involve police.

It will involve militias.

It will involve civilians.

And all will serve to pave the way for the People’s Liberation Army’s more traditional weapons to find its target.

It’s called the “Grey Zone”.

It’s the space between peace and war.

It’s where coercion, intimidation, propaganda and manipulation are at play.

Philippine coast guard aboard rubber boats patrol past Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, in the Spratly Islands. Picture: Philippine Coast Guard (PCG)/AFP

Philippine coast guard aboard rubber boats patrol past Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, in the Spratly Islands. Picture: Philippine Coast Guard (PCG)/AFPSource:AFP

RELATED: China’s alarming move in our backyard

“Democracies’ fear of escalation is a significant deterrent against the use of violent military options in the grey zone, and that is exactly the fear that authoritarian states … wish to instil,” wrote retired British army colonel Richard Kemp.

It’s about twisting democratic values – such as the rule of law – against itself.

“The PLA is engaging in irregular warfare today,” the West Point paper asserts. “China is employing lawfare to achieve strategic aims. The maritime militia is enforcing China’s sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas against US partners and allies.”

And it has already weaponised international information flows and channels of influence, along with cyber, economic – and psychological – tactics.

Divide and conquer

“Russia and China plan on winning the Great Power Competition by undermining the US, sowing discord, and continuing a secret war until the positions in the world order are reversed,” an essay by US navy analyst Derek Bernsen argues.

Polarisation. Conspiracy. Hate.

They already exist. But a few well-placed social media posts and complicit “influencers” can nudge them in beneficial directions.

“Many elements of irregular warfare, such as psychological warfare, legal warfare, and cyberwarfare, are central to the PLA’s concept of information warfare and its theory of victory in a conventional conflict,” the Modern Warfare Institute analysis argues.

Beijing’s military has a name for it: The Three Warfares.

Public opinion. Morale. Legal processes.

All are manipulated to achieve Beijing’s ends.

The purpose is to “stifle criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, spread positive views of China (and influence governments) in ways favourable to China”.

The outcome is to sow discontent and confusion ahead of any direct conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: Dominique Jacovides/AFP

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: Dominique Jacovides/AFPSource:AFP

“Information warfare, combined with political and economic acts of aggression, comprises the majority of actions between the United States and Russia, and the United States and China,” Mr Bernsen says.

“Cyber and information operations also have the advantage in difficulty of attribution. A sublimely executed information warfare operation would erase its own tracks and sow doubt about whether it even happened, or spread misinformation about an operation that did – or didn’t – happen.”

Pushing the limits

Militias. Partisans. Mercenaries. These have long been used to offer an air of ‘implausible deniability’ in international conflict.

Beijing has embraced the idea.

It has also formalised the concept.

It has established the People’s Armed Police (PAP), along with the better-known Maritime Militia.

The militia is Beijing’s ‘grey zone’ force for asserting Communist Party control over its commercial fishing fleet – and dominance over contested territories.

“These actions fit a recent pattern of Chinese leaders turning to irregular warfare to achieve strategic aims in the South China Sea: China sends its maritime militia to a location in the South China Sea to reinforce Chinese sovereignty claims and then ratchets up control with little involvement by conventional forces,” the West Point IWM essay argues.

It puts opposing nations – such as Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia – off-side. They face a propaganda barrage if warships are deployed in response. And there’s the risk of giving Beijing an excuse for escalation.

And, once the shooting starts, these nominally civilian units will have a role.

“Chinese writers discuss a number of wartime missions for the maritime militia, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), counter-ISR, sabotage, anti-aircraft missions, raiding and electronic warfare,” the IWM report warns. “Irregular warfare activities are so fully integrated with conventional tactics and operations that they are not identified as ‘irregular’.”

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