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China’s Strategic Preconditioning in the Twenty-first Century

  • Published
  • By Dr. Sascha-Dominik (Dov) Bachmann & Mr. Munoz Mosquera


China’s ascent as a new imperial global power seems to be unstoppable. Originally built on business, globalization, technological advancement a “newer” focus on an imperialistic national rejuvenation has taken place under its leader, Xi Jinping. These developments have gone mostly unchecked by the West (with the exception of the United States and now the present Scott Morrison government in Australia) due to reliance on China as a global economic powerhouse and trade partner. China aims to gain a lead position in the strategic competition and primes its strategic preconditioning by a combination of intentional, multidimensional, and integrated use of the different instruments of diplomacy, power, investments, and technology.

Opinion is divided on whether China’s global power ambitions follow Russia’s successful use of hybrid warfare and gray-zone operations or whether Chinese ambitions in fact predate Russia’s gray-zone aggression. We argue that China has been preparing for today’s competition-short-of-war and great-power competition since the late-1990s in the form of strategic preconditioning. In the seminal work Unrestricted Warfare of 1998, Chinese colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui wrote that future battlefields were limitless “and could include environmental warfare, financial warfare, trade warfare, cultural warfare, and legal warfare, to name just a few.” Qiao clarified that “the first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.” Lawfare, the use and the abuse of the rule of law to achieve strategic political goals, is evident in China’s ongoing maritime aggression in the South China Sea and Beijing’s refuted nine-dash-line justification is such an example for “legal warfare.” China’s lawfare actions in the South China Sea saw China arguing that its man-made islands did qualify as islands under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and that Beijing would hence extend Chinese maritime zones to the extent of the nine-dash line, a claim which was roundly dismissed by the UN arbitral tribunal. Beijing’s attempt to manipulate the international legal order also saw an attempt to extend China's continental shelf to cement new sovereign claims.

(Source: Philippine Daily Inquirer)

Figure 1. Man-made islands. Beijing's militarization of the South China Sea is best illustrated by China’s construction of man-made islands tailored to military-specific functions.

Beijing has applied the concept of unrestricted warfare to influence, instrumentalize, and exploit the international rule of law to China’s strategic objectives. This can only be achieved by preconditioning the political, strategic, and operational arenas in the mid- and long-run by using propaganda means through a very reliable and flexible apparatus.

Information warfare as an enhancer and force multiplier is part of the “three warfares” (san zhong zhanfa). The main goal is to provide the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with an information warfare concept and capabilities to precondition key areas of strategic competition in favor of China’s claims and interests. The Central Military Commission approved the concept of three warfares already in 2003.

Strategic information operations applies the three warfares in three distinct domains: (1) the use of strategic psychological operations to influence internal and external public opinion; (2) overt and covert media manipulation through Chinese state media and foreign media alike; and (3) legal warfare, which manipulates national and international law to further Chinese economic and geostrategic interests, as the examples of the South China Sea and the Arctic show. The three warfares work together with the aim to reach and influence China’s internal and external audiences “in the effort to more fully utilize information age factors to precondition and influence tactical, operational, and strategic situations.”

The Central Politburo of the Communist Party of China runs Beijing's preconditioning measures and uses the most relevant subject specific ministries such as foreign affairs, commerce, and defense to operationalize the Politburo’s program of work via leading small groups (LSG). This permits China to gain competitive advantage in terms of a diplomatic, informational, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and legal (DIMEFIL) model. This approach allows China to advantage its position in all domains where the opponents’ political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, and information (PMESII) system components may clash with China’s DIMEFIL.

Apart from the aforementioned lawfare examples, China’s preconditioning can also be seen in the current COVID-19 (“Wuhan-virus”) pandemic, where China not only tries to avoid attribution and potential liabilities by claiming that the virus was developed as a US bioweapon but also by attempting to use the pandemic response to Beijing's benefit. On this note, China’s influence has been shifted from foreign governments and business to foreign society.” The three warfares are enablers of said preconditioning, and they are integrated in the Politburo’s propaganda approach, which seeks to build a “new type of international relations” of an highly ideologized Chinese character. Given the present vulnerabilities in the West to counter Chinese influence, which will become even more obvious as a consequence of the impact of the Wuhan-virus pandemic on our societies, national economics, and our diplomacy, it is now time to plan for our future relationship with China post pandemic: this has to come from a position of strength and not weakness.

Dr. Sascha Dov-Dominik (Dov) Bachmann

Dr. Bachmann, State Exam (Ludwig Maximillians Universität, Germany), Ass. Juris, LLM (Stell, RSA), LLD (UJ, RSA), FHEA, (Rechtsanwalt, Barrister/Solicitor) is an international legal scholar and author of over 70 academic publications (articles, books, and scientific submissions) and also a regular contributor to NATO’s Legal Advisor Web (LAWFAS), with his publications often being used as NATO reference documents. Sascha holds the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Reserves (GE-A) and served on three NATO missions. He joined Canberra Law School, University of Canberra, Australia, as professor in law and justice in 2019 and is a NATO SHAPE Asia Pacific Fellow (Hybrid Threats and Lawfare).

Mr. Munoz Mosquera

Mr. Mosquera is a veteran of the Spanish Armed forces and is now one of the three NATO senior legal advisors. He joined NATO in 2000 as a civilian and has been the NATO Commander’s Legal Advisor (Director of the ACO/SHAPE Office of Legal Affairs) since 2014. He holds a honoris causa master in international relations from the Universidad Iberoamericana de Ciencia y Tecnología (UNICIT). He is also a Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Tufts) graduate and has graduated from the NATO Defence College (GFOAC).



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