In this era of great power competition, countering China’s control of the information space will be central to pursuing strategic goals while avoiding global conflict. If the United States wants to remain dominant in the competition, it must recognize the changes in the operational environment and the very nature of war. This shift is marked by a stark rise in information warfare (IW) operations in the form of cyber warfare, psychological operations, and information campaigns as China aims to control the information space while continuing its economic rise.
The Rise of China’s Economy
The economic and military advantages the United States has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War are deteriorating and will continue to diminish until China likely surpasses the United States in several key indicators of national power. According to MIT professor Stanley Fischer, purchasing power parity (PPP) is the best benchmark for comparing the sizes of national economies, “especially for the purposes of assessing comparative military potential.” China surpassed the United States in 2014 in terms of PPP and is on track to double this economic indicator by 2045. China’s developing economy already is the largest producer of “ships, steel, aluminum, furniture, clothing, textiles, cellphones, and computers, and automobiles” in the world.
Domestically, China has the world’s most extensive highway system and more high-speed rail tracks than the rest of the world combined. In two years, “China both produced and used more cement than the US did in the entire twentieth century.”1 Lee Kuan Yew, the late Prime Minister of Singapore and avid China analyst stated, “In the old concept, balance of power meant largely military power. In today’s terms it is a combination of economic and military, and I think the economic outweighs the military.” China is growing on average 2 to 3 times the U.S. economic growth rate.2 What’s more, China has spent billions on international trade infrastructure projects, such as the Belt Road Initiative, which are transitioning China’s economy to a service economy and allowing its manufacturing basis to continue high levels of output in developing countries in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of east Asia. The economic weight of China, coupled with the centralized command structure of the Chinese Communist Party, will provide the country leverage in international politics that will be difficult for the United States to counter in East Asia.
Implications of China’s Rise
What does the rise of China mean for the United States and the rest of the world? The most important objective for the United States and its military is to avoid war while continuing to pursue its strategic objectives in the Pacific. To this end, it must consolidate its strategic priorities and display a cohesive, long-term commitment to its partners in the region while enforcing long-standing international law and norms. This is easier said than done, especially when four-year election cycles often shift U.S. policy.
Nonetheless, Harvard professor Graham Allison warns that war is more likely than not unless both China and the United States take drastic action to avoid it. In his analysis of rising powers overtaking ruling powers over the previous five centuries, Graham explores 16 situations in which a rising nation overtook the global hegemony. All but four resulted in war.3 However, three of the four situations in which war was averted originated in the latter half of the 20th century, where nuclear deterrence and globalization played a large role in tempering conflict. This international climate makes the political aims of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) likely to play out in the economic and information space with the potential rise of proxy wars.
A New Form of Warfare
In their 1999 book, Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui give an idea of what great power competition with China may entail. They analyze U.S. war doctrine, successes of the Gulf War, and missed opportunities of the U.S. military. In their analysis, the United States conducts war effectively at the tactical level but fails to fully appreciate the importance of the economic, political, and information domains on modern warfare. Furthermore, an excessive overreliance on increasingly expensive technology and conventional means of war has put the United States in a disadvantageous position in which it can consistently win battles, but still lose wars.4
Because of these factors, Liang and Xiangsui advocate for what they call “new-concept weapons” to leverage the full might of a nation while avoiding conflict with larger military powers. The Sun Tzu–inspired idea of new-concept weapons captures a part of the strategic paradigm shift in which the United States must now operate. It views weapons in a broad sense, where a state’s warfighting instruments transcend the military realm but can still be used to great effect in combat operations. Some examples include financial market influence through monetary exchange rates and stock manipulation, cyber warfare, influence campaigns to persuade public opinion, biological war, and law warfare. Michael Pillsbury, Director of the Center on Chinese Strategy at Hudson Institute, has identified these “new-concept weapons” in Chinese military doctrine as “Shashoujian,” or the “Assassin’s Mace” Program.5 This program’s aim is to provide effective, cost-efficient weapons to counter U.S. military and political might, largely in the information and technology space. By putting the nonmilitary instruments in place prior to conflict, such as capital investments and information control systems, China can force adversary policy change prior to conflict, or prime a battlespace prior to launching a controlled military assault.
Chinese IW Policy
Sean McFate, senior fellow at the Atlantic Foundation and professor at Georgetown University, describes how Beijing is circumventing U.S. military-political dominance through the use of new-concept weapons and making the $721 billion annual U.S. military budget partially irrelevant through IW, all while emerging as a great power in the process. First, McFate points out that Beijing is able to pursue its strategic objectives because of its understanding of Washington’s belief in the dichotomy of war—the United States is either engaged in war or it is not. This linear thinking has allowed China to escalate a situation enough to achieve objectives, such as island-building in the South China Sea, yet deescalate once Washington responds.
The second way is through nonmilitary tools presented in the Three-Warfare Strategy, an ideology officially recognized by China’s Central Military Commission and Communist Party in 2003 as the framework for PLA political and information operations.6 The Three-Warfare Strategy draws from the ideas found within Unrestricted Warfare and is broken up into three topics: public opinion warfare (media), psychological warfare, and legal warfare—all three having components of IW. It is important to note that although the Three-Warfare Strategy was created almost 20 years ago, it has been foundational in the CCP’s approach to warfare and has been expanded on most recently through the PLA National Defense University (NDU) "Introduction to Public Opinion Warfare, Psychological Warfare, and Legal Warfare (2014)" and the 2015 NDU "Science of Military Strategy.” This warfare doctrine is central to understanding what the CCP’s idea of a “Peaceful Rise of China” will look like and its effect on U.S. national security.
Chinese Influence Campaigns
In the realm of the information space, the CCP aims to assist its rise by extending CCP ideology through extensive use of positive influence campaigns, conducting cyber theft and espionage, and upgrading its military C4I systems. With time, the cultivation of Chinese influence throughout the world, combined with economic incentives, will allow China to recreate international world order with Chinese interests as the centerpiece by renegotiating international law, such as those in the South China Sea, while avoiding kinetic conflict. These influence campaigns pose the most dangerous threat to democracy, and the remainder of this essay will, therefore, address that specific topic.
When China opened its economy to the world in 1979, the CCP needed to ensure its political survival in the face of outside influence. This was made possible by bringing back millenniums of ancient Chinese culture such as Confucianism, art, and similar examples of Chinese exceptionalism, all while pointing out that the power concentration in the West was more of an anomaly than the norm. To achieve this, the CCP also promoted the century of humiliation (1839–1949), a time in which the Opium Wars and Japanese/Russian incursions brought about great dishonor to the Chinese people. The rise of the CCP, in effect, ended this period and brought about a new era of Chinese dominance. Since the start of the computer age, promoting this narrative in the information space—social media, mass media—has been a central component of the CCP’s survival.
Internally, the CCP exercises strict control over the information space by shaping the opinions of their near-homogenous population with carefully crafted talking points of the CCP through a complex strategy of web and social engineering, often referred to as the Great Firewall. The strategy is as follows: the CCP, characterized by political scholar Francis Fukuyama as a “responsive authoritarianism,” seeks to allow liberal discussion in moderation while eliminating any spread of dangerous ideology which directly threatens its existence. It adapts to its citizens’ opinions while ensuring that the framework of communism survives. To this end, eliminating corruption and silencing the voices that speak out too adamantly against the CCP are central.7 Research Firm Recorded Future estimates that up to 18 percent of social media posts within mainland China are government propaganda aimed at controlling the opinions of its own citizens. To organize an operation of this scale, a massive workforce is needed, and some studies put the estimate at around half a million people. By encouraging ultra-nationalism and ensuring continued economic growth, the CCP ensures its survival. However, these initiatives could also destabilize the region and encourage conflict with outside powers. In 2016, a large portion of Chinese citizens on social media called for the unification of Taiwan by force, alarming CCP officials as they tried to appease their citizens.8 Internal influence campaigns created a Chinese populace that could erupt in anger at the slightest provocations to their nationalistic ideology, forcing action by the CCP.
There is evidence that China is now turning its influence operations outward. State-sponsored mass media companies such as China's Central Global Television Network (GCGTV) are operating to great effect around the world with offices in Washington, London, and capitals throughout Europe and Africa. Beijing is pumping billions of dollars into these state-owned enterprises as well as paying “third-party spokespeople” to advocate for pro-CCP policy and ideology. Furthermore, China already conducts covert influence operations within territories recognized under its policy of “One China.” During the 2020 Taiwanese presidential election, Chinese influence operations use artificial intelligence and bulk social media management software to weaponize Taiwanese social media and messaging platforms to push public opinion toward China-friendly candidates. And, while China’s use of social media influence campaigns has been mostly benign and limited to inside “One China,” a change in tactics could begin to mirror Russian aggression in the information space. To this end, influence campaigns could target the sanctity of democracy, sway elections, or exacerbate social issues such as race relations within the United States. Russia’s Internet Research Agency had approximately 500 employees; China could employ half a million.
According to Sun Tzu, “Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.” The rise of China marks a monumental change in the operational environment that, although widely discussed, is not fully appreciated. Far too often, a tactical-level methodology is applied in place of what should be strategic-level understanding of the current battlespace, and by limiting itself to a conventional warfare-centric lens, the United States fails to grasp the new paradigm in which it now operates.
1. Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? (New York : First Mariner Books, 2018), 9–12, 14.
2. Allison, Destined for War.
4. Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare: China's Master Plan to Destroy America (Shadow Lawn Press, 1999).
5. Michael Pillsbury, The Hunred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to replace America as the Global Superpower (New York : St. Martin's Press, 2016).
6. Sean McFate, The New Rules of War: How America Can Win Against Russia, China, and Other Threats (New York: William Morrow, 2019), 63–65.
7. Francis Fukuyama, “A Conversation With Francis Fukuyama,” Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Yoshikazu Kato, 25 March 2019.
8. P. W. Singer and Emerson Brooking, Like War: The Weaponizatoin of Social Media (New York : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), 214–17.