While the last major war in East Asia ended with South Vietnam’s collapse in 1975, the resurgence of great power rivalries coupled with the diffusion of advanced military technologies suggests that while wars and conflicts in the region aren’t inevitable, neither are they inconceivable. In one school of thought, the confluence of China’s rise and its emerging power projection capabilities raises the spectre of a major accidental or planned naval clash in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean Region, the Mekong River region, in addition to the critical geopolitical hotspot around the Taiwan Straits.
Such clashes, however, would likely provoke retaliatory escalation. In particular, strategic competition in East Asia between adversaries armed with nuclear weapons and precision strike systems places a premium on coercive diplomacy – persuading an adversary to stop a particular course of action by integrating military and non-military instruments of power short of conventional war.
Accordingly, great powers in the region are increasingly relying on non-military methods of thought to ‘win’ wars against their peer-state adversaries. The goal is not the physical destruction of the opponent or state infrastructure but rather using intense political, economic, information, and military pressure during peacetime, in order to achieve political and strategic objectives. These “indirect” actions can include the use of information operations and political warfare, cyber-attacks, electronic warfare, paramilitary operations, and limited strikes in targeted areas without escalating to a major conflict.
Struggles for Influence
An important feature of new types of conflicts reflect varying struggles for influence – using strategies of denial, deception, disruption, and subversion – designed to misinform and manipulate the adversary’s picture of reality, to interfere with the decision-making process of individuals, organisations, governments and societies and to influence it in order to produce favourable conditions for promoting strategic goals without actual fighting.
In many ways, the confluence of new cyber and information warfare strategies creates weapons of mass effectiveness. The weaponisation of social media, for example, provides new tools for both state and non-state actors to seed ideas, deliver “tailored” information campaigns, and in doing so, influence perceptions of events or environment in real time. In doing so, the effective use of social media can shape strategic outcomes of conflicts before they actually happen.
Meanwhile, the continuously evolving character and complexity of cyber-attacks – whether offensive or intelligence-driven, coupled with the use of disinformation, concealment, and deception may impair crisis management and recovery mechanisms. This means the potential loss or damage to significant portions of military and critical infrastructure: power generation, communications, fuel and transportation, emergency services, financial services, etc.
Cross-Domain Coercion Strategies
The emerging contours of such warfighting strategies are already present in the conceptual, organisational, and technological military innovation trajectories in the region.
In Russian strategic thought, for example, a multi-dimensional coercive campaign can be viewed in a holistic information (cyber) operation context, waged simultaneously on the digital-technological and on the cognitive-psychological fronts, which skilfully merges military and non-military capabilities across nuclear, conventional, and sub-conventional domains. The contours of Russian information struggle identify the main battlespace as the mind of the enemy, which means “influence operations” are of strategic importance, including elaborate internal communications, deception operations, psychological operations and well-defined external strategic communications. Their key aim is to manipulate the adversary’s perceptions, shape its decision-making process, and strategic choices, while minimizing the scale of kinetic force. Most importantly, they are waged during peacetime and wartime, simultaneously in domestic and external information spheres.
Similarly, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aims to achieve “integrated strategic deterrence” through a holistic representation that includes simultaneous and coordinated use of offensive and defensive electronic warfare, military space and counter-space, along with cyber reconnaissance and cyber-attack and defence operations in varying security conditions – peacetime, crisis, and war. At the same time, China uses economic leverage and “soft power” diplomacy as primary means of power projection. Beijing has been also actively exploiting concepts associated with strategic information operations to direct influence on the process and outcome in areas of strategic competition. The guiding conceptual umbrella for Chinese information and influence operations is embedded in the concept “Three Warfares” – the coordinated use of strategic psychological operations, overt and covert media manipulation, and legal warfare designed to manipulate strategies, defence policies, and perceptions of target audiences abroad.
Regional Arms Competition
The progressive complexity in strategic interactions and interdependencies between cyber, information, cognitive, and physical domains will likely challenge traditional kinetic uses of force in East Asia. The key challenge for armed forces in the region is to be able to adapt to these potential changes to the character of war. The reality is that the majority of the armies in the region remain relatively unchanged, in terms of its current doctrines and strategies.
Consequently, when contemplating how the changing character of warfare may affect East Asian security and defense requirements, militaries in the region will need to explore the nature of the evolving strategic competition in East Asia. In particular, U.S. allies and strategic partners in East Asia, including Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, will have to plan for potential U.S. involvement in emerging conflicts in the East China Sea and South China Sea vis-à-vis China: what types of challenges does this present for them? How will they operate in a contested environment characterized by the diffusion of sophisticated longer-range adversary capabilities and methods such as ballistic missiles, submarines, weapons of mass destruction, and offensive space and cyberspace assets?
At the same time, however, the character of future conflicts in the regional “gray zones” may also likely reflect low-level type intensity conflicts in “peripheral campaigns”, rather than high-end missions – given the considerable escalatory risks. However, in a context where the battle space is crowded with both legally constituted combatants and non-combatants, this will present new challenges. A key requirement will be the capacity of the select militaries to educate both the officer corps and the rank-and-file on the changing character of war, what the laws of armed conflict permit military personnel to do. Under the conditions of strategic ambiguity, regional militaries will therefore have to redefine their “theories of victory.”
Ultimately, as military-technological gaps in the East Asia narrow, the resulting cyber-kinetic conflicts will evolve parallel with technological changes – e.g. the introduction of next generation of robots, artificial intelligence, and remotely controlled systems that will increasingly shape the direction and character of regional “arms competition.”
Michael Raska is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.