Opinion | Hybrid war on China (Part I)
By Laura Ruggeri, an Italian-born writer and scholar
The G7, NATO and US-EU summits that took place in the first half of 2021 provided plenty of evidence that the US, faced with the emergence of a multipolar world order, is growing increasingly desperate to arrest the decline of its hegemony.
History has shown us that whenever the US government seeks to bolster its global dominance, it raises the spectre of a "common threat". But it suffices to consider the failure of the "War on Terror" — its staggering cost, estimated at $5 trillion, have far outweighed the geopolitical gains — to realize the ineffectiveness of basing foreign policy and military interventions on the inflated assessment of a threat. Not only the War on Terror did nothing to prevent the erosion of the US global status and competitiveness, many argue it actually accelerated it. Unfortunately the US has a complicated relationship with history and refuses to learn from it.
While the US is saddled with an enormous amount of debt and hellbent on spreading its liberal ideology to the farthest reaches of the globe, China has quietly overtaken Japan as the world's second largest economy by forging a unique model of development, socialism with Chinese characteristics. The country has lifted millions of its citizens out of poverty, keeps building state-of-the-art infrastructures and finances mutually beneficial projects around the world.
But China's rise, accompanied by a growing reputation as a reliable partner for both developed and developing countries, has put Washington on high alert. The economic interdependence that once underwrote the US-China relationship is now deemed a threat and a new "space race" in technology — 5G, artificial intelligence, and fintech — is in full swing.
Unable to destabilize China from within and sabotage China's advance in strategic fields, the US resorted to the old expedient of conjuring up yet another "global threat", this time a "threat to Western values, rule-of-law and democracy" to create a united front against China.
Behind the rhetorical smokescreen lies distress and alarm over rapidly changing power relations and US allies have been told to shape up. A document titled "NATO 2030" states it in unequivocal terms: "NATO must devote much more time, political resources and action to the security challenges posed by China."
Though NATO is a military alliance, one that has extended its scope and reach far beyond its original mission, the way it may respond will likely fall into the category of hybrid warfare rather than direct military engagement. Among NATO countries there are considerable differences and painting China as a security threat risks exacerbating them. Disagreements will not vanish overnight, nor will the perception that the US-led unipolar world is gone for good. Some NATO countries and US allies will probably continue to seek strategic autonomy from Washington.
Within the US the situation is rather different: China is one of the issues that receives bipartisan support. The Biden administration has accepted and ratified Trump's policies, is expanding the trade war and is deeply committed to tackling China by presenting the US-China relationship as a zero-sum struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.
Since personnel is policy in Washington, it's worth taking a close look at the composition of the current National Security Council (NSC) to know which way the wind is blowing. As the magnitude of the task exceeds the scope of this article, I will consider only new directorates and NSC members who have been publicly involved in the hybrid war against China. Those who advise the president on trade issues have also been excluded: though trade war is an integral part of hybrid warfare its analysis requires a set of skills I don't possess.
Kurt Campbell, one of the architects of the US "pivot to Asia", leads the Asia-Pacific team (referred to as Indo-Pacific in Washington circles) and is considered the key strategist behind Biden's hawkish policy towards China. A former Pentagon official with an intelligence background, he was co-founder and CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank widely represented in the current NSC. Campbell is also a member of the Aspen Strategy Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Trilateral Commission.
During a period broadly described as 'engagement with China' in his role as former Chairman and CEO of the Asia Group, he helped advance US financial and economic interests both in China and in the rest of Asia. Now that the US policy toward China is operating under a different set of strategic parameters and the dominant paradigm has become competition and confrontation rather than cooperation, he has advised the Biden administration to bolster ties with Japan, South Korea and other countries in Asia. Under his guidance, trade restrictions and sanctions against China will be devised in such a way to minimize damage to US supply chains, economic and financial interests and maximize their cost for China.
In January Kurt Campbell co-signed an article in Foreign Affairs titled "How America Can Shore Up Asian Order" (its style suggests it was actually written by Rush Doshi) reiterating the US intention to contain China by playing a more assertive role in the Asia-Pacific. Under the pretence of defending a mysterious "Asian order" allegedly challenged by China, the US should try to make its imperialism in the region appear legitimate by appealing to "shared democratic values" and throwing a few carrots at South Asian and South-East Asian countries.
Rush Doshi is a talented writer and outlined this strategy with great imagination and flair, but i summarized it for the busy readers who doubt Asia needs more hot air. My guess is that the few carrots mentioned in the article, such as Western companies relocating production lines to these countries, "humanitarian aid", the promise of infrastructures that will never see the light of day, new trade deals won't be sufficient and the US-NATO is ramping up both military presence and influence operations in the Asia-Pacific.
Most worringly, the US and its allies might do what they do best: sow chaos and destruction to destabilize the region. Colour revolutions were already attempted in Hong Kong, Thailand and Myanmar and their instigators are unlikely to throw away the blueprint.
Kurt Campbell's team is not only a new addition to the NSC, it is also the largest and most influential among regional NSC directorates, a clear sign the NSC is prioritizing China and Asia-Pacific issues. But work on China expands into every NSC directorate: teams in charge of technology and national security, global health security and biodefense, democracy and human rights, defence, and international economics are all involved in shaping the US-China policy. The majority of "China experts" in Campbell's Asia-Pacific directorate have written articles in recent months that call for a tough approach to China.
Laura Rosenberger is the NSC senior China director and reports directly to Campbell. She is a dyed-in-the-wool democracy crusader whose expertise is "Authoritarian regime interference in democracies and state-backed disinformation." Rosenberger at the German Marshall Fund first focused on Russian "interference" in the US and Europe and later expanded her focus to include Chinese activities. She also played a central role in a project that tracks Russian and Chinese information campaigns on Twitter and YouTube. In 2020 she co-authored an article in Foreign Affairs titled "Democratic Values Are a Competitive Advantage" calling on the US to double efforts to export its superior "values and rule-of-law" to the barbarians who haven't been fully converted yet.
She openly advocated putting pressure on foreign politicians and business leaders who maintain good relations with China and Russia and accused Beijing and Moscow of "weaponised corruption". She made the suggestion to publicly name and shame individuals deemed too close to "authoritarian regimes", lack of evidence being no obstacle to the widespread practice of trial by media. After all, an imperial power that orchestrated a global campaign about an imaginary genocide in Xinjiang can certainly cook up phony proofs of corruption to smear those who don't toe the line. (https://www.lowyinstitute.org/news-and-media/multimedia/audio/conversation-laura-rosenberger-washington-s-china-realignment)
ALSO READ: Opinion | Hybrid war on China (Part II)
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