Hybrid Warfare in Asia: Potential not yet Unleashed

Ukraine separatists crisis in the city of Slovyansk. Source: Filckr.com, Sasha Maksymenko, CC BY-NC 2.0
Ukraine separatists crisis in the city of Slovyansk. Source: Filckr.com, Sasha Maksymenko, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Hybrid warfare” is currently one of the most “trendy” terms in the security-strategic dictionary. Although the concept was used for the first time in the beginning of the 21st century, it gained its prominent position after the Russian annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s involvement in the military conflict in eastern Ukraine. Subsequently, it has become part of the strategic documents of the European Union and NATO, as well as of their member states.

Hybrid escalation follows roughly three stages: first, the attacker engages in internal and external political subversion to undermine the credibility of local government and create unrest among the population. Subversive action would include the support of anti-government and anti-“system” forces, propaganda tools and media campaigns, and the creation of “pockets of influence”. In the second stage, the attacker would take steps to ensure that any such opposition movement would topple the government, preferably by peaceful and legal or semi-legal means, promoting change in the political status quo. In the third stage, the attacker would overtly intervene with kinetic means to ensure “new realities on the ground”, which would be presented as “fait accompli”.

So what is “hybrid warfare” and can we trace its presence beyond the European continent – to Asia for example?


Hybrid Warfare, Nothing New under the Sun

From the buzz around the concept of hybrid warfare, it may seem that the world has experienced in recent years an entirely new type of armed conflict, for which the community of security experts and military strategists had to devise a name. However, the very essence of hybrid warfare is as old as war itself – it is a combination of military and civilian resources, which, thanks to their synergistic effect, force the opponent to take steps that he would not take voluntarily.

Although armed conflicts traditionally combine several dimensions (except for the use of regular military forces, it is often the involvement of secret and diverse operations and of propaganda and disinformation activities), hybrid warfare is different from them in placing emphasis on the achievement of strategic goals by non-military means of a subversive nature. These include primarily, but not exclusively, deployment of special forces, sabotage, support of local resistance units and separatism, propaganda and disinformation campaigns, economic pressure, and terrorist activities. As Valery Gerasimov pointed out in his famous article “The Value of Science in Prediction” in 2013, “the role of non-military means in achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of weapons in their effectiveness.”

When military force is used, it is used in a limited manner and in denial mode, when its presence is officially disavowed, or labelled as “peacekeeping”. To quote Gerasimov once again, “the open use of forces – often under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis regulation – is resorted to only at a certain stage, primarily for the achievement of final success in the conflict”.

Mark Galeotti describes hybrid warfare in even clearer terms: it is a stage of political destabilisation, which precedes and sometimes even replaces the phase of proper kinetic warfare operations.

What is new, therefore, in hybrid warfare is not the inclusion of non-military means in the service of war itself, but the level of their interconnection with conventional warfare, the emphasis on the non-military component, and the extent of damage that can be done with such a synergy due to the technological and social cohesion of the contemporary world.


Practical Application of the Concept

Destabilising activities conducted by Russia against the territorial integrity of Ukraine in 2014 are a prime example of hybrid warfare. During the annexation of Crimea and the first phase of military operations in eastern Ukraine, which ended with an open intervention of Russian regular forces in the summer of 2014, Moscow used almost a full arsenal of hybrid warfare tools, especially in political, economic, social, and military domains. Non-military means included support for local separatist troops, economic pressure on Ukraine, and propaganda and disinformation campaigns directed at the Ukrainian and global populations. From the military component, both special and regular forces were deployed in so-called incognito or denial mode, but the military element was not crucial to achieving Moscow’s strategic goals – it secured the desired outcome through its supportive and supplementary role.

If a similar analysis is carried out in Asia, we can conclude that none of the ongoing conflicts satisfies the definition to be considered hybrid.


China´s Activities in the South China Sea

Consider China´s activities in the South China Sea. Although some scholars and practitioners consider them as examples of hybrid warfare, these activities fall short of fulfilling the above-mentioned definition, mainly because they are not armed conflicts (so far). Although two battles were fought between the PLA Navy and Vietnamese Navy in 1974 and 1988 for ownership of the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, they were “ad hoc” military clashes, which resulted in shifts of their management from Vietnam to China and which did not escalate further. Since that time, there has not been any military armed conflict between the claimants in the South China Sea dispute.

The uses of non-military means of warfare are further limited by the fact that the disputed features are uninhabited rock formations, whose first ever “residents” are the incoming Chinese soldiers, anglers, and workers. Thus, there was never any population against which China could employ its tools of political destabilisation as a prepar atory stage for a further military campaign.

Rather than hybrid warfare, China’s actions and behaviour in the South China Sea are more reminiscent of the great powers in their redistribution of “newly discovered” territories and can be described as the tactics of “take as much as you can”.

First, conventional forces were deployed in order to secure the ownership of the disputed features, several of which have become artificial islands through land reclamation. On more than 3,200 acres of reclaimed soil, Beijing builds airports, radars, missile storage, and other military equipment and assets, thereby confirming its de facto authority over the territory and creating a new status quo on the ground (and water) regardless of the legitimacy of such actions under international law. Subsequently, China uses means of non-military nature, such as media campaigns and historical and legal justification, to legitimise its actions before the world’s public, and maritime militias to project its control over claimed waters.


East Asian Frozen Conflicts

There are two long-standing armed conflicts in East Asia – the dispute between South and North Korea for dominance over the peninsula and the conflict between mainland China and Taiwan. Both are currently frozen in military terms, and both have experienced in the course of their duration repeated use of non-military tools such as propaganda and disinformation operations, support for civil unrest and opposition, and cyber and terrorist operations. The most recent examples of such methods include, among others, China´s restrictions on tourism to Taiwan following Taiwan´s general elections in January 2016, and the hacking of South Korea´s military cyber command by North Korea in December 2016.

However, none of the actors has fully explored the potential for hybrid warfare significantly to change the status quo. So far, non-military tools of warfare have been used subordinate to the military dimension, even though they might play a prominent role in destabilising an opponent´s society and thus preparing the stage for “final success in the conflict.”

Considering the capabilities of players in these two East Asian conflicts, the most likely scenario would include the application of hybrid warfare by China against Taiwan; other combinations would not have as much chance of success in this case. Even though China possesses huge military, economic, influential, and cyber capabilities, which it could use in order to destabilise Taiwanese society, there are two main limitations to the successful application of hybrid warfare.

First, the island´s residents are mostly unsympathetic to the government of mainland China and 60% of them identify themselves as exclusively Taiwanese. Second, Taiwan has strong security ties with the United States, which would object to any serious attempt by Beijing to destabilise the island.

India: Between Pakistan’s Markhor and China’s Dragon

The armed conflict between India and Pakistan in areas such as Jammu and Kashmir dates back to 1947 and is predominantly a “traditional” territorial dispute in which the emphasis lies on military means and the non-military dimension plays only a complementary role. Even though Pakistan is accused of being involved in undercover operations and in supporting terrorism and local separatist groups in Indian-controlled territory, these non-military activities are subordinate to the use of regular forces in achieving the desired end state. The hybrid potential of the Indo-Pakistani territorial dispute has not been fully explored by either side.

On the Sino-Indian border, there is currently, primarily, only verbal conflict in the Indian-controlled Aranuchal Pradesh and other smaller regions, which China claims. As even Indian military officials are aware, the hybrid potential of this conflict is based primarily on the economic underdevelopment of India’s remote regions, which contrast with the prosperity of neighbouring Chinese provinces. Beijing can use such inequality to foment separatist sentiment within the local population, which is culturally and ethnically close to the population of China’s Tibet.

Due to ethnic and cultural separation from India´s population and the pre-existing separatist sentiment, these two conflicts are more likely to develop into hybrid war than any of the above-mentioned disputes. In a possible scenario, China and/or Pakistan would try to exploit those dividing lines, triggering a political and social crisis in the disputed territories that would prepare the stage for military intervention and final annexation.

If not developing according to plan, China and/or Pakistan could send in their “peace” troops, which by their presence would help to ensure the desired outcome. The main weight of the warfare would, however, rest on the support of local opposition movements; manipulation of public opinion, cyber attacks, special operations and disinformation campaigns – namely, on non-military power ingredients.


Future Hybrid Conflicts

Sound familiar? It should: a similar scenario was followed when Russia destabilized Ukraine and is likely to be repeated against neighbouring states whose status quo it wishes to change without military aggression. However, since this hybrid method of warfare was successfully used in Crimea, other countries have become more cautious towards the possible employment of such a combination of military and non-military activities against them.

Although the element of surprise was lost, some disputes, as shown above, certainly have the potentialto escalate into a hybrid war. Since the key goal is to avoid becoming the target of a hybrid attack, the attention devoted to this phenomenon by security experts as well as the civilian population in the given country is essential. It is necessary is to popularize the topic itself and follow the activities of any “hybrid” attackers even before any actual attack occurs. As Miroslav Mares writes, “the most important weapon against these hybrid threats is a confident democratic society that is willing to defend democratic values and national identity.”

Published in European Security & Defence magazine, issue May 2017.


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