The international community keeps a close watch on China's security policy and its military trends. China, now the second largest economy in the world, has become an essentially important economic partner for Japan and other East Asian countries. At the same time, its rapid economic growth allows China to multiply its military spending and move forward with the modernization of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The NIDS China Security Report analyzes the strategic and military trends of China. "China Security Report 2023. China’s Quest for Control of the Cognitive Domain and Gray Zone Situations"
di Nicola Iuvinale
As China achieves rapid economic growth and develops into a strong country, it has increasingly challenged the United States-centered international order. At its basis has been Chinese military modernization built on its growing economic power and technological capabilities. Yet Beijing has actuallyused non-military means, such as influence operations the psychological and cognitive domains,as well as maritime gray zone situations.
What has been China’s approach to these means, and what organizational structure has been adopted to pursue them?
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) marked its 100th anniversary in 2021 and has its sightsset on China becoming a superpower on par with the United States. The “Two Centenaries” goal putforward by the CCP defines 2021, the centenary of the CCP’s establishment, as the year for realizing a “Well-off Society” (a moderately prosperous society) in all respects and 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as the year for completing socialist modernization.
Furthermore, at the 19th National Congress of the CCP in 2017, the Party declared that the latter timeline would be shortened to basically complete socialist modernization by 2035, and that China as a great modern socialist country would have comprehensive national power and international influence comparable to the United States by the middle of this century.
Xi Jinping’s regime perceives that a dramatic shift in the balance of power is fundamentally
changing the traditional international structure. In China’s view, the relative position of the United States has fallen significantly, while the trend toward multipolarity is unstoppable. China refers to these structural changes in international politics as “great changes unseen in a century.” Moreover, the regime considers that the pandemic since 2020 accelerated the “great changes unseen in a century,” which could lead to the United States losing its status as the sole superpower and bring an end to U.S. hegemony.
At the same time, Beijing’s distrust of the United States has increased. Washington’s Indo-
Pacific strategy and creation of Quad and AUKUS are viewed by China as moves for strengthening military alliances against the country. In China’s eyes, the United States poses a major threat by attempting to enhance ideological penetration in authoritarian nations and launch color revolutions.
China has thus deepened its rift with the United States amidst the opportunities and crises presented by the great changes unseen in a century.
Modern conflicts are not only fought between highly integrated militaries. They may also
employ a range of tools, such as intelligence, law enforcement agencies, economic measures, and other non-military means, blurring the line between wartime and peacetime.1 Russia is known to use hybrid
warfare that skillfully combines various means to achieve a goal, as was observed in the Russian operation in Crimea in 2014.2 As part of its aggression against Ukraine since February 24, 2022, Russia has conducted information warfare, disseminating disinformation to influence perceptions about the adversary. Spreading a narrative of a country to delegitimize other countries has become essential in contemporary international relations.
Like Russia, China has sought to achieve its goals through a mix of military and non-military
Like Russia, China has sought to achieve its goals through a mix of milita ry and non-militaryst andSouth China Seas, stepping up naval activities and intensifying pressure on neighboring countries via maritime law enforcement agencies.
Gaining dominance in the psychological and cognitive domains has become critical amidst the advances in informatization. China has carried out a number of influence operations against Taiwan, including disinformation campaigns that spread fake news on social
How is China employing these non-military means? How are they being combined with militarymeans?
It is not easy to coordinate numerous military and government organizations to conduct
integrated activities. China’s stove-piped bureaucracy has notoriously been a major impediment to coordination. China’s political system is referred to as “fragmented authoritarianism” in which the CCP has a monopoly on political power, but authority in the actual political process is fragmented and disjointed. It is known that policy decisions are not necessarily made by the Party leaders in a unified manner and undergo a more complex process.
China is carrying out the most sweeping reforms of its military organizations since the founding of the PRC.
How has the progress of the military reforms affected China’s actions in psychological and cognitive domains and the gray zone? What is the organizational structure for implementing these actions? How has the implementation structure evolved through reforming national defense and thearmed forces and restructuring organizations?
Alongside the changes in the military itself, the efforts of the Party-state as a whole must be examined.
This report contends that the restructuring of China’s military organizations centered around theCCP’s guidance to the military has reinforced operations in the psychological and cognitive domains and the gray zone. China’s military organizations include not only the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) but also paramilitary organizations—the People’s Armed Police (PAP), the China Coast Guard (CCG), and Militia. China refers to them collectively as the “Armed Force.” Such military organizations have been reorganized as an outcome of Xi Jinping’s national defense and military reforms since 2015, which in turn has changed the relationship between the military and other CCP and government agencies and made coordination among them smoother. That said, this does not uniformly apply to all domains. Coordination among maritime actors has made considerable progress under the military’s
leadership, while on the contrary, influence operations became more fragmented and inter-organization cooperation has not necessarily improved.
Chapter 1 outlines the restructuring of China’s military organizations. It provides an overview of how the CCP’s guidance to the military has been enhanced through reforming national defense and the armed forces from late 2015. Focus is placed especially on the establishment of Xi Jinping’s authority and the guidance provided by Party committees in the military, where changes from the previous control mechanism are evident. This chapter also examines collaboration between the PLA and other military and government actors.
Chapter 2 presents the CCP’s overall influence operations and related military activities framed as conflicts in the psychological and cognitive domains. The PLA has a tradition of emphasizing
psychological warfare and, more recently, the “Three Warfares” of public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare. These military activities make up, however, only a part of the overall efforts of the Party-state. China has traditionally emphasized propaganda work and united front work.
Such Party activities have increasingly overlapped with military activities in recent years. This chapter attempts to distill and analyze concepts that relate to CCP and military activities in the psychological and cognitive domains, as well as associated organizations. In addition, this chapter explains influence operations in Taiwan as a case study. Taiwan already has a history of confronting Chinese influence operations, and shedding light on its experience will provide important insights.
Chapter 3 deals with maritime gray zone situations. China has employed organizations such as the CCG and the maritime militia to routinely trigger gray zone situations and put pressure on other
countries. This chapter analyzes how China has conducted these activities and intensified the activities of the maritime militia and the CCG. It also examines the key question of how far cooperation has
progressed among the PLA Navy, the CCG, and the maritime militia. China advances a five-in-one model that links the Party, government, military, police, and civilians.
This report aims to furnish basic knowledge needed to understand China’s actions that use
non-military means, as well as academic and policy research insights. From an academic perspective, this report may serve as a case study for understanding how China’s “fragmented authoritarianism” has changed under the Xi Jinping regime. From a policy research perspective, how closely organizations will cooperate in wartime, and whether or not there is inter-organization cooperation, are essential questions for states that are in dispute with China to properly assess its intentions and goals.
Furthermore, understanding the status of China’s inter-organization cooperation and where problems exist is critical to planning their countermeasures.
The progress of China’s national defense and military reforms has been attracting significant interest from the international community. Last year’s China Security Report 2022 analyzed improvements in joint operations capabilities, focusing on changes in organizations and training. China Security Report 2023 can be considered a continuation of this analysis. We hope that this report will contribute to a more objective understanding of China and better-informed policy discussions based on this understanding.
This report has examined the relationship between military organizational reforms and struggles using non-military means. A number of conclusions can be drawn from the analysis.
First, Xi Jinping’s military reforms drove the restructuring of Chinese military organizations
and strengthened the Party’s leadership over them. Previously, the Party controlled the military mainly through political work organizations and political commissars in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Today, more emphasis is placed on direct control by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Focus is on especially the implementation of the Central Military Commission’s chairman responsibility system and the Party committees in the military. Furthermore, military governance through laws and rules is underscored. The Party’s leadership has been reinforced not only over the PLA but also over other military organizations, and mechanisms are being developed for coordination between the military and other governmental actors. These measures were developed also as a response to modern forms of conflict that actively use non-military means.
We gauged the situation of the restructuring of the People’s Armed Police (PAP) and its subordinate China Coast Guard (CCG), and analyzed where the reorganization of the PAP fits in the context of the military reforms. The analysis revealed that the PAP has been reorganized to specialize in maintaining public security in peacetime and easily contribute to PLA joint operations in a contingency, and that the reorganization was intended to strip the state of its armed forces and reassign them under the CCP.
Second, in the psychological and cognitive domain, the military is increasingly engaged in
activities associated with the Party’s overall influence operations. The PLA has a tradition of emphasizing psychological warfare, and more recently, the “Three Warfares” of public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare. However, these military activities are no more than a component of the overall Party-state efforts. Although the military activities can be considered part of the entire Party’s influence-operation ecosystem, the military is not necessarily at its center.
China has traditionally emphasized propaganda work and united front work. These Party activities have increasingly overlapped with military activities in recent years. While the Party’s influence operations are primarily at the strategic level, the military’s activities span both the strategic and operational levels.
The cooperation relationship between the military and other Party governmental organizations is not all that clear. In reality, the Party, the government, and the military may not necessarily be conducting activities in an integrated manner under a consistent system of command. Instead, each actor may be operating under the overarching policies of the Party.
A most conspicuous example of such struggles in the psychological and cognitive domain is the influence operations against Taiwan. Influence operations by the Party and the PLA are wide ranging and present a major threat to Taiwan.
Third, in order to become a “great maritime power” and maintain and expand maritime rights and interests, the Xi Jinping regime has striven to coordinate various maritime actors, namely, the PLA Navy, the CCG, and maritime militia, based on the concepts of military-police-civilian and “fivein-one” joint actions. Following Xi’s assumption of power, particular progress was made in the integration of the CCG and maritime militia into the military chain of command. By integrating maritime actors into the military, the Chinese leadership seeks to create gray zone situations constantly and exert pressure on the opponent while avoiding military clashes with other countries. This is to expand China’s rights and interests gradually while restricting the sovereign rights of foreign countries. In order to enhance operations capabilities in such gray zone situations, China has expanded its outposts in contested waters, made the CCG’s vessels larger and more armed, and strengthened the operational
abilities of the maritime militia.
The conclusions of this report offer the following insights. First, the Party’s leadership is critical to China’s external actions. The Xi Jinping regime strengthened the Party’s leadership in all domains as well as over the organizations engaged in external actions including the military. This is considered not only necessary for maintaining the Party’s rule but also for implementing more strategic external actions. By strengthening the Party’s leadership, the Xi regime succeeded in easing to some extent the problem of “fragmented authoritarianism” which was discussed in the Introduction.
Nevertheless, the Party’s coordination function remains weak depending on the domain.
Influence operations are one example. Rather than the Party, the government, and the military implementing the operations in an integrated manner under a consistent system of command, each actor may be more or less conducting activities based on the Party’s overarching policy. This is because the propaganda work department and the united front work department in the Party and the political work of the military have evolved separately in a fragmented manner. Moreover, their similarities and overlaps were an outcome of recent technological changes, before which there was little need for coordination.
Meanwhile, mechanisms for maritime cooperation have evolved. China can apply pressure in the gray zone due to the coordinated activities of maritime actors. If the actions were completely uncontrolled, the possibility of unintended escalation increases. Perhaps the challenge now for neighboring countries is deeper integration of China’s CCG and maritime militia into the operations. The CCG may become less of a law enforcement agency and more of a paramilitary organization supporting the PLA.
Second, what problems and weaknesses face China’s use of non-military means? China has strengthened the Party’s leadership over the military and governmental agencies and developed coordination mechanisms. However, they will not function if the Party itself weakens or falls into chaos.
In this sense, the CCP can be both a major strength and a weakness for China’s external actions. There is also no robust mechanism to correct any misjudgments that the CCP might make. Information that goes against the will of the Party is not reported precisely because the Party’s leadership has been strengthened.
In particular, influence operations always entail the possibility of being overrated. The effects of influence operations are difficult to identify. There is not necessarily coordination among the departments, making the measurement of effectiveness even more challenging. The departments involved tend to overrate the effects of influence operations, and information to the contrary is not reported. This has caused counterproductive propaganda and information dissemination to continue uncorrected, and by extension, growing antipathy toward China.
Third, it is of interest to see how the Russia-Ukraine War will affect Chinese thinking. From
the war’s outset, China has closely followed how the Russian military will conduct cognitive domain operations. Li Minghai, a professor at National Defense University’s National Security College, argued that the essence of modern warfare is cognitive domain operations and that such elements are manifested in the Russia-Ukraine War. In short, he noted that both sides made efforts to spread their narratives as soon as the war began, that cognitive domain operations are critical in hybrid warfare, and that an area to watch closely is how artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies are employed.
All things considered, Russia has not gained an advantage over Ukraine and the West in cognitive domain operations. Ukraine and the West have carefully studied Russian information warfare methods and have taken countermeasures. This has proven to be effective. The United States, for example, disclosed information about Russia’s war preparations and continued to warn about the aggression, reducing the effectiveness of a surprise attack and giving the United States an edge over Russian intelligence. Ukraine for its part engaged in information warfare, paying meticulous attention so as not to give the initiative to the Russian narrative. In addition, tech companies were cooperative toward Ukraine. Google and YouTube inhibited the spread of Russian disinformation. Business
magnate Elon Musk provided the satellite Internet service Starlink, guaranteeing Internet connection in Ukraine. Starlink was also used for drone operations by the Ukrainian Army’s aerial reconnaissance unit. Additionally, a consensus had formed on Twitter and other social media platforms that only information on Russian military units would be analyzed and disseminated, not the situation of Ukrainian military units. Satellite image analyses proliferated on social media, and information was confirmed in real time. For this reason, disinformation, especially that released by Russia, was denied immediately
and proved to be ineffective.
Such Russian struggles with influence operations shocked China, and the impression of U.S. information superiority may have been imprinted strongly upon Beijing’s mind. They called into question the effectiveness of China’s influence operations which share many similarities with Russia’s.
Russia failed to win the influence operations and has consequently struggled in the military
operations for which it had not fully prepared. China was shown the limits of using non-military means. It is worth following how China is observing and analyzing the Russia-Ukraine War and what military operational considerations it will make.
A final point of interest is how technological innovation will affect influence operations and
maritime gray zone activities. The PLA and other governmental agencies have already begun to use AI and big data and are expected to do so to a greater extent going forward. Deep fakes and other technologies could be utilized more extensively and skillfully in future influence operations. Even in the maritime gray zone, technological innovations will be applied broadly to monitor the situation and share and analyze information. Meanwhile, defenders will need to leverage such technologies. In this respect, technology competition is expected to become a key aspect.
National Institute for Defense Studies, Japan
NIDS China Security Report 2023
"China’s Quest for Control
of the Cognitive Domain and
Gray Zone Situations"