Australia needs asymmetric options to counter coercive statecraft
1 Jun 2021|

There can be little doubt Australia’s strategic environment has evolved significantly in recent years. Across the Indo-Pacific, we now face a region characterised by a broad spectrum of geopolitical influences, from conflict and contest at one end to cooperation and collaboration at the other.

Through this spectrum, we’re seeing a diversification of the circumstances where all our elements of national power will need to contribute to our national security and prosperity goals.

We’re also seeing significant changes in the way some states wield power and influence in the region. Of course, Australia continues to support an Indo-Pacific characterised by rules-based cooperation and stability. But we must also be prudent in recognising the prevalence of new forms of rivalry and competition that fall outside our preferred models.

Australia, like its friends and partners in the Pacific, needs options to challenge the threat posed by coercive statecraft. Adversarial actors including China and Russia are using agile and malign methods to secure strategically significant outcomes, often to our disadvantage.

And to date, these methods have proven both effective and relatively low cost. So, for Australia to more effectively counter this coercive statecraft it will be important to raise the costs—both economically and politically—for the antagonists.

In Chinese strategic literature, there is a strong emphasis on adopting comprehensive approaches to wielding national influence. One of the more important works on this in recent years, Unrestricted warfare, espouses a persistent campaign for advantage that:

Breaks down the dividing lines between civilian and military affairs and between peace and war… non-military tools are equally prominent and useful for the achievement of previously military objectives. Cyberattacks, financial weapons, informational attacks—all of these taken together constitute the future of warfare. In this model, the essence of unrestricted warfare is that the ‘battlefield is everywhere’.

Beijing’s purpose in applying these methods is to achieve its strategic goals below our thresholds of military response. And although China incorporates the threat of military force among the suite of its coercive measures, it nevertheless seeks to render Western military capabilities irrelevant by achieving its goals without triggering conflict.

Once we understand this, it becomes clearer why our own military capabilities, including those for power projection and networked warfighting, are necessary but not sufficient.

Whereas the West has tended to equate the possession of superior military force with deterrence, that plainly isn’t working against China’s comprehensive coercion.

And where Australia’s armed forces have focused on force projection as an essential capability, the time has come to weave these capabilities into broader options for influence projection.

Rather than narrowly focusing on dominating the battlespace with forward-deployed force elements, the military can broaden its value proposition by complementing whole-of-government efforts to out-position rival powers in economic, diplomatic and information-influence campaigns.

As China has amply demonstrated, coercion does not necessarily involve the application of physical violence. Influence comes in many forms and can apply to peacetime and wartime situations, as well as those in between.

As NATO has suggested, ‘even lethality, the ultimate penalty of physical force, is giving way to abstractions of perception management and behavioral control, a fact which suggests that strategic success, not tactical victory, is the more coveted end-state’.

Any Australian efforts to engage in constant competition and counter China’s aggressive political warfare methods will need to have both defensive and offensive elements.

In terms of deterrence, by shining a light on these actions and actively calling them out, we can begin to erase the ambiguity and uncertainty on which they rely. Since these methods depend on cultivating confusion and uncertainty, an important counter action is to establish robust, evidence-based narratives which demonstrate to the world what is going on.

But exposure alone will not always be enough. And that’s where we need to be able to move from a defensive to an offensive mindset. We will need to become tough-minded to more forcibly ensure that antagonists desist from actions that hurt us.

This will require the development of robust cost-imposing strategies to alter their calculus. Such strategies will need to convince threat actors that the price of achieving their aims through political warfare methods exceeds what they are willing or able to pay. And that means we need to signal clearly that we have both the capacity and the will to take actions that will impose these costs.

Cost-imposing approaches can be proportional or asymmetrical. Authoritarian regimes are deeply fearful of threats to their legitimacy, making them vulnerable to well-considered influence operations which might hold that legitimacy up to question.

Such influence actions might be used to inject information into a closed society that authoritarian regimes would not want disclosed. This could range from alternative perspectives on current events that differ from regime-imposed narratives to exposure of political and economic corruption. These kinds of disclosures could impose significant costs on a regime constantly worried about maintaining domestic control.

This points to a broader theme, sometimes called ideational power. Authoritarian regimes like the Chinese Communist Party depend on repression rather than democratic legitimacy to maintain control, as has been made painfully evident in Hong Kong.

Authoritarian regimes are deeply fearful of instability, rendering them brittle at home and severely limiting their appeal abroad. Australia should take a robust and comprehensive approach to emphasising and contrasting its own values and methods against authoritarian ones.

Throughout history, long-term campaigns for influence have had this ideological dimension to them—the contrast between light and dark, between inclusiveness and domination. So Australia should be emphasising, not minimising, the ideological contrast between its own values and those represented by authoritarianism.

It makes sense to develop and enhance asymmetric advantages. For example, China doesn’t have access to anything like the network of alliances and partnerships that Australia has. And although Australia’s economic size pales in comparison to China’s, our network of friendships can be a source of significant strength.

Put another way, this is about how we play our strengths against their weaknesses. Now is the time to be exploring how our creativity and adaptability can be used to identify, explore and exploit the critical vulnerabilities of authoritarian regimes, to be able to get at them in ways that hurt.

To be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean the application of military force—sending people into harm’s way—although those skills will remain essential. Rather, it’s about using discrete, tailored options to go after background vulnerabilities.

The military notion of unconventionality is helpful here:

In unconventional warfare, the emphasis is on defeating the opponent without a direct military confrontation…typically, the unconventional forces act undercover, or discretely, their targets are not of an exclusively military nature, and the techniques employed are distinct from those specific to purely military operations.

This logic could be broadened to other dimensions of Australian statecraft. The actions needed to impose costs of sufficient magnitude to deter China’s coercive behaviour would likely need to hold at risk Beijing’s core interests—the things it fears and values—without necessarily engaging in physical attack.

This would likely need to involve a more holistic or unrestricted approach, much as China itself pursues. And while we need to stay within the bounds of the international rules and norms we espouse, there is nevertheless fertile ground for exploring unconventional and unorthodox means for generating costs.

And although prudent self-reliance dictates that Australia should not render itself overly dependent on external providers to guarantee our security, it will be vital to work multilaterally counter China’s malign influence. Benefits will arise from cooperation in non-traditional aspects of military operations, including in the information and economic domains.

By working with our partners in the Indo-Pacific, including the Quad, Indonesia and the Pacific island countries, to develop new and disruptive options, Australia can bolster its ability to not only expose China’s malign statecraft, but also to adopt cost-imposing strategies that will deter grey-zone political warfare.