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Issues & Insights Vol. 16 – No. 17 – Responding to China’s Strategic Use of Combined Effects

China is wielding superior strategies that envelop opponents with expedient instruments of national power. Drawing from a rich tradition of comprehensive and indirect stratagems, Chinese leaders use a variety of methods notably absent in US strategy.

The core of Chinese strategy consists of combining preventative and causative effects,  such as defend and coerce, deter and compel, dissuade and persuade, secure and induce. By combining these different effects, China forces others into disadvantageous outcomes. This paper reveals Chinese strategy as complex forms of confrontation and cooperation, and recommends a countervailing US strategy of combined effects.

Chinese strategy is based on simple distinctions that produce complex warfare. The operating logic is this: psychological and physical tools target an actor’s will and capability to create complex effects difficult to counter. In psychological confrontation, China intimidates will and neutralizes capability to Deter – Compel. In psychological cooperation, China assures will and enhances capability to Dissuade  – Persuade. In physical confrontation, China punishes will and denies capability to Defend  – Coerce. In physical cooperation, China demonstrates will and exercises capability to Secure – Induce. These differences create inexhaustible permutations.

Using this language, we examine variants of combined effects that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has constructed to secure its territorial integrity. The cases involve 16 border disputes since the PRC’s founding in 1949. Overall, China’s pattern is to lead with inducement and follow up with other effects to isolate, divide and force accommodation by its intended targets.

In order to compete with China’s multiple effects, the U.S. needs offsets that integrate advanced technologies into synergistic strategies. Superior weapons technology is not enough. To prevail against China’s comprehensive strategy, American military power needs to contribute to the sustainment of combined effects. This is no simple feat for any government, but it has been a chronic challenge for pluralistic democracies to pull off. US national security strategy needs to organize its fragmented national capabilities into flexible lines of effect.  

Unfortunately, the National Security Strategy (NSS) is written at the level of values, interests, and overarching goals and is supposed to inform the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the National Defense Strategy (NDS), the National Military Strategy (NMS), and several other national strategies such as the National Strategy for Homeland Security and the National Strategy for Counterterrorism. These subordinate documents could advance the values, interests, and goals expressed in the NSS if they provided policy guidance for orchestrating combined effects, which they do not. 
US strategy has neither deterred nor defeated China’s territorial aggression, unless we define that narrowly as armed attack. We need an operating strategy that counters the priority threats mentioned in the NSS: a major energy or market disruption that could trigger a global economic crisis as a result of armed conflict in the South China Sea; attacks on the US homeland, US or allied citizens and critical infrastructure in East Asia; proliferation or use of WMD by China or other opportunistic or security-seeking states in the region. 
We recommend a strategy that confronts Chinese aggression with regional cooperation, leveraged by a collective commitment to applying dilemma-inducing effects to ensure access to international space and to preserve legitimate sovereignty claims of all states. The US should adopt a five-pronged strategy of: diplomatic Compellence; informational Persuasion; military Security, Defense and Inducement; economic Inducement; and social Dissuasion. This combined effect shapes Chinese decision making toward trusted, shared leadership in the region. 
Combined arms superiority by itself is not an effective response to the kind of warfare China is waging. Technological offsets must be coupled with upgraded strategy. A combined effects approach can help integrate effects from the joint force and other instruments of power. Failure to adjust our thinking permits actors possessing the capacity for combined effects unimpeded capability to impose powerful dilemmas upon us. Combined effects power is unleashing forms of confrontation and cooperation will alter the meaning of security as they shape the rules of a future international order.