Interviews | Security | East Asia | Southeast Asia

Interview: Understanding Total Competition and China’s Challenge in the South China Sea

A conversation with Patrick Cronin and Ryan Neuhard analyzing Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea, its wider regional ambitions, and how to respond.

Prashanth Parameswaran
Interview: Understanding Total Competition and China’s Challenge in the South China Sea
Credit: Kremlin Photo

China’s behavior in the South China Sea and its ambitions in Southeast Asia continue to be scrutinized today amid wider trends, including intensifying U.S.-China competition, rising conversations about an Indo-Pacific regional architecture, and the ongoing effort by Beijing and Southeast Asian states to work toward a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea.

To get at these issues, The Diplomat’s senior editor Prashanth Parameswaran spoke to Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific Security Chair at the Hudson institute, and Ryan Neuhard, a research associate there. Cronin and Neuhard are the co-authors of “Total Competition: China’s Challenge in the South China Sea,” which was published last month by the Center for a New American Security. An edited version of that conversation follows.

The report is centered on the concept of “total competition,” which you clearly lay out looking back at Chinese history and also at contemporary concepts such as A2/AD and political warfare. What is the value in looking at China’s South China Sea behavior through the lens of total competition, rather than some of the previous concepts or framings we’ve heard about?

Total Competition is a useful lens because it magnifies three essential ideas. First, the main struggle is happening below the threshold of actual war. This is competition, not warfare. That distinction is important because competition and warfare require different strategies, resourcing, and leadership. The Defense Department has a significant role to play. Still, it cannot be successful without equally robust contributions from diplomacy, development, and both government and private-sector actors who are critical to technology policy and innovation. We need the State Department to mobilize like-minded countries around a shared agenda, as well as to counter China’s propaganda and influence operations. We need the Development Finance Corporation and USAID to offer transparent, sustainable, high-standard investment in contrast to China’s economic coercion and cooption. We need domestic investments, educational reforms, and regulatory policies that enable us to outcompete China in critical technologies.

Most importantly, we need coherent interagency coordination through the National Security Council, and we need to synchronize our policies with our allies and partners in the region. China is using its total toolkit, short of war. The United States needs to employ its entire tool kit in a way that leverages its unique advantages, reinforce international law and norms and is consistent with American values.

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Second, China’s approach to competition is not constrained by international laws and norms. Ordinary competition has boundaries. Some methods like sowing disinformation, annexing disputed territory, or stealing Intellectual Property with state support are off-limits. Efforts to silence free speech in other countries or obstruct freedom of navigation in international waters are off-limits. China’s approach to competition violates these boundaries. Total Competition helps highlight that China is applying a more extreme, all-out strategy to competition.

Third, Total Competition conveys the idea that this is a whole-of-society competition. Like when a state mobilizes for total warfare, China has mobilized its entire society toward Total Competition. The Chinese government recruits private companies, fishers, internet trolls, overseas Chinese, and any other groups that Chinese authorities can control.

Others call China’s behavior “political warfare” or “gray zone warfare.” While these terms underscore the nature of the contest, or at least its operational aspects, they also inadvertently perpetuate the mindset that this is mostly a military problem. Total Competition draws attention to the essential qualities of China’s strategy and behavior. While Beijing’s competition faces few restrictions, one exception is that the CCP wants to win without fighting.

The report makes clear the relationship between China’s national goals, regional objectives in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia more broadly, and the instruments of power being brought to bear. While this is largely a story about continuity generally speaking, what are some notable changes that we have seen in recent years about how China thinks, acts, and speaks on this score, be it in terms of the breadth of tools it is bringing to bear or some of the specific actions we have seen under Xi Jinping?   

The breadth of tools at China’s disposal has undoubtedly been growing across the board. China’s economic, informational, military, psychological, and legal means all have a greater impact today. They have greater reach, are better able at mobilizing key actors, and are more integrated. That said, the most striking change has been how China uses its tools.

Under Xi Jinping, China’s government has shifted toward a more oppressive and less law-abiding foreign policy. The days of “peaceful rise” and the pursuit of a “harmonious world” are gone. After gradually building power, China’s government now seems intent on wielding that power to impose its preferences on others. We see it when China directly coerces states into making concessions. Still, we also see it when China’s coercive policies cause third parties to proactively adopt CCP-friendly policies out of fear of upsetting Beijing (a kind of state-level self-censorship).

At the same time, China’s government has become more willing to challenge and sometimes directly violate legally binding treaty commitments, like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China’s government will sign treaties but only follow them when it is convenient to do so. The most prominent instance of this in the South China Sea is Beijing’s refusal to acknowledge the 2016 judgment rendered by the arbitral tribunal that is part of the UNCLOS dispute resolution mechanism.

Even more frequently, China prefers to get its way by throwing its weight around against smaller neighbors faced with a de facto ultimatum: let Beijing have its way or forfeit economic benefit and face possible retribution. For example, since the 2016 arbitral ruling, President Rodrigo Duterte has allowed China to run roughshod over Philippine sovereignty in exchange for dangling largely unfulfilled infrastructure promises. At the same time, China has built up its military outposts on the artificial island-reefs in the Spratly Islands, in contravention of ASEAN norms and the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

These changes reflect a pattern of China’s government beginning to exercise the same authoritarian mindset externally towards other countries as it does internally towards its people. It shows that, given the opportunity, China’s government will treat its neighbors as subjects, not partners. The Chinese government’s preference for domineering and unlawful methods and goals is the reason there is tension between China and the rest of the international community. If China’s government consistently demonstrated benign intent and abided by international laws and norms, the international community would welcome China’s rise. Instead, Beijing compounds the problem of its occasionally malign behavior with a singular information campaign about how it adheres to openness and fairness, and anyone who opposes its position wants to deny China from gaining its rightful place.

China’s behavior also reveals another critical pattern. China’s government has a history of building up power over other states in a given domain while assuring others that China will not use that power against them. Then, when China becomes the dominant player in the domain, China’s government abuses that power to coerce or coopt vulnerable states or multinational corporations.

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For example, China built up its economic power over neighboring states for decades. It framed more profound economic interdependence as win-win and waited until China secured its position as those state’s dominant trade partner. Then it used its financial leverage to coerce them. A report by the Center for New American Security in 2018 detailed some prominent cases: the 2010 rare-earth metals export ban targeting Japan, the 2010 salmon import restrictions targeting Norway, the 2012 banana import ban targeting the Philippines, the 2016 tourism ban targeting Taiwan, the 2016 fees imposed on mining product imports targeting Mongolia, and the 2016 closures of Lotte stores and restrictions on tourism and cultural imports targeting South Korea.

China built up its military power while assuring others that China would not use that power to coerce its neighbors. Then, when China’s military gained a dominant advantage over its neighbors, it began throwing its military power around. China’s government deployed military forces to disputed Spratly Island featuresincluding anti-ship missiles. It sends armed destroyer-sized Coast Guard cutters to escort fishers on illegal fishing expeditions in other states’ exclusive economic zones. It sends maritime militia boats out to use lasers to blind pilots flying in international airspace. And it intimidates neighboring countries through the coercive deployment of ocean survey ships or oil rigs and the swarming of fishing boats, all backed by the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, China Coast Guard, and PLA Navy.

This pattern is important because, recently, China has been amassing Big Data for information superiority. Further, its gradually pushing to control other state’s digital infrastructure — 5G wireless hardware and software, hardline telecommunication infrastructure, and undersea cables. China assures its neighbors that it will not abuse its power over its infrastructure. We should know how this pattern ends by now. What China can’t hack, it is preparing to be able to sabotage, to obtain what it needs in peacetime or, should it be necessary, prevail in a short, sharp “informationized” skirmish.

The report details the five most important facets of China’s total competition campaign in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia – economic power; information dominance; maritime power; psychological operations; and lawfare. Within those, you’ve also particularly stressed the need for a focus on information dominance, which is something that also came across in your remarks during the report launch at CNAS. Can you frame the context for the need for a greater emphasis on this domain?

The information competition is so important because it has a domino effect on all of the other domains of competition. “Information dominance” is the label we use to discuss China’s efforts to harvest data, to control digital infrastructure, to suppress information and disseminate false narratives, and to build up its information-related industries so that China can dominate the information and high technology economy in the future. If China successfully achieves information dominance, it can use that advantage to enhance its psychological operations, its economic leverage, its military and paramilitary activity, and even its efforts to pick apart legal principles and norms.

For example, psychological operations are more effective when China can use data on individuals to better target disinformation and groom proxies. Control over digital infrastructure provides an easier means to deniably spy on network traffic, slow down connections to specific sites, or potentially filter content like China does domestically. There is a lot of potential for abuse.

To be sure, even authoritarian systems with ambitious plans for achieving information superiority can fail to control the narrative of reality, as Beijing’s early attempt to conceal the coronavirus outbreak suggests. Yet it’s less any single Chinese action than the totality of Beijing’s information efforts that should heighten international concern.

Let’s cite only a couple of different but related Chinese actions that could jeopardize the longstanding intelligence-sharing arrangement between the United States and the United Kingdom. First, the PLA’s 54th Research Institute hack into Equifax in 2017 compromised the private data of nearly 150 million Americans (and 13 million Britons), information that could target those working in fields related to national security. Second, under extensive lobbying and economic pressure (PRC State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi went so far as to call opposition to Huawei “immoral”), Britain opted to compromise its 5G communications by partly relying on Huawei technology. Some experts try to minimize the risk of buying Chinese technology by suggesting London can fend off sabotage and protect secrets from other parts of the system. But the US knows from its own experience how communications can be plundered. The CIA and BDN cracked the codes of foreign governments that purchased machines from the Swiss company Crypto. Still, many governments entrusted their secret communications to foreign equipment, Jonathan Eyal has written because “they viewed the machines merely as platforms.” The CCP would like to replicate that ability in the future. The acquisition of massive personal data is just another tool Beijing hopes to rely on for achieving information superiority.

To address this challenge, the report mentions the need for mobilizing for total competition with China, including through countering China’s strategy, deterring the use of force, and adapting mindsets and institutions. You lay out a list of specific recommendations, but what in your view are a few that are the most critical and also the timeliest? And in addition, what do you see as a few that are the most challenging to adopt? 

First, the United States and like-minded countries need to reduce the effectiveness of China’s propaganda and psychological operations. This will require exposing proxies and labeling disinformation so that audiences can better recognize when they are being targeted. Specific steps could include more aggressively enforcing laws like the United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and developing clear, transparent guidelines with social media companies to label disinformation on their platforms clearly. Scaling up the State Department’s public diplomacy efforts and their Global Engagement Center could also help ensure that accurate, trustworthy, and timely information reaches the audiences that China is targeting.

Second, the United States and its partners can help reduce states’ vulnerability to China’s economic leverage by providing alternative sources of funding that are more transparent, higher quality, and more sustainable. Empowering the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), which serves as the United States’ development bank, to mobilize the US private sector to invest in developing countries could provide more sources of funding for much-needed infrastructure projects while raising competition and standards.

Third, the United States needs to find a way to invest in itself. The existing public education system and government workforce training systems are not equipped to cope with the challenges posed by the fourth industrial revolution, environmental stresses, deteriorating democratic processes, and future national security needs. These challenges require updated thinking about the humanities and hard sciences, regional studies and languages, and technology and ethics. They require across-the-board improvement to the quality and accessibility of education. Meanwhile, the government workforce training and education systems will need to train the workforce better to work across diplomatic, economic, technological, and military stovepipes.

Apart from mobilizing for total competition with China, the report also sends a clear message about the need for shaping positive engagement with Southeast Asia apart from any global struggle that Washington engages in with Beijing, which is an important point that some often miss. Where are the areas in which you see the greatest potential for, and are there a couple of countries within the subregion that you think Washington should focus on in particular? And what specific role do you see for ASEAN and multilateralism within that bigger picture, especially given the challenges the organization has been facing in recent years?

The United States wants to see a safe, prosperous, stable and empowered Southeast Asia. There are a lot of emerging opportunities to invest in Southeast Asia’s businesses and infrastructure. As mentioned before, the United States can help fill that need by mobilizing private sector funding through institutions like the DFC, which in turn can work with a variety of other governmental and private-sector actors to mobilize vital investments that are genuinely needed, sustainable, and transparent.

There are also opportunities to increase the coordination of Southeast Asian states on issues of shared interest. For example, helping Southeast Asian states to increase their defense cooperation and intelligence-sharing could help increase Southeast Asia’s influence, self-defense capability, and situational awareness.

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The United States and its partners should make a concerted effort to engage with all of the states in Southeast Asia. Of course, it is distressing to see the same Cambodian government that undermined ASEAN unity over the South China Sea in 2012, apparently sign a secret century-long lease granting the PRC naval access to the Sea of Thailand. However, there are a few states that have shown an interest in forging closer relationships with the United States, like Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore, so it is vital that the United States rise to meet that interest and delivers with deeper cooperation. But the United States should also seek to remove impediments that stand in the way of strengthening relations with regional allies like the Philippines and Thailand, as well as other maritime states such as Malaysia and Brunei.

Southeast Asia is most influential when it works together, so multilateralism will continue to be critical. ASEAN should rely more on support from the larger constellation of countries committed to freedom of navigation and the protection of freedom of the seas to avoid being coerced into unfair agreements over resource development or rules of the road. Far from viewing the loose cooperation among the Quad states of India, Japan, the United States, and Australia as a threat to ASEAN centrality, Southeast Asia should welcome initiatives such as the Blue Dot Network designed to create better consumer protection against toxic development schemes. Similarly, if ASEAN continues to struggle, there may be opportunities for a subgroup to work mini-laterally to put forward solutions. For example, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines could negotiate a consensus view on delineating maritime boundaries and a maritime Code of Conduct outside of ASEAN and adopt that unified position together.