Blurring the divide: Hybrid threats in Indo-Pacific

 By Kannan R Nair
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The advancement of technology along with the existing nature and character of warfare led to the development of what is today termed as Modern Warfare. From Infantry to Cavalry and later on to modern-day scientific innovations, all are involved in modeling the contemporary world history. These innovations substantially refurbished the idea of war. In this context, the term ‘Hybrid Warfare’ gains much currency. Hybrid warfare is generally defined as the fusion of conventional and non- traditional methods of warfare, that is strategically sequenced and are used for attaining long term goals. Hybrid warfare includes the essence of the physical and psychological aspects of war. It consists of a multi-pronged1 strategy that combines different modes of warfare like military means, cyber and space warfare, irregular tactics, terrorist acts, disinformation, fake news, propaganda -building and the role of non-state actors. It, therefore, confuses the adversary by narrowing the distance between war & peace. The ideals of Hybrid threats will be for the long term and detecting this strategy demands additional time and resources.

The term got recognition in 2006 during the war between Hezbollah2 (a non-state terrorist group with military support from Iran) and Israel in South Lebanon. Israel won the war on the battlefield but was unsuccessful in the information battle. Hezbollah was successful in promoting its propaganda through disinformation via the media. Hybrid war commonly stresses on blurring the divide between a soldier and a non-soldier and warfare & non-warfare3.

Power Asymmetry in the Indo-Pacific

Scholars anticipated hybrid threats, with a particular focus on China’s activities in the South and East China Seas, with skepticism. This idea of Hybrid warfare can be oblique to the economically significant geopolitical construct of the Indo-Pacific. The absence of a regional superpower and multilateral organisations in comparison with China creates a power asymmetry in the region. The indication of ‘Might is Right’ and strategies with hybrid characters, creates inconsistency in the Indo-Pacific, with particular reference to the security of the area. The continuous Chinese patrolling in the region keeps the South China Sea (SCS) region rather dynamic. 

Hybrid threats in the South China Sea

As rightly pointed out by Surin Pituswan, Former Secretary-General of ASEAN, the SCS is becoming a  conflicted region in Asia-Pacific4, as ASEAN failed to issue a joint communique on disputes with China. The Chinese claim on SCS can be traced from 1949 when Chinese premier Zhou Enlai proposed the nine-dash line across the SCS, thereby laying claims on the legal ownership of the area on historical grounds. The dipping presence of the United States and its allies is making the SCS a bastion for the deployment of Chinese arsenals. The United States’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017, also triggered Chinese comforts in the region.

In a slow and steady manner, without inviting international interference, by seizing reefs and islets, China is building artificial islands5 and converting them into military bases in the South China Sea. At the same time, using coast guard to attack vessels of ASEAN countries and diplomatic pressures over SCS littorals simultaneously enhances the Chinese position in SCS. By dredging coral reefs in 2016, China created artificial islands in Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs.

A United States-based think tank6 based on satellite images claims that China is building structures in the Bombay reef of disputed Paracel islands. China also made administrative offices and schools on the island of Yongxing, a part of Paracel islands, to cement the territorial claims over the South China Sea.7 Several patterns of hybridity are visible in the seizure of Scarborough shoal in 2012, which lies within the EEZ of the Philippines and China’s claims. In April 2020, China established two administrative districts named Xisha and Nansha in the same Paracel and Spratly island chains.8

Fake News Campaigns in Taiwan

China, with its progress in technology-enriched warfare strategy, not only limited itself to cyberattacks but also strategized information as a variable to structure new forms of warfare. An active criticism of Chinese -built mobile devices was that it leaked personal data9 to China through backdoors. Subsequently, it challenged the basic notion of privacy.

Digital information warfare currently positioned by using content farms. Content farms are companies that act as image building firms, but the method of operation will be by misusing laws linked to freedom of speech and expression through spreading half-truths.

Apart from the South China Sea, China hybrid tactics are employed in the Himalayas too. The Doklam standoff in 2017 and the Galwan valley encroachments recently at one hand and opposing India’s membership to multilateral organizations on the other hand. From 2012, China keeps on dispatching its surveillance cutters to the Senkaku Islands of the East China Sea which is a disputed territory between Japan and China.  Indeed, China tops the list in foreign investments to weaker economies in Southeast Asia, indicates china’s strategy to use these economies as a tool to exert Beijing’s national interest.

In summary, the Littoral states of SCS should integrate civil and military resources to control the bellicosities. The modernisation of existing military strategies in the realm of information and cyberspace are immediate requirements to counter hybrid threats. The role of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and its extension to QUAD plus is necessary by including South Korea and New Zealand will act as a  catalyst to balance the geopolitical equations in the Indo Pacific. The India-Japan-US cooperation model developed in the time of India-China Doklam Standoff is a replicable one in the current situation when China has active disputes in various forms with mentioned nations. 

End-Notes

  1. Alex Deep, “Hybrid War: Old Concept, New Techniques”, Small Wars Journal, (2015), https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/hybrid-war-old-concept-new-techniques, accessed on June 10, 2020
  2. NATO Defense College, NATO’s Hybrid Flanks: Handling Unconventional Warfare in the South and the East (Rome-Italy, 2015). Available on the Internet
  3. Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare, (Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, February 1999)
  4. Prashanth Parameswaran, “Outgoing ASEAN Chief’s Farewell Tour”, The Diplomat, (2012), https://thediplomat.com/2012/12/outgoing-asean-chiefs-farewell-tour/, accessed on June 10, 2020.
  5. 5. Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Stealing a March: Chinese Hybrid Warfare in the Indo-Pacific; Issues and Options for Allied Defense Planners, (Washington, 2019). Available on the Internet
  6. Ibid
  7. AP, “China building school in disputed Paracel chain island”, The Hindu, May 23, 2016
  8. Kinling Lo, “Beijing moves to strengthen grip over disputed South China Sea”, South China Morning Post, (2020), https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3080559/beijing-moves-strengthen-grip-over-disputed-south-china-sea, accessed on June 25, 2020.
  9. Matt Apuzzo and Michael S Schmidt, “Secret Back Door in Some U.S. Phones Sent Data to China, Analysts Say”, The New York Times, November 15, 2016.