Analysis: Is America ready for Chinese-Russian liminal warfare?
We must reach out to our allies and plan how to understand the Sino-Russian imperial strategy and organize ourselves to again compete and reverse their aggression.
Over the past five years, most Americans have become familiar with what leading journalists and academics have termed, the new era of “Great Power Competition”: a reference to the increasingly complex and worrisome armed stand-off between the United States (and its allies), and China and Russia—the two leading authoritarian powers. The alarming genocidal war launched in February 2022 by Russia against Ukraine has awakened us to the reality that our expectations at the end of the Cold War in 1991 were delusional and foolish. It is not apparent that the universal appeal of the democratic idea will not spontaneously enable a benign New World Order to take shape.
Today, we face in China a determined opponent intent on establishing a global empire beholden to it. President Xi Jinping is well along toward achieving that goal, capping it with his self-made, life-long Maoist “chairmanship.”
In Moscow, after two wars, Russia restored control over the Chechen Republic, later occupied Georgia (August 2008), then annexed the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine (March 2014). Vladimir Putin has made it clear that after subduing eastern and southern Ukraine, that he intends to move on to Transnistria and perhaps all of Moldova, before launching a campaign to restore control over one or more of the Baltic states.
Let us look at the similarities and differences between how these two regimes pursue their autocratic ambitions. Clearly, both China and Russia, as well as the United States, are nuclear weapons states. This reality has influenced the authoritarian powers thus far from avoiding escalatory actions to remain beneath the threshold of nuclear war.
Escalatory risk has had a profound effect in shaping their current strategies. While both China and Russia have been strengthening their nuclear arsenals—and delivery platforms—in recent years, they have also magnified their strategies with complimentary “Liminal Warfare.”
What follows draws heavily upon the brilliant work of Professor David Kilcullen, an Australian combat veteran with long experience in the Middle East and in government here with the State Department and with U.S. forces deployed in the Middle East.
According to Kilcullen, “liminal warfare involves the integration of political, economic, legal, military, intelligence and cyber into a single seamless mix of maneuver activity focused on the shaping of operations with the adversary before an operation is launched.”
For example, several months before launching the Georgian campaign in 2008, the Russians engaged in a program of generous passport distribution where they offered any Russian-speaking Georgian citizen a Russian passport. By the time the operation began they had a very large number of artificial “Russian citizens” inside Georgia and were able to lend a false patina of legitimacy to their aggression by invoking a bogus responsibility to protect Russian citizens.
Russia later combined political and economic warfare during its Crimea operation in the winter of 2014. Russia focused first on Germany—to assure that NATO did not react—by manipulating the price of Russian oil and gas, thus framing the issue for Germany as a Hobson’s choice of fuel or nothing (embargo). In short, you may stimulate a NATO response, but it might have an effect on the availability and cost of our oil and gas.
The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy underscored that, after two decades of squandering strategic attention and resources to fighting in the desert in Iraq and Afghanistan, great power competition with Russia and China is now the number one threat to U.S. security and economic well-being.
One of the most important “arenas” (not merely a “market”) where the great power rivalry is intensifying with both China and Russia—as a “Tandem,” coordinating on foreign policy—is the global arena for new nuclear power plants. DNI director Dan Coats highlighted in his testimony in Jan. 2019 that China and Russia are using energy and technology projects as an arm of foreign policy.
China is pursuing a more ambitious and deeper strategy in its pursuit of empire. It started by targeting emerging markets throughout Africa and Latin America but also the United States and Europe. Ironically, in its focus on developing countries it has taken a page on soft power from the American playbook and corrupted it. It involves making apparently benign offers to build various infrastructure projects such as ports, pipelines, and power plants and even to offer apparently generous loans (which usually involve predatory manipulation of the terms). Their goals in these settings are to gain control of critical commodities (i.e., cobalt in Congo, Lithium in Chile), strategic terrain such as maritime chokepoints (Djibouti at the south end of the Red Sea, and Suez in the north) to assure access to the two largest markets in the world (the United States and Western Europe), and ports sprinkled throughout these countries. China now owns ninety-six ports located in every maritime country in the world.
To those of you who are wondering how much time we have to prepare before China brings its campaign of liminal warfare to our country, consider the following. We have been running enormous trade deficits with China since its awakening in 1980, at an astounding $500 billion a year. China has literally trillions of dollars to use for buying up American companies. Just stop to consider the implications of China’s purchase of Smithfield Foods. Smithfield is the largest pork producer and processor in the world. It has facilities in twenty-six U.S. states, and it employs tens of thousands of Americans. It directly owns 460 farms and has contracts with about 2,100 others. China bought it for $4.7 billion, and that means that the Chinese will now be the most important employer in dozens of rural communities all over America.
Elsewhere, China is actually mining for coal in the mountains of Tennessee. Guizhou Gouchuang Energy Holdings Group spent $616 million to acquire Triple H Coal Co. in Jacksboro, Tennessee. Despite the Paris Agreement’s focus on reducing carbon emissions, China will be building new coal-fired power plants at home until at least 2030 (and likely beyond). So much for China’s environmental concerns.
China now controls the lithium reserves of Chile, about 40 percent of the world total—useful for vehicle batteries.
When you total up all imports and exports, China is now the number one trading nation on the planet and has more foreign currency reserves than any country in the world. And don’t forget that China produces more than 90 percent of the global supply of rare earth elements and is now the number one supplier of components that are critical to the operation of any national defense system.
My point in the foregoing litany of China’s gains and capabilities is to flag for everyone that China’s control over critical commodities and strategic terrain, their penetration of our country and more than seventy other countries, and their compromise of dozens of key U.S. industries are matters that threaten our security and supreme national security interests.
Add to this a twenty-year strategy of penetrating U.S. research universities and engineering programs. More than 300,000 Chinese nationals are now enrolled in major U.S. universities (few of them in “humanities” or “gender studies”). They (the Chinese Communist Party) pay full out-of-state tuition rates, which U.S. universities are now addicted to. The pandemic dented the numbers of Chinese students a bit, but they remain a higher number than from any other country. For further insult, China steals $400 billion annually in intellectual property according to the National Bureau of Asian Research.
Where does civilian (commercial) nuclear power (not nuclear weapons) fit in this schema? In the United States, some aspects of “civilian” nuclear power clearly fit within “economics” and trade, but in China, all commercial nuclear energy engineering and plants are owned and managed by the Chinese government (China General Nuclear, CGN). These same state-owned enterprises (or subsidiaries) in China also make the country’s nuclear weapons and fuel.
In addition, CGN bids internationally on nuclear power projects overseas, such as in Pakistan. In the case of the Karachi Plant, CGN provides an arm of China’s infiltration of the government of Pakistan to undergird Beijing’s $46 billion investment in the “Pakistan Economic Corridor,” which is part of the “Belt and Route Initiative.”
Russia is more active in using nuclear power plants to expand its sphere of influence by gaining military basing rights with those deals, “to manage fuel.”
Russia wields already-built reactors in its old Warsaw Pact (now NATO members): Czechia, Slovakia, and Bulgaria. Since 2000, it has expanded into India (at Kudankulam), Turkey (at Akkuyu), Belarus, and Bangladesh—and they have been bidding for new plants in Vietnam, Iran, Egypt, Bulgaria, and Africa. Importantly, unlike in the United States, nuclear power plant projects have been used as a strong arm of Chinese and Russian foreign policy. These are not decisions based solely on the “Lowest Cost of Electricity” framework (LCOE).
To counter this aggressive “forward-basing platform” strategy, the United States and its allies must counter this with an “Allied Nuclear Partners” response that drives private investment in partnership with host nations—rather than the “State Enterprise Dominance” model practiced by Rosatom and CGN. Russia and China use nuclear power plant projects to directly subvert host nation sovereignty in their overt campaign of predatory mercantilism as an arm of Liminal Warfare. Going forward, “Energy Sovereignty will be the Westphalian Principle of the 21st Century” as averred by Admiral Mike Hewitt of IP3 and Professor David Gattie of the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia.
We can prevail in this widening conflict, in multiple dimensions. We must reach out to our allies from Canada to Europe, Japan, and Australia and together plan for how to understand the Sino- Russian imperial strategy and organize ourselves to again compete and reverse their aggression.
In September 2011, William Hague, the British foreign secretary, stated that “[T]he nation that is purely reactive in foreign policy is in decline.” This has surely been the case for Western nuclear powers. The Allied Nuclear Partners approach is the counter-thrust in great power rivalry, and one that provides alternatives to NATO members and Gulf Cooperation Council partners for preserving sovereignty in the face of the challenge by the China-Russia tandem.
Together, we can recover and become competitive again, but it isn’t going to happen overnight, and will require private investment, not just government spending.
Ask not what your country can do for you; rather, ask what you can do for your country. Or ask what will happen to your country if we fail to act.