We’ve seen Chinese entropic warfare in various stages in Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. And the contagion seems to be spreading in the Pacific.
Alexandria, VA.: Make no mistake, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s tour of eight Pacific Island Countries (PICs) has been a success.
No, they didn’t sign his “China-Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision” but it’s doubtful Beijing even thought that was on the cards. Otherwise, Wang would have held his group meeting with the PIC foreign ministers at the end of his trip, after he had a chance to speak to more of them individually, rather than in the middle. Remember the draft document was leaked, not trumpeted by China, and negotiations are to be expected.
Also, four of the countries in the region recognize Taiwan. Those signing up to Beijing’s deal would have been striking a sudden blow by proxy against their neighbours. It’s not the ways things are usually done in the Pacific. Just look at the regional consternation in response to the China-Solomon Islands security deal.
China would know that. It has half-a-dozen think tanks dedicated to studying the region, has trained hundreds (if not by now thousands) of Pacific Islands bureaucrats, and has generational, focused, intelligence on key leaders and their families.
Within the countries, China has large footprints, including often the largest embassy (with staff that speak the local language), financial relationships with key business leaders, favourite members of the media, and control of large sections of the retail sector, including in the relatively remote areas, and more.
It’s worth remembering that China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law reads: “Any organization or citizen shall support, assist or cooperate with the state intelligence work…The state protects individuals and organizations that support, assist and cooperate with national intelligence work… The State commends and rewards individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to national intelligence work.”
China has put in the effort to know the region. Bold individual action—such as the influential letter questioning the wisdom of the deals written by Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo—may have been a surprise, but the Chinese delegation would have deep files on the region and known before leaving Beijing this is a diverse and complicated area, with many leaders who value their nations’ sovereignty. They would have known the chances of getting the Vision agreed to as is, was slim.
So to better gauge if the trip was a success or not by Beijing’s metrics, let’s look at what some of the real goals might be.
There was a lot of discussion about implications for kinetic warfare. In this context, kinetic broadly means “of or relating to the motion of material bodies”. Or a shooting war. You know, the Chinese “base” question.
No, China didn’t get a “base”, however, given China’s doctrines of unrestricted warfare and civil-military fusion, China may put kinetic elements in place in ways designed to bypass Western trip wires.
For example, the Vision proposes to “establish China-Pacific Island Countries Disaster Management Cooperation Mechanism”, that includes prepositioned “China-Pacific Island Countries Reserve of Emergency Supplies”. Those can easily be dual use.
And, while the multilateral Vision wasn’t signed, Wang did sign a series of bilateral deals, some of which echoed elements of the Vision, in most of the countries he visited. Some were formalizations or expansions of existing areas of cooperation, including blue economy, disaster management and more. Some were new, such as MoUs on fingerprint laboratories.
There also seemed to be a focus on gaining access in agriculture (land), fisheries (seas), aviation (air), and disaster response (amphibious, prepositioning). I’d like to be more precise, but the contents of most of the deals are secret. Which in itself is a win for Wang, on the political warfare front.
While strategic positioning is taking place, the primary battlefield now is not kinetic warfare, but political warfare. Political warfare can be defined as anything short of kinetic, including media warfare, lawfare and psychological warfare, also known in China as the Three Warfares.
But what is the goal of that political warfare? From what we’ve seen on this trip, and from decades of Chinese operations, one of the main goals might be winning “entropic warfare”.
Take a look at the chain of events that has garnered Beijing its closest PIC ally to date—one that did sign an overt security document with Beijing that has overt kinetic elements—Solomon Islands.
Solomons had some longstanding domestic political fractures, and when the government of Prime Minster Manasseh Sogavare switched the country from Taiwan to China in 2019 without public consultation, those fractures were aggravated.
Leaders within the country who objected to the switch, for example the Premier of Malaita Province, Daniel Suidani, were targeted by Sogavare with backing from the Chinese Embassy. That inflamed the situation even more, leading to unrest. That unrest created the justification for Sogavare to say he needed the security deal with China to handle the civil unrest.
It took around two years for a Solomons Prime Minister complicit with (if not compliant to) China, to dangerously destabilize the country. That destabilization suits the increasingly autocratic Prime Minister as it gives him the justification to go after his opposition in the name of “stability” and potentially to postpone elections—elections he is likely to lose.
Sogavare’s government is even acting in ways that are starting to have distinct “Chinese characteristics”, such as suppression of opposition and free speech. The Media Association of Solomon Islands boycotted covering Wang Yi’s visit because of restrictions placed on them by Sogavare’s government at the behest of the Chinese. And the Solomon Islands Christian Association issued a statement saying there “must be transparency for any international MOU’s and MOA’s with the Solomon Islands. These international documents should be made public before the actual signing.”
There is widespread and growing discontent in Solomons as the fragile social contract breaks down. Which China can consider a win. Solomons is weakened from within, making opposition less effective, and the leadership more dependent on Beijing.
The definition of entropy is: “a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder.” Political warfare is the tactic (using for example media warfare to create social division, lawfare to arrest critics, and psychological warfare to damage a target country’s relationship with other potential sources of support). That political warfare supports an “entropic warfare” win—paralyzing a target country’s ability to respond or defend itself, and so allowing Beijing to “win without fighting”.
We’ve seen Chinese entropic warfare in various stages in Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and elsewhere.
And the contagion seems to be spreading in the Pacific. Everywhere Wang Yi went, governments kept deals secret, restricted their own journalists, and blithely waived quarantine regulations that have been keeping families apart for over two years. In what are normally very tight-knit societies, that has sown seeds of social discord that are still nascent, but that have the potential to grow into the strangling vines of entropy.
INDIA VERSUS ENTROPY
Because India has an understanding of a broad range of Chinese political warfare tactics (as shown for example by the banning of Chinese apps, including TikTok and WeChat), India has proven successful at helping to blunt entropic warfare attacks in Maldives and Nepal, and is now trying in Sri Lanka.
China knows this, and that is likely why its proxy, the government of Prime Minister Sogavare, is stalling the entry of India’s High Commissioner to Solomon Islands.
The entropic “degradation” of the social contract in the region has come as a wake-up call to many, including Australia. John Blaxland, Professor of International Security & Intelligence Studies at Australian National University said: “What has happened in Timor L’este [one of the countries to sign multiple deals with China] reflects a sad and cynical mishandling of the bilateral relationship by Australia. Australian goodwill has been squandered, after the remarkable circumstances in September 1999, when, under Major General Peter Cosgrove, the Australian-led and UN-endorsed International Force in East Timor (INTERFET) was the handmaiden of Timorese independence. The level of trust and goodwill back then was sky high. Now it’s in the toilet. How Australia could have played its hand so badly should be the subject of a hard-nosed review. Perhaps too clever by half, we thought we could play the role of dominant regional benefactor without thinking through the limits of our own power.”
Australia’s new government seems to be trying to right the boat, but there is likely to be a steep learning curve—and that review can’t come soon enough.
On news of Wang Yi’s plans, Australia’s new Foreign Minister Penny Wong quickly travelled to the region and gave speeches about Australia being a member of the “Pacific family”. But given the problems Pacific Islanders often have getting visas to Australia, many were likely thinking “you are the sort of family member who shows up in our house whenever you want and demands attention, but if we want to visit you, good luck getting in the door.”
Australia still has a lot to learn about its neighbours, and itself. But it doesn’t have much time. Entropy is spreading, with the active help of Beijing. While Canberra and others get up to speed, countries like India, and leaders like FSM President Panuelo, could be encouraged to engage more broadly on political warfare education and defence across the region—helping to knit together like-minded journalists, community leaders, business sectors, democracy-minded political leaders, and more.
For example, President Panuelo and Premier Suidani could be assured their economies won’t be penalized for their principled leadership, their analyses could be shared personally with other Pacific leaders (ideally in a low key, bilateral manner, without Australian or New Zealand intervention), and investigating could be launched into the “agents of entropy” laundering their ill-gotten Chinese money via, for example, Australian and New Zealand real estate. It would also be good to see Australia and others asking Solomons why Quad partner India wasn’t being allowed in.
Wang Yi’s trip was a win in China’s protracted entropic warfare strategy. That needs to be acknowledged, reviewed and understood. Australia just announced a new patrol boat for Samoa and recently opened a new military training facility in Fiji.
You can give a country as many patrol boats as you like, build whatever military training facilities you want, but if the country’s society weakens, fragments and is captured by Beijing, all you’ve done is given China and its proxies a nice new boat and barracks with which to suppress local opposition and project power.