Rachel Marsden: Is Chinese strategy the key to defeating Islamic State?
PARIS — While the U.S. and its allies are struggling to figure out how to stop the Islamic State from metastasizing throughout the Middle East and beyond, China has been conspicuously absent from the containment efforts. Given that China is the largest beneficiary of oil contracts in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, you have to wonder why it can’t seem to be bothered.
These are the ideological descendants of Sun Tzu we’re talking about, and two quotes from his military-strategy manifesto “The Art of War” come to mind when considering China’s position on international antiterrorist efforts: “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle,” and, “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”
China has enjoyed the spoils of Western military efforts in Iraq, even though the Chinese were never part of the coalition of nations that supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That, too, fits with classic Sun Tzu strategy: “There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.”
We should be asking how, exactly, the Chinese have managed to turn the ongoing and escalating worldwide terrorism threat into economic victories, and whether there’s a lesson for the West in all of this.
At the core of China’s antiterrorism strategy is a longstanding policy not to interfere in the affairs of other nations — at least not militarily. Instead, Chinese strategy emphasizes intelligence over military might, and the war on terrorism is nothing if not an intelligence war. We keep seeing evidence of this.
“The extremists of ISIS use messaging and social media services such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp,” Robert Hannigan, the new director of the British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters, recently wrote in the Financial Times. Hannigan has implored these U.S.-based social media platforms to grant better access to intelligence agencies, reversing a trend that has seen technology companies become less cooperative with intelligence agencies in recent years. This trend is mainly the result of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden fencing top-secret documents and scaring the uninitiated into ignoring oversight provisions and believing that Western governments could conceivably trample people’s rights under the guise of antiterrorism efforts.
China doesn’t deal with the same sort of backlash over its intelligence activities, even though every Chinese businessman or student is considered an intelligence asset. This is partly due to the fact that China’s geopolitical “aggression” is much more discreet and covert, and its strategy is precisely the opposite of the West’s.
Here’s the key difference: When the U.S. and other Western nations decide to penetrate a foreign market that offers limited access, they destabilize that market militarily, then attempt to restabilize through business interests and engagement programs. The idea is that the local population will welcome its new “management” because they’re being provided with jobs and opportunities.
In contrast, China doesn’t launch overt military operations, preferring instead to use intelligence about a country’s needs and weaknesses to identify loopholes that can be exploited under the guise of economic trade and development. Then, China moves in to build bridges, roads and schools alongside its business operations. That way, China is able to gain the support of the locals — everyone from the military and government to the citizens — without firing a single shot.
In Iraq, China exploited the instability created by Western military operations to move in and toss its cash around under the guise of trade.
So how can the U.S. and the West adapt this strategy for the current fight against the Islamic State? The first move should be to get someone else to do the heavy military lifting — much as the U.S. is doing for China right now.
It was a costly mistake for the Obama administration to provide resources to the unknown group of “Syrian rebels,” because those resources only ended up seeding the Islamic State — the most prominent terrorist group to emerge from that Pandora’s box of combatants. This error was then compounded by inaction as the Islamic State began its reign of terror.
Obama needs to implore Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other so-called Gulf state allies to take the baton in eradicating the Islamic State threat. These nations have the defense and intelligence resources to do so. And in the event that they lack the will, then at least we’ll know who our friends are.