On August 11, 2022, the Policy Insights Forum (PIF) was pleased to welcome U.S. Air Force Brigadier General (ret’d) Dr. Robert Spalding for an exclusive interview on his second book, War Without Rules: China’s Playbook for Global Domination. The one-hour discussion was moderated by Vice-Chair of the PIF and Senior Academic Advisor at Samuel Associates, Colonel (ret’d) J. Paul de B. Taillon.
War Without Rules provides access to Chinese thinking about warfare within the Chinese context for a Western audience. Dr. Spalding's latest book engages heavily with Unrestricted Warfare, a 1999 book on military strategy written by two People’s Liberation Army (PLA) colonels, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui. Dr. Spalding conceives of Unrestricted Warfare as a doctrine document in which the Chinese leverage principles people experience in their quotidian lives for political warfare. Whereas the Western imagination distinguishes peacetime and wartime, Unrestricted Warfare casts war as a continuum and the world as a competitive environment in which great powers must struggle to achieve supremacy over their opponents.
Dr. Spalding opines that these ideas have not yet penetrated the Western mindset toward China. While the U.S. was thinking of competition with China in kinetic and military terms, the Chinese pursued another methodology employing finance, economics, law, and trade to influence perceptions, behaviour, and intentions beyond their borders in promoting Chinese interests. Dr. Spalding cited China’s co-opting of the economic behaviour of Hollywood, taking what the U.S. has built and overlaying their own identity over top to control the public strategic narrative.
The corporate sector's reticence in confronting China was also mentioned. In Dr. Spalding's view, the relationship between China and American businesses has resulted in a form of strategic capture, hindering U.S. interests. American corporations have urged Washington D.C to distinguish national security and business interests, to the detriment of American independence and industrial policy. He pointed to the CHIPS for America Act as an example of how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can influence the corporate sector and dismantle policy protections sought by Washington D.C.
Dr. Spalding asserts that China seeks to undermine Enlightenment-era principles, which have formed the foundation of the current rules-based international order. One venue for infiltration is Western academia and universities. Penetrating Western academia allows China to implement their patterns of belief as it applies to the shaping and ideational construction of the global international superstructure. Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes have become centers for promulgating the CCP's narrative within the university system. Peer-reviewed journals and respectful dialogue on university campuses have also suffered from the widespread falsification and fabrication of data by CCP-backed scholars.
The Chinese state can orchestrate favourable strategic outcomes through the success of Chinese multinational corporations and business groups. In Dr. Spalding's estimation, civil-military fusion in China ensures that the Chinese military immediately absorbs developments in the corporate sector. Dr. Spalding saw pushback to his ideas when he served as an advisor to the White House and National Security Council. The upper echelons of the U.S. strategic community still buy into the outdated and ossified notion of a 'liberalized China. 'Though slowly shifting, there is still incredulity that “China can be viewed as an adversary and that economics can be viewed as a [part of the] problem.”
When asked how to counter these developments, Dr. Spalding stated: “My gut tells me that we were not prepared for the actions Russia took in invading Ukraine and that we will not be prepared for the actions China will take in invading Taiwan. Therein lies the catalyst from our slumber.” In the end, he believes Xi Jinping's hubris may bring about the downfall of the regime in Beijing. From the U.S. perspective, one way to reclaim intellectual high ground may be to change professional military education and bring greater awareness to young officers and future Western leaders.
The interview concluded with the idea that a ‘Whole-of-Government’ approach to dealing with China is missing. Dr. Spalding grimly noted that the current trends are disturbing and pointing towards eventual confrontation: “We can do it [counter Chinese malicious influence] before we fall into that trap. But I don’t see it absent the Chinese moving on Taiwan and awakening this recognition that we need to protect ourselves.”