(** This is a new concept that needs more research, analysis and debate. KIIPS would welcome contributions on this theme of “Comprehensive National Defence”)
Those trying to describe China’s strategy often invoke the two-thousand-five-hundred-year-old Art of War. But some more recent sources might be helpful as well – in particular documents looking at China’s modern, homegrown concept of Comprehensive National Power (CNP).
China’s Ministry of State Security-linked think tank, the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, describes CNP as the “total of the powers or strengths of a country in economics, military affairs, science and technology, education, resources, and influence.”
In practice, it is actually even broader than that. CNP leverages the widest possible range of factors, including economic resources, human capital, natural resources (arable land, access to freshwater, energy sources, critical minerals, etc.), capital (domestic investment, foreign direct investment, market capitalization, etc.), knowledge and technology (including government spending on research and development), government resources (including both current and capital fiscal spending by the central government), military, and a vast array of international resources.
An article by Lt Gen (Dr.) JS Bajwa (Ret.) in CLAWS Journal describes CNP as “notable for being an original Chinese political concept with no roots in contemporary Western political theory, Marxism-Leninism, or pre-20th century Chinese.”
Subsections of CNP show the depth of the institutional penetration of the ‘by any means possible’ approach. For example, in 2003, the Central Military Commission introduced the “Three Warfares”. The three are: strategic psychological operations; overt and covert media manipulations; and exploitation of national and international legal systems.
The point is, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) thinks it is legitimate – and desirable – to make, buy or steal every possible tool for its strategic toolkit. It thinks everything it controls or can influence should be used to advance its goal – the preservation and prospering of the Party and its leadership.
To achieve that, China blurs the lines on purpose. It uses fishing boats to advance maritime claims, Chinese students overseas to push foreign universities to change maps and curricula, prostitution for political blackmail, loans to gain access to critical infrastructure, and the cover of a global pandemic to grab Indian land.
What this means is that if a country is going to protect itself from the CCP’s Comprehensive National Power, it needs a Comprehensive National Defence.
A Comprehensive National Defence (CND) requires assessments of complex, interlinked, often obscure, vulnerabilities. One of the first major global demonstrations of CND was India’s banning of the 59 Chinese apps.
For many in the global strategic community banning the apps initially seemed a mildly confusing, possibly petulant, move. Then more information started to come out about the way China was using the metadata generated by the apps for AI weapons refinement, how app-facilitated intercepts were used for blackmail and commercial advantage, and how WeChat gave the CCP access to the communications of foreign companies doing business in China.
The apps had been as much of an attack on India’s security as the PLA troops in Galwan. And India identified them as such, defended itself, and in the process cut off information flows to China, knocked billions off the valuation of Chinese companies, and showed the world the importance of fighting China’s Comprehensive National Power in new and equally comprehensive ways.
It’s not surprising that India should lead the way in CND. Anyone who has compared the Art of War to The Prince to the Arthashastra can see India is not new to complex strategic thought – much more complex than the pithy aphorisms of Sun Tzu or the high school playground antics of Machiavelli.
India’s Comprehensive National Defence strategy is still in formation, but the potential of CND is tectonic – especially as Indian strategists have also been looking at developing India’s own Comprehensive National Power. As far back as 2013, Lt. Gen. PK Singh (ret.), Maj. Gen Y K Gera and Captain Sandeed Dewan (Ret.) edited a 2013 book called Comprehensive National Power: A Model for India.
One aspect of developing CND and CNP is understanding your country’s advantages and weaknesses. In the case of India, not only is the country unique – the world’s largest democracy, largely English-capable, strategic location, etc. – but this moment in history is unique. Beijing overplayed (or at least showed) its hand too early and countries are scrambling to shape new strategic and economic partnerships to constrain, if not contain, the dragon.
With the app ban, India has shown it can innovate and lead in a complex battle. And there are other crosscutting Indian initiatives like the proposing of an Indo-Pacific Charter. There are discussions about expanding the Quad to have an economic component – maybe building off the Supply Chain Resiliency Initiative currently comprising India, Japan and Australia. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been mooted as a potential base Delhi could share with allies to change the strategic map at the Indo-Pacific chokepoint of the Malacca Strait.
The more ideas, plans and actions India comes up within the widest possible range of fields the more secure its Comprehensive National Defence. And hopefully, the rest of those concerned about China’s Comprehensive National Power can watch and learn and support and emulate.
**The author is Non-Resident Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific, Foundation for Defense of Democracies as well as a member of the KIIPS International Board of Advisors**