Applying the Hybrid Threat Model
By Janne Jokinen, deputy director of the Community of Interest on Hybrid Influence at the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats
The Russian invasion and occupation of parts of Ukraine in 2014 was the final wakeup call to European states that the post-Cold War security environment was decaying. Two facts became undeniable: The use of armed force had been reintroduced into interstate relations in Europe, and the definitions of armed conflict and peaceful competition were becoming increasingly fluid and overlapping. In hindsight, the shift had been apparent for some time — e.g., in Russia’s invasion and occupation of parts of Georgia in 2008 — but it took a conflict involving a state bordering the European Union, and a campaign conducted efficiently and at a large scale, for the signals to be taken seriously.
Russia’s leadership expressly linked its operations in Ukraine in 2014 with its broader objective to change the European security order by returning to a model in which the sovereignty of most states would be relative and subordinate to that of “great powers” (as perceived by Moscow), and especially of Russia itself. Again, this message was nothing new. Russia had been calling for such a reordering of Europe and the world for years.
The conflict in Ukraine and the Western reactions to it coincided with changes in European relations with China. These changes were the result of China’s economic and political power having reached a level that made the exercise of that power tangible, and a shift in the way the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership sought to secure its position domestically and internationally. Europeans were shaken by the increasingly stringent demands made by Beijing of foreign enterprises operating in Chinese markets, China’s growing economic and technological clout around the world, as well as by agents of Chinese security services operating more blatantly within European societies and by the aggressive style of its “wolf warrior” diplomats. Consequently, while it was Russia that drew the spotlight to the new world of hybrid threats, China quickly emerged as a possible equal in many Western security threat assessments.
The European reaction to the new threat environment has — aside from those who deny any significant change or see it as positive — had three main components: the reactivation and (re)construction of conventional defense capabilities; the reactivation of security alliances and partnerships; and the return to the whole-of-society concept of security. While this idea is not new as such — the history of the Cold War is the history of “total defense” — most European states considered it irrelevant in the post-Cold War era. Defense and national security policy documents, formulated by Western states during the late 2010s, have grappled with the change by introducing and redefining terminology used in the context of counterinsurgency and conflict-management operations, with inevitable confusion and misunderstandings. Terms such as “hybrid warfare,” “hybrid threat activities,” “gray zone activities” and “asymmetric warfare” are being used interchangeably or with new definitions. Moreover, defense experts are now required to work together with counterintelligence, law enforcement, media, the private sector and civil society. These partners each bring to the table their own terminologies and modes of thinking. Consequently, a lot of work remains to be done at the conceptual level to make deterrence and countermeasures effective.
The conceptual model for hybrid threats, which is employed by the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats (Hybrid CoE), seeks to replace the confusion with a common analytical frame of reference. The model is applied in this article to identify basic elements in China’s profile as a hybrid threat actor and develop recommendations for action.
The Conceptual Model for Hybrid Threats
The Hybrid CoE was created in 2017 in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea — operations in which Russia made extensive use of hybrid methods. The use of such methods by Moscow was not new. The history of the Cold War is replete with activities that fit the hybrid definition. Russian strategic thinking is a direct descendant of Soviet traditions. It is useful to remember that the same traditions find expression in the methods that the CCP has applied both domestically and abroad throughout its history. While examples of outright cooperation between Russia and China remain few, the Chinese carefully study the techniques Russia uses and are quick to adopt the ones that appear effective.
The Hybrid CoE, which has 31 participating states, is uniquely placed as a joint platform for the trans-Atlantic community (all member states of NATO and the EU are eligible to join) to build capacity for the prevention and countering of hybrid threats through networking, research and strategic discussions, as well as joint training and exercises. One of the Hybrid CoE’s first tasks was to develop a useful model for analyzing hybrid threats. As a first step, it was necessary to bring order to the conceptual free-for-all. The same activities were variously described as “surrogate warfare,” “gray zone tactics,” “new generation warfare,” “reflexive control” or “political warfare,” to name just a few. The work done by the Hybrid CoE, together with the Joint Policy Centre of the European Commission, resulted in the report “Landscape of Hybrid Threats: A Conceptual Model,” published at the end of 2020.
The conceptual model considers the landscape of hybrid threats as a continuum encompassing influence and interference through nonmilitary and military means, which the hybrid-threat actor uses to prime, destabilize and coerce the targeted society. The intensity and the choice of methods are determined by the degree to which the actor wishes to avoid detection and identification, and by the desire to stay below a threshold of what would trigger countermeasures. The conceptual model draws attention to the fact that hybrid threat activities specifically target key elements that underpin democratic political systems with the intention of turning them into vulnerabilities, and that these activities call for a comprehensive, systemic response.
According to the conceptual model, the term hybrid threat can be meaningfully applied when an actor with malign intent deliberately combines and synchronizes action, specifically targeting systemic vulnerabilities in democratic societies. The action may be characterized by the following:
- Using multiple synchronized tools to create linear and nonlinear effects.
- Creating ambiguity (covert action, plausible deniability) and hiding the real intent.
- Exhibiting deliberate threshold manipulation when it comes to detection and response.
- Exploiting the seams within a democratic society as well as the divisions between different jurisdictions.
- Often including a distraction element, such as action in one domain while the actual target is elsewhere.
The challenge for the targeted society is to identify the domains where hybrid threat activities are most likely to occur and focus resources for resilience, deterrence, detection and counteraction where they are most needed. To do this, it is necessary to understand the particular characteristics of the potential hybrid threat actor, the targeted society and the channels of influence between the two.
It is also important to bear in mind that hybrid threat activities do tend to occur on a continuum. What is visible is usually just one part of a broader campaign. Much of the activity is aimed at priming, that is, laying the groundwork for more forceful action if and when it becomes necessary. Decision-makers and entire societies are influenced to predispose them to remain passive or to react in a certain way to certain impulses, in accordance with the Soviet theory of reflexive control.
The conceptual model uses 13 domains: diplomacy, political, culture, social/societal, legal, military/defense, space, administration, infrastructure, economy, intelligence, information and cyber. These can be organized in any order, as needed. It is important to make sure that all relevant areas of activity, civil and military, are included and considered.
China’s Hybrid Threat Profile
When the conceptual model of hybrid threats was drawn up in 2018-2020, China’s hybrid threat activities had already received attention in Europe and were studied in the construction of the model. The intensity of these activities has continued to increase, with the most recent example being the pressure campaign against Lithuania for allowing the opening of a Taiwanese representative office in its capital, Vilnius; the first time an EU member state has permitted Taiwan to use its own name for a representation abroad.
China’s profile as a hybrid threat actor can be analyzed by looking at its strategic culture, the apparent receptiveness of European societies to China’s hybrid tactics, and the channels of influence that exist between China and Europe.
China’s Strategic Culture
The conceptual model presupposes malign intent: the pursuit of objectives that are in conflict with the interests and well-being of the targeted society. It is therefore important to look at the historical and cultural framework that guides Beijing in identifying its objectives. While the CCP publicly speaks of equality and mutually beneficial relationships, in practice it believes in the manifest destiny of China to lead the world. The roots of this objective lie in the domestic concerns of the party. According to its narrative, without the party, China would split into factions, fall into economic misery and political chaos, and become again a plaything of foreign powers.
China’s first line of defense is outside its borders. As in Russia, cultural security, such as securing the right mindset of the population, is a major concern. This is complemented by the perception that the outside world should engage in concrete and public acts of respect toward China and its leaders. Therefore, the global internet must be controlled: undesirable information has to be kept out with the “Great Firewall,” public authorities should decide what information goes out from China to the rest of the world, and Chinese control over the information space of other countries should be expanded.
Aside from nationalism, the party-state legitimizes its political system through economic success. It is necessary to convince the Chinese people that they have a vested interest in the perpetuation of CCP leadership and in providing the resources to build a global superpower. As China’s economy has matured and the demographic dividend has begun to peter out, the need for Chinese exports to and investments in foreign markets has increased. Demand for energy, key technologies and raw materials has continued to grow beyond what domestic resources can provide. Increasing China’s influence within foreign societies and global institutions is thus both an economic and a security necessity.
Why then is the CCP not satisfied with pursuing its objectives by using the economic, political and other legitimate tools available to a great power? Its perception of a global system dominated by the United States and its allies, and rigged against China, is one factor. However, the party is in fact predisposed to using hybrid tactics due to its strategic culture and history. Ancient Chinese history provides examples of unconventional warfare, and there are of course cultural continuities that mold its current leaders’ perceptions. However, referring to these examples is frequently used to give a nationalistic veneer to modes of thinking and operation, which in fact have a Soviet provenance.
The CCP and the state that it has constructed were first created in the model of the Communist Party and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, in their Leninist and Stalinist interpretations. Present-day thinking is largely based on Soviet models, including the United Front approach, and the drive toward reflexive control of adversaries. The CCP rose to power by using armed force, but also by what today could be called hybrid methods: weakening the resolve of opponents, applying pressure, disrupting opposing alliances, co-opting third parties and controlling the information space of the population at large. One notable present-day example of the application of these methods within China is the assimilation of Hong Kong into the one-party state.
Targeting European Societies with Hybrid Threats
For CCP leadership, Europe is a tempting target for hybrid threat activities. European states are generally open-market economies where political systems are democratic and governmental authority is limited by the rule of law. The outward orientation of these states is to seek stability and avoid conflict. Individually, European states are, at best, medium-sized powers and thus of limited means compared to China. However, most of them are allies or close partners with the U.S. This makes them relevant to the great power rivalry as China can erode the position of the U.S. by weakening its European partners.
While militarily and politically weak in comparison with China, European states do provide significant economic and technological opportunities that can be exploited. The EU and its member states also have considerable normative power around the world both directly and through international institutions. Finally, millions of Chinese citizens have been exposed to European values and cultures while studying and working in Europe or interacting with Europeans inside China. This influence has to be discredited to ensure cultural and political security. Moreover, the party needs examples of democratic failure — manufactured if necessary, such as in the disinformation campaigns related to the COVID-19 pandemic — as proof of China’s superiority.
Consequently, for the CCP, already predisposed and experienced in using hybrid methods, Europe is an attractive target because it consists of numerous small- and medium-sized powers that are economically dependent on China. The open nature of European societies creates spaces in which the CCP can inject proxies in the form of Chinese and Chinese-controlled enterprise, media, research institutions, diaspora organizations and influential individuals. The party’s belief in the inherent superiority of authoritarian political systems in itself invites the use of hybrid methods against democratically governed countries.
Channels of Influence
The third element for the application of hybrid methods is the existence of channels of influence. Geography plays a role here. The application of armed force against Europe is unlikely except as part of a global conflict between China and the U.S. Even then, military force would probably be used mostly in cyberspace and against European assets in the Indo-Pacific region. China is, of course, hard at work expanding its blue water capabilities, including the presence of the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia under the guise of civilian fishing fleets, and this situation may eventually change, e.g., in the Arctic.
Even if the domain of armed force can largely be excluded from the threat landscape, China possesses many other potent means to influence Europe. Practically all European economies are integrated with China’s and, to varying degrees, dependent on it. Hybrid threat activities can thus be expected in the economic domain. Cyber is another domain where the interface between European societies and China is particularly broad. This is especially true in the field of information and communications technology but extends to other areas as well. The economic and cyber domains are ever more closely intertwined as economic activity becomes increasingly reliant on data flows. It is no accident that China is focused on gaining control of the global storage and transmission of data.
Chinese diasporas in Europe have not been large and homogeneous enough to influence political systems directly, such as through elections, unlike in some other parts of the world. Nor does China have significant cultural or religious connections with Europe that could serve as conduits of CCP influence. The same applies to politically based organizations. Overseas Chinese communities can, however, have a significant impact in more specific contexts such as among economic actors and within academic institutions and the research community. China has been able to exercise elite capture by cultivating numerous influential European individuals, including people holding strategic positions in international institutions.
China as a Hybrid Threat Actor
Going back to the definition of hybrid threats, China would indeed seem to have the motives, means and opportunities to use them to influence European societies. There is also plenty of concrete evidence of China engaging in such activities. The priming of European societies to be more receptive to China’s objectives has been underway for some time through the expansion of economic dependencies (infrastructure, investments), elite capture, the acquisition of media outlets and making them dependent on Chinese material (especially when it comes to information about China), the application of pressure against academics and other experts working on and teaching about China, the ownership of strategic assets such as power plants and port facilities, the expansion of dependence on Chinese technology and related services, and so on.
The exploitation of jurisdictional divisions within European states is quite evident in the economic field. Chinese actors approach local authorities, who control things such as zoning decisions, with lucrative proposals. By the time national-level security authorities become aware of the deal being struck, it may be difficult to stop it without overstepping administrative and legal boundaries. Chinese actors are also quick to react with various means, including threats of and actual legal action directed at those who do not conform to its wishes.
The exploitation of jurisdictional divisions extends to the international level. China’s creation of regional groupings, such as the 16+1 format, are aimed at fracturing European unity. Gaining control of international norm-setting institutions undermines the ability of European states to use legal norms and technical standards to limit China’s access to critical sectors.
When influence has failed, such as in the case of Lithuania, China has moved on to interference. It has used its economic power both inside China (boycotts of foreign products, administrative pressure, denial of visas for personnel), inside the targeted country (denial of critical raw materials and components), and at the global level (lawfare, preventing participation). Hybrid threat campaigns also include disinformation using Chinese-controlled media inside the targeted country, cyber tools and the mobilization of “the Chinese people” (persons and entities paid by the state but also genuine private citizens spurred by patriotism) to attack the target on social media. In the most extreme cases, individuals have been kidnapped and taken against their will to China to face imprisonment.
Reactions to illegitimate Chinese activities are smeared as racist Sinophobia and politically motivated disinformation. The use of nonstate proxies makes it easier to deflect attention from the role of China’s state authorities, especially as European audiences are still not fully aware of the control that the party exercises over Chinese society. The party-state’s messaging aims to undermine the credibility of European states as promoters of human rights, democracy and good governance in the eyes of the rest of the world, and to discredit the competing political model in the eyes of the Chinese people.
Looking at Sino-European relations through the lens of the conceptual model for hybrid threats, it is clear that CCP-led China meets the definition of a hybrid threat actor. In terms of the breadth of its activities, it is on par if not already superior to the other major actor, Russia, in almost any category except for the military domain. China has also been quite successful in priming many European societies to be receptive to its influence.
In recent years, China has applied pressure on European societies much more overtly than before. This has crossed a threshold, triggering a reaction in many targeted societies. Chinese behavior has been widely reported in the media and the public has grown more wary of China. Entrepreneurs have adjusted their assessments of political risk to China’s detriment. Governments have reacted verbally, but more importantly, have tightened legislation and policies and created instruments, such as the anti-coercion instrument (AIC) that is being developed in the EU to close avenues of influence for the CCP. China as a security concern is now a regular item on the agenda of the EU and NATO, as the trans-Atlantic community, with its Asian and Pacific allies, works to create common responses.
While this pushback is likely to cause the CCP to adjust its tactics, it is unlikely that the party would give up on its use of hybrid methods. First, using these methods is built into the CCP’s approach to its own society and the world at large. Second, these methods continue to be quite successful in many parts of the world. This helps China weaken the economic and political links that Western countries have with African, Latin American and Asian states, and to build a global constituency that it can mobilize at international institutions. Third, many of the methods are enhanced by advances in technology, as China has demonstrated.
As the threat is likely to persist, but assume new forms, it is important to ensure that Western societies have an adequate understanding of China, the mindset and objectives of its leadership, the tools that the CCP has available and is inclined to use, and of the potential vulnerabilities that it can exploit in Europe, in the West writ large and across the globe. It is important to be clear about the distinction between China and its population at large, and the party-state. Cooperation with China is both necessary and natural while countering the hybrid threat activities by the party-state is essential. Beijing’s efforts to control information flows from and to China must be resisted and adequate resources be ensured for independent research on China. Third countries should be encouraged and supported to conduct their own analyses. Some of these countries are among the main targets of Chinese hybrid threat activities and have valuable lessons to share. The safety and security of researchers is an urgent priority.
The mindset and methods of the CCP have strong roots in the Soviet Union, and Russia carries on the same traditions. The Chinese and the Russians, along with other authoritarian regimes, learn from each other as they seek more effective methods of influence and interference. It is therefore intellectually productive and operationally important to bring China experts together with Russia experts to get a complete picture of the hybrid threat landscape. This in turn should help overcome the handicaps resulting from the different orders of priority in the threat perceptions of the members of the trans-Atlantic community.
There is still much confusion regarding the definition of hybrid threat activities and how different domains relate to each other — notably the divide between the military and nonmilitary spheres. This must be overcome. Hybrid threats confront societies as a whole, so the response should also be inclusive and integrated. This makes the Hybrid CoE and other similar platforms all the more useful. They provide venues where experts from different fields, including the private sector and civil society, and different countries can come together to share information and create common frames of reference.