[#5 in a chronological series meant to update this blog with write-ups I failed to post during 2021-2022.]
In August 2021, while trading emails about a range of TIMN-related matters with friends Dick O’Neill and Shiquin “Eddie” Choo, I learned from a news article about an unusually sharp exchange of words between U.S and Chinese diplomats at a public meeting. The exchange reflected a topic we sometimes discuss: the cooperation-competition-conflict spectrum, known as the 3Cs spectrum (sometimes as the 4Cs spectrum, if confrontation is inserted before conflict).
From what I read, I gathered that Chinese strategists had “hacked” the ways Americans have long used the 3Cs/4Cs spectrum for public dialogue. Hence my reply:
“When I’ve seen that spectrum before, I’ve normally thought it’s about identifying where actors are located along that spectrum, and then trying to move them more toward the cooperative end. I’m now thinking that’s very Western of me. Not to mention saying we Americans are trying to both cooperate and compete while avoiding conflict, which may be Western of me as well.
“China’s strategists seem to be doing something different with/to that spectrum. They seem to be looking at it and defying being placed at any one location, or being moved along it. They want to be everywhere at once along it, maybe seemingly at one location one day, an entirely different position another day. And they are using narratives that go with one position on it to support their narrative position(s) elsewhere along it, and/or to subvert Western narratives about one position or another along it.
“… the Chinese have hacked the 3C/4C spectrum. They have hacked the narratives all along it. And their discourse about it extend from their ideas about ‘discourse power’ and ‘cognitive domain operations.’ Theirs is a noöpolitical as much as a geopolitical strategy. And they’ve got us confounded, riskily if not dangerously so.”
So I made an impulsive decision to write about U.S.-China relations from a noöpolitical perspective. After plunging into voluminous reading about a topic I knew little about (U.S.-China relations), and with Eddie as co-author and Dick as mentor, I/we did come up with a draft paper for circulation.
I posted it on the Social Science Research Network site (SSRN.com) in October 2021, as follows:
Title: Has China "Hacked" The Foundational Framework For U.S.-China Policy Dialogue?
Abstract: U.S. foreign-policy and national-security actors have long relied on a particular framework — known as the cooperation-competition-conflict (3Cs) framework — for diplomatic dialogue. It recognizes that countries may be cooperating in one area, competing in another, and on the verge of conflict in yet another. Thus it is a fairly complex as well as realistic framework for viewing relations with other countries, sorting policy priorities, and organizing working groups to address specific issues — be that other country an ally, rival, adversary, or something in between. However, China’s strategists seem to have “hacked” it this year — they have aggressively penetrated, deconstructed, disrupted, and redirected its narrative elements and tactical implications. And China has done so not only because it is an aspiring power seeking to push the United States back, but also because Chinese strategists have apparently discerned, better than have their U.S. counterparts, that grand strategy and global positioning increasingly depend on information-age noöpolitics (“whose story wins”) as well as hard-power geopolitics. Implications for U.S. diplomacy and strategy include: (1) Be sure to broaden the framework’s spectrum to at least 4Cs. (2) Construct a policy stance that emphasizes the framework’s allowances for multiplexity — instead of identifying with a limited area, such as cooperation or competition, identify with the entire span and its multiplex dynamics. (3) Wake up to the emergence of the long-predicted noösphere (planetary realm of the mind) and noöpolitics. (4) Build global networks, and fight back with global networks, for noöpolitical as well as geopolitical purposes.
Keywords: China, diplomacy, statecraft, geopolitics, narrative strategy, noosphere, noöpolitics, multiplexity
Suggested Citation: Ronfeldt, David and Choo, Eddie, Has China "Hacked" The Foundational Framework For U.S.-China Policy Dialogue? (October 26, 2021). Available at SSRN:
I cannot report that the paper did well; it just sits there, posted but unpublished. Some reviewers considered it too jargony. The most unexpected criticism came from experts on narrative strategy who did not cotton to the “hacking” concept as part of narrative analysis. A couple of China specialists had positive appraisals, but most did not reply to requests for comments.
At the time, I meant to post the paper here. Better late than never, I suppose. Working on it certainly expanded my knowledge about China and U.S-China relations, as well as about multiplexity and other concepts. This may yet prove useful. Meanwhile, I have since come across other writings, plus a TV series, that use “hacking” the way I did, both as a descriptive and analytical concept.
Just to add a little more substance to this post, here is what the closing sub-section and coda state about a favorite theme, networks and noöpolitics:
• Build global networks, and fight back with global networks: As observed decades ago, “it takes networks to fight networks,” and “whoever masters the network form first and best will gain major advantages” (Arquilla & Ronfeldt, 1996, pp. 81-82). China and the United States, not to mention other state and non-state actors, are heading deeper into an unsettling era of intense challenges and likely rivalries in this regard. Accordingly, and to our delight as analysts who want to see network perspectives reinforced, one senior expert foresees
“...a task that will require the United States to embed its China strategy in a robust network of relationships and institutions — not only within Asia but across the world, and not only with other states but with the full range of actors shaping global political, social and economic change in the world. ... The combined weight of US allies and partners, and the American capacity for connectivity in a networked world, can shape China’s choices across all domains — but only if Washington deepens each of these relationships and works to tie them together.” (Campbell. 2020).
Most analyses focus on the geopolitical, geoeconomic, and geostrategic aspects of this network-building rivalry. On China’s side, these include its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, New Development Bank, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, etc.; and on the U.S. side, its efforts to promote the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), AUKUS, the G7 Build Back Better World initiative, proposals for pro-democracy alliances, etc. These efforts are indeed significant, and most surfaced during the U.S.- China diplomatic discussions discussed above.
But there is another aspect that has not surfaced clearly: rivalry to build regional and global networks for noöpolitical and noöstrategic purposes. Under their own concepts about “discourse power” and the “cognitive domain,” China’s forward-looking theorists and strategists seem set on this — their “United Front” strategy being an example — more than U.S. strategists have recognized.
Network-construction and -connectivity races are likely to grow across three levels of the emerging noösphere: the hard technological level, e.g., via underseas-cable and 5G-telecom projects; the social organizational level, e.g., through efforts to construct state-to-state and state-NGO alliances and partnerships around key issues; and the ideational cognitive level, through the design and deployment of strategic narratives across all sorts of media, including by way of building new media networks around the world. For example, in a way involving all three levels, China has worked relentlessly with fellow authoritarian countries in the Like Minded-Group of Developing Countries to block numerous civil-society NGOs — mostly the ones interested in human-rights or other sensitive issues, like Tibet, Taiwan, or the Uyghurs — from gaining consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council’s Committee on Non-governmental Organizations (Inboden, 2021).
Today, it is not clear whether China or the United States is better suited to addressing these twin challenges — noöpolitics and networks — but China seems further along in understanding and preparing for both. Meeting them may ultimately depend on each power’s ability to out-compete by out-cooperating, not simply bilaterally but mainly by forming noöpolitical (and geopolitical) alliances, partnerships, and other networked relations around the world. Values and interests all across the 3Cs/4Cs spectrum will be at stake. While our explanation here is brief, we sense that noöpolitical and network- building strategies will figure increasingly in U.S.-China relations for years to come, affecting matters all across the 4Cs/5Cs spectrum. Strategists today speak of the geopolitical power balance; someday they will heed the noöpolitical power balance as well. As this occurs, world-building will supersede nation-building as the key concern..
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