Author | Editor: TRADOC G-2 Modeling and Simulation Directorate
The Competitive Zone (or Gray Zone) is “an operational environment ‘churning with political, economic, and security competitions that require constant attention.’” Given Russia’s military actions in eastern Ukraine and China’s expansion in the South China Sea, “military and academic communities have attempted to describe conflict in the Gray Zone to create shared understanding and spur discussion on conflict and competition in this space.”
The Competitive Zone is further described as “a conceptual space between peace and war, occurring when actors purposefully use single or multiple elements of power to achieve political- security objectives with activities that are typically ambiguous or cloud attribution and exceed the threshold of ordinary competition, yet intentionally fall below the level of large-scale direct military conflict, and threaten US and allied interests by challenging, undermining, or violating international customs, norms, or laws.”
In 2018, the Joint Staff J-39 Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) initiated the Global Competition and Conflict (GCC) Project which sought to answer the following overarching question: “How might the US strategize to defend global interests across the spectrum of cooperation to competition and conflict through the coming decade?” This requirement also included a request that the J-39 SMA coordinate with the TRADOC G-2 Modeling and Simulations Directorate (MSD) to explore options for employing the Athena Simulation in support of this SMA Project.
The Athena Simulation is a sociocultural modeling capability employed by the TRADOC G-2 which is designed to improve a commander’s understanding of the intended and unintended effects of introducing various DIME-FIL engagement strategies across an operational environment (OE) that is described by the operational variables (PMESII-PT).
The SMA GCC Project focused primarily on Russia and China. The Athena modeling effort focused solely on China (with the exception of one study excursion that explored current events in Hong Kong and the long-term implications on regional stability).
This Final Report compiles the insights derived by the Athena team from research, Subject Matter Expert (SME) engagements, Athena Simulation runs, and the collaborative analysis conducted with other members of the SMA community of interest. Insights were also derived as a result of Athena team participation in various related experiments and exercises conducted between January and September 2019.
This Athena-based analysis primarily conducted a deep dive into China’s global outlook, activities, and strategy. The study approach considered three outcome-oriented use cases to assess, compare and contrast potential futures for China over a simulated multi-year period. These use cases are framed as:
The use cases are more fully defined in the introduction section, following this EXSUM. In addition, Athena modeling was used to evaluate two “excursions”:
The analytic focus of the Athena modeling effort was oriented on determining how key factors (i.e., government decisions and economic engagements) affect political, economic, and social stability dynamics across China.
A combination of research, SME engagements, and Athena Simulation modeling and analysis produced the following insights:
Insight 1: Popular Support for CCP Remains Stable
Regardless of the economic growth rate across three use cases, nationwide support for and popular satisfaction with governance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) declined mildly over a decade. There was no collapse of CCP influence in any region within China (neighborhood). The Lost Decade use case produced a greater decline in popular support for the central government, but not nearly enough to produce any significant change. The Hong Kong Crisis excursion had virtually no effect on the level of popular satisfaction with CCP governance, while the Xinjiang Uprising excursion produced a sharp decline in this metric until the simulated VEO was decisively defeated.
Insight 2: Popular Mood is Largely Stable
Nationwide “mood” initially increased and then decreased mildly, roughly mirroring the greatest period of economic growth in the Status Quo and Acceleration cases. In the Lost Decade use case, mood rose negligibly, flattened out, and then declined. When mood was increasing, it was buoyed primarily by the population’s improving sense of safety. When the Hong Kong Crisis and Xinjiang Uprising excursions were applied to all use cases, national mood was virtually unaffected by the Hong Kong Crisis. However, national mood sharply declined during the Xinjiang Uprising and recovered somewhat after it ended. Without excursions, national mood terminates with virtually the same measured effect across all three use cases.
Insight 3: The Lost Decade Hits Hard
The Lost Decade impacts the mood of the Chinese population much more negatively than the Acceleration case’s effects are positive. Additionally, the positive changes are very small. When included, the Hong Kong Crisis again had minimal impact on national mood, but the Xinjiang Uprising produced a significant negative impact. The economically vital middle class civilian group, “Working Poor,” is especially harmed by the conditions of The Lost Decade. Both their mood and satisfaction with governance decline steeply over ten years. The Working Poor were specifically assessed in the megacities of Beijing, Chongqing, and Shanghai. The heartland city of Chongqing showed the greatest degree of loss. Along with the Working Poor, the “Power Elite” of Chongqing City saw sharp declines in mood and satisfaction with governance, suggesting a looming threat to CCP legitimacy in the interior if there were significant economic stress.
Insight 4: The Downtrodden Endure
The Han “Downtrodden” peasant civilian groups in the countryside show durable tolerance for CCP governance. The mood of the Downtrodden in Han Central declines mildly in the Lost Decade case, mostly due to weakening satisfaction with governance, the net change in mood is virtually zero. The mood rises, then returns to its starting point by the end of the decade. In the Status Quo and State Capitalist Acceleration cases, mood sees a significant net increase, indicating the benefits of economic growth on even one of the most marginal groups.
Insight 5: The Elites are Stable
Chinese political and wealthy elites (“Power Elite” and “Well-Off” civilian groups) generally show durable confidence in CCP governance. There are only slight declines in satisfaction with governance over all three use cases—except in Chongqing City, where elite satisfaction declines precipitously.
Insight 6: The Predictable Pain in Xinjiang
While mood in Xinjiang decayed sharply in all use cases, the mood of Uyghurs was slightly better under Status Quo and State Acceleration (which includes milder treatment of Uyghurs by the CCP). This suggests that if economic improvements actually impact Uyghurs, it may mitigate their disaffection. In this excursion, the small insurgency in Xinjiang was unable to remove CCP rule or govern the area.
Insight 7: The Hong Kong Turbulence is Temporary
In Hong Kong, during the Hong Kong Crisis excursion and after, support for the Municipal Government fluctuates turbulently during the protests, but post-crisis, it is virtually identical under all use cases. Support trends slightly higher under State Capitalist Acceleration than the Status Quo. Support for the Municipal Government is slightly lower under the Lost Decade than Status Quo.
TRADOC G-2 employed the Athena Simulation to computationally model three potential Chinese futures in order to assess the political and social outcomes of each by assessing control, support, mood, and satisfaction with governance of the Chinese population. Future analytical efforts will leverage the pathway analysis work that other participants in the SMA enterprise are currently developing.
The modeling and analysis produced four primary conclusions resulting from the seven insights: