Brains Before Brawn: The Noopolitik Approach to China

The containment of China has been a riddle to solve for the West and it’s clear that traditional political approaches are not sufficient enough.

Noopolitik is referred to as the political strategy that focuses on the use and exploitation of the power of information. If we can agree with the remarks of neuroscientist James Giordano, then the human brain will be the battlefield of the 21st century. As a result, noopolitik and cognitive warfare can be directly linked with information and knowledge to have an advantage over an adversary. In terms of geopolitics, the U.S and its allies have quite a handful of goals to accomplish. One of them, and perhaps the most important one, is the containment of China.

Some may argue that China is an issue that cannot be avoided by the U.S and its allies, particularly the member states of NATO. Although the General Secretary of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg has stated that China is not an enemy or adversary to NATO, some growing challenges coming from China need to be addressed to preserve the security of the alliance. At the 17th Annual NATO Conference on, Arms Control, Disarmament, and Weapons of Mass Destruction Non-Proliferation, Mr. Stoltenberg addressed the issue of the rapid expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal in which he stressed out the fact that it happens without any limitation or constraint and with a complete lack of transparency. This kind of rapid competition can make our world as we know it a more dangerous place, and the West needs to adapt to this changing world.

The growing economy of China and its position in global geopolitics makes it a force that needs to be faced directly, primarily through its own techniques of cognitive warfare mixed with information and cyberwarfare. China at this time has the upper hand in the cognitive warfare domain for two reasons. First of all, this kind of warfare can take the form of a political-cognitive campaign by certain political and non-political groups that aim to create confusion and weaken adversary groups or individuals, using techniques of disinformation and propaganda. It affects people directly by altering public opinion, creating a societal dichotomy. Secondly, the fact that China is not a liberal democracy gives it the upper hand when it comes to the flow of information and specific targets. People that live in liberal democratic systems that ensure the free flow of information are more vulnerable to certain attacks that will be focused on news outlets or social media. While disinformation and propaganda can be tackled in some way through a cyber defense mechanism, the legitimate news outlets and social media accounts from foreign state-affiliated journalists or political assets can deliberately present news that will benefit their states, thus creating an alternative way of thinking for the people that are exposed to them. Both reasons are inter-connected, exactly as cognitive and information/cyber warfare is.

So why the noopolitik approach? Simply because, unlike the realpolitik approach, this approach is connected to the use of smart power, a mix of hard and soft strategies that are much needed to counter China. In an article for the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman, the foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist, referred to the approach to China with a direct transnational confrontation, based on shared universal values regarding the rule of law and human rights. In this sense, any strategy that involves standing up to China must have noopolitik elements to be successful.

One strategy that can prove useful is the close cooperation of NATO with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad, comprising the United States, India, Japan, and Australia. Unlike popular belief, QUAD does not represent an Asian version of NATO. Instead, it is designed as a loose-knit network of like-minded partners aiming at a broader purpose, and that broader purpose can be the counter of Chinese influence in the region, something that mutually benefits NATO. On September 24, the President of the United States, Joe Biden, hosted the first in-person summit of leaders of the QUAD, in an effort to renew and rebuild the alliances and focus on the promotion of a free and open Indo-Pacific, something that might be threatened by the increased power of China.

The threat coming from China is three-dimensional. It is military as evidenced by its proactive pursuit of territorial claims in South Asia, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea. It is also economic and technological, with the growing influence of the country on a global scale. Although the QUAD does not focus on military incentives, it does not downplay its military dimension; and how NATO can benefit from that. Since the so-called “boots on the ground tactic” would not be beneficial due to the possible geopolitical turmoil that can erupt in Southeast Asia, organizations like the QUAD can be extremely beneficial by promoting close cooperation with the respected countries to counter the influence of China in the region. Close cooperation with traditional allies is the key to the success of this engagement. This can happen from conferences and summits in the region and eventually impose the idea that for example, although NATO is not physically present, it will always be there in terms of support and as an observer towards China.

Apart from the QUAD, the West can rely on other allied countries that can benefit from the idea of countering China through knowledge politics. Countries like Taiwan or Singapore, which have fallen victim to China’s growing influence can be used as Trojan horses to allow the West to gain a foothold of knowledge regarding China’s activities and its implementation of cognitive warfare. Also, Mongolia that is situated just north of China can be considered a useful asset country. Particularly, Mongolia and NATO have engaged in cooperation and dialogue since 2005, on numerous occasions such as the stabilization of Afghanistan. The same technique can be applied to the problem of Chinese influence in the region. Of course, the West can always rely on the more traditional allies such as Japan and South Korea, who for their reasons wish to see a reduction of Chinese influence. With that being said, the pattern is very clear here. If the West and particularly NATO, engages in a noopolitik approach against China it will manage to gain leverage over its adversary in a strategic way.

In conclusion, if the campaign of NATO will be successful in Southeast Asia we can see two things. First of all, by strengthening the alliances with Mongolia in the North, Japan in the East, Taiwan and South Korea in the South, and India in the West, there is a chance to significantly change the geopolitical power structure of the region. Secondly, although it will not be physically present, NATO can demonstrate that it can play the same game as China. Surrounding the country, as China does in Taiwan and the Philippines, and gain an advantage in the future cognitive warfare field. In the end, since military presence is out of the question, then mind games, and the noopolitik approach is more than welcomed in the region, and it is a suitable approach for the West to demonstrate its cognitive skills. After all, it’s all about changing the way the Chinese think, and the best possible outcome is for them to think there is always a “bigger fish” in the region.

Nikita Triandafillidis
Nikita Triandafillidis
Bachelor's Degree in International Relations & Political Science. Columnist focusing on Global Affairs