One of the topics we keep going back and forth about is Taiwan and China and the Chinese military and what-the-Hell-is-China-up-to. I rely on StrategyPage for much of my news on this topic. For example, this recent post gave an interesting short overview of China’s current military buildup. It starts out by asserting: “China’s armed forces are undergoing a massive transformation. All of it seems directed at giving China the ability to take Taiwan by forces.” I can take that or leave it, but I have no way to confirm myself if that assessment is correct. It is consistent with my understanding and beliefs, but so are a lot of assessments which are wrong.
The most critical problems we have is the dearth of English language translations of the Chinese military material. This StrategyPage post, entitled The Warmongering Chinese Colonels , starts thus:
It’s difficult to tell exactly what military plans the Chinese leadership is cooking up. A major reason for this murkiness is the very lively, relatively censorship–free military press in China. This is something they borrowed from the late Soviet Union (where similar free-thinking constantly befuddled American Soviet-watchers throughout the Cold War). In China, as long as you don’t criticize the leadership or the party, military professional can pretty much say what they want about military matters.
I have seen numerous references to this lively Chinese military press. It would be good if there were a publicly available source of recent translations. Presumably people inside the military have access to it. But the public debate would be better informed if more of this material were available. (This 2001 run-down, entitled China’s Military Strategy Toward the U.S.A View From Open Sources , looks pretty interesting.)
One commonly cited work is Unrestricted Warfare by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, the aforementioned warmongering colonels. This is available online, as well as in a very alarmingly packaged paperback edition,. I read this short book. It struck me as a “think piece” and not a statement of doctrine. I even wondered if the assertions in it about the effectiveness of helicopters, rebutted in practice in Operation Iraqi Freedom, were not disinformation directed at the United States. Nonetheless, it is cited by Thomas X. Hammes in his excellent book The Sling and the Stone. (An essay by Hammes synopsizing the book is here.) So while the book cannot be dismissed out of hand, it is at best one bit of evidence about what the Dragon may be thinking.
More substantive-seeming books do exist. But not in English. I have seen several references in journal articles to a book on current Chinese military doctrine. For example, “Tracking China’s Security Relations: Causes for Optimism and Pessimism” Thomas J. Christensen, China Leadership Monitor, No.1., n. 23, had this reference:
The book on doctrine is Lt. General Wang Houqing, and Maj. General Zhang Xingye, eds. Zhanyi Xue [Military Campaign Studies] (Beijing: National Defense University Press, May 2000) (military circulation only). The book is available at Harvard’s Fairbank Center library … .
I contacted this library. The book is only available in Chinese. Blast.
While we are waiting for the translation, this review essay from the current Parameters, entitled Is there a Chinese Way of War? will have to hold us. The author concludes with these broad-stroke conclusions:
So, is there a Chinese way of war? This question cannot be answered definitively in this short essay. But these books under review suggest there is a distinct set of characteristics that guide how China’s strategic thinkers approach matters of war and strategy. First, geopolitical criteria rather than operational performance provide the primary basis for evaluating military success. Second, while serious thought and calculation appear to go into determining when and how military power is to be used, Chinese strategists do not demonstrate much reluctance to use force. Indeed they are prone to significant, albeit calculated, risk-taking. Third, when employing military power, the emphasis is on Chinese forces seizing and maintaining the operational initiative. Fourth, it is imperative that China leverage modern technology to gain the edge in any conflict.
That bit about risk-taking behavior is believable. The intervention in Korea being a compelling bit of evidence.
Also, nosing around, I found this article, translated from Chinese, entitled The Worrisome Situation of the South China Sea – China Facing the Stepped-up Military Infiltration by the U.S., Japan and India. The source is Outlook East Weekly [Liaowang Dongfang Zhoukan], January 12, 2004, linking to http://army.tom.com. Query: Does anybody read Chinese? What is this page? Is it in any way an official publication? (Via, after digging past a defective link via Google, the U.S. China Commission website.)
The Chinese viewpoint expressed here is one of worry and fear of encirclement and an eroding position in the South China Sea. It refers to China’s claims to the “disputed regions of Spratly, Paracel (Xisha) and Huangyan Islands.” It notes continuing opposition from the local countries involved (Vietnam, The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia):
[T]he relevant countries have kept up their political and diplomatic offensives against China, with regard to China’s claim of sovereignty in the South China Sea. To maintain their existing interests in the South China Sea, they have strengthened military control over occupied islands, islets and other waters, and have stepped up exploration and exploitation activities with the natural resources in the region.
It is funny in a way to see China concerned about the aggression of Brunei. But everybody views the world from their own desk. The article goes on to note also that the problem is not localized:
At the same time, world powers such as the U.S., Japan and India have increased their military infiltration in the South China Sea regions, pushing the issue towards a more complicated and internationalized level. The situation allows no room for optimism.
The U.S. is a super power that is seen to have been involved most extensively in the South China Sea affairs. Analysts believe that the US is the “behind-the-scenes” instigator of the South China Sea disputes. The issue of the South China Sea has become a new focal point in the U.S. overall strategic defense policy aimed at guarding against and containing China.
The Chinese author of this piece sees the United States as being behind the scenes in all these problems. Maybe so. But the possibility that the small countries in the area may have legitimate claims to these territories, remote from China, is not taken seriously.
It appears that the Dragon is thinking that the United States and other countries are ganging up on it, and that it is no fault of its own that this is happening. The Dragon also appears to be modernizing its military, making it smaller and more technologically advanced. It has also shown a historical predilection to high-risk use of force. Meanwhile, the disorder inside the country threatens the existence of the Communist Party’s rule, perhaps foreshadowing a revolution. This can be channeled into anti-Japanese riots for now, and perhaps in other ways tomorrow. But the domestic problems won’t go away, and a foreign war may appear to be a way to channel domestic irritation away from the ruling elite. A strong military presence and system of alliances in the region, led by the United States, will be needed to deter the Chinese leadership from taking that course when all other avenues seem closed.
The “containment” which is needed will be to keep China’s internal turmoil localized, while it makes the painful and (I fear) violent transition to post-communist rule.
All in all, this is a good time to keep our powder dry.
(Incidentally, China’s immense problems make me dubious about any immediately upcoming “Chinese Century”. They need to get over the hurdle of establishing law-abiding and orderly and accountable government, or they are not going to be able to continue to grow at a breakneck pace. I could be wrong, of course. An authoritarian China may yet dominate the world. But that seems to me unlikely for reasons which I’ll have to reserve for another post.)