December 07, 2017 | Judith Norton and Monte R. Bullard
In a 2013 article titled “China’s Warfare Strategies and Tactics” (see here), I contend that China uses traditional and high technology political warfare in order to send a political message to the target to achieve specific political goals. This is particularly true in cases involving sovereignty and territorial disputes. Understanding them is important if conflict is to be avoided. Since that publication, China has increased the speed and scope of these types of activities in the region. This article revisits the 2013 article in order to provide additional insight into China's use of such activities around Taiwan, in the East and South China Seas, and, now, around the Korean peninsula.
In 2013, I wrote an article titled “China’s Warfare Strategies and Tactics” that pointed out China uses warfare strategies and tactics consisting of military actions in order to achieve specific political outcomes. Since that time, China has increased the speed and scope of these activities, particularly regarding its territorial and sovereignty claims. The leadership’s activities tend to follow cycles of escalation and de-escalation that are contingent upon the responses of the targets to the military actions. From my view, understanding them is important if conflict is to be avoided, especially now in East Asia where the security architecture is changing rapidly. This article revisits the issue of China’s warfare strategies and tactics.
The Chinese leadership’s form of “warfare” uses different types of technology in bounded or protracted military actions to force a political outcome to an existing dispute. The leadership exploits a combination of traditional and advanced technologies – missiles, vessels, jet fighters, surveillance aircraft, different types of tests, drills, and exercises, as well as interruptive technologies – to send political messages to rivals. When the Chinese leadership engages in this unique form of warfare, it could reflect their feeling that they have reached a point of inadequate returns from solely diplomatic overtures. Furthermore, the leadership could seek new ways to send the desired message about the dispute to the target. If the leaders “escalate” the warfare activities, it could be because they sense the dispute has begun to cross a threshold that now seriously threatens China’s national interests.
In the article, I used the word “escalate” to describe changes in the Chinese leadership’s warfare. But, as Colonel (Ret) Monte R. Bullard points out, when the PLA writes up military operation plans at the Division and Higher levels there is an annex that is not included in Western military plans to such a level. It is the Political Warfare annex, which considers all the short- and long-range consequences of military action. So, according to Bullard, it is not really a new “escalation” of warfare tactics or strategy. Rather, it is a routine consideration of all military planning. From a PLA perspective, therefore, the new political warfare (high tech is just one of the forms) consequences are increasing and they pay very close attention to it.
Against this backdrop, in my earlier article I contended that the Chinese leadership’s national interests consist of long-standing priorities. These priorities remain the same. China’s national interests consist of: maintaining stability and unity in regions where groups pose challenges to the Chinese state, like Taiwan, Xinjiang, Xizang, and Hong Kong; achieving national reunification with Taiwan; protecting the country’s territorial and sovereignty claims from external threats; and, more so now than before, preserving stability in the areas located around China’s periphery (e.g., Korean Peninsula).
Counter to conventional wisdom, the Chinese bureaucracy outside of the Communist Party is not always a top-down decision-making model (see here). In cases where the leadership has made public formal promises to the population, domestic sentiment is a formidable driver shaping policy. According to my interviews in China in 2013 and 2014, the domestic audience is not only part of the decision-making process but also wields enough power to hold the leadership accountable for failing to uphold those promises. When China’s rivals and their partners, friends or allies demonstrate the political will and acquire or put in place the military capabilities to undermine the Chinese leadership’s public commitments on major national interests, the leadership is forced to demonstrate some form of resolve. Typically, it resorts to the use of traditional and high technology political warfare in order to send a political message to the target in hopes of compelling a diplomatic outcome.
Although the Chinese leadership uses this singular form of warfare, it has little intention of moving the dispute into some type of militarized conflict. Rather, its primary purpose at any point in time during the chain of activities is to coerce the target to the negotiating table and, if possible, even remove the dispute from the public spotlight.
If the leadership’s approach fails, however, it might increase the speed, scope, and frequency of military actions to force a political solution. Engaging in increased military actions, the Chinese leadership signals to its rivals as well as their allies, partners or friends that the exploits are increasingly hostile to China’s national interests. Throughout the military actions, the leadership’s goal remains the same: the application of military action to force a political outcome. For China, the use of military force against any target is an option of last resort.
Before resorting to the use of force, China’s leaders will demonstrate their intentions by exacting political and economic costs against the target. Politically, it can attempt to marginalize as well as shame the target, while economically it can cause varying levels of economic damage to the target. The goal is to pursue actions that might cause the rival’s domestic audience to turn against the policies driving the Chinese leadership’s actions toward the target. To date, the Chinese leadership carefully applies these types of political and economic pressures against specific targets, like Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea.
In the 2013 article, I observed that two case studies highlight China’s unique form of warfare: The 1994-1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis and the 2012-2013 East China Sea Crisis, which I briefly examine again while providing some updates.
In 1994-1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis, the Chinese leadership believed that elements inside of Taiwan were increasing their independence activities during an election cycle on the island. To signal that the activities were crossing a national interest threshold, the leadership executed a series of traditional and high-technology political warfare maneuvers. The maneuvers consisted of large-scale exercises, underground nuclear tests, ballistic missile tests, amphibious exercises, and live-fire exercises. These exercises were messages for different actors whose behaviors increasingly threatened or could threaten its primary national interests – the unity of China as well as the reunification of Taiwan with mainland China. The Chinese leadership sent a signal to the Taiwanese leadership and electorate. As for the former, it wanted the Taiwanese leadership to not place a referendum for independence on the ballot during the 1996 Taiwan presidential election. As for the latter, the Chinese leadership sent two messages: do not vote for leaders who advocate for Taiwanese independence and do not vote for referendums that support Taiwanese independence in any form.
It also had a message for foreign powers, particularly to the U.S. and to a lesser extent Japan. Given that the U.S. is bound by domestic law (1979 TRA) to deter aggression against Taiwan, the Chinese leadership signaled that it would not tolerate any external interference in what China perceives as its internal affairs. Given that Japan is a treaty ally of the U.S., the leadership wanted Japan to not get involved in a crisis situation in the Taiwan Strait.
The Chinese leadership also sent a message to the mainland Chinese domestic audience. Conducting these exercises demonstrated its political will and military readiness to uphold its publicly made promise. The public promise, made decades ago, is the leadership will stop Taiwanese independence forces both on and off the island, and, eventually, it will achieve national reunification.
The Chinese leadership’s use of traditional and high technology political warfare established that it could inflict significant political and economic harm on Taiwan. In the political realm, for instance, Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which ran on an independence platform, lost the presidential election. In the economic realm, the missile tests and other exercises caused Taiwan’s stock market to plummet as well as interrupted shipping. In general, the leadership’s exercises demonstrated a number of things: China had the political will and military capabilities to interrupt activities in the Taiwan Strait; China could cause varying degrees of damage to Taiwan’s island economy depending on the test’s type, duration and intensity; and China executed the tests with little to no consequence (meaning, there was no real foreign intervention that posed a threat to China’s military plans that included short- and long-range consequences of military action in the Taiwan Strait).
Years later in the next election cycle the DPP won political power. The DPP-led government increasingly shifted toward promoting Taiwanese independence, which prompted the Chinese leadership to resort to the use of traditional and high technology political warfare in order to send a political message to Taiwan. In 2007, for example, Taiwan’s president Chen Shui-bian stated in his New Year’s Address that strengthening the island’s separate identity would be his top priority for the remainder of his term. He also stated his aim to pursue “constitutional reengineering” of which included holding a 2007 referendum on a new constitution for Taiwan. From China’s viewpoint, writing a new constitution is a move toward independence. Subsequently the Chinese defense establishment conducted an anti-satellite missile that destroyed one of its own satellites. According to my interviews conducted in the immediate aftermath of the test and again in 2008 with Chinese experts, the test was directed at Taiwan. It also was directed at external powers that might consider supporting Taiwanese independence forces on and off the island or interfering in the event of a crisis involving Taiwan.
Some Chinese experts contended the test had additional political implications. Specifically, the Chinese leaders wanted to prevent the weaponization of space by demonstrating its capabilities. In 2008, in fact, China’s leaders proposed that major powers discuss outlawing the weaponization of space in order to prevent an arms race in space. At that time, the leadership could have aimed to constrain the theater of operations in the event of a crisis over Taiwan.
With the Taiwan scenario in mind, compare the Chinese leadership’s military actions and political objectives then with its behaviors in the areas of the East China Sea in 2012.
As I wrote in the 2013 article, since the mid-1990s flare-ups have occurred sporadically over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, but in more recent years outbreaks in the areas surrounding the islands have intensified. One event triggering an escalation in hostilities goes back to the then Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s announcement in September 2012 that the Japanese government made plans to purchase from private owners three of the five islands. Following Japan’s nationalization of the islands, the Chinese leadership engaged in an increasing number of traditional and high technology political warfare activities around the islands in order to send a message to the Japanese leadership.
In the 2013 article, I emphasized that the situation between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands transpired in a broader context consisting of the cumulative effects of Japan’s evolving security posture. This means the Chinese leadership perceived that the accumulation of developments started to cross its bottom line on Japan. I briefly revisit this point.
When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (LDP) came to political power in December 2012, he pursued policies that signaled a shift in Japan’s security posture. For instance, Abe’s administration raised the defense budget, expanded defense cooperation with Japan’s allies, as well as increased amphibious forces. In addition, according to the 2013 Defense White Paper, his administration strengthened the capability to launch pre-emptive strikes against enemy bases when attacks on Japan’s territory are thought imminent, which undercuts the effectiveness of China’s missile forces. The Abe administration also called for the revision of the pacifist constitution, specifically Article IX that acts as a constitutional constraint outlawing war and prohibiting aggression. Japan gradually relaxed the domestic constraints on the SDF while pursuing a normalization of the national military. The U.S. encouraged these developments so that Japan can provide for its own defense, as well as to assist the U.S. military in overseas operations.
Interviews with Chinese experts at that time suggested that the Chinese leadership was increasingly uneasy about Japan’s potential full rearmament, because from their viewpoint it could lead to remilitarization as well as a more advanced security posture that covers the South China Sea and reaches to the Malacca Straits. Likewise, it was wary about the U.S.’s support for such developments.
In my article, I stated that the changing dynamics to Japan’s security posture compelled the Chinese leadership to use traditional and high technology warfare to send to the Japanese leadership a series of political messages in response to the nationalization of the islands. The messages included: put the territorial dispute on the back burner (both sides curtailed raising the dispute publicly but incursions increased); constrain the advancement of an already robust SDF; explain the intentions of certain weapon acquisitions (e.g., X band radars); and avoid revising the pacifist constitution, specifically Article IX. Today, I speculate that these issues still affect the dynamics of China-Japan bilateral relations.
Against this backdrop, it could be valuable to consider the Chinese leadership’s May 2013 rocket launch. Similar to the 2007 anti-satellite test by the Chinese leadership that sent a signal to Taiwan as well as others, the Chinese leadership perhaps used the 2013 launch of a ground-based rocket carrying a science payload to study the earth’s magnetosphere to signal its resolve regarding the Diaoyu/Senkaku island. The launch could have indicated the leadership’s political will and military capacity to disrupt future military operations aimed at taking control of the disputed area, as well as constrain any foreign involvement in the event of a crisis over the islands. In particular, the leadership could have directed the launch at the U.S., given the U.S.’s assertion that the islands fall under U.S. treaty obligations to Japan.
Once again, the launch could have demonstrated the Chinese leadership’s continuing interest in bringing major powers to the table to negotiate a treaty against the weaponization of space. From my viewpoint, it could demonstrate Chinese concerns then regarding a future conflict over Taiwan in the area.
In the 2013 article, I concluded that observers should expect the Chinese leadership to continue using traditional and high technology political warfare to force political outcomes in the cases of Taiwan and the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. The Chinese leadership made promises to the public regarding both these disputes. The primary drivers of the leadership’s actions include external and internal inputs. The external inputs include the actions of China’s rivals (and their allies, partners, and friends) while the internal inputs consist of the sentiment of China’s domestic audience. If the Chinese leadership perceives a rival’s actions as increasingly hostile to China’s national interest, particularly in the case of territorial and sovereignty claims, it will continue to implement its military plan until it reaches its desired goal. Although in the article I did not include a case of the South China Sea, I mentioned that the Chinese leadership would continue to “escalate” activities in that area in order to protect its claims, which it made defending those claims a national interest to the domestic audience.
In more recent times, evidence exists that the Chinese leadership has increased its use of traditional and high technology political warfare military activities around China’s periphery. One case is Taiwan. The election of Taiwan’s DPP to political power in January 2016 transformed the cross-strait relationship from one characterized by peace to one characterized by a cold peace. Taiwan’s DPP government refuses to recognize China’s “One China Principle” by verbalizing the 1992 Consensus. This would demonstrate the DPP’s commitment to ‘one China’ as well as its rejection of Taiwanese independence. However, it rejects the concept of ‘one China’, which is China’s primary national interest (maintaining unity as well as reunifying with Taiwan). In response, the Chinese leadership uses traditional and high technology political warfare military actions to coerce the government. It has engaged in an unprecedented number of military events around Taiwan (see Article 1, Article 2, Article 3, Article 4, Article 5, Article 6, Article 7, Article 8, Article 9, Article 10, Article 11, Article 12). The Chinese leadership’s goal is exclusively political: it wants Taiwan’s President Tsai to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, which signals her acceptance of China’s “One China Principle”.
In the case of Japan, the Chinese leadership takes the same approach. It has continued to use traditional and high technology political warfare military actions around the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. The main objective is to coerce the Japanese leadership to recognize that the islands are Chinese territory.
There are several other cases that can be added to this body of evidence suggesting the Chinese leadership uses traditional and high technology political warfare military actions to achieve political outcomes. As mentioned, one case is the leadership’s actions in the South China Sea area, while a new case is its actions around the Korean Peninsula. Much has been written on Chinese activities in the South China Sea so this article does not examine the case. In its place, it provides a short examination of the leadership’s actions near the Korean Peninsula.
The rapidly changing security situation on the Korean Peninsula is driven by the speed and scope of North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons program and nuclear-capable missiles, as well as by the U.S. and its allies’ regional activities. The Chinese leadership wants to see a de-escalation of tensions on the peninsula. Specifically, it wants the U.S. and its allies to end military exercises and activities that lead to increased tensions on the peninsula. Increased tensions there affect stability in China’s northeast region. Furthermore, the leadership wants all parties involved to use diplomatic means to resolve issues.
In recent months, the Chinese leadership could sense the dispute has begun to cross a threshold that now seriously threatens China’s national interests. These national interests consist of preserving stability in China (the northeast) as well as on China’s periphery. In response to this growing threat, the Chinese leadership now uses traditional and high technology political warfare military actions. In particular, the leadership is conducting military drills in the areas around the peninsula, which include coordinated military actions with Russia.
China most likely will continue to use traditional and high technology political warfare military actions to send signals to target countries. One signal could be that the U.S., South Korea and even Japan are pursuing policies that threaten China’s bottom line on North Korea. China will continue to engage in these types of activities in order to achieve its desired political goals. Based on Chinese statements, these goals include deescalating tensions on the peninsula and bringing all parties involved in the dispute to the negotiation table to find a diplomatic resolution to the issue.
In sum, many cases illustrate how the Chinese leadership uses traditional and high technology political warfare military actions to achieve political outcomes. Even throughout the event, the leadership will remain committed to resolving the disputes through diplomatic means. For China, the use of direct military force will be an option of last resort. As Bullard observes, understanding that the Chinese leadership’s military actions are designed more for the political outcomes than for military results should help to predict future military actions and prevent serious miscalculations in a future conflict. His observation initially applied to the Taiwan Straits. Given that the Chinese leadership has expanded the scope of these activities, Bullard’s observations most likely apply to other areas, including the East and South China Seas and now the Korean Peninsula.
*Citation: Norton, Judith and Monte R. Bullard, "Revisiting China's Warfare Strategies and Tactics." East Asia Peace and Security Initiative. December 2017.
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