BY MONTE R. BULLARD AND JUDITH NORTON | IN-DEPTH PIECE
In a 2013 article titled “China’s Warfare Strategies and Tactics” (see here), I contended 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 to provide additional insights into China's use of such activities around Taiwan, in the East and South China Seas, and, now, around the Korean peninsula, as well as to make corrections to some observations made in the earlier article particularly regarding China's political warfare.
In a 2013 article titled “China’s Warfare Strategies and Tactics”, I stated that China's warfare strategies and tactics consist of military actions that are directed at achieving specific political outcomes. Since that time, China has increased the speed and scope of these activities, particularly regarding its territorial and sovereignty claims in the region. In the 2013 I observed the Chinese leadership’s activities tended to follow cycles of escalation and de-escalation that were contingent upon the targets' responses to the Chinese military events. From my view, understanding these actions was important if conflict were to be avoided. This assertion still holds true, especially now in East Asia where the security architecture is changing rapidly.
In 2013 I wrote that 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, a potential conflict, or an issue of concern. 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 the targets, though it's more complicated than that. When Chinese leaders engage in this form of warfare, it could reflect their sense that they have reached a point of inadequate returns from solely diplomatic overtures. The leaders also could be seeking new ways to send the desired message about the dispute or issue 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 Chinese national interests.
In the 2013 article, I used the word “escalate” to describe changes in the Chinese leadership’s political warfare. But I have since learned that the Chinese leadership does not "escalate" events. In an interview with Colonel (Ret) Monte R. Bullard, he pointed out that 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. According to Bullard, the escalation that I interpreted as "new escalation" 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 the PLA pays very close attention to it.
CHINA'S NATIONAL INTERESTS
Against this backdrop, in my earlier piece I contended that the Chinese leadership’s national interests consist of long-standing priorities. Even today these priorities remain the same. China’s national interests consist of: maintaining stability and unity in China especially 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 in recent years than before (especially since 2010 when then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the freedom of navigation on the South China Sea a U.S. national interest), preserving stability in the areas located around China’s periphery (e.g., South China Sea and Korean Peninsula).
CHINA'S DECISION-MAKING INVOLVES MANY INSTITUTIONS AND EVEN THE PUBLIC
Counter to conventional wisdom, the Chinese bureaucracy outside of the Communist Party is not a top-down decision-making model (see here). In the majority of cases, the leadership must include input from a plethora of institutions prior to enacting policy (a recent case involves the implementation of 31 Measures which involved input from more than 30 institutions).
Also counter to conventional wisdom, in cases where the leadership has made public, formal promises to the population, domestic sentiment is a formidable driver shaping Chinese policy. In fact interviews that I conducted in China in 2013 and 2014 show the domestic audience is not only part of the decision-making process but also can hold the leadership accountable for failing to uphold those promises (though it was not made clear on how the public can do so; more than likely the leadership rarely, if ever, makes public pronouncements that it cannot uphold).
Accordingly 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 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 at any point along the political warfare chain, 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 and 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 (e.g., a good case is Taiwan as the PRC “cannot easily recover Taiwan by military means without destroying all they are trying to recover” )
Before resorting to the use of force, China’s leaders will demonstrate their intentions by exacting political and economic costs against the target within legal limits. 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 Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea.
CASE STUDY: TAIWAN BEFORE
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 China's national interest – the unity of China and 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, at that time, to a lesser extent, Japan. Given that the U.S. is bound by domestic law (the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA)) to deter aggression against Taiwan, the Chinese leadership signaled that it would not tolerate any external interference in what China perceives to be its internal affairs. Given Japan is a treaty ally of the U.S., China also 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 publicly voiced promise, made decades ago, is: China will stop Taiwanese independence forces both on and off the island from separating China and Taiwan, 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, which included short- and long-range consequences of military action in the Taiwan Strait).
Years later, in the next election cycle on Taiwan, the DPP won political power (2000-2008). The DPP-led government increasingly shifted toward the active promotion of Taiwanese independence, which is embedded in a broad policy called "Dynamic" status quo. The DPP's actions prompted the Chinese leadership to resort to the use of traditional and high technology political warfare to send a political message to Taiwan. In 2007, for example, Taiwan’s DPP 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 several different 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 the outbreak of hostilities in the Taiwan Strait.
According to my interviews with the Chinese experts, the anti-satellite 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 to prevent an arms race in space. At that time, the leadership might have been aiming to outlaw the weaponization of space in order to constrain the theater of operations in the event of a conflict between China and the U.S. over Taiwan.
CASE STUDY: JAPAN AND THE EAST CHINA SEA
With the Taiwan scenario in mind, it is interesting to compare the Chinese leadership’s military actions and political objectives involving Taiwan 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 when the then Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda made an announcement in September 2012 about the islands. Noda stated 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 to send a message to the Japanese leadership.
In the 2013 piece, I emphasized that the 2012 event between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands occurred in a broader context, at least for the Chinese side. For China, it perceived that Japan's evolving security posture combined with the nationalization of the islands crossed a redline the Chinese drew for Japan's behavior in the region. Here 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, in effect, 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 assist the U.S. military in operations (both in the region and farther afield).
My interviews with Chinese experts at the time of the Japan's nationalization of the islands suggested the Chinese leadership was increasingly uneasy about Japan’s potential full rearmament. From its viewpoint, a full rearmament could lead to remilitarization, as well as a more advanced security posture. This posture could cover the South China Sea and reach to the Malacca Straits. In addition, China was wary about the U.S.’s support for such developments. In retrospect, I should have pointed out earlier than now (April 17) that Japan's evolving posture would evidently cover the Taiwan Strait, which China would oppose.
In the 2013 article, I stated the changing dynamics to Japan’s security posture largely 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 (subsequently, 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. These issues could still drive 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 and the U.S., the Chinese leadership could have 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. Specifically China could have directed the launch at both Japan and especially the U.S., given the U.S.’s position that the islands fall under U.S. treaty obligations to Japan.
Similar to the anti-satellite test, the launch could have demonstrated the Chinese leadership’s interest in bringing major powers to the table to negotiate a treaty against the weaponization of space. Furthermore, from my viewpoint, it could have demonstrated Chinese concerns regarding a future conflict between China and the U.S. (and possibly Japan) over Taiwan in the Taiwan Strait 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 in large part because it made public promises to the Chinese regarding both disputes. The leadership’s actions are driven by external and internal inputs and feedbacks. 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 (the Chinese leadership made public statements about the East China Sea being Chinese territory). 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 the military plan until reaching the desired goal. Although in the 2013 article I excluded a case study of the South China Sea, I mentioned the Chinese leadership would continue to “escalate” activities in that area to protect its claims, particularly since the Chinese leadership made public its intention to defend those claims.
CASE STUDY: TAIWAN TODAY
In more recent times, evidence shows the Chinese leadership is increasing the use of traditional and high technology political warfare military activities around China’s periphery, particularly around Taiwan. The election of Taiwan’s DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen 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 publicly saying the phrase 1992 Consensus. Verbalizing the phrase would demonstrate the DPP’s commitment to ‘one China’, as well as its rejection of Taiwanese independence. However, the DPP and the Tsai administration reject the concept of ‘one China’, which represents 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 - best classified as a form of political warfare namely psychological warfare - 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” and intention to pursue policies that lead to the ultimate reunification / unification of both sides in accordance with the "one country, two systems" formula.
This case now is similar to the case of Japan as it appears the Chinese leadership takes the same approach. It continues 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. Likewise, the Chinese leadership is using political warfare military actions around Taiwan to compel the Taiwanese leadership to recognize that Taiwan is a part of Chinese territory (e.g., by publicly stating the phrase "1992 Consensus").
OTHER CASE STUDIES: THE KOREAN PENINSULA
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 newer 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 it. Instead, it provides a short examination of the Chinese 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, which, according to my article on North Korea, the Chinese government aims to revitalize because it is home to many struggling state-owned enterprises. 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 the 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; it also engages in coordinated military actions with Russia in the area.
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, which I discuss in a previous post. China will continue to engage in these activities to achieve its desired political goals. Based on Chinese statements, the 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 the Chinese leadership has expanded the scope of its activities to other parts of the region, Bullard’s observations most likely apply to other potential flashpoints such as the East and South China Seas and more recently the Korean Peninsula.
First Update: April 17, 2018
*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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