Dynamics of China’s Future Warfighting Potential
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Issue Book Excerpt: China: Threat or Challenge? | Date : 20 Jan , 2017


The impact of history, geographic position, culture, political system and myriad other factors on strategic and military decision makers is essential to draw comprehensive and complete conclusions. Nations often take actions that have very little to do with a rational calculation of their strategic interests; instead they are sometimes the outcome of limited political calculations. To therefore draw any prognosis, as Eliot Cohen says, “requires thorough understanding of an opponent’s style of warfare and an effort to see how it interacts with one’s own. Also in order to get beyond mere ‘bean-counting’, it is necessary to understand how each side characteristically operates its forces, and then speculate as intelligently as possible about the significance of these facts.”1 To analyse China’s future warfighting it would be apt to understand a wide array of the war-making spectrum that goes into a nation’s decision to employ its military power.

China’s Historical Strands in the Contemporary Context

China’s leaders characterise the first two decades of the Twenty-first Century as a “strategic window of opportunity”. They assess that during this period both domestic and international conditions will be conducive to expanding China’s “Comprehensive National Power” (CNP).2 China’s leaders anticipate that a successful expansion of CNP will serve China’s strategic interests which include: perpetuating Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule, sustaining economy growth and development, maintaining internal stability, defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity and securing China’s status as a global power. China’s leaders routinely emphasise the goal of reaching critical economic and military benchmarks by 2020. These benchmarks are to successfully restructure the economy to maintain growth and uniformly increase the quality of living of China’s citizens so as to maintain stability; making major progress in military modernisation and attaining the capability to fight and win potential regional conflicts, the protection of Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC), defence of territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea and the defence of western borders.3

The statements of Chinese leaders indicate that in their view, the development of a modern military is necessary to achieve great power status. The leadership view a modern military as a critical deterrent to prevent action by outside powers that could in any way impede the pursuit of its interest. If deterrence fails the military should be capable of taking armed action to defend the interests of the nation. Often there is talk of ‘China’s Strategic Culture’. As explained by Rashed Zaman in studying Kautilya, that it is the context that surrounds and gives meaning to strategic behaviour and this behaviour is affected by culturally shaped or encultured people, organisations, procedures and weapons4. Colin Grey (1984) argues that understanding strategic culture may provide an improved capacity for understanding enduring policy motivation, make prediction, as well as understand the meaning of events in the assessment of others.5 The meaning of culture is central to understanding China’s military and security affairs. Chinese strategic culture is a critical influence not only on why China uses force, but where and against whom. The idea that contemporary China’s international relation has been heavily influenced by an ancient and enduring civilization is especially prevalent. Confucianism provides many of the essential elements in Chinese thought and Chinese conduct of international relations. Historical events during the 19th and 20th Centuries left lasting impression on the Chinese people and continue to define China’s modern strategic culture. The crucial national narrative of the “Century of Humiliation” at the hands of imperialist and hegemonic powers is central to China’s nationalism (security paranoia) today.6

The manifestation of ancient and more recent history are the discernible strands which defines Chinese strategic culture and behaviour. The first is the linked concept of surprise and deception. It is gives modern form to China’s inclusion of trump weapons – including psychological warfare – which seeks to undermine an enemy’s ability to conduct combat operations through operations aimed at deterring, shocking and demoralizing enemy military personnel and supporting civil population.7 The second strand has been a shift to minimum force, if violence becomes necessary. Linked to the concept of Limited War, it has a historical antecedent in Sun Zi, where, protracted wars are described as harmful to the state. The third strand is the centrality of the armed forces in society and national security planning. Finally, the perception that threats to China’s National security are very real and that domestic threat are as dangerous as foreign threats. National unification is a strong traditional Chinese core strategic culture value. These have resulted in a Chinese strategic culture that blends Confucian/ Sun Zi thought and realpolitik.

China’s Rise

To understand the Chinese perspective of the global security situation, its military whitepaper released in April 2013, gives a reasonable insight. China herein, reiterates that its “National defence policy is defensive in nature and that it opposes any form of hegemonies or power politics”8 and will “never engage in military expansion”. China has been conscious of the fact that its rise is being seen as a threat in the region. As a consequence, it has repeatedly stated its stance to assuage the feelings of neighbours. The term proved controversial because the word ‘rise’ could fuel perceptions that China is a threat to the established order, so since 2004 the term China’s peaceful development (Zhōngguó hépíng fāzhǎn) has been used by the Chinese leadership. On the other hand China has projected that it too is faced by “multiple and complicated security threats and challenges”.9 National unification, territorial integrity and development interest are the paramount concerns. “We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counter attack if attacked”. Following this principle, PLA is taking all measures to resolutely safeguard its “national sovereignty and territorial integrity”. What constitutes an attack or a threat is interpreted to suit the Chinese political ambitions.

China plans to face its own internal challenges with three grand strategies or “Three Transcendences”. The First strategy is to transcend the old model of industrialisation and to advance to a new one. The object being to build a “society of thrift”. The Second strategy is to transcend the traditional ways for great powers to emerge, as well as the cold war mentality that defined international relations along ideological lines. Instead, China will transcend ideological differences to strive for peace, development and cooperation with all countries of the world. The Third strategy is to transcend outdated modes of social control and to construct a harmonious socialist society. The functions of the Chinese government being gradually transformed, with self-governance supplementing state administration.10

China today is a very self confident nation and this confidence is translating into growing assertiveness. A mix of assertiveness combined with a strong dose of nationalism is now part of China’s strategic calculus and is visible in its foreign policy initiatives with the US, Europe and in the region as also, it is translating into growing assertiveness. A mix of assertiveness combined with a dose of nationalism is evident in its uncompromising stance in foreign policy initiatives with the US, Europe on issues affecting its Core Nation interests and sovereignty.11

The PLA is focussed on aiming to win local wars under the condition of “informationization” and expanding and intensifying of military preparation. To achieve such capability, the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) is intensifying joint employment of different arms and services and enhancing war fighting capability based on information systems. Defensive mobilisation of reserve force and the building of an integrated civilian-military functioning mechanism, figure prominently in the scheme of preparedness. The 2008 global financial crises and a school of thought advocating the downfall of the “Washington Consensus” and the rise of the concept of economic model shaped around the “Beijing Consensus” has greatly emboldened China. This resulted in assertiveness in its behaviour during the period 2009-2010. If that is any indication of the true nature of China rising to the status of great power, then its assertiveness is only likely to increase in direct proportion to its power. It probably, will be less patient to the sensitivities of others and more ready to back rhetoric with armed posturing and use force as it fabricates a threat to its interests.

Deng Xiaoping first enunciated the ideology for development of armed forces stressing on a small highly trained standing army with a large but strong reserve. He directed that the armed forces “give full play” to its strong points while striking the enemy at its weak points. Simultaneously adopt “flexible tactics to win future wars against aggressors”. As emerging from Chinese analysis, the West has changed its military strategy “in accordance with the relaxed international situation and to improve its economy”. China accuses the US of having changed its strategy of containing the ‘expansion of communism’ into ‘expanding global democratisation’ and changed its military structure and strategy accordingly. It sees this as a key change from ‘preventing the Soviet Union from launching a wide scale war’ to ‘dealing with regional conflicts in the Third World’ and preventing the rise of ‘new global opponents’.12 China sees US high technology concentrating on building “digital troops”, in a “digital battlefield” and a “digital war” as the key note in the US force development. This in turn will dictate the trends in the modernisation of the PLA.

For the part sixty years, the PLA attached importance to military training while seeking to strengthen its modern modernisation. Each transformation in training has its link with the new doctrine. The first was “regularised training”, the next was characterised by “enhancing combined arms war fighting capabilities”, and the third transformation took “fighting and winning local wars under high tech conditions” as its theme.13 Since 2006, the PLA has embarked on the fourth transformation with its unequivocal theme being the “promotion of the transformation from military training under mechanisation to military training under condition of informationisation”.14 This constitutes an all round, fundamental and profound directional change. Regional wars in “informatized” conditions are the current theme being evolved for the future battlefield. The CPC (or CCP) through the CMC approves the operational concepts for military operations. This in turn, becomes the basis of induction of technology and focus of Research and Development (R&D) for suitable weapon systems and equipment. Operational concept have roots in classical Chinese military thinking from strategists such as Sun Zi and Sun Bin and they also draw on description of ancient battles and tactics in historical novels. Layered over the ancient traditional thought are lessons the PLA learned from its own history, its own major wars and from observing other armies at war.15

Among the key principles taken from ancient Chinese thought are the use of deception, the importance of surprise in war, and the use of a combination of military economic, and political means to achieve victory. Certain principles of war may be immutable, but the PLA places special emphasis on discipline, deception, surprise, man (of fires and forces), flexibility, offensive and manoeuvre.16

Operational Concepts

Today the PLA Army’s (PLAA) doctrine and strategies, operational art and tactics are captured in a series of volumes published by the main academics of higher military education in China, the Academy of Military Science and the PLA National Defence University. Chinese military thinkers have set out their operational principles from the highest levels of warfare down to the way that small units should operate on the battle field.17 In a way, the system of tight control would make the tactical battle zone frozen with a series of set piece type of operations. Also it ostensibly, makes manoeuvre and operational art rigid and sans the required flexibility to exploit fleeting windows of opportunity. For the twenty-first century, PLAA has updated its operational concept to incorporate joint operations the application of air power and missiles along with ground forces.

The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) unlike the PLAA and PLA Navy (PLAN) was formally established in November 1949; as a result it got off to a late start. Today PLAFF is the third largest air force in the world, only those of the US and Russia are larger. Although there are a lot of aircraft in the force but it remains a force that is in “conversion from a force for limited territorial defence to a more flexible and agile force able to operate off-shore in both offensive and defensive roles”.18 PLAAF modernisation aims at accomplishing six core tasks; deterrence ability to carry out effective air strikes as part of a larger campaign protect key military and strategic installations; air lift component for logistical operations and move forces and equipment to project power; capacity to establish no-fly zones; assist PLAN in its Anti Access/ Area Denial (A1/AD) missions; and conduct forced insertions with its airborne forces inside or outside of China.

Transforming itself from a force focused on territorial defence to one that can project aerospace power around the world and support other military operations means that the PLAAF has had to make some serious changes. In the process it has built capacities in mid-air refuelling thus acquiring ‘Longer Legs’, and use of digital data links for network integration for airborne control, China’s strategists are convinced that the air and space domains of war will merge so that war in aerospace, supported by cyber and information attack will be integral parts of other military operations. Moreover, whether attacks come from space or from the air, so long as they are directed against surface targets, the PLAAF would be involved in offensive or defensive role. Presently, however, PLAAF is not a uniformly high-technology force. Consequently, neither the PLAAF, nor the rest of PLAA can field and operate a fully digitalised force that can take advantage of an integrated picture of the battle field and apply weapons in a fully coordinated manner and this is likely to persist “for some time to come”.19

The employment of missiles emphasises the value of missiles as a form of offset (non-contact) attack, particularly in the context of its strategy of active defence. This concept holds that warfare is a “holistic entity that includes offensive as well as defensive actions”.20 The doctrine in “A Guide to the Study of Campaign Theory” gives specific guidance for the conduct of conventional guided missile campaigns. According to this the guided missile force must be “continuously prepared for a rapid response” and it calls for the use of a “small amount of force as a deterrent against attack”. The targets suggested for such attacks are directed to disrupt the adversary’s economy and reconstitution and resupply capabilities. These are likely to include, major enemy military bases and depots, command centres, communication and transportation networks, troop concentrations. While conventional missile forces are assigned to Military Theatre Commands or theatres of war the level freedom of action gives to a theatre commander is not clear. It is conceived in the War Zone Campaign Concept, that the offensive/aggressive content of the military action can be ceased anytime when the larger Political aim or objective is met. As a consequence the CPC is likely to dictate, more intimately, the quantum of missile fires that can be employed.

Defence experts in China regularly refer to the “mass fires” using these missiles against critical targets. This is consistent with twenty first century PLA operational principles. General Zhang Waunian reiterates “from the stand point of firepower, air bombardment, artillery, and guided missiles must be massed for the greatest long range destructive and killing effect”. He also emphasises that “to ensure a decisive attack against a target, guided missiles must be massed against their objective”. Further, asserting that conventional ballistic missiles can “win a war without employing one’s own troops in direct combat if their offensive fires are asserting that concentrated effectively”.21 Xin Qin in his book ‘Information Age Warfare’ argues that Iraqi missile forces failed by not gathering the necessary intelligence of US and allied assembly areas and then compounded that failure by not taking the initiative to attack them. He believes that if Iraq had massed its “guided missile strength against the weaker coalition forces before they left training and assembly areas they could have destroyed them before they moved into combat formations and attack positions”.22

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen (Dr) JS Bajwa

is Editor Indian Defence Review and former Chief of Staff, Eastern Command and Director General Infantry.  He has authored two books Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army and  Modernisation of the Chinese PLA

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  1. Among the key principles taken from ancient Chinese thought are the use of deception, the importance of surprise in war, and the use of a combination of military economic, and political means to achieve victory.

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