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

The US Department of Defence, in 2011, commented that “China’s Space activities and capabilities including ASAT programmes, have significant implications for (A2/AD) efforts in Taiwan Strait contingencies and beyond”. Further, the Defence Department characterises space as “congested contested and competitive”.23 The US government believes that in future conflict, adversaries may attempt to “deny degrade, deceive, disrupt, or destroy space assets”.24 In China, military thinkers recognize that space warfare must be an integral part of battle planning by the PLA in any future conflict. In China, one of the major proponents of space power for the PLA, Maj Gen Cai Fengzhen, believes that – “control of portions of outer space is a natural extension of their forces of territorial control” such as sea or air control”.25

Once Chinese Leaders made the decision to move into the realm of military space, they moved quickly. By 2010 China had demonstrated the capabilities to kill satellites with kinetic attack by rockets launched from the ground, to “dazzle” observation satellites with laser beams, to jam satellites and to launch small constellations of microsatellites that could disrupt or degrade enemy satellites.26

In developing its space warfare doctrine, PLA carefully absorbed and reacted to what the US armed forces had published on space warfare and counter-space operations. The PLA had also studied Soviet-era and contemporary Russian thinking on space operations. Military operations in space are now critical components of PLA information age warfare. Chinese military thinkers realise that “future enemy military forces will depend heavily on information systems in military operations”. Two specialists writing in ‘China Military Science’ opine that – “[It] is in space that information age warfare will come to its more intensive points. Future war must combine information, firepower and mobility”.27 China’s strategists suggest that in future wars, space will be used to “carry out war between space platforms and to attack strategic surface and air targets.28 For this reason China is showing interest in the development of the US Boeing X-37B space plane which they believe has “combat applications”.

The Chinese PLA is focussing on passive measures to avoid detection from space with better camouflage and concealment with multi-spectrum stealth camouflage systems, space-based alarms to warn of imaging, and deploying decoys on ground to confuse imaging satellites. A May 2014 report mentioned of aggressive action by China in the disabling of a Japanese spy satellite that was suspected of tracking the flight of a Chinese J-31 Stealth aircraft on apparently a test flight deep in the hinterland over the Taklakman Desert. The Chinese, it is assessed, disabled the main electronic chip in the satellite by a directed energy beam fired at it.


The key word around which the PLA doctrine revolves is “informatization” (Xinxihua). Therefore, it is imperative that the idea around this unique word is full comprehended and the subtle nuances identified with it. “Informatization” incorporates the ability to receive data from a variety of intelligence; Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) systems, including satellites, aircraft, ships and radars and to ensure that data can be transmitted through a combination of satellites and other links in the electromagnetic spectrum.29 As a result, in modern military operations, it is becoming impossible to find forms of military activity that are not in some way dependent on information technology. Physical reconnaissance is complemented by electronic means and a range of sensors employed on land or in the air, sea and space. Information systems support logistics activities such as supply and refuelling and the systems facilitate personnel and casualty management. Information technology and data exchange today are the basis for a shared awareness of the battle area. Collection of signal intelligence and conduct of electronic warfare have now expanded to cyber warfare and cyber penetration. In fighting local wars “under conditions of informatization” the PLA is seeking to enhance the joint interoperability of its forces and improve their C4ISR capabilities particularly through methods such as “integrated network electronic warfare”.

For the PLA, information warfare is directed at “the enemies’ information detection sources, information channels, and information processing and decision making systems”. The goals are information superiority disruption of the enemy information control capabilities and maintaining one’s own information systems and capabilities.30 The PLA’s national command and control system has built in redundancy. It is a networked system linking CMC with General Staff Department (GSD) Headquarter and the PLAs theatre command HQs and the subordinate major organisations. This Qi Dian system is described as using fibre-optic cable, high frequency and very-high frequency communication, microwave system and multiple satellites to enable to CMC, the GSD and commanders to communicate with forces in their theatre of war on a real-time or near real-time basis. The system also permits data transfer among the headquarters and all the units under its joint command. One objective of the effort is designed to develop a networked command-and-control system inside the PLA at the tactical, operational and strategic levels, ultimately from the national command level to the soldier. While theoretically this is “utopian” vision of war, practically it has serious weakness that can be targeted in order to disrupt the flow of information.

Peng Guanggian and Yao Yunzhu in their book “The Science of Military Strategy” highlight the effectiveness of precision-guided weapons and information age technologies. They note that in a war that depended a great deal on information systems, the Gulf War, the “Precision-Guided Weapons (PGM’s) made up only 7 percent of all weapons used by the US military but they destroyed 80 percent of important targets.”31 They further argue that “under high technology conditions, the outcome of war not only depends on the amount of resources, manpower and technology devoted to the battlefield, but also depends on the control of information on the battlefield.”32 Battlefield effectiveness, they maintain, “is a function of acquisition, transmission and management of information”.33

Space-based information networks are described as the “backbone” of any informatization effort for the PLA; surface-based systems are the key elements of the effort, supported by air and sea, platforms, and the “integrated ground air and space element must be compatible with the various services and their surrounding regions”.34 The PLA is also concerned about such matters as band width, which is the basis for the ability to support a high volume of transmissions, system survivability and the capacity to confront enemy information systems.35 Based on an article by the GSD Communication Department, it emerges that PLA would establish five major networked system.

1) Theatre-level joint operational command communications and liaison subsystems.

2) Integrated processing subsystem for the operational command services.

3) Fixed and mobile or portable theatre reconnaissance and detection system to improve intelligence, reconnaissance, detection, information processing and rapid relay of such information.

4). Electronic countermeasures and intelligence database systems that can integrate and share electromagnetic intelligence among headquarters etc.

5). Theatre sub-systems for political work operations, logistics equipment monitoring, managing information systems and managing theatre-level intelligence-integrated processing systems.36

The PLA has divided responsibility for the conduct of electronic warfare, electronic defence the collection of signals intelligence and cyber operations. Notwithstanding the divided responsibilities, the Chinese military is well equipped and staffed to conduct such activities. The Third Department (Technical Reconnaissance) of the GSD (now under the Strategic Support force) is responsible for technology reconnaissance, or signals collections, exploitation and analysis as well as communication security for the PLA. The personnel are trained for various forms of electronic warfare and electronic espionage, but they apparently are also trained for similar activities in the realm of cyber operations. The Fourth Department (Electronic Warfare and Electronic Countermeasures) of the GSD (also now under the Strategic Support force) is responsible for offensive electronic warfare and electronic countermeasure such as jamming and counter jamming of various types of signals or communications. Its personnel are skilled in electronic warfare and also probably charged with cyber penetrations.37

Each of the PLAs Theatre Command as well as PLAAF, PLAN and PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) has assigned to its headquarters department at least one technical reconnaissance bureau subordinate to Third Department that monitors foreign communications and cyber activity. The Third Department can monitor – phone, radio, satellite or computer communications. PLA consistently identifies C4ISR systems as the most important centres of gravity in a conflict. PLA would likely initiate cyber and electronic warfare first in a build up to a conflict situation.

Strategic Construct

China sees itself as the rightful pre-eminent power in Asia and India as its major medium to long-term competitor for this position. In the view of many Chinese strategists, India possesses an ambitious, belligerent and expansionist strategic culture. While there are less extreme views of India in China, but only few Chinese strategic thinkers seem to hold warm or positive views of India for Chinese future.38 The research scholar further suggests that Chinese analysts tend to hold real politik views of the world and view China’s neighbours with wariness if not outright suspicion.39 Mick Ryan’s assessment with regard to Chinese strategy towards India is that:

1) A feigned indifference towards India coupled with denial that India is a potential competitor.

2) Minimize direct conventional military competition with India while treating India as a nuclear threat.

3) Maintain a enduring relationship with Pakistan while avoiding encouragement of Pakistan revisionist policies towards India.

4) Bolster engagement with South-east Asian States while remaining engaged with smaller nations in South Asia.

5) Remain focused on maintaining high economic growth rates for sustaining military modernisation.40

Evidently, China sees India as a major challenger in the future. India’s emerging economic strength and geophysical location make it relevant in China’s security calculations. China’s smaller neighbours expect India to balance the power equation existing. Even while India does not intend to do any such balancing, China assertiveness in the region is exhibited to deter against any measure of band-wagoning, thus raising serious doubts of its claims of “peaceful rise”. Hypothetically, India dominates the sea lines through which most of China’s oil requirements must pass, something China cannot do to India’s energy supplies to a similar degree. India does not seek a confrontational relationship with China. However, simultaneously India is hedging against any such contingency by modernising its forces and revitalising its diplomatic relations with its immediate neighbours, Southeast and East Asian countries. Debates apparently exist amongst PLA military and political strategists over how a rising China can best achieve its intended goals and avoid conflict in the face of regional developments and these have drawn global attention. A recent Pentagon report points out that “China’s thinking appears to be gradually moving towards a strategic concept that considers defence of maritime interests, in addition to homeland defence, as drivers of force modernisation.”41

“Active Defence” is a major principle that has been reaffirmed in the recent years as China’s basic “military strategy”. Active defence involves both deterrence and war fighting with war being viewed as a last resort only if deterrence has failed. The Academy of Military Science (AMS) in its seminal publication ‘The Science of Military Strategy’ explains that “the war-fighting means [for attaining military objective] is generally used only when deterrence fails and there is no alternative…. So long as we can solve the problem with military deterrence, we will not resort to war”.42 However, Chinese and foreign observers of China’s crisis behaviour have observed that there is no clear cut threshold separating deterrence and war-fighting. Beijing has in the past, employed low levels of military force as a form of low-level deterrence, to shape, blunt, diffuse, or reverse a crisis situation, probe or test intentions and prevent escalation. Consequently, presenting dangers as a form of crisis management, Chinese military analysts might believe that such a use of force can at times be employed to avoid a much greater clash.43

The AMS authors view deterrence as a means of accomplishing not only military but also political and diplomatic-economic objectives. They classify China’s approach as ‘defensive strategic deterrence’, oriented towards preventing violations of Chinese territory, rather than ‘offensive strategic deterrence’ which is intended to compel other states. The PLA views successful strategic deterrence as dependent on:

1) possession of adequate force,

2) determination [WILL] to use that force and

3) communication with the opponent regarding one’s capabilities and resolve.44

The increased frequency of PLA exercises are pointed indicators to send the message across. Active defence supports the PLA employing the pre-emptive option as ‘defensive counterattacks for self defence’. It appears in PLA writings as “a greater stress on gaining the initiative by striking first”, stressing on the need to act quickly and decisively to pre-empt an attack, restore lost [more likely claimed] territories, protect economic resources, or resolve a conflict before it escalates. Elements of the PLA doctrine also suggest that even non-kinetic or political violations of Chinese sovereignty would be sufficient justification for a pre-emptive strike by PLA forces. This raises a serious issue on the opponent posturing in a response to reports of Chinese build-up or the opponent undertaking strategic/operational deception. Any such defensive measure could draw a Chinese pre-emptive. Also war termination is being taken for granted by the Chinese as their prerogative. The opponent may not cease operations with an end-state not favourable to it. What would be the Chinese response then? Would it raise the level of operations by a few notches? A contingency is not favourable to the Chinese, particularly in the extreme high altitude areas of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

In the science of Military Strategy, active defence is described as “active strategic counter attack against exterior lines (ASCEL)”. ASCEL is portrayed as an integral component of the broader strategy of active defence and as such is defined as “strategic defensive and a form of active self-defence counter attack” rather than as “a component of the expansive and extroverted offensive strategy”. Once sovereignty has been violated, ASCEL is meant to be an active pre-emptive response conducted at the beginning of the war, which does not merely rely on positive defence or the border and coastal regions, but instead involves fighting “against the enemy as far away as possible, to lead the war to the enemy operational base, ever to the source of war, and to actively strike all the effective strength forming the enemy’s war system”.45

Although some analysts describe this ASCEL concept as analogous to an A2/AD and doctrine, in the larger context is fits into the active-defence, and determines the evolution of people’s war. The analysts reiterate that such tactics would only be employed once conflict has already been initiated: “Once the enemy invades our territory and offends our national interests… we get the freedom to conduct self-defence operations”. The focus on exterior lines is proposed as an alternative to the historical emphasis places on luring the enemy deep into Chinese territory and fighting “in depth”. It is related to the concepts of “strategic frontier” and “active peripheral defence” that have emerged as modifications of traditional Mao’s People’s War, rather than as complete departures from PLA strategy which remains principally focused on defence of the interior lines and deterrence against attack.46 The concept of “Three Warfare” which stresses the need for the political apparatus of the PLA to become more adept at conducting media, psychological and legal forms of struggle are a vital adjunct to the whole scheme of things.

The “Three Warfare’s” though not a formal part of military doctrines or national security strategy will play out substantively in handling of a crises. The maxim “just grounds to our advantage with restraint” (jus en belle!) would be employed to justify China’s actions like employing coercion or force, accommodation or persuasion in a crisis. This maxim, which originally conceptualised to guide the use of force in warfare, is routinely cited to describe China’s approach to the management of political military crisis. It consists of three principles:

1) Do not attack unless attacked. Never attack others without provocation, but once attacked do not fail to return the blow. Conveying the need for a “just” and “legitimate” basis for employing force or escalating a crisis.

2) Do not fight decisive action unless sure of victory. Never fight without certainty of success, unless failing to fight may likely present a worse outcome.

3) Be pragmatic and aware of the limited nature of objectives and strength. Know when to stop, when to counter, and when to bring the crisis to a close. Stop once the goals are attained; rethink if you cannot obtain your objectives. Do not be carried away with success.47

The concepts enunciated in the preceding paragraphs more than adequately indicates the likely form and shape an adverse situation arising on the India-China border area is likely to take. By proclaiming Tibet as a ‘core interest’ any pro-Tibet posture can be magnified into a ‘Legitimate’ cacus belli for use of force. Similarly, having declared Arunachal Pradesh as part of China, it can justify military action on the slightest provocation. Deliberate and planned incursions and transgressions can be employed to provoke India into an aggressive response which China can escalate to suit its political objective. China has not yet declared South China Sea as another “Core Interest” but its disapproval of India Naval activity or energy exploratory activity with Vietnam could manifest in provocative action along the India-China Line of Actual Control/International Boundary (LAC/IB). India would, therefore need to factor in these contingencies in pursuing its legitimate interests in the region and suitability badge against any such contingency. It would need to employ its diplomatic, economic and military strengths to protect its interests. Therefore, just as China, through its military, political and diplomatic assertions and confabulations seeking to convey resolve and to shock a stronger adversary into more “cautions” behaviour, India will also need to convey its resolve and compel China to exercise similar “cautions” behaviour towards India. Having firmly conveyed India’s sensitivities with regard to Arunachal Pradesh, and the need for China to exercise caution in its freewheeling military actions along the LAC/IB particularly in Eastern Ladakh, the Government has indicated that it can dig in its heels and stand firm.

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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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One thought on “Dynamics of China’s Future Warfighting Potential

  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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