China’s Military Strategy: The Past, Present and Future

Rahul Jaybhay
15th May 2021

Picture Courtesy: Reuters

China’s rise across all parameters of power has been undeniable and it is most likely to overtake the United States in terms of economic size. According to the estimates of Graham Allison, China’s absolute size will become equivalent to the United States economic size by 2040. Economic growth is a useful means to steer military power to achieve political objectives. As China is rising, it is aspiring to find a respectful position in the international system, and more importantly, wants to regain its lost glory. Moreover, even the structural forces are pushing China towards a collision course with the United States. As security is treated as a premium interest in international politics, states will tend to arm themselves to protect their territorial integrity from the other states. Rising power found it difficult to reconcile with the status quo power, resulting in skirmishes over economic, political, and social issues. Besides, security there are other interests like prestige and status that needs to be achieved. This pushes states like China to adopt different strategies to reach their goals.

Recently, China has been engaging in different strategies to achieve its limited political and military objectives. Strategies like salami slicing, grey zone, “tailored concern”, “low intensity coercion” are mentioned in many scholarly journals, but their meaning remains similar. These techniques take advantages of areas where international norms or rules-based order can be contested. Belligerents attempt to challenge those and intends to form their own alternative world order. Rising power enjoy freedom to exploit these areas, as international community seldom question their actions. This might be because of ignorance, but by and large, it is because of unwillingness to engage with such power, given the chances of low-level confrontation.

Moreover, conceptually these strategies fall short of provoking a full-scale war. Actions do not get adverse reactions, since these are small, incremental, gradual steps taken to enhance one’s position. Constant hustle is the key characteristic. Hence, the strategy of the grey zone is referred to as “crime” in world politics, which constantly tries to avoid either peace or war. Structurally this is favoured as these states lack the requisite capabilities to challenge the status quo power. Since higher-level conflicts might be quite disastrous for an aspiring power, it tries to leave its print through low-level skirmishes. This ensures two advantages: first, it prevents an adversarial response. Second, it emboldens the rising power to experiment with these strategies and gain an upper hand in such a scenario.

From the perspective of status quo power, it is in the dilemma of whether to react or not. The choice between action and inaction can be “paralyzing”, as the reaction can be perceived as interference. Inaction would mean acquiesce to whatever the belligerent does. Such a situation arises as deciphering “core interest” is still difficult. Whether the United States should intervene if China abrasively takes over Spratly Islands, by militarily defeating the other states? Historically the US was reluctant to take sides, given the narrow strategic value of the islands in the middle of the ocean. But when security analysts speculated that China might militarize these, then United States found its core interest – that is power projection and maintaining freedom in international waters – being compromised. So, to initiate a response from a status quo power, it must clarify its position on different issues in contested zones. Further, it must commit itself to the region, so as to deter Chinese actions. Therefore, it is imperative that the United States re-integrates itself with the Indo-Pacific region, not only in the security dimension but also in the economic domain. Such step will render China’s economic influence to be diminished over time, as alternatives are available to the Southeast Asian countries. Some strands of isolationism which is seen in Washington’s foreign policy must be rejected, and a policy of strong commitment to the region must be started.

Beijing’s strategy was highly influenced after observing the Iraqi defeat in the first Gulf war in 1991. Washington’s primary focus on Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) system made Beijing reconsider its strategy. ISR capabilities ensured “first see and first strike which gave the United States considerable leverage over the Iraqi forces. Moreover, China supplied Iraqi forces with guns, tanks, and ammunitions that became totally useless, as the war progressed. Here Chinese learned the advantage of intelligence and communication systems.

Historically, PLA followed a strategy of “people’s war under modern conditions” during the cold war period (1975-1983). This simply means China would use its people to wage war for a long period of time to wear down its enemy. This strategy was against the Soviet Union that threatened to invade China’s North-eastern cities. This policy changed after the Gulf War. In 1993 Jiang Zemin urged for “local wars under high technology conditions”. Since the United States is a powerful adversary, conventional warfare is not an option for Beijing. Moreover, given United States’ advanced technology, mechanisms must be devised to neutralize them. High technology local war means the use of high technology – weapons, communication, ISR – to achieve political objectives in limited geographical space. High technology means modernizing weaponry – investment in the lethal weapon systems, ballistic and cruise missiles, long-range precision-guided munitions – which must be integrated with the advanced ISR capabilities. Moreover, improvement in ISR capabilities would mean detection, sensing, and tracking becoming easier. This information will enhance battlefield awareness, which would, in turn, aid rapid decision-making. The key is speed or near-real-time intelligence which enabled the United States to get an early edge over the Iraqis.

US intervention in the Taiwan strait crisis in 1995-1996 motivated Chinese planners to find ways to deny Washington such advantage of the freedom of action. Chinese planners devised a way out of this puzzle. Cleverly, China found that even if the United States is technologically superior, projection of such advances over long distances would mean constraints on performance. Such reckoning point that the United States may be superior in one domain (technology), but may not be in others (political, geographical). Military planners emphasized, “seizing the initiative at the outset, which would mean attacking Washington first to halt their accumulation of troops and weapons. This pre-emption would be a surprise” attack, based on PLA’s choosing of time and combat theatre. Early attacks would be directed towards high-tech weapons and ISR capabilities to distort the whole architecture of the adversary’s combat system. Such attacks would mean blinding radars, destroying aircraft, jamming satellites. More importantly, to sink an aircraft carrier, to bring an end to the conflict. Even thinking on such lines by Chinese planners, would mean Washington making a double check on its strategy to intervene in Indo-Pacific region. Given the political and military costs, the United States would prefer not to trigger the Chinese aggression.

Moreover, to make matters worse for Washington, Beijing could justify its pre-emptive strikes by putting the onus on the US political leaders. Any action by Washington could be interpreted by Beijing as hampering China’s territorial integrity, even if it may not be intended to. Such action could become an excuse or pretext for Beijing to start pre-emptive strikes causing heavy damage to United States weaponry. This chance for interpretation makes it difficult for US planners to launch an attack since they fear massive retaliation from Beijing.

It is important to understand that though Beijing treats US forces as superior to themselves, still they look out to find vulnerabilities in US services. In this regard, Beijing follows the principle of “paralyze first and annihilate later” which means to cripple the adversary by assaulting its “key points” and then gain an edge to defeat the enemy. On this basis, the prime target for Beijing would be to nullify the command and information system of the enemy. This will result in escaping the detection by radars and sensing technologies. In turn, this will severely confuse the decision-making ability of the commanders, while gravely distorting the communication system. The core aim of such action is to “gain mastery by striking first”. In the age of advanced technologies, crippling the enemy by using kinetic mechanisms may not be enough. The command, control, communications, and computer system (C4) can be made ineffective through the use ­­of soft kill methods like injecting viruses in adversaries’ computers or electromagnetic distortions. This would save time and resources, which can be directed elsewhere.

Another mechanism that Chinese planners can use is to raise costs on the enemy. This strategy can be effectively achieved through the grey zone mechanism discussed above. Raising costs would mean political, economic, and diplomatic costs. Moreover, China’s economic coercion, bribery, influence, and intimidation have already created fear in minds of allies in the region. Anticipating a strong Beijing’s response (militarily and economically) would mean allies not ready to take proactive steps against Chinese incursions. This will lead to increased costs for Washington which may not be sustainable for a longer time.

To conclude, China has shown great ability to adapt to changing security environment and technological landscape. Lessons learnt from the first gulf war were gradually implemented by Beijing. This can be seen in terms of advances that are achieved in lethal precision-guided bombs and ammunitions. China’s long-range ballistic and cruise missiles can paralyze the adversaries, which was not possible prior to a decade. Beijing’s success lies in working on their weaknesses and mitigating their vulnerabilities. Since Beijing’s rise is structurally favoured, it is using mechanisms and strategies that fall short of conventional warfare, to prolong allied responses. At last, it is now the responsibility of Washington to manage the rise of Beijing, if not China will advance its influence gradually, thus actualizing its dream to shape the international system, to maximise its own interest and power.

*The author is a Research Intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are those of the author