An Anti-Access History Lesson


For the last several years, myself and others have penned a number of articles here on The Diplomat concerning China’s Anti-Access/Area-Denial or A2/AD strategy. How the strategy would work on a theoretical or practical basis has therefore been well documented. But one aspect of this strategy that hasn’t been explained in as much detail, outside sometimes stuffy academic journals or think tank reports, is why China has developed such a strategy. In this case, the why is just as interesting as the strategy itself.

China’s version of A2/AD was born from a complex but fascinating web of history, a revolutionary change in how wars are fought, and recent events that caused Chinese military planners to think outside of the box. What resulted is a powerful asymmetric strategy that will have U.S. military planners scratching their heads for years to come.

The simplest and most logical explanation for Chinese adoption of A2/AD is that their forces, even as modernized and updated as they are today, are still no match for U.S. forces in a traditional sense. Of course, the days when forces met in a set location to duke it out over the trenches, are long gone. We also know that military planning isn’t as simple as tallying comparative advantages of the world’s armies and making predictions of who would win theorized conflicts. If math and comparative advantage always carried the day in modern warfare, history would be very different.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

But a good place to start in understanding China’s A2/AD doctrine is in the mid-1980s. Chinese planners began to shift away from planning for a war with the Soviet Union, and began gradually to think about ways to modernize their armed forces and incorporate new technologies and fighting doctrine.

And there’s no better way to learn than by example. The rapid defeat of Iraqi forces during the 1991 Gulf War served as a shock to Chinese planners. The revolution of military affairs had arrived. Not only was some of the military equipment the Iraqis operated purchased from China, but the scope of the defeat seemed to catch the Chinese planners somewhat off guard. As one scholar noted: “The revolution in air-delivered weapons dramatized by the United States in the 1991 Gulf War shattered Beijing’s complacency. Time was no longer an ally. The danger ahead was total, perhaps permanent, obsolescence with the result that China’s air defenses couldn’t prevent surprise attacks deep into the nation’s heartland.”

 A report from the Rand Corporation similarly noted: “The 1991 Persian Gulf War sent shockwaves throughout China’s military community and accelerated the PLA’s modernization and shifts in strategy. The United States’ overwhelming dominance in that conflict led Chinese military leaders to push for advanced military technologies.”

Chinese planners would go into overdrive in response. In 1993, then-President Jiang Zemin ordered Chinese military planners to focus on preparing to wage “local wars under high technology conditions.” This has been updated recently to “local wars under conditions of informatization.” According to another widely cited RAND report, this would include two components:  “(1) limited in geographical scope, duration, and political objectives and (2) dominated by high-technology weaponry. They feature highly accurate and lethal firepower; the joint use of air, land, and sea forces; the intense use of information technology; and high mobility, lethality, and resource consumption. High-technology local wars are also characterized by near-total battlefield awareness, nonlinear battlefields, and multidimensional combat.”

There are obviously other events, recent or otherwise, that Chinese planners looked at when crafting A2/AD. The wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, as well as the 2001 Hainan Island incident, were all major factors for China when considering the development of its military strategy. The Taiwan Strait crisis especially holds significant weight as China at the time had very little in the way of strategic options in countering an American carrier off its coast, a reality that would have been a real spur to develop the DF-21D (aka carrier killer missile).

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a look at a few more examples of the origins of A2/AD and how history has molded Chinese strategic thinking. But one thing seems clear – the days the first headline grabbing bombs were dropped in the first Gulf War can arguably be seen as the origin of A2/AD strategy.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief