China’s “Warfare” Strategies and Tactics
Image Credit: Reuters/China Daily

China’s “Warfare” Strategies and Tactics


Last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scored a decisive victory in Japan’s Upper House elections. The Chinese leadership’s actions before, during and after the election period shed light on its use of traditional and high-technology warfare strategies and tactics.

This form of warfare uses different types of technology in bounded or protracted military actions to force a political outcome to an existing dispute. It exploits a combination of traditional and advanced technologies – missiles, vessels, jet fighters, surveillance aircraft, tests and interruptive technologies – to send political messages to rivals. That China’s leaders engage in this unique warfare may reflect their feeling that they have reached a point of inadequate returns from solely diplomatic overtures. They may also be seeking new ways to send the desired message. Finally, they might sense that the dispute with Japan has begun to cross a threshold, and now threatens China’s national interests.

In this context, China’s national interests are narrowly defined. According to my research, they include the promises the leadership has made to the Chinese people on eventual national unification as well as protecting the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty from external threats. Counter to conventional wisdom, China’s bureaucracy is not always run according to top-down decision-making by the Standing Committee of the Politburo. In cases where the leadership has made formal promises to the population, domestic sentiment is a formidable driver of policy. In other words, the domestic audience is not only part of the decision-making process but also has the power to hold the leadership accountable for failing to defend these assurances. 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 promises on these issues, the leadership is forced to demonstrate some form of resolve. Typically it resorts to the use of traditional and high-technology political warfare to send a political message and force a diplomatic outcome.

Although China’s leaders employ this singular form of warfare, the leaders have little intention of escalating the dispute into some type of militarized conflict. Rather, their primary purpose at any point during the warfare drills is to compel the adversary to the negotiating table and possibly remove the dispute from the public spotlight.

If this approach fails, however, China’s leaders might escalate their activities, which could include resorting to unprecedented military actions to force a political solution. By engaging in escalated military actions, the Chinese leadership signals to its rivals that their exploits are increasingly hostile to China’s national interests. Instead of resorting to the use of force, China’s leaders could demonstrate their political will and military capacity by exacting severe political and economic consequences. These consequences include engaging in actions that might cause the rival’s domestic audience to turn against its policies and/or cause significant economic damage. Throughout the exercises, the Chinese leadership’s goal remains the same: the use of military action to force political outcomes. The application of direct military force against military targets is an option of last resort.

Two cases highlighting China’s unique form of warfare are the 1994-1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis and the 2012-2013 East China Sea Crisis. In the Taiwan Straits Crisis, the event was triggered by what the Chinese leadership interpreted as growing Taiwanese independence. As a result, the leadership ran a series of traditional and high-technology warfare maneuvers. These exercises and tests consisted of large-scale exercises, underground nuclear tests, ballistic missile tests, amphibious exercises, and live-fire exercises. They signaled different messages to different actors whose behaviors increasingly posed a direct threat to China’s national interest. To the Taiwanese electorate and leadership, the message was that no referendum for independence should be placed on the ballot during the 1996 Taiwan presidential election. To foreign powers, the signal was that no external interference in China’s internal affairs would be tolerated. And to the Mainland Chinese audience, the leadership demonstrated its political will and military readiness to uphold its promise to prevent an independent Taiwan. Additionally and perhaps most saliently, the Chinese leadership’s military actions established that it could inflict political and significant economic harm against Taiwan.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which ran on the Taiwanese independence platform, subsequently lost. And the missile tests and other exercises caused not only the stock market to plummet but also signaled the PLA’s capacity to interrupt shipping and damage Taiwan’s island economy.

August 28, 2013 at 04:09

If you have any brain, prove that "China is a peace loving country" is wrong.

Brett Champion
August 26, 2013 at 06:17

"As Monte Bullard has said, 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 to prevent serious miscalculations in a future conflict."


Or they could simply be designed to make a potential victim lower their guard against possible Chinese aggression.

August 25, 2013 at 15:33

@ bill888 said "Therefore, China is a peace loving country."


Where does china get such low quality chinese posters to post clueless and ignorant statements around the world? Must be from all the dirty air, polluted water, and fake foods consumption. How sad and pathetic. Oh, why not use your own name instead of Western sounding name? Too shameful?

August 24, 2013 at 15:34

After the Mongolian Empire expanded for 80 years, it had created a largest land connected empire in the world through the terrible ‘take no prisoner or surrender and live’ policy.  It had ringed in the West as the ‘Yellow Peril’ invasion.  However, it was Mongolian lead wars and not the Hanese war.  The Hanese was assumed mistakenly as Cathay before the Marco Polo time. After Marco Polo described his journey, only then Hanese was beginning to be identified in the West.   Upon disintegration of the Mongolian Empire, the Hanese rebelled and created the Ming Empire.  Mongolian retreated back to its Mongolia but still held control over Xinjiang and Tibet.


As a new empire, the Ming Empire was opened and prospered with the largest sea power in the world, sailed to the India Ocean and Eastern Africa Coast for trading and exchange of gifts with other nations.  The mission was lead by a Muslim admiral, ZhengHe, whom had not conquered other nations nor had annexed other countries. The Ming Empire did not expand further and instead, it had built upon the ‘Great Wall’ to fend off invaders.  However, the later Ming Empire had become isolated and was ruled by tyrannical emperor.  The Empire had lasted from 1300s to 1600s and became very corrupt at the end.  When the Manchurian invaded the heartland of the Ming Empire, the general with the largest army refused to fight but colluded with Manchurian.  The Manchurian bestowed on him as an Imperial Lord in Yunnan Province.  To account for time reference with the West, Columbus had not discovered the America until 60(?) years after Admiral Zhen He’s sea expedition to the Indian Ocean.  Spain and Portugal were not sea powers in any sense compare to ZhengHe’s fleet.  England had no significant sea power. 


After the Manchurian Empire had established a firm control on the Hanese heartland, it had named the empire as the Qing Empire.  However, as usual, the Mongolian had never forget its dream of establish another empire reminiscent of their former great leader Genghis Khan.  At then, the Mongolian was still in control Tibet and Xinjiang.    The Manchurian had never believed that building on the ‘Great Wall’ was effective to repel the Mongolian invasion. The ‘Great Wall’ had never prevented the successful invasion of the Manchurian themselves. The Manchurian retaliated on the Mongolian head-on. So the Manchurian Emperor led a defensive campaign against the Mongolian expansionist invasion.  The Manchurian won the war and had taken control of Xinjiang, Mongolia, and Tibet as consequence of the defeat of the Mongolian army.  The Empire enjoyed many years of economic prosperity and promoted multi-culturalism, but closed off any contacts with the Western Countries.   Invasions from the West began in the mid 1800s from sea routes.  Then Japan and Russia also invaded China and annexed large section of the land. At the beginning of the 1900s, people in Qing Empire were discontent with the old feudal system.  Several attempts to change the imperial system to constitutional monarchy failed.  Then finally, revolutionary Sun had led a successful revolt and caused the Qing Empire to collapse.   


Taken on the obligation and debt of the Qing Empire, Sun proclaimed the birth of ‘China’ based on multi-cultures of Hanese, Manchurian, Mongolian, Tibetan and Uyghur.  The new government was structured on a Republic Constitution of Democracy.  However, because of much interference, the democratic government system experiment was not successful. Consequently, the Chinese Communist Party was formed to save China based on the farmers as grass root.  In 1930s, Japan then invaded China as the World War II began.  China resisted the Japanese for 8 years and later on with the Alliance of Russia, England and USA.  After the surrender of Japanese in 1937 as end of World War II, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and then legitimate Guomintang(GMT) government began the civil war.  The CCP defeated the GMT and GMT had escaped to Taiwan.  And Mao was in control of the CCP at then.


As CCP originally was a close association with the Soviet, it was based on the Soviet system of government.  The Soviet had prospered in the beginning of Communist governance; people had really believed it would work.  It was an experiment that no one knew the outcome.    So, in the Korean war of 1951, China had defended North Korea based on historical and ideological closeness.  Also, China would regain control and disbanded the serfdom government of Tibet and Xinjiang by sending a small army to station in the region. And then in 1960, Soviet and China went apart on their interpretation of Communism and the relationship dissolved.  The two countries became antagonistic.  At the same time on the Taiwan side, the GMT was plotting to return to the mainland with a new civil war to regain its former territory.  The only friend with China was a tiny country called Albania.  In 1962 with the ‘forward policy’ from Nehru’s Indian government, China retaliated by sending a small army to the Indian-China border with the support of Tibetans.  China had defeated the Indian army pushing deep into the disputed land for almost a month, then only to retreat voluntarily to the same position it started with.  Because China is a peace loving country, China expected for the Indian to come to the table for negotiation to resolve the disputed land.  However, Indian had refused to negotiate and made the disputed land into a Union of India.   On the South East Asia, after the North Vietnam had won the war with South Vietnam in 1976, Vietnam had invaded the small country of Laos.  Vietnamese also crossed into Chinese territories and raided many Chinese across the border.  With the decision from Deng Xiao Ping, China retaliated in 1979 deep into Vietnam and close to Hanoi to force Vietnam to retreat from Laos and raids on Chinese farmers.  As Deng had said, it was to teach Vietnam a lesson.  Many years later, the land border between Vietnam and China was successfully demarcated through negotiation.  As for the South China Sea, China had clearly demarcated with published maps in 1950s that it owns South China Sea based on historical and actual usage of the Islands and shoals.  And no one objected at then.  Objection only arose when it was discovered the possibility of oil reserve in 1970s. 

Based on the history of the Qing Empire and the new China, China had not invaded any new country to expand its territories and reacted only to invasions or incursion into Chinese territories.  Therefore, China is a peace loving country.

August 21, 2013 at 05:45

China's military maneuver had locked down Lee Teng Hui from decling independence.

Little Helmsman
August 20, 2013 at 08:23

I see that John Chan or, is it James, has moved to Australia now!

August 20, 2013 at 05:12

China, the middle-kondom, especially under the CCP rule, will soon break into pieces.

August 20, 2013 at 02:49

You just sound more like a Chinese than an ex-Yankee or an Aussie! Do you know China accounts for half of the world’s new money supply since the global financial crisis on 2008?   The US' economy is steadily recovering thanks to its shale oil & gas boom & especially its innovation & entrepreneurship, while  China's economy is coming down & ready for a hard-landing soon! Some countries such as Australia, Brazil, SAfrica ect. will be affected by the Chinese economic crash due to  being the main sources of supplying natural resources to China in the past decades.

Anthony Sung
August 20, 2013 at 01:28

I wish Dr. Norton can elaborate more about the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis. In the piece, he argues that China's warfare manuevers was directed towards the DPP. Most analysts see manuevers directed at then-President Lee Teng-hui's policy of growing Taiwanese independence. Also, the manuevers backfired as President Lee Teng-hui was re-elected.

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
August 20, 2013 at 00:31

This aricleis about Chinese warfare strategy and tactics. it is not about urban renewal in the US. How is Detroit's municipal bankruptcy related to China threats against the US military, American territories & allies in the western Pacific? Are you saying the US should not defend itself and its allies? Are you saying it should flee the area? How would doing that help Detroit? 


August 19, 2013 at 23:20

China and Japan are historic enemy dating back to the Ming Era. I expect Japanese Politician to stop playing the victim card and I fully embraced a remilitarized Japan Force, so the world can see their true face and not blaming China for every aggressive stance whenever issues arised despite the fact Japan initiliaized the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute from the status-quo.

August 19, 2013 at 23:11

辽宁省副省长谭作钧说,百万千瓦核电、火电机组、特高压输变电设备,百万吨乙烯装置,高速动车组列车,先进 船舶和海上钻井平台,高档数控加工中心和重型数控机床等实现自主化,国防科技工业发展迅猛,第四代核潜艇、航空母舰、新一代歼击机等高新武器装备在东北研制完成。

We have a small news on the development of possibly a 4th generation Nuclear Sub, aircraft carrier, and new stealth bomber prototype, expect to maiden flight next year 2014, and other high tech military weapons, according to Tan Zuojun, Vice Governor of Liaoning Province, head of CSSC, main headquartered of China's shiping building industry. 

James the Australian
August 19, 2013 at 19:55

I am a ex Yankee but now an Australian!
Seen the bad times coming and moved to OZ with my family.
If you think, things are getting better, you have blinker over your eyes!
You can’t improve the economy just by printing money.
How many more US cities has to go bankrupt in the name of pax America?

August 19, 2013 at 16:43

The CCP-PRC has made itself the neighbor from hell throughout the Indo-Pacific strategic region.

It's militarily threatening everyone in all directions. The precident of fear throughout the region is Beijing's invasion of Tibet to occupy it permanently to incorporate it into the Han Empire that is thousands of years old. The Uigher people were invaded by the PLA to take control of them and their place, which now is the westernmost CCP-PRC.


Beijing pretentiously claims all of the South China Sea, Okinawa, northern India, Siberia – the list of false territorial claims gets very long. The CCP means to "lead" the crammed in masses of sheeple out of the PRC.

The CCP is wrong about all of this, wrong about everything, the same as the CCCP was. You half yuans posting here flatter us that you should give us your attention, however, you accomplish nothing here. There isn't anything "inscruitable" about the CCP – you're a bunch of klutzes.

August 19, 2013 at 16:29

What an American CIA nutter!

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