Features | Security | East Asia

China’s “Warfare” Strategies and Tactics

China employs military actions to achieve political outcomes in territorial disputes. Understanding them is important if conflict is to be avoided.

By J.M. Norton for
China’s “Warfare” Strategies and Tactics
Credit: Reuters/China Daily

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.

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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.

Since that time, China’s leaders have engaged in single events of “hi-tech warfare” exercises.* One of several examples is the successful launch in 2007 by the Chinese defense establishment of an anti-satellite missile, destroying one of its own satellites. This test, according to my interviews conducted in the immediate aftermath of the test and in 2008 with experts in China, was directed at Taiwan as well as external powers who might consider supporting Taiwanese independence or interfere in the event of a crisis involving Taiwan. The test had additional political implications outside the scope of this article, but salient nonetheless. Specifically, in 2008 China’s leaders proposed that major powers discuss outlawing the weaponization of space.

With the Taiwan scenario in mind, compare the Chinese leadership’s military actions and political objectives then with its behaviors in the East China Sea and the Pacific now. Though since the mid-1990s flare-ups have occurred sporadically over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, outbreaks in more recent years have intensified. The event triggering the hostilities is traced back to the then Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s announcement in September 2012 that the Japanese government planned to purchase from private owners three of the five islands. From that time onward, the Chinese leadership has engaged in an increasing number of traditional and high-technology warfare exercises. These maneuvers are directed at the Japanese leadership; Chinese leaders most likely want Tokyo to remove the territorial dispute from the public spotlight and place it on the back burner.

In this context, considering the Chinese leadership’s May 2013 rocket launch is valuable. Similarly to the way the defense establishment used the 2007 anti-satellite test, China’s leaders may have used the 2013 launch of a ground-based rocket carrying a science payload to study the earth’s magnetosphere to signal its resolve regarding the Diaoyu/Senkaku island dispute. In particular, the launch could be seen as indicating the leadership’s political will and military capacity to disrupt future military operations aimed at taking control of the disputed area, as well as constrain any foreign involvement in the event of a crisis over the islands. And once again, it probably demonstrated the leadership’s ongoing interest in bringing major powers to the negotiating table regarding the weaponization of space.

Although the Chinese leaders’ use of traditional and high-technology maneuvers were triggered by Japan’s nationalization of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, the reality is that the prime drivers were an accumulation of events. The purchase of the islands was the trigger event.

A series of programs consisting of interviews with leading Chinese defense specialists on a Beijing TV program called Military Decode suggests that the leadership’s concerns about Japan run deep. Beijing’s opposition to the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty dates back to the 1970s, driven by suspicions that it is directed at China. And since 1991, the Chinese leadership has observed its Japanese and American counterparts transforming Japan’s Self-Defense Force (SDF) from a self-defense force to a self-defense military to a national military. The Japanese government has unwound the domestic constraints on the SDF, while Washington has encouraged the transformation to enable Japan to provide for its own defense and to assist the U.S. military in overseas operations. To this end, the American leadership has provided weapons, weapon systems, and training.

The transformation of the SDF has occurred alongside other events that Chinese leaders find alarming. For instance, during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s previous tenure in 2007, he joined with then Australian Prime Minister John Howard to establish a framework for their respective militaries to conduct international cooperation. Japan and Australia also increased dialogue between their foreign and defense ministers. It was not lost on China’s leaders that Japan and Australia are allies of the U.S. and that both governments supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

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Moreover, since taking power in December 2012, Abe and the LDP have raised the defense budget, expanded defense cooperation with Japan’s allies, increased amphibious forces, and, according to the 2013 Defense White Paper, strengthen the capability to launch pre-emptive strikes against enemy bases when attacks on Japan’s territory are thought imminent. And Abe and his party have called for the revision of the pacifist constitution and in particular Article IX, which acts as a constitutional constraint outlawing war and prohibiting aggression. From the Chinese side, Abe’s most recent victory in the Upper House elections indicates that Japan’s leadership may continue to transform the SDF and eventually alter Article IX. As a result, the Chinese leadership has used and most likely will continue to use traditional and high technology warfare to send to the Japanese leadership a three-fold political message: put the territorial dispute on the back burner, constrain the advancement of an already robust SDF and explain the intentions of weapon acquisitions, and avoid revising the pacifist constitution and in particular Article IX.

In the cases of Taiwan, the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands (and indeed the South China Sea, which we have not considered here), external observers should expect the Chinese leadership to continue using traditional and high-technology warfare to force political outcomes. Drivers of the leadership’s actions will include both external and internal inputs, namely the actions of China’s rivals and the sentiment of China’s domestic audience. Escalation will occur if the Chinese leadership perceives a rival’s actions as increasingly hostile to China’s national interest.

Even throughout the escalation cycle, however, the leadership will remain committed to resolving the disputes diplomatically, although getting to the table might prove challenging. The use of direct military force against military targets will be an option of last resort. 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.

* Dr. Monte Bullard, a retired US Army Colonel and long-time China specialist, coined this term. The author was a student of Dr. Bullard’s at The Monterey Institute of International Studies.

 Dr. J.M. Norton teaches international relations and US foreign policy at China’s Foreign Affairs University (CFAU) in Beijing, China. The research discussed in this article is based on two forthcoming papers. The views presented here are the author’s own and are not associated with the views of CFAU.