James Holmes

How the Weak Win Wars: China Edition

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James Holmes

How the Weak Win Wars: China Edition

The U.S. should not take too much solace in the fact that China’s defense spending lags behind its own.

How the Weak Win Wars: China Edition
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s Note: A version of these remarks to the delivered at the AFCEA West 2014 Conference and Exposition in San Diego, CA, on February 13, 2014.

Admiral Foggo has set me the impossible task of describing the strategic challenge China poses to the United States … in 5-7 minutes.

Since a complete rundown is impossible, let me instead posit a few ways China could get the best of America and its Asian allies in the strategic competition presently underway. Such an excursion could be the beginning of wisdom.

Asia-watchers sometimes contend that China cannot match the United States and its allies militarily. Some point to Chinese hardware, claiming it lags decades behind ours. Other commentators look at raw budget numbers. Because the United States outspends the next X countries combined, they say we’re
“Number One” for the foreseeable future. Get out the big foamy finger!

Such observations could be true but not especially relevant to the competition. In fact, the godfather of strategic theory, Carl von Clausewitz, sees three ways a lesser competitor can prevail over a stronger one. It can do so while using little if any force, and without unduly disrupting the regional or global order.

One, a weaker contestant can render its opponent unable to carry on the struggle. It can throw down his armed forces or unseat his regime, and thus win the right to dictate terms. Does Beijing want to fight? Hardly. We make much of Asians’ preference for winning without fighting. But in fact no sane government relishes the costs, hardships, and sheer uncertainty of armed conflict. No one wants war.

Nevertheless, it behooves China to build a maritime force capable of defeating the largest allied contingent it’s likely to face. That’s how Mahan defines a force adequate to its operational purposes.

Think about it. The PLA has the luxury of concentrating all its forces and effort against a fraction of the U.S. armed forces — which, as I hardly need to tell this audience, are dispersed around the globe performing a variety of missions. It stands to reason that PLA forces could be stronger where it counts even if they remain weaker overall.

There’s precedent for this in our own history. Mahan believed a modest U.S. Navy battle fleet standing astride the sea lanes connecting Britain with the Caribbean would have given Madison immense diplomatic leverage during the War of 1812. It might have even deterred war. Mahan urged the United States to make itself Number One in the Caribbean and Gulf at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. And so it did. A lesser fleet, it seems, can make itself locally supreme in the waters that matter most.

What was good for America a century ago could be good for China today, so long as it confines its interests to nearby waters and skies. The PLA can bring shore-based fire support — tactical aircraft, a panoply of anti-ship missiles, and so forth — to bear hundreds of miles distant from the mainland coast. So it’s not just the PLA Navy that can concentrate in waters important to Beijing; it’s the navy plus a potent land-based arm of Chinese sea power. China’s is a maritime strategy through and through.

So Beijing can hope to mass superior might at the decisive place at the decisive time — and to win should combat prove unavoidable. Clausewitz would see the logic of local superiority instantly, as would Mahan.

Two, Clausewitz observes that one competitor can win by convincing the other he can’t. Here let’s consult a living strategist, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger notes that one competitor can deter another by displaying potent capabilities, demonstrating the resolve to use them, and persuading that opponent he will indeed use them under certain circumstances.

So deterrence is a product of force, will, and an opponent’s belief in our force and will. If that opponent is sufficiently impressed, he will refrain from the actions we want to deter. The same might be said of coercion. If we in effect point a gun at a competitor, and if he believes we’ll pull the trigger, there’s a good chance he’ll take the positive action we want him to take.

So he may do — or refrain from doing — what we want because we persuade him he’s unlikely to win. That’s Clausewitz’s second method.

And three, Clausewitz maintains that one competitor can prevail by convincing another that even if he is able to win, he can’t win at a cost acceptable to him. Clausewitz notes that the value of the political object determines the magnitude and duration of the effort a combatant expends to obtain that object. It determines how many lives, how much national treasure, and how many other resources that combatant puts into the effort — and for how long. The value of the object is the price we’re willing to pay for our goals.

Now, we can shape an antagonist’s cost/benefit calculus as well. If I can drive up the cost of an endeavor by making it too resource-intensive for him, by dragging it out, or both, cost/benefit logic should prompt him to relinquish his goals. I’ve raised the price above what he’s willing to pay based on his own political calculations. If he abides by rational cost/benefit logic, he should cut his losses and abandon the effort.

You see where I’m going with this. By fielding impressive anti-access capabilities, the PLA can attempt to persuade Washington that the ends, including the defense of allies like Japan or Taiwan, aren’t worth the expense. It can try to dishearten our leaders, convincing them the United States and its allies can’t prevail within the Asian contested zone. And if all else fails, it can hope to make itself locally superior for long enough to fulfill its operational and strategic objectives.

America, it hardly needs restating, is a maritime nation dependent on its navy, marine corps, and coast guard for its standing in the world. In effect, Beijing can ask President Obama, or whoever occupies the White House: is your alliance with Japan, or Taiwan, or the Philippines, worth losing a major part of the Pacific Fleet on which your superpower status depends?

That’s a serious question, and the answer might be no. It depends on value-of-the-object calculations. Or, our leadership might hesitate in times of trouble — granting Beijing an operational or strategic pause. That pause might be long enough for China to accomplish its goals — presenting Washington and the world with a fait accompli in the Taiwan Strait, or elsewhere.

So let’s not take too much solace in the notion that China lags behind America in defense spending, or military technology, or other indices of power. Even if true, China would hardly be the first weaker power to defeat the strong, if it puts its home-court advantage to good use. History is littered with cases in which lesser but imaginative and determined competitors have done just that.

And that, in a nutshell, is how I size up the Chinese strategic challenge.