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SPECIAL: Sun Tzu Simplified: An Approach to Analyzing China’s Regional Military Strategies

(Image Source: AP)

By Dennis J Blasko |

The Art of War by Sun Tzu can be summarized into what I call 1) the prime objective: to win without fighting and 2) the prime directive: to know yourself and know the enemy.

All other rules for fighting in The Art of War and in current PLA doctrine follow directly from these two guidelines. Today, Sun Tzu’s prime objective and prime directive are reflected in the PLA’s continued emphasis on:

    People’s War focused on the defense of Chinese sovereignty by leveraging the strengths of China’s large population and land mass.
  • Active Defense, which is based on the premise that “We will not attack unless we are attacked; but we will surely counterattack if attacked.” This principle predicts, if not requires, an action-reaction dynamic when China perceives its interests are threatened and includes the obvious danger of an unending cycle of escalation.
  • China’s multi-dimensional deterrence posture, which extends far beyond the concept of nuclear deterrence. PLA doctrine states specifically that effective deterrence is based on warfighting capabilities which must be demonstrated to the world. It also sees deterrence as a means to achieve strategic objectives, preferably without fighting.
  • The preference to use traditional fighting methods of close battle, night combat, speed, deception, and stratagem, all of which, in order to be successful, require good intelligence on the enemy.

All of these atavistic concepts have been adapted and modified for the 21st century. They will continue to develop as conditions change, especially as new technologies become available to the PLA.

With regards to the prime objective, “winning without fighting” is the belief that China can achieve its objectives through methods other than the use of brute military force, such as political, economic, or diplomatic means. Nonetheless, this concept permits the gradual use of force through both deterrence and other non-military government agencies, while keeping a strong military in reserve as a basis for deterrence. However, if deterrence and other non-military means fail, deadly force may be employed as a last resort and is to be used cautiously and only when China feels confident in its ability to win.

As required by Active Defense, if China is attacked or its sovereignty is challenged, China will respond even when it considers itself weaker than the enemy. Though PLA doctrine is based upon a strategically defensive posture, the PLA understands that offensive operations are essential at all levels of war in all phases of a campaign to achieve victory. If circumstances require, doctrine permits China to use military force to preempt an impending hostile action if an enemy is clearly preparing to strike first at Chinese sovereignty, territory, or core interests.

Such calculations, whether at the strategic or tactical levels of war, require a significant degree of knowledge about China and the PLA’s capabilities, as well as the PLA’s potential opponents’ intentions and capabilities. The PLA constantly assesses its own and its potential adversary’s “comprehensive national power,” which consists of many elements beyond military force. Thus, we see the enduring emphasis on knowing yourself, knowing the enemy, and the use of all elements of national power present in PLA doctrine.

Additionally, the PLA operates under several principles that most other contemporary militaries do not:

    The requirement that all Chinese armed forces pledge loyalty to the Communist Party.
  • The subordination of military modernization to economic development, even though the “coordination” of the two creates growing defense budgets.
  • The assumption of a strategically defensive posture forced upon a relatively weak PLA, though this calculation is changing for some contingencies.
  • Developing doctrine based on the precept that “technology determines tactics.”
  • Efforts to mobilize the entire country if forced to fight, resulting in an emphasis on military-civil integration. In theory, this helps reduce the amount of resources necessary to be dedicated to the military.
  • A reluctance to be involved in alliances (a dependence on others to protect China).

These principles are reinforced by the continuing role of People’s War as the basis for PLA strategic thinking in conjunction with the strategy of Active Defense. The principles of People’s War are ingrained in the collective minds of PLA leaders. Various descriptions of People’s War can be found in many sources, but they are most easily accessible in the 2005 English-language version of The Science of Military Strategy, which actually contains two different but similar lists of the “Principles of People’s War” (pp. 107-112/230-31). The various colors show parallel principles in the two lists; note the light red and green entries below, stressing caution and prudence.

Mao’s Strategic Guidance Principles of People’s War, Chapter 3

Strategic Principles for People’s War, Chapter 10
  1. To Preserve Ourselves and Annihilate the Enemy
  2. Founding Base Areas and Creating Battlefield Are Strategic Tasks
  3. Change the Main Forms of Operations in Accordance with the Development and Changes of War
  4. Fight No Battle Unprepared and Not Sure to Win, and Formulate Strategy Beforehand Based on Worst Condition
  5. You Fight in Your Way and We Fight in Ours. We Will Fight If There Is Possibility to Win; If not, We Will Move
  6. Concentrate Superior Forces to Annihilate the Enemy Forces One by One
  7. The Main Target Is to Annihilate the Enemy’s Effective Strength Regardless of the Gain or Loss of One or Two Cities or Places
  8. Be Prudent in the First Battle and        Fight the Decisive Battle to Our Advantage
  1. Knowing ourselves and the enemy
  2. Preserving ourselves and destroying the enemy
  3. Striving for the initiative and avoiding the passive
  4. Employing military forces and tactics flexibly
  5. Combining closely the three battle forms of mobile war, positional war, and guerrilla war
  6. Concentrating superior forces and destroying the enemy one by one
  7. Fighting no battle unprepared, fighting no battle you are not sure of winning
  8. Being prudent in fighting the initial battle
  9. Unifying command and being coordinated and united
  10. Closely coordinating military and non-military struggles, etc

Additionally, later in the book (pp. 456-57) “five combinations” of People’s War provide additional details in general terms of how Chinese forces and resources will be used. These “five combinations” overlap in the following ways:

    Regular troops with the masses, including capabilities found in civilian government ministries.
  • Regular naval warfare with guerrilla warfare on the sea, developing the strategy and tactics of People’s War on the Sea, including tactics of “sparrow warfare” and sabotage, as well as ambush and covering operations
  • “Trump card” or “assassin’s mace” weapons with flexible strategy and tactics, especially in playing “hide and seek” with the enemy.
  • Combining high-tech weapons with common weapons and understanding that several generations of weapons and equipment will coexist for a long time. Both combinations 3 and 4 demonstrate that People’s War is not confined to the war of low technology only.
  • Combining military warfare with political and economic warfare in order to present the widest front possible to the enemy.

The 2006 Chinese Defense White Paper states, “The Navy is enhancing research into the theory of naval operations and exploring the strategy and tactics of maritime people’s war under modern conditions.” Needless to say, one can find many examples of the “five combinations” in PLA organization, training, and in its real world missions. Based on the location, opponent, and other variables, the “five combinations” can result in a multitude of operational methods and techniques.

However, PLA leaders most likely understand that the farther away from China’s borders they attempt to apply People’s War principles, the lower the chances of success. Therefore, we now see an emphasis on building forces and creating doctrine for air and maritime operations in waters beyond the near seas.

For the last six to eight years we have been watching the Chinese government execute a maritime People’s War under modern conditions; incorporating the principles of both deterrence and Active Defense in the South and East China Seas. Beijing’s objectives in this total government effort are to demonstrate its sovereignty over disputed territories and to deter the U.S. military from conducting close-in surveillance in its Exclusive Economic Zone, utilizing all available methods short of going to war.

Two examples illustrating the combinations of People’s War are found in the case of the USNS Impeccable and in Chinese efforts to challenge Japanese administrative control of the Senkaku Islands. In March 2009, the USNS Impeccable was operating in international waters in China’s EEZ in the South China Sea when two civilian trawlers “shadowed and maneuvered dangerously close” to the Impeccable. These trawlers were backed up by a Fisheries Patrol vessel, a State Oceanographic Administration vessel, and a PLAN intelligence collector, an example of combining regular troops with the masses. They combined the low-tech trawlers with the high-tech naval intelligence collector and could have been vectored to the area based on high-tech reconnaissance or low-tech visual means. The close quarter operations to cut the towed array were an example of “sparrow warfare” or ambush. These actions, however, did not achieve China’s objective of deterring U.S. surveillance in its EEZ and, in fact, it only hardened U.S. resolve over its Freedom of Navigation missions (if that resolve needed to be hardened any more than it already was).

In the East China Sea, around the Senkakus, once again we see China’s mix of the masses with regular PLA forces with the use of Chinese Coast Guard vessels and aircrafts to patrol near the islands, coupled with a mostly over the horizon presence of the regular PLA Navy. Presumably, there is some sort of high-tech communication between these forces. What Beijing is attempting to do is send the political message that the Chinese Coast Guard can exert control over the waters around the islands in the same way Japan can. They could send the same message much more forcefully by substituting gray Navy ships for the white colored Coast Guard, which they do occasionally.

We can find other recent examples of variations of the “five combinations” in action, such as the land-reclamation construction underway in the Spratly Islands or the activities of the civilian Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig and its accompanying escort in the SCS last year.

In the East China Sea, Beijing knows that the U.S.-Japanese Security Treaty would apply if it first used military force in a hostile action over the Senkaku islands. It likely calculates the PLA could not at this time win a shooting war 300 kilometers from the Chinese coast against combined Japanese and U.S. naval and air forces.

The distances are greater in the South China Sea and the chance of U.S. involvement still remains high, therefore China’s current calculations regarding the South China Sea are most likely the same. However, China is actively working to shift that balance over the long term.

For the foreseeable future, in any of its contingency operations where the U.S. military has a potential role, the PLA’s calculations of the balance of power will not provide it with the confidence it desires in order to initiate major hostilities. However, no matter what those calculations, if China’s core interests are threatened it will respond. Though how it responds will depend on the specific situation, the time, and other international factors.

Yet, the Chinese government probably understands its People’s War at Sea strategy for the ECS and the SCS has not achieved its objectives and has resulted in an escalated spiral of action taken by both China and the countries with which it has territorial disputes. Fortunately, to date, all sides have succeeded in keeping the level of intensity below the intentional use of deadly force, but accidents and miscalculations could change that in an instant. If any participant in these territorial disputes intentionally decides to use deadly force in this action-reaction cycle, then China’s strategy will have failed and what comes next could be devastating. The best solution, desired by everyone in the region, is a negotiated settlement and while the beginning of that process may be underway with Japan, it will require the good faith support of all military, paramilitary, government, and civilian actors from all sides who have a stake in the outcome.

China’s calculations of its relative political, diplomatic, economic, and military strength will change as conditions in China and the region evolve. Unless compelled to respond to a challenge with direct military action, Beijing likely will attempt to calibrate its actions by continuing to employ a wide array of civilian, government, paramilitary, and military capabilities up to the line of the intentional use of deadly force to achieve its objectives. To do so effectively will require the Chinese government and the PLA to understand their own strengths and weaknesses as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the other players in the region. China’s use of integrated, multi-dimensional approaches that differ based on the specifics of each dispute presents an asymmetrical test to foreign governments who do not have the same range of options available but, unlike China, may have the explicit, implied, or potential support of the American military presence in the region.

(This essay is adapted from remarks presented at Project 2049’s conference on “China’s Military Development and the U.S.-Japan Alliance,” March 20, 2015.)

Dennis J. Blasko, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired), was an army attaché in Beijing and in Hong Kong from 1992-1996. And He is the author of 《The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century》, second edition (Routledge, 2012).