China’s grand strategy through American eyes
The Chinese J-20 fighter at an airshow in Zhuhai
My last article focused on Chinese aims in the South China Sea, which fit in with a broader grand strategy focused on energy security and the cultivation of a naval “string of pearls.” This article will “zoom out” on Chinese strategy, focusing on China’s large-scale military philosophies, capabilities, and goals.
Militarily, China recognizes that its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and PLA Navy would likely fail in a symmetric military contest against the United States. After all, China possesses two in-use aircraft carriers to the United States’ eleven, and recently scrapped its plans to build two more. The United States’ technological superiority, however, does not preclude the Chinese from employing innovative asymmetric tactics.
China’s defense strategy of A2/AD (Anti-Access Aerial Denial) illustrates the notion of asymmetry well. Scholars have been throwing the term “A2/AD” around for years, but what does this term actually mean, and how does it serve China’s long-term goals? Harry Kazianis’s book, The Tao of A2/AD, answers some of these questions. (The book is available on Amazon, and I’d highly recommend it for anyone interested in China’s foreign policy.) Kazianis writes that China endeavors to take its place on the world stage after a “century of humiliation” beginning with the Opium Wars and lasting through China’s brutal losses under Japan in World War II. The 20th century dealt blow after blow to China’s national pride, and the CCP hopes to leverage its economic and military power to usher in a new age of scientific innovation, cultural enrichment, and international strength. Xi has incorporated this “Chinese dream” into his foreign policy, a goal that has played out in China’s South China Sea policy and Belt and Road Initiative, among other projects.
How does China plan to leverage its military to achieve these goals, and how does A2/AD fit in? As Kazianis writes, A2/AD is a strategic philosophy as well as a system of specific weapons or tactics. Contemporary Chinese strategy draws heavily from the philosophies of Sun Tzu, whose foundational teachings are thousands of years old but just as useful as the ideas of more contemporary strategists. Sun Tzu emphasized the use of deception in warfare, as well as the necessity of winning without fighting—fighting “smarter” rather than harder, setting traps and avoiding them, and using geography to your advantage.
According to Kazianis, A2/AD would mirror these ancient principles by employing “anti-ship weapons, land-attack missiles, attack aircraft, air-defense platforms, cyber, and space weapons … situated deep within the Chinese mainland.” It would seem that a great deal of China’s strategy takes its cues from Russia: China would likely employ a similar set of tactics against an attacker as Russia did against Napoleon or Hitler. Kazianis writes that in the event of a conventional war, China would likely “strike at targets a distance away” in order to lure the adversary further and further into the Chinese mainland and tip the scales in China’s favor. Such a tactic would “exploit the mainland’s strategic depth,” allowing the PLA to “wait out enemy forces until they are within range of anti-access weapons—fighting at a time and place of Beijing’s choosing when conditions are ripe for success.” Alternatively, the adversary would simply give up, not looking to be lured directly into a trap within the mainland. But in either scenario, A2/AD (or the threat of it) would protect China’s key assets.
Interestingly, strategy is not the only Russian military asset China has absorbed. China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier, known among some netizens for its “Leader for the Dream” music video, was resurrected from the hull of a Soviet ship. Many of China’s military planes, too, either came from Russia or are based on Russian designs. Kazianis writes that China purchased Russian planes throughout the 90s—Su-27 fighters, which are similar to the American F-15. China subsequently copied the Russian design and produced the J-11, angering Russia, which had hoped to corner the market on this technology. More recently, China has produced the J-20 “Powerful Dragon,” an analog to the American F-22.
Leader for the Dream, one of my favorite music videos (and the only aircraft carrier music video I can think of to date). The video was launched in 2014 and depicts patriotic scenes on the deck of the Liaoning, China’s new aircraft carrier resurrected from a Soviet hull.
What Does “Asymmetric Strategy” Look Like in 2020?
The most interesting, and possibly most threatening, aspect of asymmetric warfare is its adaptability. Asymmetric tactics of sabotage can take place in peacetime as well as wartime, and against targets that might not seem overtly “military.” Cyberattacks furnish an excellent example. One 2013 New York Times article reported that some US universities receive thousands of Chinese cyberattacks per day. One University of Wisconsin dean reported receiving 90,000 to 100,000 cyberattacks per day “from China alone,” as well as others from Vietnam and Russia. Cyberattacks on universities took on an explicitly military bent in 2019, when Chinese hackers targeted over two dozen universities in the US and around the world in search of “research about maritime technology being developed for military use.” The Wall Street Journal reports that some of these universities were in possession of naval contracts at the time of the attack; other universities “appeared to be targeted because of their proximity to China, and relevance to the South China Sea.”
Officially speaking, suspected Chinese cyberattacks on the US took place beginning in 2005 (possibly as early as 2003) during the infamous Titan Rain attacks. In August 2005, several US and UK government agencies found themselves the victim of what the Council on Foreign Relations suspects was PLA Unit 61398 (some of whose specific activities have been detailed here). Most recently, US officials have accused China of spreading a series of fake text messages regarding US coronavirus lockdown procedures. The American intelligence community declined to reveal how it had come to the conclusion that China was behind the attacks, likely because doing so could endanger their sources, but the Center for a New American Security plans to release a report with more details next month. As the New York Times reported on the incident,
“Two American officials stressed they did not believe Chinese operatives created the lockdown messages, but rather amplified existing ones. Those efforts enabled the messages to catch the attention of enough people that they then spread on their own, with little need for further work by foreign agents. The messages appeared to gain significant traction on Facebook as they were also proliferating through texts, according to an analysis by The New York Times.
American officials said the operatives had adopted some of the techniques mastered by Russia-backed trolls, such as creating fake social media accounts to push messages to sympathetic Americans, who in turn unwittingly help spread them.”
Such a strategy certainly falls in line with the Chinese strategic philosophy that Kazianis and other scholars have described. As Timothy L. Thomas wrote in Military Review in 2007,
According to Li Bingyan, one of the most influential and brilliant contemporary Chinese strategists, they work to entice technologically superior opponents into unwittingly adopting a strategy that will lead to their defeat. Li’s examples are noteworthy. First, he asks how an inferior force could fight a technologically superior opponent. Using the example of a weak mouse (i.e., China) trying to keep track of a huge cat (i.e., the U.S.), he asks, “How could a mouse hang a bell around a cat’s neck?” His answer: “The mouse cannot do this alone or with others. Therefore, the mouse must entice the cat to put the bell on himself.” Second, he asks, “How can you make a cat eat a hot pepper?” His answer: “You can stuff a pepper down a cat’s throat [the most difficult], you can put the pepper in cheese and make the cat swallow it, or you can grind the pepper up and spread it on his back. The latter method makes the cat lick itself and receive the satisfaction of cleaning up the hot pepper.”
This strategy, too, seems to mirror Sun Tzu’s philosophy: focus on deception and win without fighting. By turning Americans into unwitting disinformation machines, China continues to position the US as the gullible “cat.” History shows that, time and time again, great military powers like the US have lost to technologically inferior enemies: the US “fights hard” with firepower, but our adversaries “fight smart.” The Chinese case could prove no different; if the US finds itself called to defend Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands, or the South China Sea, any weaknesses in US strategy could become painfully apparent. Only time will tell if the US can avoid licking up the hot pepper of asymmetrical warfare.
A Chinese J-11 fighter jet, similar in design to the American F-15 and Russian SU-27. Photo by US Navy (Wikimedia Commons)