“It takes no Kissinger to see the building blocks of a global confrontation taking shape here in Asia”
(French Minister of Defense)
The late President of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew said in 2012 that “It is China’s intention to be the greatest power in the world, and to be accepted as China, not as an honorary member of the West”. Continuing, he told his interviewers that China’s “great advantage is not in military influence but in their economic influence [… which] can only grow and grow beyond the capabilities of America.”
President Lee’s statement highlights three extremely important points on show at the beginning of June during the IISS’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, namely, that the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C) intends to be the greatest power in the world, that it does not desire to conform to western standards in its attempted ascent, and finally, that its main axis for attaining the first goal, is by non-military means.
This commentary will explore the three points listed above, cast against two central works, Unrestricted Warfare by by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, two People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Colonels and The Hundred Year Marathon by Michael Pillsbury, a longtime U.S. ‘China watcher’. Following the theoretical docking, this commentary will analyze the P.R.C. Minister of Defense, General Wei Fenghe’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue textually. This is key, as Michael Pillsbury notes “China’s leaders are extremely careful with their language, especially in public, far more so than Western politicians.” Together, the strategic and textual analyses will provide a glimpse into the state of the P.R.C.’s policy direction.
While written 16 years apart, both Unrestricted Warfare (1999) and The Hundred Year Marathon (2015) contain significant overlap, particularly with regards to strategic direction and theory. This is most likely owing to much of Chinese strategic thinking being rooted in the ‘Warring States’ period of Chinese history, akin to western roots in Greco-Roman history (albeit far more pronounced). Apart from the campaign histories of the period, The Thirty-Six Stratagems, a compendium of tactical/strategic wisdom forms a fertile base from which insight regarding modern strategy is readily and, if the authors of both works are to be believed, frequently drawn.
The intermingling of classic Chinese texts and histories with modern statecraft and approaches to regional and international issues seems to be one of the most popular practices in the P.R.C. Indeed, little else is left for analysis, particularly as the PLA has not released a defense white paper since 2015.
Among the many maxims identified by the authors, two are of utmost importance for this commentary. The first of these is the importance of identifying the weaknesses of your opponent, and then using those weaknesses against him, while the second is that military might is not the critical factor for winning a long-term competition. As the below sections will show, both of these directives are on display.
Non-military warfare, combination, and omnidirectionality
Beginning with Unrestricted Warfare, the work is essential for two key tendencies it highlights, non-military warfare, and combination/omnidirectionality as pillars of modern warfare, which itself has undergone serious change.
First, the authors introduce “non-military warfare” which can easily be confused with the more recent “hybrid warfare”, “non-linear conflict” or “military operations other than war (MOOTW)”, the last of which the Department of Defense interestingly notes the PLA has since “embraced”. Where the authors’ ideas diverge from these latter concepts, however, is that non-military warfare comprises almost all recognized forms of strife or discord which can arise within states with effects equal to military operations, not in place of military operations.
As a particularly topical example, the authors delineate a “trade war” as a classic example of non-military warfare. Following this line of thinking, the U.S. and the P.R.C. are engaged (per the Chinese viewpoint) in non-military warfare.
Other means of non-military warfare include, “psychological warfare; smuggling warfare; media warfare; drug warfare; network warfare; technological warfare; fabrication warfare; resources warfare; economic aid warfare; cultural warfare; and international law warfare.”
The second tendency which the colonels note is that of the changing nature of warfare. They portend that traditional reasons for going to war (territorial disputes, nationality conflicts, religious clashes, etc.) are “increasingly becoming more intertwined with grabbing resources, contending for markets, controlling capital, trade sanctions and other economic factors, to the extent that they are even becoming secondary to these factors.” Further, while the authors note a relative reduction in military violence, they highlight a rise in “political, economic, and technological violence.” 
In other words:
“Warfare can be military, or it can be quasi-military, or it can be non-military. It can use violence, or it can be nonviolent. It can be a confrontation between professional soldiers, or one between newly emerging forces consisting primarily of ordinary people or experts.”
Underlying this characterization of modern (non-military) warfare are two important pillars, combination and omnidirectionality, which when applied in tandem ensure strategic success. With “combination”, the authors refer to the employment of numerous means and methods, such as both military and non-military warfare, or multiple elements of either (i.e. psychological warfare + economic warfare + smuggling warfare). In and of itself, “combination” is nothing new, however owing to the complementary pillar of “omnidirectionality”, which employs striking in all directions concurrently, spatial and time components are included.
One interesting note is the authors’ insistence that successful “combination” can also include sacrificing one element or domain to gain a strategic advantage in two (or more) others. In this sense, it is possible to identify purported Chinese technological inferiority in certain weapon’s systems (to be explored in depth below) as a “sacrifice” which costs the PLA dominance in one area, while tying down disproportionate “hegemonic” resources in another and allowing the P.R.C. to seek dominance in at least two other areas.
Summing up, the Colonels postulate that:
“[…]the new principles of war are no longer ‘using armed force to compel the enemy to submit to one’s will’, but rather are ‘using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.”
This last notion finds a definite reverberation with at least one voice within the PLA, specifically a retired colonel, whom Pillsbury mentions that the notes collision course which the P.R.C. and U.S. are on will take a shape vastly different from previous conflicts and wars.
The (Un)importance of technology?
As touched upon above, much has been made of the technological and technical inferiority of PLA equipment. According to RAND, PLA parity with the US Armed Forces in many domains has increased, and major disadvantages have been reduced. The Liaoning, the PLAN’s first aircraft carrier (originally laid down as a Soviet Kuznetsov-class vessel in 1985 and sold by Ukraine to China in 1998) has recently entered service and is claimed by some to be a symbol of China’s growing global ambitions. The “surprise” appearance of three PLAN vessels in Sydney only underline the growing power projection capabilities of the PLAN, which at least one observer has compared to both the Imperial British, and Japanese projects in the Pacific in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Further exacerbating the problem of gauging the PLA’s true strength is that it (and the Chinese Government) misrepresent the true scale of their defense spending and reserves, with the U.S. Department of Defense noting in 2002 that China’s military spending was “double what the Chinese government claimed it was.” In 2018, the P.R.C. unveiled the largest defense spending bump in 3 years, amounting to 8.1% more than previous years, and a government spokesman stated in March that for 2019 there will be a “reasonable and appropriate increase.”
Obscuring defense expenditures is prudent as “to maintain the image of China’s ‘peaceful rise’, it must keep its military spending and investment in new advanced capabilities quiet, lest it alarm others in the region and nations in the West – particularly the American ba – and provoke an arms race.” Unrestricted Warfare, also calls for the “mustering large amounts of capital in secret”.
Whatever the forces and technology available to the PLA may be, in Unrestricted Warfare, technological superiority is not viewed as a prerequisite for strategic dominance but instead as the potential Achilles heel of the US and other western powers. Indeed, it is suggested that the PLA is pursuing a naval strategy not unlike that of Nazi Germany; not attempting to achieve parity with its adversary, but rather to develop cheap and effective means to destroy or negate the expensive systems of its adversary. The expected growth of the PLAN’s submarine fleet to 65-70 vessels as well as its “emphasis on anti-surface warfare” all speak to this thesis.
The People’s Clamor
“The most modern military forces do not have the ability to control public clamor, and can’t deal with an opponent who does things in an unconventional manner.[…] Looking at the specific examples of battles that we have, it is difficult for high-tech troops to deal with unconventional warfare and low-tech warfare […]”
This passage highlights two key components, how the PLA contends with American technological superiority (as described in the section above), and the potency of public clamor, to be described here.
What precisely “public clamor” may entail is best illustrated with an example from 20 years ago, the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, during the NATO air campaign over Yugoslavia. Following the death of 3 Chinese embassy staff, the Chinese government displayed its ability to stoke “hyper nationalism”. A Chinese defector to the U.S. predicted that there would be “many day of [anti-American] riots” and he was correct as the U.S. embassy in Beijing was attacked with a wide variety of projectiles, including gasoline bombs, and tens of thousands of protesters, representing all segments of P.R.C. society (including religious leaders) marched past the facility.
This leads us to beg the question as to what the effect of a US, British or French warship inadvertently sinking a Chinese fishing vessel in the South China Sea would be? Even if the Chinese fishing vessel were to ram the western ship, the issue could be framed by P.R.C. media as an attack upon national interests, as had been aptly demonstrated during the embassy crisis in 1999. In the ensuing escalation, stage-managed by P.R.C. media, tension could be stoked to a fevered pitch, and directed against embassies, western businesses operating in China, foreign workers (such as English or French language teachers) or tourists. Precedent certainly exists; during the Senkaku Incident in 2010, in response to the Japanese Coast Guard’s seizure of Chinese fishermen in the contested waters, the P.R.C. seized 4 Japanese nationals it claimed were photographing military installations.
America’s Weaknesses, China’s Strengths?
Another key to understanding the P.R.C’s strategic outlook is its estimation of its chief adversary, the United States. Necessarily, this estimation must inform PLA strategic planning and the steps its command is willing (or not willing) to take to respond to perceived American aggression, or “non-military warfare”.
In Unrestricted Warfare, Americans are described as “a nationality that has never been wiling to pay the price of life and, moreover, has always vied for victory at all costs.” The authors use this as an explanation for U.S. over-reliance on technology positing that “reducing casualties and achieving war objectives have become the two equal weights on the American military scale.” Taken simply for the Americans “there must be victory without casualties.” However, the 7,000 US deaths from the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or better put, the War on Terror, stand at odds with the notion that the American people are unwilling to accept casualties.
They also focus on US strategy and policy, writing that “the U.S. government has become increasingly fond of using force, makes moves more quickly, and seeks revenge for the smallest grievances.” They continue, “since the day they stepped onto the international stage, the Americans have been seizing things by force or by trickery, and the benefits they obtained from other countries were many times greater than anyone knows than what Iraq got from Kuwait.”
Additionally, U.S. appeals to the rule-based order, or conforming to international norms are discounted as a self-serving and duplicitous as are notions of “limits”, “constraints”, “laws” and even “taboos”, all of which can be discarded at will. This contrasts with what is considered to be a weakness of Americans, namely their fondness for “contracts”.
In sum, while Unrestricted Warfare casts Americans in a harsh light, and derides many characteristics of U.S. policy and pragmatism, it is unclear which of these, even if pursued towards strategic ends, would vindicate P.R.C. behavior. Supposing that U.S. non-committal to upholding international treaties, laws and rules is true, similar behavior by the P.R.C. for example, on Mischief Reef, which was ruled in 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration to belong to the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines, is not suddenly made to seem “reasonable” but rather “just as bad”.
Read, don’t listen
General Wei’s eagerly anticipated speech in Singapore on June 2nd, 2019 saw the return of a high-level delegation from the P.R.C. after nearly a decade. His presence was lauded as a publicity stop for the P.R.C. among the neglected (or bullied) ASEAN countries. At the very least, it was hoped that the general would be able to drum up support in the Indo-Pacific after the P.R.C. had suffered setbacks, specifically to its banner Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in tiny Nauru, Malaysia, and Pakistan in the recent past. Fundamentally, the P.R.C.’s approach to the BRI as well as engagement amongst its regional neighbors remains unchanged, despite reining in rhetoric. Most telling, The US Department of Defense has stated that the P.R.C. is seeking to become the “preeminent power in the Indo-Pacific.”
Text analysis of the transcripts of General Wei’s speech provides interesting and invaluable insight and goes some way in supporting the above conclusions. Although the practicalities of translating Mandarin into English must be taken into account, the results remain telling.
For General Wei, the most frequent words (or phrases) used were “China” (67) “US” (19) “region” (either as regional, or region; 19), “military” (18), “people” (16), “peace” (15), “security” (14), and “South China Sea” (12).
This contrasts with Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who used “US” (55), “region” (33), “we are” (29), “Pacific” (26), “defense” (17), “together” (16), “The Indo-Pacific” (13), “partners” (12), “Korea” (12), “Free and open” (11), and “China” (11).
At the outset, it is clear that for General Wei (and most likely the P.R.C.), the US and the region, or the United States in the region, were the central axes for elaboration. Conversely, for Acting Secretary Shanahan, the region and not China, were the most important focal points. In essence, General Wei delivered a Sino-centric talk focusing on the P.R.C.’s strategic imperatives, specifically mentioning the South China Sea by name 12 times (the most common phrase in his speech), while Secretary Shanahan who did not refer to it once, certainly not without reason.
A month before the summit, the US Secretary of Defense’s Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China highlighted the South China Sea as “[one of] the PLA’s main strategic directions, [or] one of the geographic areas the leadership identifies as having strategic importance.” Further, the P.R.C. is actively attempting to seal off the South China Sea militarily, and to project power throughout the region and around the globe. The PLA is transitioning towards greater integration anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) and offensive capabilities to reflect this and seeks to attain “world class” status by 2049.
Turning to questions of translation, it is uncertain as to the precise language used by General Wei to describe “peace” and “harmony” in his speech. As Pillsbury comments for example,
“da tong [is] often mistranslated by Western scholars as ‘commonwealth’ or ‘an era of harmony’. However, da tong is better translated as ‘an era of unipolar dominance.’ Since 2005, Chinese leaders have spoken at the United Nations and other public forums of their supposed vision of this kind of harmonious world.”
This ‘coded’ language has recently been referred to as a “dog whistle”, or a form of political messaging which functions to resonate among a specific segment of the audience, aware of its true meaning, while not revealing an abstruse message to the remainder of it. Another excellent example of this is General Wei’s usage of the word “hegemon” (3) which per Pillsbury, has consistently been used by “China’s leaders […] to characterize the United States […] connoting a powerful protagonist and overbearing bully that is China’s major competitor.” In the history of the Warring States period, the term is used to denigrate the “old hegemon” who behaves wickedly, foolishly, or unfairly, and must be toppled. As such, the US is clearly seen as the “old hegemon” or “evil [ba] hegemon” to be surpassed by the righteous underdog, or rising power.
This commentary has attempted to tie together three overarching ideas. First, that the P.R.C. is striving for a place of superiority within the international hierarchy, not one of parity. Second, that within the military sphere, the means for doing this are manifold and wielded aptly. At times, the P.R.C. will resort to “hard power” such as fortifying reefs, islands, or provoking regional standoffs, while at others, it conceals its true strength and hides behind conciliatory rhetoric which includes appeals to “peace”, “regional harmony” or the ejection of unwanted foreign powers.
This commentary concludes with a quote highlighting this flexibility:
“when national security is threatened, the answer is not simply a matter of selecting the means to confront the other nation militarily, but rather a matter of dispelling the crisis through the employment of ‘supra-national combinations [… which entail] the combination of supra-national, trans-national, and non-state power.’”