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China’s grand strategy requires much of its military and security forces. President Xi Jinping’s “China dream” of “national rejuvenation” calls for the reunification of the lost Qing imperial territories of Taiwan and Hong Kong, the continued suppression of the imperial holdings of Tibet and Xinjiang, the coercion of countries abutting the seas around China’s coast to make good on expansive maritime claims, the protection of seaborne trade that passes through the Indian Ocean into the western Pacific Ocean and on to China’s coasts, the preparation of contingencies on the Korean Peninsula, and preparation for a fight with the United States, should Washington’s strategic position in Asia become untenable for Beijing.
Thus, it is no surprise that China has engaged in a vast, ambitious military modernization program, even as almost all other countries have significantly slowed their defense spending since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, history will likely record the US military drawdown, during the same years that Washington became more concerned with China, as strategic malpractice.
According to a report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, “In constant dollars, defense spending fell from $768 billion in 2010 to $595 billion in 2015, a decline of nearly one-fourth, and President Obama’s final budget request was for only $583 billion” The report cited defense analyst Katherine Blakely, who has written that the rate of this drawdown “has been faster than any other post-war drawdown since the Korean War at a compound annual growth rate of -5.5 percent.” History will rightly assign the reigning commander-in-chief the lion’s share of the blame, but the so called military spending “sequester” was a bipartisan act that has yet to be reversed.
As we now know, these were years that the United States was widening its substantial gap with China in net national wealth. The United States has the means, but has still chosen not to use them, to mount an effective response to the buildup of the People’s Liberation Army. The net effect of all of this is that China has changed Asia’s balance of power. China has built what military analysts call a “precision strike regime,” mirroring the US ability to decisively defeat Iraq’s military forces twice, by employing a highly networked force that could track and destroy targets with ruthless efficiency.
The dramatically increased fleet of submarines, surface ships, advanced fighter aircraft and lethal missile forces of the People’s Liberation Army are now linked through information technology to space and ground-based sensors. This enables the military to “find, fix and destroy” its enemies within what it calls the “first island chain” of countries and their surrounding seas from Korea and Japan, through Taiwan to the Philippines, and the northern parts of Indonesia. Rather than being cowed by US military primacy, China learned from it. Dating back to the first Gulf War, the People’s Liberation Army was ordered to reshape itself for “informationalized warfare,” or “xinxi hua zhanzheng.”
What does this mean? Nothing less than an attempt to dominate information in a contest with an adversary. This grand ambition means more than information dominance at the tactical or operational level of war. The People’s Liberation Army is not only going to utilize information technology to perfect its precision strike capabilities. Rather, the real “strategic surprise” for the US will be at the strategic level of “informationalized warfare” that China already engages in.
In a war, the People’s Liberation Army will attempt to dominate its adversaries through the media, cyberspace and any other way that information gets passed between military forces as well as from political leaders to their publics. This does not just mean targeting physical assets such as computer systems and other “brains” of advanced militaries. Rather, as Dean Cheng explains in his new book, “Cyber Dragon,” it means the targeting of its enemies’ human psychology, undermining their ability to respond effectively.
The “three warfares,” or “san zhong zhanfa,” prominently discussed in People’s Liberation Army writings, such as the Science of Military Campaigns, are not “kinetic.” Legal, media and public opinion or political warfare can be harnessed to convince adversaries, neutrals and the Chinese public itself that China’s moves are righteous and just, and the enemy’s are “hegemonic” and driven by evil motives. These campaigns are meant to sap the morale of an enemy, cause division and chaos among its populace, and cow weaker powers into giving up any hope of triumphing against China.
What’s more, there is not a hard division in Chinese strategic thinking between warfare and peacetime operations. China is engaged in the “three warfares” today, including mass cyberattacks such as the 2014 US Office of Personnel Management data breach, that gather information about America’s key national security personnel and creates doubts about the US ability to protect information. It also includes propaganda about China’s “inevitable” rise, a treasure trove of published “legal” opinion on China’s expansive maritime claims, and its campaigns to influence public opinion that are now being uncovered throughout the West.
Perhaps too much is made of Sun Tzu’s aphorism that roughly translates to “subduing the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” Certainly, China is preparing to fight a real physical war, but there is also something to China’s long tradition of emphasizing the psychological aspect of conflicts. A case in point is China’s ongoing campaign to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, and attempt to control its media and to get the United States to erode its commitment to the island’s defense, while simultaneously engaging in constant cyberattacks and exercising more coercive military power around Taiwan. The strategic goal is to get Taiwan to give up “voluntarily” and enter into a deal favorable to China.
However, the Chinese emphasis on information dominance is, to use a poker term, a “tell.” Its Achilles heel is its paranoia about what its own population would do if the Chinese Communist Party did not control all information passing through China. The United States more or less knows what it needs to do to defeat China through kinetic means. Whether Washington will turn around the recent years of funding devastation of its own military is a political question.
But Washington is way behind, too, in fashioning an answer to the strategic aspects of China’s information warfare strategy. Since the Cold War, the United States has divested itself of its strategic-level political warfare capabilities. It needs to rebuild those to prepare for an intensification of the “three warfares” should a conflict arise, push back now against the tenuous claims of China’s inevitable “rise,” and begin to target the regime with an information campaign that saps its morale and takes advantage of the Chinese population’s deep mistrust of Chinese political leaders. In other words, while Washington must reverse its military decline, it also has ways, as yet undeveloped, to counter China’s attempts to “win without fighting.”
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