How China perceives itself has fundamentally changed in recent times. Erstwhile Chinese President Hu Jintao laid emphasis on China’s “peaceful rise”; his successor Xi Jinping now has a bellicose tone. In November 2020, he told the Central Military Commission (CMC) — China’s apex military authority — to improve training of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel to enable them to win wars. In October 2020, the Chinese Communist Party’s Plenum — a key forum that discusses policy — resolved to expedite the modernisation of national defence capability. With China’s rise as the second-largest economy, it is able to devote more resources to its military might, which has led to tensions with India, Japan and Taiwan.
In early February, the China Aerospace Studies Institute, under the aegis of Air University in Alabama, published a report titled ‘Science of Military Strategy (2013)’ which gives a peek into the minds of its planners. The report has been translated from Mandarin-language strategy documents produced by China’s Academy of Military Science. The strategy documents are revised by the academy every 13 years.
This report assumes significance given that Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power around the same time. Xi has resolved to build a strong country bolstered by a powerful military. While Chinese and Indian troops were involved in a protracted standoff since May 2020, the disengagement along the Line of Actual Control has led some to question over whether it is a fair deal that will bring stability along the borders or is merely a “strategic pause” for China.
Military strategy and deterrence
According to the report, since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, the PLA has tried to metamorphose from a revolutionary army to a fighting force. During the civil war between the Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalists, the Red Army adopted the strategy of ‘active defence’ that concentrated on “luring the enemy into the deep.” The guerrilla tactics were summarised as “retreat when the enemy advances, attack when the enemy retreats.” China perceived threats from the US, and the Soviet Union in the form of an all-out attack, hence Mao Zedong posited that “actively preparing for battle” and an “immediate response to a war” were key to strategic deterrence. During this phase, China was involved in the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and a brief border skirmish with India in 1962. China concluded that its strategy of entering into conflicts around its periphery deterred its enemies from attacking the mainland. Its development of nuclear weapons since the 1960s was rationalised by China saying that it needed to “break the nuclear monopoly” and “resist blackmail.”
Since the Jiang Zemin-era, with the Chinese economy undergoing rapid transformation, the development of comprehensive national power to ensure effective deterrence took shape. Jiang summarised this with his aphorism: “You can speak loudly only when you have money… you can get beaten up if you lag behind.” Comprehensive national power factors in hard power (military) and soft power (economy, trade, and culture). Under Hu Jintao’s tenure, there was increased emphasis on enhancing deterrence by using information technology and improving the technological foundations. The document adduces that military strategy must factor in a rival nation’s shortcomings not just in military affairs, but also in the psychological contours of its citizenry. This points to the use of disinformation as a strategy. A case in point being media reports based on the claims made by Jin Canrong, a professor at Beijing-based Renmin University, that China had deployed “microwave weapons” in Ladakh, which forced Indian forces to abandon some hilltop posts. While India denied these claims, the reports had the potential to dent national morale.
According to the report, China perceives that since the 19th century, the primary aim of American military strategy was expansion and domination. Since the 21st century, each US President has worked towards consolidating global hegemony, and supressing nations that may pose a challenge to its primacy, the report states. America’s plan to maintain its hegemony is through creating a technological gap with its rivals, creating bridgeheads in Western Europe and East Asia to box in China. The 2013 report foresaw the US strengthening its alliances in East Asia and the Western Pacific in order to consolidate its hegemony in the Asia Pacific. Interestingly, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue forum between the United States, India, Japan and Australia has gathered momentum since the pandemic.
China’s leadership and its strategic elites are wedded to entrenched views of American efforts to maintain dominance in the Indo-Pacific. Consequently, how does the People’s Republic of China (PRC) respond to an American-led hegemonic order? For the Chinese, there is a structural shift underway from unipolarity to multipolarity, which the US is trying to resist through a network of alliances. The PRC perceives a natural and ineluctable shift of power from the West to the East. However, cooperation and competition are likely to co-exist in that if there is cooperation in one sphere, it need not translate into cooperation in another or second sphere. Rather, there will be competition and struggle in the second sphere. These contradictory pulls and pressures between cooperation and struggle will temper and mitigate the ferocity of inter-state relations creating thresholds that will prevent escalation to a general war.
However, in order to contend with this emerging pattern of inter-state relations, the PRC has to consolidate itself internally and externally and “…fight local wars under informationised conditions.” The report does not anticipate or expect the possibility of a “full-scale confrontation” between the US and PRC as was the case between the Soviet Union and the US. Rather, the PRC sees external actors exploiting conflicts between China and states on the Chinese rim land and periphery; these military flashpoints and disputes or issues cover Taiwan, East China Sea (ECS), South China Sea (SCS) and the “south west border and territorial dispute.” This is a vulnerability. The Chinese state, as the report states quite emphatically cannot wait to be attacked if it is to break the deadlock over these disputes that remain unfavourable to it presently. Nevertheless, as the report lays out through the development of a “strategic attack capability” and “strategic attack” the PRC can force change by “…open[ing] new paths to a political resolution of the issues.” Tellingly, the report, in order to achieve military success, calls for a focused effort for “large scale strategic attacks operations” involving all the service arms and combined effort of China’s military including the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
Finally, the report recognises the growing role of India in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Yet falls short of treating India as a major global power. This is possibly derived from Chinese cultural biases as a Eurasian great state sitting at the apex of a hierarchical Asian geopolitical order that does not see India in an emerging role as an Asian great state. Acknowledging the expanding military strength of the Indian state following its defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962, the report divides shifts in India’s military posture into five phases. The immediate post-independence period consisted of a “limited offensive strategy” geared primarily to dealing with Pakistan. The second phase covering the 1960s and 1970s involved a “strategy on two fronts” whereby New Delhi pursued a large scale expansion of capabilities to counter both China and Pakistan. The third phase consisted of strategy to “maintain the land and control the sea.” This was directly a by-product of India’s comprehensive military victory against Pakistan in 1971. In the fourth phase that emerged at the end of the Cold War, New Delhi shifted its emphasis to regional deterrence as opposed to the conquest and occupation of territory. Deterrence through denial was the leitmotif of Indian military strategy through the 1990s. With the arrival of the 21st century, India modified its military strategy to “disciplinary deterrence” under which Indian military strategy will require taking the initiative and pre-emptively striking the enemy on its territory rather than passively waiting for the enemy to arrive within its borders and then annihilate them.
According to the report, woven into Indian military strategy are four fundamental features. India firstly sees itself at the geopolitical heart of Asia; secondly, it has pursued the same imperial agenda of military expansionism as it inherited from the British and followed the Kautiliyan dictum of treating neighbours as foes; and, finally, it has pursued a multi-directional deterrent strategy. Against its smaller neighbours, New Delhi has pursued “punitive deterrence” so that they conform to Indian interests and against China “dissuasive deterrence.” Taken as whole, the PRC sees India adopting and pursuing a coherent grand strategy, even if Indian strategists treat their own country’s grand strategy as ad hoc and incoherent over successive stages since its Independence.
Kalpit A. Mankikar @kalpitm is Fellow with Strategic Studies Programme, and is based out of ORF’s Mumbai centre. His research focuses on China, specifically looking at its rise — its domestic politics, diplomacy and techno-nationalism. Kartik Bommakanti @KartikBommakan1 is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the Indo-Pacific region. Views are personal.
The article first appeared on the Observer Research Foundation website.