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Unrestricted War: the leveller-China
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Unrestricted War: the leveller
Compensating for the PLA's slow rate of military modernisation, Chinese
military strategists have published a new theory of warfare that focuses on
the weaknesses of potential adversaries. Dr Ehsan Ahrari investigates.
ALTHOUGH economic development is Beijing's foremost priority, since 1991
China has been steadily modernising its armed forces. Aside from initiating
various modernisation programmes for the People's Liberation Army (PLA),
Chinese strategic thinkers have also started to concentrate on making the
best of their relative military weakness. A number have concluded that China
should look for the 'Achilles' heels' of its potential adversaries and
Since the implosion of the Soviet Union, the only powerful potential enemy
facing China is the USA - a superpower that has successfully used its
economic power to build its military muscle. China has always been wary of
both US intentions in the Asia-Pacific region and US aspirations to be a
dominant force in the international arena. It has never ruled out the
potential for future military conflict with the USA. The future status of
Taiwan might be a key source of friction, but it is by no means the only
one. China is also fully aware of its economic underdevelopment and the
attendant military weakness vis-ŕ-vis the USA. So how should it handle the
reality of US military power? The answer is to study the weak points of the
US war machine and warfighting style and try to master the US mindset
regarding war. Only then, say Chinese strategists, will China be able to
level the playing field in a future military conflict.
So what major lessons has China drawn about the overall US approach to war?
First and foremost, Americans greatly value human life. The human losses
absorbed by US forces in two World Wars were heavy, but in view of what was
at stake, the US perspective was that the sacrifice was worth taking.
However, the Second World War might have been the 'last good war' the USA
fought. The Korean War, although fought under the banner of the UN, became
an unpopular domestic issue in the 1950s; the Vietnam War almost tore the
social fabric of the country apart. The USA's political will to get involved
in military conflict has dramatically diminished, unless it is possible to
fight from a distance and with minimum human loss.
Secondly, the USA's near obsession with minimising casualties in military
conflict means it will rely heavily on technological systems to keep its
troops as far from harm as possible. Since the USA has always preferred
quality to quantity in its military research and development and the
production of military wherewithal, its weapon systems have generally been
rated as far superior to those of the former Soviet Union or other European
countries. Conflict in the 1991 Gulf War was decisive: proof of the
qualitative superiority of US war-making technology. Nevertheless, no
country, no matter how superior a force it might create at a given time, is
entirely invulnerable. If its adversaries try hard enough, they are likely
to find weak points.
Since US forces are heavy consumers of high-technology equipment, an
adversary should examine in detail the major technological systems used by
US forces to determine which ones are vulnerable and at what point in the
evolution of a military conflict those systems could be attacked or even
Thirdly, US forces have been victimised twice by acts of terrorism in Saudi
Arabia. The potential for transnational terrorism remains a source of
concern for US strategic planners. This substantial pre-occupation with
potential acts of terrorism against US troops deployed on foreign soil has
made the issue of 'force protection' a crucial one for US commanders.
The essence of the doctrine
Unrestricted War, the book by two senior colonels of China's People's
Liberation Army/Air Force (PLAAF), Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, mentions
the use of terrorism as a strategy of war. Colonel Qiao has pointed out in
an interview about the book: "You will find . . . not a single word about
how China should use the 'terror war'". He added: "Unrestricted war . . . is
a double-edged sword and is not aimed at the war plans of a specific
However, the USA is the chief focus of analysis for Qiao and Wang. Their
interpretation of US foreign policy behaviour is highly unconventional, and
at times their phraseology is similar to that used by anti-US groups in
different parts of the world. What seems to have brought this book to the
attention of the Western media is that it was written by two senior PLA
officials and that it was reportedly read not only by the Chinese defence
and foreign policy establishment but also by President Jiang Zemin himself.
Unrestricted War has been described by some in China as "an original theory
in two decades", and the "emergence of a new military thinking". The authors
claim they have tried to put forth "new ideas, new thinking and new angles
concerning war". To fight future wars with advanced technology, they believe
it is "necessary to dare to completely upset the order of the cards in one's
hands and reorganise them in accordance with the needs of war and the
interests of a nation".
They point out that many traditional phenomena are undergoing radical
changes. Increasing interdependence among states has blurred notions of
national sovereignty. The emergence of international finance markets has
enhanced money transactions, capital flow and currency exchange rates across
the globe, and the Internet has ensured communications to and from far-off
places can take place in seconds. Established governments which could once
monopolise information in all spheres of life within their borders now have
to compete with other transnational sources of information.
Today's citizens are well-informed and less susceptible to manipulation by
their governments through mis-/disinformation. Such changes in peacetime
transactions are bound also to affect the mode and scope of warfighting.
Unrestricted War should be studied in the context of changes that will
remain in flux for some time.
'Unrestricted war' will be fought in a world where national borders have
lost their original meaning. It will be conducted by nations, one or more of
whose armed forces are heavy consumers of the most sophisticated, highly
integrated, precision-guided war-making technologies. In Unrestricted War,
distinctions between the traditional and unconventional battlefields are
blurred; war-fighters will include conventional soldiers as well as civilian
programmers, technocrats and computer hackers. Other non-traditional
war-fighters will include financial institutions, drug cartels,
transnational crime syndicates and terrorist groups. So, while stealth and
precision as well as digital, biochemical and technological issues will
continue to play a crucial role in the warfare of the future, an increasing
number of actors from the civilian and technological communities will also
participate more in war. As the authors of Unrestricted War observe: "[The]
war will be fought and won in a war beyond the battlefield."
The basic question raised by Qiao and Wang is this: "Faced with high-tech
warfare, how can a weak and developing country survive?" To answer it, they
decided to study the USA, the sole superpower of the post-Cold War era whose
economic power and dominance in contemporary warfare is unquestioned. As a
general strategy, the authors of Unrestricted War also analyse the overall
foreign policy behaviour of the USA since the implosion of the USSR. Their
analysis includes military operations, such as 'Desert Storm' in 1991,
'Desert Fox' in 1998 and 'Allied Force' in 1999. They also focus on US
policies regarding the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) countries
and North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as well as looking at the
Asian financial crisis of the 1990s.
Their unstated assumption is that, with the disappearance of the Soviet
Union, the global arena is receptive to US tactics aimed at establishing its
global hegemony. Qiao and Wang say the USA is "an extremely rich country"
with an "extreme fear of casualties", which would rather "treat war as a
marathon contest in military technology" than "a trial of strength in
morale, bravery, cleverness and resourcefulness". Americans "like a war of
luxury weapons in which only millionaires can fight". In the most recent air
campaign against Yugoslavia, the USA "dispatched aircraft costing an average
of US$26 million each and used Tomahawk cruise missiles costing US$1.6
million apiece to destroy buildings and bridges that cost a great deal
less". Yet the US people were very pleased with this kind military
"extravagance" with "zero casualties".
Qiao and Wang identify 25 different types of warfare, a number of which,
they claim, have been used by the USA. For example, in dealing with Osama
bin Laden, they write: "[The] Americans have used state terrorist warfare,
intelligence warfare, financial warfare, network warfare and legal warfare."
Their use of the phrase "state terrorist warfare" apparently refers to the
August 1998 decision by the Clinton administration to launch cruise missiles
into Sudan and Afghanistan. Against Iraq, say the authors, the USA has
simultaneously used "conventional warfare, diplomatic warfare, sanctions
warfare, legal warfare, media warfare, psychological warfare and
intelligence warfare". Other states, they claim, also use such practices.
For instance, Hong Kong, since becoming a part of China, has used various
types of warfare against financial speculators. These include "financial
warfare, legal warfare, psychological warfare and media warfare".
Individual states are likely to indulge in "international law warfare". The
USA has also been a leader in this arena. In the pursuit of its national and
security interests, "a mature great power like the United States appeared
much smarter than Iraq", write the authors. "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 what Iraq got from Kuwait."
To maintain its dominance in world affairs, the USA, the authors claim,
"never misses any opportunity to take a hand in international organisations
involving US interests" and makes sure that all of these organisations are
"closely related to US interests". They give two examples to make their
l when Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke originally promoted the idea of
APEC, it was only aimed at including Asian countries. Washington opposed
this idea and successfully insisted on incorporating itself and Canada, then
"spared no effort in insisting [that] some Asian countries sign independent
agreements with the NAFTA";
l the USA opposed the Japanese proposal to create an Asian monetary fund to
deal with the Asian financial crisis. Instead, Washington "advocated the
implementation of a rescue plan, with strings attached, by way of the
International Monetary Fund, of which it is a major shareholder".
Despite its power, the authors observe, the USA has not been effective in
dealing with transnational terrorism. They write: "Global terrorist activity
is one of the by-products of globalisation, a trend that has been ushered in
by the technological integration." Terrorist groups are "posing a greater
and greater threat to sovereign nations". Compared to these groups,
"professional armies are like gigantic dinosaurs that lack strength
commensurate to their size in this new age".
"The advent of Bin Laden-style terrorism has deepened the impression that
national force, no matter how powerful, will find it difficult to gain the
upper hand in a game that has no rules." This comment refers to the US
firing of cruise missiles in retaliation for attacks on the US embassies in
Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in August 1998.
The greatest controversy concerning Unrestricted War stems from a statement
made by Colonel Qiao in an interview after the book was published. He is
said to have observed that President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia "did
not know how to fight a people's war". Qiao says he should have sent teams
of terrorists to Italy, France, Germany and Belgium, especially to US bases
in some of these countries, during NATO's war on his country. Then he should
have started an urban guerrilla war in Europe: "Once continental Europe
feels the pain, it will no longer let . . . Britain and the United States
conduct war on its territory."
Views on Unrestricted War
Unrestricted War may not be compared to anything written by Clausewitz or
Sun Tzu, but it does demonstrate some original thinking. As a statement
linking the conduct of war in the 21st century to the emerging 'megatrends'
and continuing 'powershift', it is a respectable endeavour. However, as a
general review of war, it is unlikely to be remembered for long. Most of the
observations regarding information warfare, cyber warfare, cyber-terrorism,
space warfare and other types of warfare have already been covered by other
Chinese defence specialists.
As China enhances its theoretical understanding of warfare in the future,
Chinese strategists are attempting to integrate various largely Western
theories of warfare and indigenise (or 'Sinicise') them. To the extent that
Qiao and Wang advocate that Milosevic should have followed a 'People's War'
principle and used urban terrorists during NATO's war on Yugoslavia, it is
an interesting contribution to the theory of conventional warfare - and a
variable about which the USA was highly concerned during the Gulf War and
every time a US force built up in the Gulf since then. The fact that two
Chinese military strategists have advocated the use of this tactic will only
intensify the resolve of all nations to be more careful about potential
terrorist acts when involved in military conflicts.
When China was in the process of becoming a nuclear power, it ridiculed
nuclear war and labelled nuclear powers 'paper tigers'. Yet even while it
derided the established notions of the destructive power of nuclear weapons,
China was labouring to possess them and gain entry into the 'big power'
league. This episode is an important aspect of China's strategic legacy, and
the ploy will be utilised repeatedly to gain advantage for the PRC in the
Following Unrestricted War, Chinese strategic thinkers are establishing a
new framework. Claiming that future wars will be without limits is another
way of saying that a militarily weak and economically underdeveloped nation
(China) should go to any extreme, violate any rules and break any
traditional precepts of war to be victorious over a technologically superior
and militarily powerful country (the USA). Rules of war, Qiao and Wang say,
need only be followed by the strong powers who make the rules; a weak nation
is not obliged to follow suit. The all-encompassing aspects of unrestricted
war underscore the fact that a militarily stronger side will not win simply
because it enjoys technological superiority over its weaker opponent.
The US armed forces took note of this study, which came out at a time when
Sino-US relations were fragile. However, since then Washington and Beijing
are unlikely to allow their mutual ties to deteriorate to the extent of
triggering a military conflict.
In this context, while the Taiwan issue is popular among Republican
lawmakers in the USA, they are unlikely to push a US president to go to war
with China over it. However, the PRC should be careful with rhetoric about
the use of force to reunite Taiwan. While the USA might not want a war with
China over Taiwan, it does represent a commitment made by the USA in the
Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. The USA needs to stand by its security
commitments in case Japan and Korea conclude that if Washington can violate
its promise to defend Taiwan from a Chinese military takeover, it is also
likely to violate commitments made to Tokyo and Seoul.
Dr Ehsan Ahari is a Professor of National Security and Strategy at the Joint
Combined Warfighting School, Armed Forces Staff College, Norfolk, Virginia,
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