Monday, November 28, 2011

The Big Lesson

China has limited recent experience in warfare. While the basics of military strategy are timeless, the changes in the tools have been so dramatic since last the Chinese fought that there is great risk that if called to fight, the Chinese generals would have few clues about how to use them effectively.

So China must learn from other people's recent wars:

Why did observers of the PLA want to study what Chinese military analysts might learned about non-Chinese wars? The answer is twofold. First, the PLA has not fought an actual war since 1979. Yet, during the last 3 decades, fundamental changes have taken place on the battlefield and in the conduct of war. Since the PLA has not fought since 1979, it had no experience in the changing face of war, and thus could not follow Mao Zedong’s admonition to “learn by doing (在战争中学习战争)”; instead, it must look abroad for ways to discern the new pattern of warfare in the evolving information age. Studying Chinese military analysts’ observations of non-Chinese wars therefore provides us a glimpse of what the PLA takes from others’ experience to improve its capability and to prepare itself for dealing with China’s national security issues, such as Taiwan, the South and East China Sea disputes, and internal unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang, to name the most obvious ones.

Second, Chinese military analysts have noticeably more freedom in assessing and commenting on the strength and weakness as well as the success and failures of other countries’ wars. Indeed, for political reasons, Chinese military analysts have to emphasize the heroics and triumphs of the PLA’s war experience and downplay setbacks and failures.2 While there is certainly recognition of the daunting challenges—in Korea, for example, accounts readily acknowledge that the Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) were totally unprepared logistically and devastated by airpower—there are limits to the levels of candor. To date, there is no critical analysis of the PLA’s claimed success or dismissed failure in the Sino-Vietnamese Border War of 1979 by Chinese military analysts (however, there are a few studies done by scholars outside of China3). Studying Chinese military analysts’ observation of other people’s wars, therefore, provide us key hints as to what Chinese military analysts consider important aspects of current and future military operational success and failure.

While we can learn things about what the Chinese write are lessons (and from what they don't write about), there is a problem of assuming that any lessons are incorporated into how their military is equipped, organized, and trained. But the leaders themselves can learn and that might be the most important thing we can learn about what they are learning:

This leads us to the first policy implication, namely that the military lessons that the PLA learns are embedded within a broader Chinese domestic political reality that shapes and colors them. This seems especially the case because the PLA seems to learn its lessons more at the high operational to strategic levels of war, precisely the domain where politics most inserts itself.

That being the case, I think that the best higher level lesson the Chinese leaders have learned from is World War II. Oh, not China's part in their long and bloody struggle with Japan on Chinese soil. The other people's war of interest is Japan's war against America. This war provides the high operational and strategic level of lesson that the Chinese leaders can readily absorb.

Consider what Japan did in the opening weeks of war:


Japan needed to secure the natural resources of Southeast Asia (all those red lines on the left) and believed that they needed to keep us pushed back by ejecting us from the region and establishing a perimeter to keep us away (those red lines on the right).

Today, China needs to secure the resources of the South China Sea and conquer Taiwan. Keeping us away will again be key to the east Asian power trying to control the area.

But China doesn't have the capability to eject us from the western Pacific. We are in South Korea and Japan, in strength. Unless China wants to send their army into a new Korean War to eject us and conduct a major campaign against bases in Japan to smother our forces in those places to keep us effectively pinned, keeping us away won't involve direct assault as the Japanese did.

Nor is China in any position to capture Guam and other islands to screen their main efforts in the South China Sea and Taiwan. So our forces are going to be in the area and capable of rushing west to intervene. The key to screening China's main effort is thus one of deterring us from intervening in the first place in a timely fashion to affect China's attack plan. China's anti-access strategy is the key to this. All they have to do is make America too cautious to intervene quickly or to make us pay if we rush insufficient forces into the battle because we need to get their fast. Remember, China doesn't have to beat us in battle to defeat us. All they have to do is delay us long enough to achieve their objectives.

So China could learn lessons from Japan's opening campaign:

1. Avoid attacking us to make our decision to intervene for us.

2. Deploy forces to deter us from intervening rapidly.

3. Quickly carry out military operations to win while we dither or gather forces.

These are things I've been going on about for years.

But there is one other thing that China could have learned, too. Chinese leaders could have learned that Taiwan isn't the only objective in such a war. China has already declared the South China Sea as a core objective right up there with Tibet and Taiwan. While I don't think China would attack Japan or American territory to avoid pushing us into the fight too early, I'm beginning to think I shouldn't assume Taiwan is a narrowly focuses issue. Perhaps China would figure they should take advantage of their decision to anger people by starting a war over Taiwan to also conduct operations to secure islands in the South China Sea over the objections of the smaller powers with competing claims. If China uses mostly civilian transports to move their invasion force to Taiwan's ports in a bolt-from-the-blue invasion, China's more limited amphibious assets could be used to seize the small islands that provide owners with the right to claim seabed resources. If we can't rush in to help Taiwan, we surely can't rush in to defend those little islands scattered south of Taiwan.

China could deploy military assets to Vietnam's border to keep Vietnam quiet. Remember that in 1979, Vietnam had a battle-hardened army to bloody China with. Vietnam's army has lost that experience and has fallen behind in technology. China would likely have the edge now, with two inexperienced armies contending but with one sporting better weapons.

There is another reason China doesn't need to physically create a barrier to stop our intervention as the Japanese did. Remember that the Japanese figured we were not going to endure the casualties to penetrate their shield and so would sue for peace leaving them with their conquests. China has nuclear weapons capable of reaching our soil for that kind of body count deterrence. And if worse comes to worse, those nukes would at least keep us from grinding China down and forcing a surrender as we did in 1945, with the use of our own nuclear weapons to press the point.

We may like to figure out what tactics and weapons the Chinese may want to adopt based on other people's wars, but didn't Sun Tsu say that wars are best won before the shooting starts? The Chinese might not be looking to learn weapons and tactics. Learning from--and improving on--Japan's war against America is probably the most important lesson that China's leaders can take away from other people's wars.