As China’s power increases and the attention of the world’s strategic analysts shifts to Asia, it has become fashionable to attribute to the Chinese a level of conceptual power that they do not actually have. This often manifests itself as rhetoric proclaiming the Chinese to be infinitely superior and subtle strategists that put their clumsy and naive Western counterparts to shame. For example, and with only mild exaggeration: “China is planning global hegemony: they will soon invade Taiwan and proclaim the restored Middle Kingdom. And we Americans are too stupid to realize that this is happening under our noses. Unless we take action now, we are doomed!”
Fear of Chinese power is nothing new, and in centuries past it was referred to as the “yellow peril.” But whereas in the past alarmists used to demean the Chinese as racially inferior and degenerate barbarians who threatened to overrun the world, today they are regarded as intelligent, insidious, and utterly ruthless in their quest to achieve global supremacy. I like to call this phenomenon “reverse ethnocentrism”; regarding a foreign people as superior to ones’ own, at least in the realm of strategy.
So when in the late 1990s two PLA colonels – Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui – authored a treatise on their theory of “unrestricted warfare,” their work was immediately seized upon as proof of the inferiority of Western strategy next to its sublime Eastern rival. However, an actual reading of the document reveals military thinking that is mediocre at best.
A popular English translation showcases perfectly the phenomenon I’m talking about. The book is subtitled as “China’s Master Plan to Destroy America,” and the cover image depicts the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, insinuating that the Chinese were somehow responsible. Ali Santoli’s introduction also suggests this. In addition to being inflammatory, this is misleading. The US figures prominently as the main adversary, but the document is a piece of military theory, not a “master plan” by any stretch of the imagination. Terrorism is mentioned as a form of “unrestricted warfare,” but the authors are warning of its threat rather than advocating its use.
The central argument of the book is that rapid technological advance and economic globalization is opening up new spheres of warfare aside from the traditional battlefield, and that these new spheres could be the decisive “theater” in future war. The authors give a long list of what they consider to be new forms of warfare, such as financial warfare, network warfare, environmental warfare, technological warfare, etcetera:
All of the prevailing concepts about the breadth , depth, and height of the operational space already appear to be old-fashioned and obsolete. In the wake of the expansion of mankind’s imaginative powers and his ability to master technology, the battlespace is being stretched to its limits.
The position of military and political weakness has stimulated very creative military and strategic thinking throughout history, including Unrestricted Warfare. As the authors state in their introductory chapter, they conceived their theory as a means to escape the endless cycle of competition in weapons technology, which is dominated by the United States:
To ensure that the weapons are in the lead, one must continue to up the ante in development costs; the result of this continued raising of the stakes is that no one has enough money to maintain the lead. It’s ultimate result is that the weapons to defend the country actually become a cause of national bankruptcy … Obviously, it will be difficult for anyone to keep going. Naturally, the way to extricate oneself from this predicament is to develop a different approach.
Thus, in an attempt to overcome U.S. superiority in the conventional military sphere, the authors hope to exploit new spheres that have been made available by technology and globalization. But for this strategy to work, these new battlespaces must be able to deliver victory. The authors argue that they can.
Methods that are not characterized by the use of the force of arms, nor by the use of military power, nor even by the presence of casualties and bloodshed, are just as likely to facilitate the successful realization of the war’s goals, if not more so … Any war that breaks out tomorrow or further down the road will be characterized by warfare in the broad sense – a cocktail mixture of warfare prosecuted through the force of arms and warfare that is prosecuted by means other than the force of arms. The goal of this kind of warfare will encompass more than merely ‘using means that involve the force of arms to force the enemy to accept one’s own will.’ Rather, the goal should be ‘to use all means whatsoever – means that involve the force of arms, means that involve military power and means that do not involve military power, means that entail casualties and means that do not entail casualties – to force the enemy to serve one’s own interests.’
The preceding passage demonstrates the weakness behind their theory of unrestricted warfare, because to make it work, the authors had to redefine the object of war. Rather than use force to impose one’s will on the enemy, the object is “to force the enemy to serve one’s own interests.” The West has similar concepts, but we understand them within the terms of international politics. In other words, what the West calls politics, the Chinese call war. With this understanding, “unrestricted warfare” loses much of its novelty. Indeed, the authors write with the enthusiasm of someone who has rediscovered the wheel and is attempting to sell it under a new name.
Revealing a very naive ethnocentrism of their own, the authors state that this manner of thinking “is not a strong point of the Americans, who are slaves to technology in their thinking. The Americans invariably halt their thinking at the boundary where technology has not yet reached.” Nonsense. The Americans understand the concepts of “unrestricted warfare” just as the Chinese, but they consider them as tools of international politics in an anarchic world-system. “War” is reserved for organized violence to serve political ends. The absence of war does not mean the absence of conflict; the struggle for power and security is endless, and occurs outside the context of open warfare. But ultimately, violence is the final arbiter of conflict; only by violence is it possible to impose your will on the enemy. The authors acknowledge that conventional military operations may occur simultaneously with operations in the new battlespaces, but the battlefield has lost its role as the final court of war. But this raises a question: if the traditional battlefield no longer offers the possibility of decision, why do the authors argue that it will still coexist with the new battlespaces? How is it not still the decisive sphere?
Despite all the attention that this book received in the United States, it is a useful example of the weaknesses of Eastern strategic thought, entering into the surreal at times. At one point, the authors suggest using holographic technology to frighten religiously devout soldiers. They also propose that the golden ratio of mathematics and geometry (1.618…) is the key to all victory in war. They admit that they have no idea how this can be practically applied, but insist it should be done anyway. Alas, semi-fantastical notions of bloodless victory through clever stratagems are inherent to the Chinese concept of war.
War has always involved marshalling resources that are not military in nature and committing them to the effort to defeat the enemy. The hype over Unrestricted Warfare is similar to that which surrounds its American equivalent, “Fourth generation warfare.” Ultimately, they are both concepts that repackage and restate the eternal truths of war. Unrestricted Warfare is a commendable piece of military theory, but the Chinese will need more than this to displace the U.S. as the world’s preeminent superpower.