Small Wars Journal

China's Preoccupation with Asymmetric War

Thu, 10/15/2009 - 9:15am
China's Preoccupation with Asymmetric War:

Lessons Learned from the Hezbollah-Israeli War

by Ehsan Ahrari

Download the full article: China's Preoccupation with Asymmetric War

Chinese leaders have decided long ago that, in the wake of a conflict, their military cannot fight and win a battle against the U.S. military on a force-on-force basis. However, that reality was not going to discourage a country whose strategic culture has produced original thinkers of the caliber and reputation of Sun Tzu and Mao Zedong.

In answering this question, one has to remind onself of a few famous quotes of Sun Tzu: "All warfare is based on deception." "If your enemy ... is in superior strength, evade him..." and "Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant." One must also recall Unrestricted War, published in 1999, by two senior Chinese colonels, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui. It stated that, when faced with a technologically superior enemy, it is "necessary to dare to completely upset the order of the cards in one's hands and reorganize them in accordance with the needs of war and the interests of a nation."

The conventional wisdom regarding China's asymmetric war doctrine is that it is "aimed at finding key vulnerabilities in American forces." In the post-9/11 era, that doctrine is focused not only on military-related susceptibilities, but also on other weak points. In this context, one has to keep in mind Chang Mengxiong's concept of "assassin's mace" ("shashou jian"). Using the analogy of acupuncture for fighting asymmetric wars, this concept argues that even a superpower like the United States has a great number of points of vulnerabilities. If the focus of asymmetric attack is on those points, then the military giant can be brought down by a "weak" power like China.

Download the full article: China's Preoccupation with Asymmetric War

Ehsan Ahrari is Professor of Security Studies at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Honolulu, Hawaii. This essay was originally prepared as part of his testimony at the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission in March 2007.

About the Author(s)


Backwards Observer

Wed, 10/21/2009 - 11:30am


Thanks for your reply, what you say makes sense. My original comment on Taoism was in relation to the references made in the article to Sun Tzu's Art of War, which mentions the Tao quite a few times. Perhaps China's current version of the Sun Tzu, if such exists, has substituted Mao for Tao, I don't know. I would consider this to be unfortunate and an omen of ill fortune. Any other kung-fu based statements were an unfortunately misinterpreted personal reply to another commenter, not an appraisal of Chinese strategic thought. The brutality of China's communist past, perhaps her entire past, is indisputable, and a belligerent and heavy-handed resurgence would be a disaster for the region. Hopefully it can be averted by wise leadership. Again, thank you for a well-reasoned response.

Grant (not verified)

Wed, 10/21/2009 - 10:46am

In re. to Backwards Observer's comment. There are good and bad reasons for China's fixation on the current Dalai Lama. He is seen by probably the majority of Tibetans as their legitimate head of state, and as such is a serious threat to the control China has over Tibet. However China is also obsessed with both pushing down people of other ethnicities and also pretending that there are no problems between its ethnic groups. This split between reality and ethnicity will cause them serious problems sooner or later.

I do have to agree with the points made by commenter Harry Modine on China. China is nation state with a modernizing military and a bureaucracy. This is not an empire where generals debate philosophy and mysticism runs rampant. Obviously China has reason to fear the military might of the United States, but they also must consider their military in regards to how to deal with neighboring nations. China must also consider how it is to force nations to its will if its entire military force is only useful in China terrorizing peasants and evading superior forces

Backwards Observer

Wed, 10/21/2009 - 1:38am

I don't mean to seem dense, but does it strike anyone else as silly that China would make such a big deal over a kindly old man who represents some kind of ancient religion or philosophy or what have you, one of whose major symbols is the begging bowl? I mean, it's not like he's Martin Luther King Jr. or something.

Backwards Observer

Tue, 10/20/2009 - 4:28pm

Just out of curiosity, is this to be considered asymmetric?

From the Christian Science Monitor: Rivals China, India in Escalating war of words.

- New Delhi, however, "has no bargaining leverage with China except the Dalai Lama," says Dr. Pant. "He is the last thing they can use against China ... and his visit is a very explicit message. It is being done in response to what China has been doing on the border. It's a tit-for-tat strategy."

Seaworthy (not verified)

Tue, 10/20/2009 - 12:20pm

Harry Modine - You are correct, forgive me for going-off on a personal course. Though I think it is worth remembering what Backwards Observer stated: "Taoist undercurrents of the Sun Tzu should be guarded against in a sincere practice of the art," when attributing famous quotes as they might relate to a newly materialistic Chinese whose population judges their government by its ability to provide prosperity.

However, I believe it is fair to say the Chinese recognize it will be some time before they are on parity with the U.S. blue water force projection capability in the Pacific.

And to that end, they will indeed pursue asymmetric tactics to offset that. One already in play is our neglect in the region, due to distractions elsewhere, which has allowed them through diplomacy, to increase foreign port visits, while ours decline. cheers

Backwards Observer

Tue, 10/20/2009 - 11:19am

@Harry Modine

Any references to Taoism and ancient martial arts were meant purely as a reflection of my own mindset, silly as it may seem. I claim no expertise or insight in understanding military strategy, Chinese, Western or otherwise. My comments were meant purely as a personal view and not intended to mislead. I was under the impression that such posts from civilian non-experts were permissible. Thank you for your concern and allowing me the opportunity to clarify.

oldpapajoe (not verified)

Tue, 10/20/2009 - 11:06am

Harry, I agree with your assessment of the Chinese. I believe they are preparing for a contemporary version of the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, with the Chinese playing the role of the Japanese. I am not sure they want to have the US as the Russia. It may be that Russia will have the chance to play her role once again and provide China the international dignity and respect it seeks. As one Chinese officer commented about whether China would remain Communist in the future, "What ever China will be in the future, it will still be Chinese". She still sees herself as the Middle Kingdom: heaven above, everyone else below.

Harry Modine (not verified)

Tue, 10/20/2009 - 10:41am

Not to pick a fight, but I find it rather silly to have people referring to various styles of Asian martial arts when trying to understand the main trends Chinese strategy and military modernization.

The Chinese are very open in their official military press about their goals and methods. Military discussion boards are full of frank exchanges between officers and researchers.

One doesn't need to refer to archaic ancient philosophy that the Chinese themselves don't place in the forefront when discussing these issues.

A casual review of Chinese doctrinal developments shows clearly that they aspire to emulate the US approach to warfare. They talk a great deal of developments in US joint doctrine and joint force structure. They do not talk about Laozi. Their goal is to develop, within the constraints presented to them, a joint force capable of fighting peer militaries on par with the US. Certain so called asymetric elements may be present in this approach, but those are becoming less and less important as Chinese weapons, personnel and C4ISR improve.

Backwards Observer

Fri, 10/16/2009 - 11:34am

Thanks Seaworthy,

I should add that the Drunken Style was more a description of method than of a skillset. Unfortunately, I have taken it to the next level, beyond the mere appearance of being inebriated and out-of-shape. (wheeze)

Seaworthy (not verified)

Fri, 10/16/2009 - 10:05am

Backward Observer - Anonymous was me (sign-in/sign-out!). Thank you for the feed back.

I've a "slight" background in the Japanese art of nage-waza, in which one uses particular movements of the body to off-balance an opponent. The idea being that the heavy armor the samurai used in battle made him top-heavy, therefore easy to off balance, and easy to throw to the ground - we use advancement in armor to predictably travel on roads.

Our insurgent emplaces an IED - we are off-balance always - the low end of asymetrical warfare.

Good day Sir. :)

Backwards Observer

Fri, 10/16/2009 - 3:15am

"A thoughtful comment Backwards Observer."

Thank you for saying so. My default methodology tends more to Zuijiuquan (Drunken Alcohol Fist), so I was probably due.

I don't know a great deal about Mao, but it seems likely that he struggled with a number of personal issues resulting from maladaption, if you will, to a state of constant warfare.

In the case of asymmetrical warfare, IMHO if a tactic or strategy counter-balances that of the opponent, then to some extent it becomes symmetrical, all appearances to the contrary.

"Effective action must harmonize with its environment. I've been taught that Taoism holds that things and events within the world we experience are actually interrelated on a basic level?"

My knowledge is limited, but in my heart, I agree with this. Which reminds me of a joke I heard, "If Adam and Eve had been Chinese, they would have sold the apple and eaten the snake."

Zui Quan Style:

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 10/16/2009 - 2:10am

A thoughtful comment Backwards Observer.

Effective action must harmonize with its environment. I've been taught that Taoism holds that things and events within the world we experience are actually interrelated on a basic level?

I suggest that Mao Zedong thought China could overwhelm with brute strength in superior numbers. It appears China understands that limitation against the U.S. and is reducing the size of its armed forces and instead falling back on the ancient philosophy of utilizing a minimum of force focusing more on speed, stealth, flexibility - which also served Hezbollah well against the IDF in Lebanon.

The insurgent in Afghanistan utilizes these factors to his advantage and so must also be preoccupied with asymmetrical warfare, albeit on the lower end?

Backwards Observer

Thu, 10/15/2009 - 1:44pm

"China may not come out and say it; however, as an ancient civilization, it considers itself as one of the great champions of this game." p.7

Ego driven notions of championship are in contravention to the Taoist undercurrents of the Sun Tzu, and should be guarded against in a sincere practise of the art.

China is perhaps the oldest continuous civilisation in recorded history. The United States of America is perhaps the first country to be founded on the principle of human equality (and survive). Whether these legacies of wisdom and idealism prove fruitful remains to be seen. I am not essentially an optimist, but I believe the chances to be fair to good.

Bob's World

Thu, 10/15/2009 - 10:29am

We do well to remember that China has studied the Cold War between the US and the Soviets VERY carefully, and not only are they guarding against having happen to them what happened to the Soviets, more importantly they are attempting to do to the US what the US did to the Soviets.

I believe most US senior leaders understand the first half of that, but appear to be quite blind to recognizing that the Chinese are acting like the US, and the US is acting like the Soviets.

Point: In the 1950s Ike recognized that the US could not afford to compete symmetrically with the Soviets in terms of heavy armored conventional forces in Western Europe, so he opted for what at the time was an extremely asymmetric solution of investing in a relatively inexpensive, less labor intensive nuclear capability to deter this conventional Soviet threat. We used asymmetric warfare to counter and ultimately defeat the Soviets.

Today China is doing the exact same thing, leveraging the US fixation on the defense of Taiwan to build a relatively small, low-cost set of capabilities around that one problem set designed to specifically counter asymmetrically the capabilities that the US would have to employ to prevent a reunification of Taiwan and mainland China.

It is not enough to study history to avoid the repetition of it; one must also understand when they are on the path to do so.