Colonel Larry Wortzel discusses Military Strategy and China Today

April 4, 2012  |  PAST EVENTS

Colonel Larry Wortzel, one of the country's foremost experts in China and Chinese military strategy, spoke at The Institute of World Politics on March 27, 2012.

Colonel Wortzel began with a broad picture. China's current borders are not the borders it has always had; the country has expanded and contracted a number of times. Historically, China had thought of neighboring kingdoms as vassal states. Although China dictated the relationship with these kingdoms, it generally did not interfere in their domestic policy so long as they submitted. Continuing to the country's demographic issues, Colonel Wortzel described how China's huge population, limited arable land, and undeveloped (but improving) infrastructure would pose a challenge to the Chinese Communist Party. The Colonel finished his round-up of the grand scale issues by discussing China's history, pointing out that their expeditions against Vietnam, attempted invasion of Japan, and the famous voyage of Zheng He showed that the country was not entirely peaceful and insular.

Colonel Wortzel then briefly discussed some the PLA's military principles. He reviewed the PLA's focus on stratagem and deception, as described in various Chinese military classics such as the "36 Stratagems," the Seven Classics, and of course, Sun Tzu's The Art of War. He did point out, however, that a lot of these principles had been re-introduced to the PLA officer corps around 1995; previously, China had tended to echo American or Soviet doctrines.

Turning his attention to China's economy, Colonel Wortzel discussed the country's massive economic growth since 1979, including the government's nearly 3 trillion dollars in foreign reserve currency. Before Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR), China's trade relations were subject to annual review by Congress. After PNTR, two different bipartisan commissions were created to review China's behavior (including one on which Colonel Wortzel serves). Part of China's growth plan has been their national industrial policy, including plans to acquire the best Western technology ("863 Plan") and build up China's basic research capabilities ("973 Plan"). Although China's growth is formidable, it has gaps in its ability to innovate and show initiative. It is, for example, difficult to criticize older party members, making it difficult to exercise quality control.

Additionally, China faces many other challenges. One of the largest is energy. China will become increasingly dependent on oil imports as the country grows. Another challenge for the country is that the ruling body is very non-representative. Only nine people in the Politburo Standing Committee effectively run the country. This makes it difficult to assuage problems with unrest, both in the countryside and in the cities. Rural unrest is mostly driven by unemployment, decaying social supports, corruption, and land seizure (as local governments take land from the peasants to give to western corporations). Urban unrest is driven by non-performing loans, unresponsive government, and corruption. There is a lot of pressure on the CCP to maintain a high growth rate; it is their main source of legitimacy. The country also faces health issues with diseases and pollution.

Colonel Wortzel then discussed China's foreign policy and defense issues.  These issues are linked to its economic strategy, as China takes a mercantilist (rather than free trade) approach, where it seeks to gain access to resources and export manufactured goods. China takes issue with the status quo in the Law of the Sea, claiming that foreign navies cannot operate within their Exclusive Economic Zone extending 200 miles from their coastline. China has several outstanding territorial claims, the most significant of which is Taiwan, which the CCP views as a renegade province. The United States has no official position on the sovereignty of Taiwan, but in 1979 the Taiwan Relations Act required the U.S. to maintain the "peace and stability" in the Western Pacific and set up institutions that function as reciprocal embassies would. China is also concerned with protecting its sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), to continue to ensure its energy imports. Similarly, the country is starting to realize it needs to project force to protect its vital interests. The United States is viewed as potentially threatening, as the only power that would have the ability to impose its will on China.

Colonel Wortzel noted that Russia is increasingly concerned about China. The Russian Far East is under-populated and has few lines of communication. Echoing Soviet Cold War planning for an invasion of Europe, Russian military thinkers believe that using tactical nuclear weapons in the Far East might be necessary due to China's local superiority. However, China's ability to project power in the Central Asia region is weaker than Russia's. This creates a strategic dynamic where each side would have a ‘strong flank' in the event of a conflict.

Delving into the People's Liberation Army, Colonel Wortzel stressed that the military is thoroughly subordinated to the CCP. Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, as the party's Military Committee, are firmly in charge. Hu Jintao, the current president, articulated the PLA's "historic missions," including keeping the CCP in power, maintaining territory, and projecting China's global interests. The mission of the PLA also includes the protection of China's sovereignty, extending into the South China Sea and upwards into space.

The PLA has a few distinctive approaches to warfare. It divides the battlespace into five "domains:" land, sea, air, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum. Strategic missiles are given special status as the Second Artillery Corps. China has sought to protect its sovereignty by building up a "counter-intervention" capability, described by the Pentagon as an Anti-Access, Area-Denial (A2/AD) strategy. Chinese planners think in terms of building their capacity out to the "first" island chain (out to Taiwan, Luzon, and Borneo) and then out farther to the "second" island chain (all the way to Guam). China's goal is to avoid a symmetric confrontation, but Colonel Wortzel pointed out that, in war, no one looks for a fair fight, and that asymmetric warfare is "not magic."

Having covered the PLA's approaches to warfare, Colonel Wortzel then addressed its principles of war. The first principle he discussed is deception, especially in terms of deceiving the enemy into concentrating his forces at a bad time. This tactic is complimented by a preference for using the indirect approach and attacking the enemy where he is unprepared. There is also a Chinese tendency is use mass forces and firepower. Relating to these principles of war are the PLA's principles for operations, including a preference for continuous fighting and a short time between campaigns. China has sought to adapt to technological change. Its thinking on integrating sensors and fire mirrors that of the United States, and China's goal is "informationalization" or integrated joint warfare. As a result, China has constructed the Qu Dian system for integrated command and control, deployed several AWACs planes, and developed a satellite-assisted navigation system (Beidou) which will go global over the next decade. Despite these developments, China still only has the resources to provide this level of warfare over a limited duration and area. It still does not have the same sensors, integration, and capabilities as the United States.

Colonel Wortzel then discussed China's civil and military space capabilities, which are, he pointed out, all essentially military and run by the PLA. China sees outer space as the "top of the food chain" of war, and wants to extend its sovereignty indefinitely upward into space. Space satellites are an important part of strategic warning of any ICBM launch; during the Cold War, neither side would impair the other side's strategic warning because blinding the opponent would lead them to launch. China's strategy on this matter is very different; they would seek to blind the enemy, which could lead to strategic instability. China is also angry about the Pentagon's Prompt Global Strike program, because it feels the ICBMs involved would violate their airspace. To preserve their interests in space, China is exploring a number of capabilities, including a kinetic kill ASAT, a laser blinding system, microsats and parasats, millimeter wave laser, and an upper atmosphere fighter. The country has begun developing concepts for space to ground weapons and computer network operations against space control. China feels that deterrence requires the demonstration of capacities, and with regards to space, they have effectively accomplished it. Please click here to read a monograph by Colonel Wortzel that deals with China's space program in more depth. 

China has been developing a concept of political warfare, "3 warfare," which includes psychological, propaganda, and legal warfare. One of its goals is to justify the Chinese side in a conflict.

China has also been very active in the cyber domain and the area of computer network operations. Weighing in on an ongoing cyberwar debate, Colonel Wortzel said that cyberespionage was espionage, and should be treated as such; cyberattacks against the nation's critical infrastructure are an act of war. Colonel Wortzel described cyberespionage as "a way of life in China," and pointed out that 94 percent of penetrations of private information are discovered only after a year or more. The PLA has developed a doctrine of "Integrated Network Electronic Warfare," similar to the Soviet concept of Radio Electronic Combat, with the goal of degrading the enemy through EW, cyber, and space warfare before a shot is fired. The Chinese hacking threat is so common that the security industry has a new euphemism for the country, an "Advanced Persistent Threat." China's malicious cyber activities are focused on three major objectives: to strengthen CCP control, to collect intelligence, and to prepare attacks. Until around 2007, China cited American writings on information warfare, but then the Chinese started to develop and use their own strategy.

Dr. Wortzel is one of the foremost U.S. experts on China and serves on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.  During a 32-year military career, Dr. Wortzel spent 12 years in the Asia-Pacific region, including two tours of duty as a military attaché at in China. Following his retirement from the Army as a colonel in 1999, he was an executive with The Heritage Foundation. At Heritage he was Asian Studies Center Director and Vice President for foreign policy and defense studies. Dr. Wortzel has written or edited numerous books and articles on China. He was reappointed to the USCC for a sixth term expiring on December 31, 2012.