How to Keep Ahead of a Changing China
War is like a chess game. One player strategically maneuvers his pieces seeking windows of opportunity to destroy his opponent’s critical vulnerability—the king. Ideally, he uses one or more pieces to fix the king in place and give no option to his opponent but surrender—a play dubbed “checkmate.” For the American military, which exalts the teachings of Carl von Clausewitz in its professional education system, these tenets of chess are also the recognized precepts of warfare. Despite the continuous evolution of the battlefield and technology, the fundamentals still apply.
It would be naive, however, to assume that our adversaries, or even our allies, share all our American perspectives. There are certainly prevailing principles of warfare across cultures, especially as the world collectively witnesses and integrates historical lessons, but there are also basic differences in cultural approaches to strategy. The Chinese game of go, or weiqi, requires that players use small stones to surround and capture their opponent’s stones, often sacrificing pieces in a local area to win the board. Adages of the game mimic the philosophies of Sun Tzu, which in turn are used by the regime in China today: “to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
The U.S. National Defense Strategy acknowledges a return to “interstate strategic competition.” As the Army adjusts, we must both adapt and stay rooted in our warfighting principles. We must develop an understanding of our adversaries’ perspectives—learn the rules of their game and be adaptive to the changing global environment. At the same time, we cannot become so myopically focused on the newness of the environment and the plays of our opponent that we forget the basics that propelled us to countless victories. America still has the premier Army in the world. We have a tried-and-true joint, multinational team that knows how to prevail in the chess match that is war, and the Army will continue to play a central and critical role in any future Indo-Pacific fight.
China’s Vision of Future Conflict
The Communist Party of China’s vision for the future, as contained in its Military Strategy, is “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” This blueprint manifested itself in China’s “One Belt, One Road” policy, wherein the Communist Party promised loans for infrastructure development across the Asia-Pacific region. Now the program is revealing itself to be “debt-trap diplomacy”—luring countries in with promises of credit and then extracting concessions when the borrowing country defaults. This “new silk road” has become a trail of nations indebted and under China’s thumb.
Sri Lanka, for example, accepted significant Chinese funding in 2008 for a port project in Hambantota; in 2017 it defaulted on the loan and surrendered the port and 15,000 acres of economically viable coastal land around it to the Chinese government in a 99-year lease. China sees itself as a rising, worthy and indomitable power and, despite its honeyed words, its intentions are exploitive and self-serving. The regime has also acknowledged the U.S. and Japan as leading obstacles to its unchecked advance, calling out what its Military Strategy deems to be “hegemonism [and] power politics.”
Chinese leaders see the future of conflict as local wars in high-technology environments—what they have monikered “informatized war.” Like weiqi players, they see these limited conflicts as opportunities to gain an advantage in the overall conflict, spanning seven domains: land, sea, air, space, cyberspace, electromagnetic and psychological. The regime also believes technology is a panacea that will be the decisive factor in future conflict. China imagines the First Gulf War to be the new standard in conflict: short, sharp, “noncontact” fighting between competing operational systems. As a result, China increased its spending on the People’s Liberation Army, its military arm of the Communist Party, by 10 percent annually from 2000 to 2016.
China is also concerned with keeping conflict away from its fruitful coastal economic centers. Taking a position of “active defense,” the Communist Party of China has sequestered itself behind a wall of surface-to-air missiles and land-based anti-ship missiles, what has become a giant and growing anti-access/area denial shield. According to China’s Military Strategy, the country is justified in acting offensively on the tactical or operational level if ever it determines that an adversary has threatened or damaged its interests at the strategic level—for example, if another nation sought to escalate the current territorial disputes. Therefore, if necessary, it will use short-duration/short-distance amphibious tactics behind its anti-access/area denial bubble to gain territory or protect its interests.
Science Fiction and Future Reality
On the highest pillar of China’s strategy stands technology. For the past decade, China has been taking advantage of regional peace and the extensive U.S. research and development efforts to expand and advance its arsenal at an intimidating pace. From rail guns to hypersonic missiles, its tech has made headlines, fueling China’s confidence that it will become a worldwide first-class military by midcentury, able to best the U.S. in a systems confrontation.
However, China’s military tech machine is untested. Autonomous aerial vehicles, long-range missiles, logistically efficient ships, artificial intelligence and electronic warfare railguns have yet to win the day, except in Hollywood cinema. Additionally, the Communist Party of China is having difficulty inculcating its troops with the cultural traits that necessarily accompany high-tech modern militaries: jointness, innovation and Mission Command.
With the anticipation of conflict comes a little bit of paranoia in the populace, as some of us remember from the Cold War days. China is a legitimate national security threat, but we must remember to keep its unique perspective of strategy in mind. They see and play by different rules. We are a competent and tested joint force with a proven track record for success, no matter the odds.
This is not to say technology is not valuable. The U.S. remains at the forefront of military tech advancements, and for good reason. The world is changing—expanding and contracting in every dimension. Today, missiles can reach across the world in a matter of minutes, manipulations to satellites in space can alter activities tens of thousands of miles below, and malign social media content can spread discord or rally countermovers almost instantaneously. The “fog of war” used to describe the challenge of leading in the absence of information; now the fog is too much information. Advancements like artificial intelligence can help us find the one useful golden needle in a haystack of information. We must continue to find ways to manage and master these changes.
Mastering the Changes
The U.S. military has begun the process of mastering these changes by incorporating the characteristics of this new environment into the next evolution of doctrine: Multi-Domain Operations. In the future multidomain fight, the joint team will seize windows of opportunity and maneuver seamlessly to positions of relative advantage—not just in the traditional domains of land, sea and air, but in the emerging domains of space and cyberspace. The Army will have a critical part to play in multidomain operations, and one of its most significant contributions might be its innovative, new Multi-Domain Task Force. This is a tailorable, scalable unit, employed by a joint task force and designed to facilitate joint, multinational maneuver across the five recognized domains: land, sea, air, cyber and space. The brain of the task force, the Intelligence, Information, Cyber, Electronic Warfare and Space (I2CEWS) detachment, can effectively penetrate an adversary’s anti-access/area denial shield.
To further the game analogy, the Multi-Domain Task Force allows us to play, not just chess, but 3D chess with multiple levels and options for vertical and horizontal maneuver. With the I2CEWS capability, as well as other Multi-Domain Task Force assets—long-range precision fires, denial and deception operations, etc.—the joint/multinational task force commander can create multiple dilemmas for the enemy, maneuver his pieces from one domain to another and create conditions for checkmate that are both physical and digital.
When it comes to maneuver warfare, success is rooted in the basics. The environment has changed, but the nature of war has not.
People Remain Our Advantage
The role of the Army in future conflict has evolved due to the evolving environment. In World War II, aerial and naval assets frequently supported land forces’ maneuver; in future conflict, it is possible these roles will be reversed and land forces will support main-effort maneuver by the Air Force and Navy. Regardless, the Army cannot be dismissed. It will be a significant and central player in future conflict, even in a potential conflict with China. Now, as ever, it is only through the conscientious employment of the total joint and multinational team that we can expect to achieve success.
Additionally, the Army continues to provide and cultivate the one consistently proven ingredient for military success: innovative teams and adaptable leaders. Throughout history we have been iteratively obsessed by the capabilities and potential of new bombs, guns and gadgets. Time and again, however, it is the creativity of individuals, the teams we build with our allies and partners, and the ability for soldiers to make decisive and critical decisions in the absence of orders that have won the day. In essence, I argue that the future of warfare is not just artificial intelligence and long-range precision munitions; it is also, and more importantly, thinking, acting, innovating and empathizing people. In this regard, American soldiers are the best in the world and the envy of our adversaries.
Competition and Conflict
The Army has a proud and incredible history in the Indo-Pacific Theater, and its impactful contributions to the joint force will not end with this new wave of technological advancement. We continue to adapt and evolve, field new equipment and find ways to operate in new environments. We also remain rooted in those aspects that made us great in World War II and continue to make us great today—training, tactics, strategies and innovative, adaptable and multinational teams.
As George Washington said, “to be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.” No one, especially in the military, wants war—you would be a fool if you did. Unlike in go or chess, we are not eager players when it comes to real conflict. And war with China is not inevitable. Ideally, the current state of competition will never advance into conflict. The Army remains fit to fight in a contingency, but also maintains a critical component of deterrence. By building bridges with China where we are able, maintaining a forward presence, rehearsing for contingencies and cultivating strong relationships with our allies and partners, we and the joint, multinational team continue to facilitate a free and open Indo-Pacific.