Assessing China's Strategy

By George Friedman
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While China has a robust land-based missile system, a land-based missile system is inherently vulnerable to strikes by cruise missiles, aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles currently in development and other types of attack. China's ability to fight a sustained battle is limited. Moreover, a missile strategy works only with an effective reconnaissance capability. You can't destroy a ship if you don't know where it is. This in turn necessitates space-based systems able to identify U.S. ships and a tightly integrated fire-control system. That raises the question of whether the United States has an anti-satellite capability. We would assume that it does, and if the United States used it, it would leave China blind.

China is therefore supplementing this strategy by acquiring port access in countries in the Indian Ocean and outside the South China Sea box. Beijing has plans to build ports in Myanmar, which is flirting with ending its international isolation, and Pakistan. Beijing already has financed and developed port access to Gwadar in Pakistan, Colombo and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh, and it has hopes for a deepwater port at Sittwe, Myanmar. In order for this strategy to work, China needs transportation infrastructure linking China to the ports. This means extensive rail and road systems. The difficulty of building this in Myanmar, for example, should not be underestimated.

But more important, China needs to maintain political relationships that will allow it to access the ports. Pakistan and Myanmar, for example, have a degree of instability, and China cannot assume that cooperative governments will always be in place in such countries. In Myanmar's case, recent political openings could result in Naypyidaw's falling out of China's sphere of influence. Building a port and roads and finding that a coup or an election has created an anti-Chinese government is a possibility. Given that this is one of China's fundamental strategic interests, Beijing cannot simply assume that building a port will give it unrestricted access to the port. Add to this that roads and rail lines are easily sabotaged by guerrilla forces or destroyed by air or missile attacks.

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In order for the ports on the Indian Ocean to prove useful, Beijing must be confident in its ability to control the political situation in the host country for a long time. That sort of extended control can only be guaranteed by having overwhelming power available to force access to the ports and the transportation system. It is important to bear in mind that since the Communists took power, China has undertaken offensive military operations infrequently -- and to undesirable results. Its invasion of Tibet was successful, but it was met with minimal effective resistance. Its intervention in Korea did achieve a stalemate but at horrendous cost to the Chinese, who endured the losses but became very cautious in the future. In 1979 China attacked Vietnam, but suffered a significant defeat. China has managed to project an image of itself as a competent military force, but in reality it has had little experience in force projection, and that experience has not been pleasant.

Internal Security vs. Power Projection

The reason for this inexperience stems from internal security. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) is primarily configured as a domestic security force -- a necessity because of China's history of internal tensions. It is not a question of whether China is currently experiencing such tensions; it is a question of possibility. Prudent strategic planning requires building forces to deal with worst-case situations. Having been designed for internal security, the PLA is doctrinally and logistically disinclined toward offensive operations. Using a force trained for security as a force for offensive operations leads either to defeat or very painful stalemates. And given the size of China's potential internal issues and the challenge of occupying a country like Myanmar, let alone Pakistan, building a secondary force of sufficient capability might not outstrip China's available manpower but would certainly outstrip its command and logistical capabilities. The PLA was built to control China, not to project power outward, and strategies built around the potential need for power projection are risky at best.

It should be noted that since the 1980s the Chinese have been attempting to transfer internal security responsibilities to the People's Armed Police, the border forces and other internal security forces that have been expanded and trained to deal with social instability. But despite this restructuring, there remain enormous limitations on China's ability to project military power on a scale sufficient to challenge the United States directly.

There is a disjuncture between the perception of China as a regional power and the reality. China can control its interior, but its ability to control its neighbors through military force is limited. Indeed, the fear of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is unfounded. It cannot mount an amphibious assault at that distance, let alone sustain extended combat logistically. One option China does have is surrogate guerrilla warfare in places like the Philippines or Indonesia. The problem with such warfare is that China needs to open sea-lanes, and guerrillas -- even guerrillas armed with anti-ship missiles or mines -- can at best close them.

Political Solution

China therefore faces a significant strategic problem. China must base its national security strategy on what the United States is capable of doing, not on what Beijing seems to want at the moment. China cannot counter the United States at sea, and its strategy of building ports in the Indian Ocean suffers from the fact that its costs are huge and the political conditions for access uncertain. The demands of creating a force capable of guaranteeing access runs counter to the security requirements inside China itself.

As long as the United States is the world's dominant naval power, China's strategy must be the political neutralization of the United States. But Beijing must make certain that Washington does not feel so pressured that it chooses blockade as an option. Therefore China must present itself as an essential part of U.S. economic life. But the United States does not necessarily see China's economic activity as beneficial, and it is unclear whether China can maintain its unique position with the United States indefinitely. Other, cheaper alternatives are available. China's official rhetoric and hard-line stances -- designed to generate nationalist support inside the country -- might be useful politically, but strain relations with the United States. It doesn't strain relations to the point of risking military conflict, but given China's weakness, any strain is dangerous. The Chinese feel they know how to walk the line between rhetoric and real danger with the United States. It is still a delicate balance.

There is a perception that China is a rising regional and even global power. It may be rising but it is still far from solving its fundamental strategic problems and further yet from challenging the United States. The tensions within China's strategy are certainly debilitating, if not fatal. All of its options have serious weaknesses. China's real strategy must be to avoid having to make risky strategic choices. China has been fortunate for the past 30 years being able to avoid such decisions, but Beijing utterly lacks the tools required to reshape that environment. Considering how much of China's world is in play right now -- Sudanese energy disputes and Myanmar's political experimentation leap to mind -- this is essentially a policy of blind hope.

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Essay originally appeared at

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