The Chinese Calculus

Feb. 1, 2006

Though Pentagon strategists are loath to discuss it publicly, they worry about China. It is the most powerful of the world’s so-called “near-peer” military competitors. (Russia, for some reason, is still counted as a “peer.”) China, Iran, and North Korea dominate Pentagon analyses of high-threat environments for airpower and other joint military forces. War over the Taiwan Strait is viewed as among the most plausible and dangerous of future conflict scenarios.

Top Pentagon strategists spend plenty of time trying to analyze China’s military operations and defense budgets. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld himself recently questioned the purpose of China’s escalating military investment.

“Since no nation threatens China,” said Rumsfeld, “one must wonder: Why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases?”

Beijing responded to Rumsfeld’s words with a rhetorical question of its own. Asked Zhang Bijan, the senior foreign policy advisor to President Hu Jintao, “With other countries spending so much more than us on defense, shouldn’t we improve ourselves?”

Don’t be fooled by this bland response. When it comes to international security arrangements, China is engaged in quite a lot more than some innocent “self-improvement” effort. The Middle Kingdom has made a detailed study of hard power, soft power, and airpower. All signs are that China wants to develop each and every one of them to Chinese advantage.

Rumsfeld’s remarks came as the Pentagon released its Congressionally mandated report under the title, “The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China.” This 2005 document postulated that China’s armed forces were planning to move beyond the narrow Taiwan issue and become the arbiter of maritime security in the Western Pacific.

It also laid out a litany of military arms developments aimed at giving China dominance in its region.

Problems for Airmen

For US airmen, this Pentagon study contained much cause for concern. It reported that China has deployed 700 fighters on sovereign Chinese soil in places from which they could cover the Taiwan Strait without aerial refueling.

In addition, China now is taking deliveries of advanced Russian surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) with advertised ranges of more than 120 miles. Already, hundreds of SAM batteries dot the Chinese coast.

These systems, in the aggregate, create the conditions for a potentially dangerous “lockout” scenario—that is, a situation where Chinese military impediments would preclude the entrance into the fight of US military forces.

It is exactly this scenario that Air Force officials regarded as a major justification for the procurement of a large number of “fifth generation” F-22 stealth fighters. In the Air Force’s view, the United States would not be able to foil such a lockout campaign without the unique combat power of many F-22s and contributions from numerous other forces. Normal “fourth generation” fighters, such as the F-15 and F-16, would face grave difficulties evading sophisticated SAM attacks. At present, the Pentagon plans to halt F-22 production at 183 fighters.

China also is seeking to improve the capabilities of its tactical air force. In 2004, it deployed its Chinese-built F-10 fighter, and it has continued purchases of the advanced Soviet-designed Su-30 to go with advanced Su-27s that it already had acquired. China’s Su-27s and Su-30s give the communist nation a significant capability to attack American naval forces operating in the narrow Taiwan Strait.

CIA Director Porter J. Goss recently told Congress that China’s buildup “could tilt the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait” and “threaten US forces” in Asia.

Beijing more or less openly acknowledges that its buildup is being undertaken with a close eye on US military power.

China intently observed the major combat operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, both of which showcased the Pentagon’s ultrahigh technology and advanced concepts of operations. “The Iraqi war has exerted a far-reaching influence on the international and regional security situations,” noted China’s 2004 White Paper on defense.

Today’s assertive China wants to catch this wave, to put it mildly. As Zhang noted, “Global military technology and equipment has been undergoing a revolutionary change.” China’s White Paper cited “the technological gap resulting from RMA” (the Revolution in Military Affairs) and today’s strategic “unipolarity”—read: US world dominance—as top strategic challenges.

Zhang laid responsibility for China’s arms and technology quests right at America’s door. “This isn’t driven by China,” he argued, but by Washington. America’s “level of sophistication is so high that China can’t compete with that,” said Zhang.

“Soft Power”

For all that, it is clear that China wants to do more than simply improve its “hard” military capabilities. Beijing leaders also want to acquire substantial amounts of soft power.

Soft power is a vague concept, but its essence is use of national cultural influences, foreign assistance, economic ties, “correct” international values and behavior, and other nonmilitary tools to create a sense of legitimacy about a nation’s international goals. A key proponent of the soft power concept, former Clinton Administration official Joseph S. Nye Jr., defines it simply as “co-opting people rather than coercing them.”

China’s soft power campaign started in late 2002, when Beijing went through a change in leadership. Jiang Zemin stepped aside, and Hu Jintao became President and Communist Party head.

Hu’s administration soon unveiled a new doctrine it called “peaceful rise.” That doctrine called for China to become a great power by focusing on economic development, integration into the global community, and regional leadership without direct military conflict—with the United States or anyone else.

Under the banner of peaceful rise—sometimes also translated as “peaceful ascendancy”—China professes that it will not seek great power status in the old 20th century way—through aggression, force of arms, and power politics. Instead, Chinese leaders say they want an interdependent, multipolar world, and they expect to spend the next few decades improving standards of living within China and transitioning from an industrial-age to information-age economy.

China’s drive for regional dominance reflects economic necessity as much as anything else. In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, analyst David Zweig argued that “an unprecedented need for resources is now driving China’s foreign policy.”

High on the list of needs are oil, certain types of minerals, and foreign capital. Along with the historic issue of Taiwan, these needs keep open the possibility of military tensions and even conflict with China’s neighbors.

There is also this: Though the peaceful rise concept started out as a soft power component, it has now ended up with a clear military dimension. This part of the concept had a bumpy start; the military role was debated openly, and backers of ex-President Jiang, who kept his leadership of the powerful Central Military Commission until 2004, forced debate over the major security issues of Taiwan and Japan. The outcome was a political compromise, one that grafted a strong military backbone onto the notion of peaceful rise.

As Zhang Bijan said in December 2005, “We are a big country with 1.3 billion people and a long border. Our desire to upgrade our basic defense abilities is very natural, particularly when global military technology is changing so rapidly.”


Many in the West are unimpressed with China’s proclaimed sincerity. In a recent editorial, the Washington Post had this to say: “Mr. Hu’s idea of ‘peaceful’ so far has included the blunt suppression of democracy in Hong Kong; outreach to rogue regimes around the world, such as Iran and Sudan; double-digit annual increases in defense spending; adoption of a law committing China to a war of aggression against democratic Taiwan if it fails to satisfy Beijing’s demands; and … the crude use of nationalist sentiment to intimidate Japan.”

Rumsfeld has indicated that the soft power initiatives raise questions just as China’s military spending does. In a 2005 speech in China, delivered to the prestigious Central Party School, he said, “China’s pursuit of regional institutions that exclude other Pacific nations such as the United States also lead others to wonder about China’s intentions.”

In at least one area, however, China’s intentions could not be clearer. Airpower is gaining prominence in China’s strategic calculus, and preparation for traditional ground combat may well be on its way out.

Evidence of this shift abounds. However, its clearest expression comes from the writings of one of China’s prominent military theorists, Lt. Gen. Liu Yazhou of China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force. His broad message is that America’s current global military dominance stems from its airpower, and China would do well to follow suit.

“I believe that airpower was the decisive force for the Iraqi war, though the US sent massive ground forces as well,” said Liu. “Airpower has played a decisive role in all America’s recent wars: the first Gulf War, the Kosovo war, the war in Afghanistan, and the Iraqi war.”

Liu is an active duty general who once taught at Stanford University. He is no rogue. His family ties are among the best. He married the daughter of Li Xiannian, a veteran of the Long March and one of the Eight Immortals who, along with Mao Zedong, defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s forces in 1949 and founded the People’s Republic.

There is envy in Liu’s remark that “airpower has already become a sharp lance for the United States.” As he put it, the US can “look down upon the rest of the world proudly with the help of this ‘lance.’?” To strengthen its ability to call the shots in its own region, Liu suggested, China must seek to build a sharp lance of its own.

Liu’s comments were made in a lengthy interview with a Chinese military journalist published last year in translation by Heartland: The Eurasian Review of Geopolitics. By Chinese standards, he’s royalty—a “princeling,” to use the term coined by China scholars to describe rising party leaders who also have elite family ties within the Communist Central Party.

Prominent Themes

It should be emphasized, however, that Liu is no isolated voice in the wilderness. Similar themes also were on prominent display in China’s 2004 defense White Paper, which described how the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is pushing for a broad range of improvements.

According to that paper, the PLA Air Force is responsible for safeguarding China’s airspace security and maintaining a stable air defense posture nationwide. To meet the requirements of modern air operations, the PLAAF has gradually shifted from a stance of territorial air defense to one of both offensive and defensive operations.

Development of new fighters, air defense and anti-missile weapons, information operations, and automated command systems are being emphasized.

Chinese interdisciplinary training is being accelerated. Combined arms and multitype aircraft combat training is being intensified. The goal is to improve capabilities in operations such as air strikes, air defense, information warfare countermeasures, early warning, reconnaissance, and strategic mobility.

In its White Paper, China declared that it is emphasizing a defensive air force, appropriate in size, sound in organization and structure, and advanced in weaponry and equipment.

Behind that stilted official language, the message is clear enough: China is unwilling to concede permanent strategic superiority to the United States. Understanding US airpower and its strategic importance is part of figuring out how to counter that perceived hegemony.

In China’s view, the task entails, in part, refocusing the vast Chinese military beyond ground power. That process has been under way for several years, with major ground force reductions.

Communist China’s revered founder, Mao, made the PLA a dominant force, and the People’s Republic was built on its achievements. The Eight Immortals were all PLA generals. For generations, political power in China depended on strong ties to the PLA.

Shaking up the PLA, therefore, is no small task.

Generational change is playing a role. In recent years, the cadre of military professionals in the PLA has grown stronger as ties to the pre-1949 generation have loosened. Today a professional class is evolving in the PLA, and with it comes doctrinal debate.

Another cause of Chinese ferment is the recent example of US airpower. Liu is the most vigorous agitator.

One of his prime concerns was that the PLA—which he dutifully refers to as “a glorious and invincible army”—would fall behind other nations in conceptual development unless it shook off its ground-combat mind-set and took a fresh look at modern military trends.

“It is the age of airpower today, and all of the [positional] advantages we have would not help any longer,” Liu warned. He went on to declare that China must develop an “offensive consciousness” and should “first possess a powerful counterattack capability rather than a defensive capability.” He concluded, “We’ll only stop war by way of conducting counterattacks.”

Whither “Boots on the Ground”

Liu’s remarks are emblematic of a deeper Chinese strategic reappraisal that has big consequences for the PLA.

Liu used two US examples as justification for de-emphasizing land warfare. He said that the US learned from the Korean War and Vietnam War that “ground campaigns by large-scale mechanized corps had too many disadvantages” and therefore put emphasis on airpower. In Liu’s view, it was high time for China to do the same—despite the past glories of the People’s Liberation Army. “We cannot limit our war concepts [to] the ground any longer,” concluded Liu.

He went on to say that the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated the dominance of airpower for all to see. “In a word, it was an air war,” remarked Liu. Airpower was the only way for the US to execute its global aims. The US armed forces had to “fight long-distance wars, to be able to be deployed promptly, strike precisely, and maintain absolute mastery of the sky,” as Liu put it.

He still believed in boots on the ground, though he ascribed to it a lesser significance. He likened airpower to “both arms of a person; you can use [them] to wreck other people’s windows or door planks. But, if you want to occupy their houses and protect the property from further seizure, you’ll have to use your feet—ground forces—to enter the house.”

Liu was firm that airpower was the essence of modern military capability, especially that of the United States. These views dovetailed with China’s White Paper, which said, “The Army is streamlined by reducing the ordinary troops that are technologically backward, while the Navy, Air Force, and Second Artillery Force are strengthened.”

Moreover, Chinese air and naval officers are gaining prominence with more appointments to senior military councils. A more assertive strategy in the Taiwan Strait or beyond will demand air and naval leadership within the PLA itself.

Liu evidently was bothered greatly by a remark from Adm. Dennis C. Blair, who formerly served as commander of US Pacific Command in Hawaii. According to Liu, Blair said: We respect the authority of the People’s Liberation Army in their mainland, yet the US must make China understand that the ocean and sky are ours.

Liu huffed, “Basically, we do not have any problems on our land, [but] our ocean territory has been invaded severely.”

The challenge for the PLA is to stiffen its power in the Taiwan Strait and other areas of global competition, such as the East China Sea, with its major oil deposits, and the Straits of Malacca, the maritime passage for growing Chinese oil imports.

Liu spoke for many Chinese military men when he applauded reductions in the size of the PLA and urged a focus on developing true talent in the ranks. He also thought it was a good idea to copy the entrepreneurial spirit of China’s businessmen.

China must “study how the people’s war could be fought in current situations.” Preparing just to defend the Chinese mainland would mean enemy victory “without even firing a shot” because China would be contained, according to Liu.

The Highest Military Art

Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 clearly made a big impression on Liu. He was amazed at the rapid victory. Liu said the US “dismantled the Taliban forces in just 61 days with only 16 deaths among the US troops, of whom none were killed in action.” The victory, he said, was a stark demonstration of Sun Tzu’s maxim that sparing use of force marks the highest application of military art.

Liu also appears to have enjoyed watching Soviet military doctrine and systems come apart under the American hammer. After five decades of Cold War competition, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq capped off the debate over which system was superior.

What’s the next step for China? Again, one could do worse than to use Liu as a guide. He has advocated Chinese development of a powerful information warfare capability and believes that Chinese moves into space are natural, inevitable, and absolutely necessary.

“The information war is now laying the foundation of the world’s new empire,” said Liu. For any nation that fails to see this, the long-term result will be “terrifying.”

Internal change in China is leading to more controversy and debate that sometimes flares into public view. Example: Liu’s verbal jousting with another Chinese “princeling,” Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu.

In July, Zhu told the Financial Times: “If the Americans draw their missiles and position guided ammunition onto the target zone on China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons.” Liu openly disagreed with Zhu in October 2005 at a prestigious forum attended by major Chinese leaders.

As the July 2005 DOD report complained: “Direct insights into China’s national strategies are difficult to acquire.” Liu’s broadsides have come during a time of transition. China remains a one-party system with close-knit military and party ties, but is no longer the monolith it once was.

That is what makes Liu’s hints and insights so intriguing. By making sure Chinese leaders are aware of the dominance of air and space power, Liu, at least, gives a voice to thinkers who want to push away from China’s traditional military concepts. The question is how far—and how fast—China will go.

And the answer is critical. In a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, author Robert D. Kaplan raised this warning flag: “Whenever great powers have emerged or re-emerged on the scene (Germany and Japan in the early decades of the 20th century, to cite two recent examples), they have tended to be particularly assertive—and therefore have thrown international affairs into violent turmoil.”

Kaplan added: “China will be no exception.”

Rebecca Grant is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. She is vice president, defense programs, at DFI in Washington, D.C., and has worked for Rand, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Grant is a fellow of the Eaker Institute for Aerospace Concepts, the public policy and research arm of the Air Force Association’s Aerospace Education Foundation. Her most recent article, “The Security Forces Rewrite,” appeared in the January issue.