China And The RMA Today – Analysis


When it comes to political and military strategy, Manabrata Guha believes China is a careful and context-dependent planner. Instead of copying Western versions of the Revolution in Military Affairs, Beijing is developing strategic-military asymmetries that suit its particular needs.

By Manabrata Guha

Western governments and the media and frequently accuse China of conducting cyber-attacks and espionage against critical infrastructures and businesses. Is it appropriate, however, to consider Beijing’s alleged cyber activities as a component of China’s Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)?

Manabrata Guha: The short answer is yes. The cyber domain is increasingly encompassing national (civilian) infrastructure systems like electrical grids, communications, logistics, transport and mass transit, banking/ financial sectors etc., which are either not hardened or minimally hardened, unlike military systems. Dislocating such systems can provide an attacker, under certain conditions, with significant advantages. If we take the emerging Chinese perspectives of war and combat seriously, we will also have to take seriously their assessment of future wars being waged under or within what they refer to as ‘informationalized conditions’.

For over two decades now, Chinese military writings have stressed the need to target – for espionage and disruptive purposes – the vulnerabilities of their adversaries. In such a construct, information-infrastructures – both military and civilian – are viable targets. Recent activities in this sphere, which have been attributed to the Chinese strategic-military establishment, suggest that they are not simply testing their competency, but are continually probing for optimal vectors of attack against what they assess to be weak links of potential adversaries. It should be noted that such attacks are not solely directed towards the US. Other countries, such as India, Japan, Taiwan and other western nation-states have also come under such attacks. I think these could, indeed should, be construed as being instances of a Chinese RMA coming into play.

What other important factors underpin China’s RMA?

Any assessment of a Chinese version of a RMA must begin by recognizing that the Chinese – particularly in strategic-military and strategic-political affairs – are careful and rational planners. They also exhibit great patience in whatever they plan and do, which is reflected in the nature and execution of their long-range plans, to the extent that we know of them. Further, any such assessment must also remain sensitive to the much larger – and philosophically challenging – question related to the Chinese understanding of war, conflict and the notions of victory and defeat.

A review of recent – particularly since 1997 – of Chinese military literature shows the frequent use of an ideogram – 杀手剑 – commonly rendered in English as “Shashoujian” (or, the Assassin’s Mace/ Sword), which has mystified military analysts globally. Some claim that it refers to particular weapon-systems which are “game-changers” – i.e., weapon-systems that confer an unprecedented asymmetric advantage over an enemy. Others claim that “the assassin’s mace” is a secret Chinese military program (State Security Project 998 is a case in point) – initiated sometime in the 1990s – which had/ has a broad mandate to radically transform the Chinese strategic-military establishment (including R&D programs) to function effectively in the emergent “informationalized” battlespaces of the 21st Century. Then there are those (and I include myself in this group) who suspect that “Shashoujian” is not so much a specific weapon-system or a secret military program – rather, it is a “concept of operations” deliberately designed to create instances of strategic-military asymmetry. In other words, the last point of view holds that “Shashoujian” represents a particular expression of an asymmetry-creating martial mind-set.

Now, consider the following:

(1) In 2003 and 2005, the Chinese carried out manned space flights

(2) In 2007, the Chinese successfully conducted an Anti-Satellite test

(3) And, in 2010 it was reported that the Chinese are in the process of developing an Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) system to, it is alleged, target the core elements of the American Pacific Fleet

Taken together, these three capabilities (here meant as illustrations) can be said to be symptomatic of an emergent Chinese posture that is designed to not simply enhance their own capabilities, but to deliberately target an adversary’s vulnerabilities. This leads me to suggest that while the specifics of each program may differ, the conceptual thread that binds them is what Shashoujian represents – an asymmetry-creating martial mind-set.

As a net assessment, therefore, it would be safe to say the following:

The organizing principle around which the Chinese version of the RMA seems to be coalescing appears to be strategic-asymmetry whose objective is not to attain across-the-board parity with near and distant peer competitors; rather, it is to focus their conceptual and developmental energies on certain specific areas which they think would considerably degrade an adversary’s capabilities. In keeping with this, it appears that a Chinese RMA-inspired strategic-military capability will attempt to make “disruption” – both in strategic and operational-tactical terms – a virtue.

How different is this Chinese variant of a RMA to Western conceptions?

Without lapsing into crude cultural relativism, I suggest that the strategic culture of China – such as it is – plays a big role in how Beijing is approaching the question of a RMA. One thing that we should be careful about is to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that the nature and characteristics of the current RMA as conceptualized in the West is universal. It is eminently possible for other cultures (in this case, the Chinese) to take the concept and rework it on their own terms. Precisely how this would happen is probably difficult to predict, but we can gauge a general trajectory by using two concepts – “efficacy” and “transformation” – about which Francois Jullien, a French Sinologist, has some very interesting things to say.

Efficacy involves the power or capacity to produce a desired effect. In the Chinese context, as Jullien points out, this has a long and rich tradition. As early as the 4th Century, Sun Tzu is recorded to have asserted that the “art of generalship” is about working out in advance and with accuracy every factor pertaining to a situation such that as it evolves, it does so in as beneficial a way as possible. Assuming this can be done victory is then nothing more than a consequence of such actions and a predictable outcome. The key point to note is that while the overt emphasis is on “action” (involving calculation, manipulation etc.), the implicit, but unmistakable, emphasis is on “timing”. In other words, the appropriateness of “action” is determined not simply on the basis of what is done and how it is done, but also on when it is done. Under such circumstances, the process by which victory is achieved appears undetectable. It is this kind of reasoning that lies beneath the oft-quoted remark attributed to Sun Tzu: “The victorious troops seek confrontation in combat only after they have already triumphed.”

If we take this kind of an analysis seriously, then we should expect that – at least in intent – the Chinese version of a RMA will attempt to emulate this conceptual model.

We can use the Chinese ASBM project to illustrate this. Even if the actual system is not in place, the very fact that such a capability has been attributed to them has given the Americans a reason to, however briefly, pause and reconsider the situation. A system designed to attack an American carrier battle-group carries with it some very serious implications. While it is unlikely that the American war-fighting capability would be materially degraded on a permanent basis by a successful ASBM strike, nevertheless, the now very real possibility that the Chinese could imminently deploy a functional ASBM capability is seen in some quarters as a challenge to the American ability to wage a Sea-Land and/ or Air-Sea Battle, particularly in the Pacific theater. In other words, by fielding such a system (or being on the verge of doing so), the Chinese appear to have succeeded in disrupting US plans in the Pacific theater, which is no mean task. Seen from this perspective, the ASBM capability suddenly becomes a strategic threat-in-being for the Americans, which they now will always have to account for in their strategic calculations.

The concept of transformation is closely related to that of efficacy. Unlike the western model of warfare which, essentially, is teleological in nature – concerned with means and ends – Jullien contends that the Chinese are not goal-oriented per se. Again, delving back into ancient Chinese texts, Jullien shows the Chinese proclivity for careful meditation on the unfolding of events and to discern their internal coherence, that is to say, to engage with “the potential inherent in [a] situation.” In other words, contra the western model of setting goals and striving to actualize them, the Chinese tendency, Jullien suggests, is to allow being carried by “the propensity of things”.

Working from this premise, I would venture to say that a Chinese RMA would be revolutionary in nature, but evolutionary in character. Again, the ASBM system serves as an appropriate example. As a carrier-killer system, there is nothing really revolutionary about its individual components. Manoeuvrable warheads, the OTH and all-weather satellite radar systems, the C4ISR complex etc. are all known technologies. However, the way they are being put together by the Chinese has certainly shaken and preoccupied the American, indeed global, military mind-space. For a country like China, which is not as technologically advanced as the US or other western states, it would not have been easy to put all the pieces in place. Yet, apparently, they have done so over a period of time and the outcome is there for all to see. It would be foolish on our part to underestimate this capability and to discount the patience and tenacity that the Chinese have shown.

In sum, therefore, I would say that while in form and structure the Chinese strategic-military establishment may closely approximate their western counterparts, the conceptual dynamics at play in the Chinese case is, most likely, different. This is not meant to suggest that one way is better or worse than the other. It is simply to point out that the Chinese may be, in a manner of speaking, dancing to a different tune in so far as their version of a RMA is concerned.

Is the Chinese RMA all about contending with – and eventually contesting – the predominance of the United States’ armed forces? Or are there equally important determinants closer to home?

The US remains the “gold standard” against which to measure one’s strategic-military capabilities. In strategic-military terms, of course, the most obvious competitor is the United States (or a coalition led by the US). Certainly, if you take each of the three examples that I mentioned above, the US seems to be the most likely object of interest. But equally, these capabilities, among others, could just as easily be deployed against any regular and conventional adversary. Regional competitors like Russia, Japan and India most likely figure prominently in the calculations of Chinese strategists. And, of course, there is always the question of Taiwan.

China’s RMA has been criticised for underestimating US resilience and for overestimating the People’s Liberation Army’s innovative capacities. It has also been suggested that it may result in completely unexpected responses by geopolitical competitors. Do you share these criticisms? Indeed, do you see any other weaknesses in China’s approach?

The Chinese are not only careful and patient planners, they are also realists. Let’s not forget that it was after viewing the American performance in the First Gulf War that the Chinese leaders fully appreciated the strategic-military imperative to rethink the conceptual foundations of their own strategic-military posture. This suggests that they can be self-critical and realistic in how they conduct SWOT analyses of their own capabilities. So, I am not sure I could agree with the suggestion that the Chinese military theorists and strategists are underestimating the resilience and resolve of the US, or indeed of anyone.

As for the charge of overestimating the PLA’s capabilities, we need to be careful to separate the rhetoric from facts. It would surprise me greatly if the Chinese security managers are not clued into their own capabilities. The stakes are much too high for them to believe their own rhetoric.

In terms of weaknesses, the reality is that the Chinese have a long way to go to even catch up with the United States or, more generally, with the more advanced Western strategic-military establishments (if that is indeed their objective). In fact, if anything, the Chinese are facing considerable issues with their military modernization program and they continue to import critical technologies and weapon-platforms. For instance, the Chinese are yet to develop high-performance jet engines to power their strike aircraft. Their ship-building program, though impressive, remains inadequate in terms of infrastructure, capabilities etc.; large segments of their ground, air and naval forces operate with older generations of equipment; the level of sophistication of their C4ISR systems remains unknown as does their strategic-military development programs in areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, molecular sciences etc. Then there is the question of combat experience. Unlike, say, the US (or even India), Chinese military forces have not been bloodied in battle in recent times. So, aside from field exercises, they have not really had the opportunity to test their systems, strategies and operational doctrines.

Lastly, there is one great unknown about the Chinese RMA. How their version of the RMA envisions addressing emergent threats such as global-scale insurgencies etc. remains unclear.

Has Beijing attempted to respond to these criticisms by making adjustments to China’s RMA?

If by criticism you mean the Chinese not being open and transparent about their strategic-military development and programs, then I have not seen any tangible action in this regard by them. The rationale behind the calls (especially by the US) for greater transparency on the part of the Chinese in defining their threat perceptions and how their strategic-military programs are related to addressing the same is perfectly understandable – the intent being to render the global strategic space more predictable and to reduce the chances of misunderstandings which can quickly spiral out of control.

Thus far, the Chinese have been reticent to explain their stance and posture aside from repeating stock phrases and the usual “party line”. A positive take on this would involve attributing this reticence to the relative youth of the “modern” Chinese strategic-military program. Thus, one would expect that as the Chinese program matures, they will develop greater confidence, which may lead them to share more information. There is, however, another possibility. The need to be transparent may not be a Chinese proclivity in the first place. In other words, it may be the case that, culturally, the Chinese may not be comfortable in being as open as other countries and even if, over time, they do make the adjustment to be more transparent, they may tell the truth, but not the whole truth. Will this affect how the Chinese go about realizing their version of a RMA? In my opinion, that is a very unlikely prospect.

Dr. Manabrata Guha, Prize Fellow, Dept. of Politics, Languages and International Studies (PoLIS), University of Bath, UK.

ISN Security Watch

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