China Debates Military Action Strategy – Analysis


By Bhaskar Roy

The People’s Republic of China has always been cautious about aggressively engaging an adversary militarily. It is not to say that they have never done so, but like an accomplished chess player, the Chinese leaders visualize several moves and counter-moves in advance. They would rather show moves, both politically and militarily inside their own borders to ‘win a war without fighting a war’. This strategy was brought out in a research book in the late 1990s by two Chinese military Colonels, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsu. The book, called “Unrestricted Warfare”, has aspects which have already been put into action.

Currently, Chinese political and military strategists are drawing lessons from this, weighing their economic and military power which are formidable, and challenges and opponents to consolidate their territorial claims but within acceptable damages. Also, most of these Chinese strategists may be dangerously chasing the image of a United States – like global influence when, in real terms China is still at least 50 years behind. And in that 50 years the US and other countries including India would have further progressed, and the global scenario including China’s own politics would have changed significantly.

The 1962 Chinese attack on India was well calculated over a period of time. India’s China policy at that time on the border issue was confused and missed an opportunity for a better position. China under Mao Zedong at that time was challenging the Soviet Union for the leadership of international communist movement, and the leadership of Asia and the third world. Indian Prime Minister Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru had to be shut up and India “taught a lesson”. The Indian army had next to nothing on the borders, and this force was steeped in politics and favouritism. The Chinese army did not hold the territory won because they knew they could not.


They withdrew to score a point with the international community and, at the same time, succeeded in demoralizing the Indian army. This effect remained for a long time, and even today the Chinese media play this defeat on the minds of the Indian army and politicians.

Since 1962, China has probed and poked along the Line of Control (LoC) along the Sino-Indian border nibbling away at territory. They signed on Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) agreement with India along the border and other improvements in bilateral relations. Yet, they have kept irritants along the borders alive, gone back on signed agreements resolving this problem, and sabotaged Indian interests internationally.

During the 1965 India-Pakistan war, which was started by Pakistan miscalculating after Nehru’s death in 1964 that India would be in a confused state and it was a chosen time to strike, China did not mobilize its troops in Pakistan’s favour. It had good reasons not to. Relations with the Soviet Union had sharply deteriorated and its domestic politics was headed to turmoil.

Similarly, during the 1971 India-Pakistan over Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), Mao Zedong stuck to his policy of no direct involvement despite pleas from US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to do so. Again for Mao and his advisors, the surrounding environment (Moscow and Japan particularly) did not allow them to take such a risk. Otherwise diplomatic, political and military support was given in abundance to Islamabad.

During Pakistan’s Kargil misadventure in 1999 and Pakistan ISI backed terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2011, China worked with Pakistan at two levels. On the one hand they advised restraint but on the other, their Largesse with military assistance and intelligence inputs on the movement of Indian troops was never lacking.

The China-Pakistan “all weather friendship” is being pursued by Beijing in a different way than Pakistan desires. They are very happy to quietly support Pakistan’s low intensity warfare (terrorism) against India without saying it. But their position opposing black listing certain anti-India Pakistani terrorist organizations even at the UN, directly points to this.

Under current geopolitical situation, despite warring to India’s Oil and Gas Company (ONGC-Videsh) exploring for hydrocarbon resources in Vietnamese territorial waters in the South China Sea, Beijing’s collective consensus is not to get into any serious military conflict with India. China almost repeated the mistake of the 1962 attack in 1987. They threatened India, but backed down when Indian forces began to mobilize. Beijing realized that the military imbalance of 1962 between the two sides had been repaired at least along the borders. Using nuclear weapons was not an option.

Having said that, everything is not “Bhai Bhai”. China is waiting for another day, again a day that will be of their choosing. That is one reason Beijing has been putting one spoke or the other on the border issue resolution, while rapidly building military use infrastructure along it. One of their on-going projects is building infrastructure for their air force which was not there in 1962 or even in 1987. In fact, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) does not need to base missile close to the Indian borders. They have already deployed DF-21 and DF-21A missile with 1800 kms to 2000 kms range and nuclear capable, in Sichuan province which can easily hit India. They can bring in short range missiles like the M-9, M-11 and DF-15 into Tibet in no time. China has little reason to complain if India deploys the below 300 kms Brahmos missile on the borders.

More than external challenges, the Chinese leadership have bound themselves with some severe internal constraints through their political propaganda over the last six decades. Having closed the people including junior party cadres and members from foreign news and developments, they have been made to believe China is always right, foreigners are enemies trying to destroy China, Chinese territories have been usurped by neighbours which must be regained by any means, and other such propaganda. To emphasize Han Chinese superiority, children from very early school are taught that they have two brains while the rest of humanity have one! Ultra-nationalism has been taken almost to a level of frenzy. Having done that, the Beijing Mandarins also find it difficult to make adjustment on territorial issues as they will find themselves accused of betraying the nation. Therefore, none of their agreement with other countries, including the border agreement with Russia when China had to give up claims, can be found reported in local media.

Putting India aside at the moment, Beijing’s main challenges come from their claims on the South China Sea and it reefs and atolls known as the Spratly group of Islands, and the Diaoyu (Japanese: Senkaku) group of Islands in the East China Sea. Both maritime areas are said to hold huge hydrocarbon deposits as well as minerals. They also hold huge military strategic advantage for China. The Spratly Islands are claimed in parts by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei mainly, and China and Taiwan (which China claims as its renegade province). China claims the South China in its entirety. None of the China pushed agreements here has worked simply because China demands any exploitation has to be under China’s sovereignty conditions. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which China is a signatory, is not accepted by Beijing on these maritime area disputes. Beijing’s demands are based on their own so-called historical evidence which do not stand to close scrutiny.

Hence this debate on military options. Taiwan is a special case. It is considered as a renegade province of China and must be (re) united with the motherland, and this is a core interest and non-negotiable in absolute terms. In the perception of Chinese leaders if Taiwan breaks free and independent it would initiate the fragmentation the country. Within Taiwan, the leading opinion is for status quo, though the pro-independence group is well and alive as the small number of unificationists. Beijing is willing to hold patience with the Taiwan issue. They are not very sure how specific is USA’s Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) compelling American military action if China attacks Taiwan. But China is ready with immediate response plan if Taipei demonstrated any move towards independence. There are almost 1500 short and medium range missiles, both nuclear and conventional, deployed against Taiwan. The PLA has also developed capability to invade Taiwan by sea, blockade it, and is developing the DF-21D aircraft carrier killer missile to deter US carrier intervention. This is one scenario where China will execute the nuclear option if the situation so demands, if the US intervenes with its overwhelming convention military power irrespective whether US holds out a nuclear threat or not.

There is a wide ranging debate going on in China over the approach to the Spratly Islands and the South China Sea issue. The overwhelming voice noticed in the Chinese official media for more than a year is threat of military action if the other claimants do not fall in line with the Chinese position. One recent report in the Global Times talked of “booming” guns. This year, China used some strong arm methods against the Philippines and Vietnam, and warned foreign oil companies and countries against exploring in the South China Sea water with any claimant country without China’s consent.

Despite the jingoistic noises coming from hard line nationalists who cannot see beyond what China must have at any cost, there are more sobering considerations also. A major seminar held in July this year drawing experts from think tanks all over the country (reported in International Herald Leader/, July 25, 2011) military action at this time was not found appropriate. One of the participants, Ye Hailin of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) was of the opinion that while a compromise will cost China, military action will cost diplomatically, economically and militarily.

The consensus for the moment is to keep up the heat till some definite path with affordable cost becomes available. Hence, friction will be provoked periodically. There is also a downside that is coming up. There are important voices that are questioning China’s historical claims. Writing in the Global Times and The People’s Daily (Sept.26 and 27), Ding Gang, an influential senior writer of the People’s Daily questioned the validity of the Chinese maps on which the claims are made. Another Chinese expert, Zhu Feng, Center for International and Strategic Studies, Peking University, drew attention to the fact that China’s aggressive behavior was ranging it neighbours to come together in an united front against it.

China’s territorial dispute with Japan stands in a similar position. Provocation from the Chinese side not only on and under water, but even in air continue, but rescued from the brink of a serious military clash.

Another Chinese action that raises question is the decision to station around 1000 People’s Armed Force (PAP) personnel with five armed patrol ships and speed boats in the Mekong river passing through Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. The agreement came on October 13 in a quadrilateral meeting in Beijing, following the killing of 13 Chinese sailors by rouge elements of the Thai army. Units of the PAP will be stationed in these countries.

Although the PAP is not the PLA, it is the second support level of the PLA. China claims not a single Chinese soldier is placed in foreign soil except under UN Peace Keeping Forces. But this new position is cutting it thin. If China can force these weak and dependent countries in its neighbourhood, how long will it take to place the PLA and its naval and air arms in small African countries the governments of which are indebted to China? This Chinese policy can realistically be extrapolated to their Indian Ocean strategy, a China’s demand for oil, gas and other natural resources from the Middle East and East African countries grow.

At the recently concluded SAARC Summit in Addu, the hosts, the Maldives, pushed hard to elevate China from its observer status to a dialogue partner if not a full member of the organization.

It is no secret that China has been wooing the Maldives from the 1990s with highest political and military visits, and aid. They probed whether they could contribute to Maldive’s internal security system. China wants one of the Maldive’s Islands to build a port, in other words, a naval base. It is part of its 1990s encirclement of India strategy through Indian Ocean Rim countries. Now the strategy has a much larger arc engulfing the Indian Ocean to the near Asia-Pacific region.

Leaving aside its space warfare and nuclear weapons strategy, its military thinking is bound to raise defensive responses from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific except for its friends like Pakistan and, probably, Sri Lanka.

To the contrary, Air Force Maj.Gen. Qiao Liang, a professor at the Air Command College of the PLA had some more realistic views about using military force at this stage of its development (interview to the Global Times, Nov. 08). Qiao said “using war to solve disputes and worsening relations with neighbours are stupid. China should learn to use its economic advantages”. He advocated patience and timing to solve the South China Sea disputes.

Whatever may be the view of Maj. Gen. Qiao and other more sober minded experts, the basic strategy of domination have not changed. Brinkmanship, however, is a dangerous game especially with the PLA’s ascendency in policy making. Domestic situations impact foreign policy and, at the moment, China’s internal situation is far from tranquil. Uncertainty in China’s military-political policy is very visible.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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