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China's Asymmetrical Strategy

The battle for access in the Western Pacific.

11:00 PM, Dec 26, 2007 • By ERIC SAYERS
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THE IMPRESSIVE CONVENTIONAL military strength post-industrial states have procured in the past half-century has helped to determine the shape and nature of modern warfare. In a geostrategic environment where conflict continues to persist between advanced militaries and their substandard adversaries--either rogue states or terror cells--the latter have been forced to develop asymmetric ways of challenging the superior with the inferior.

The extent of America's sweeping success during the Persian Gulf War had the unintended consequence of convincing would-be adversaries that they must reconstitute new strategies in order to compete with and challenge U.S. power. In essence, American military predominance had become so extensive that it has altered the face of the battlefield by forcing others to adapt--to prevent America from playing the game but its rules.

This is evident in both Iraq and Afghanistan where the U.S. continues its struggle to contain disconnected networks of al-Qaeda militants and Shia militias armed with AK-47s and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). As much as the United States had hoped it could defeat extremist elements using sophisticated weapons and other advanced technologies, the supposed superiority of network-centric warfare proved insufficient against Islamist tactics. Similarly, Venezuela and its despotic leader Hugo Chavez, who frequently warns of a pending invasion by the United States, has placed asymmetric warfare at the center of his countries national defense doctrine. Former Venezuelan General Alberto Mueller has argued in favor of the doctrine, "because conventional war is ceasing to exist."

Although it is terrorism--and in the case of Venezuela, "guerilla war"--that is so often discussed in the realm of asymmetric warfare, the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) has also embraced the precepts of this strategy to counter American superiority. As Robert Kaplan has explained, terrorists and their crude tactics fall on the low end of asymmetric strategy. For America, the even greater challenge will be those states like China that are able to confront the United States at the high-tech end of the unconventional sphere.

While in the coming decades China anticipates that the continued success of its economic expansion will allow it to take a much more assertive geopolitical posture--projecting force far beyond its coastal waters--in the near-term the issue of Taiwan will remain the primary focus for Chinese policymakers. While ensuring Taiwan does not entertain ambitions of secession from the mainland, PLA military planners will also be forced to concern themselves with defeating a U.S. military that remains committed to the defense of Taiwan.

Just how does the PLA believe it can achieve this? Chinese strategists are not naive. They recognize that their military is only a decade or two removed from operational obscurity. And a Chinese conventional force able to challenge the United States is at least another decade away by the estimates of the most generous analysts. In summary, Chinese leaders face a strategic quandary where their interests in Taiwan are at risk, yet for the foreseeable future they cannot obtain the traditional military capabilities to secure those interest.

Should either a political or military event threaten the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. will respond by diverting a Carrier Strike Group to the region. Chinese analysts understand that if this is allowed to happen, the United States will almost certainly achieve its objectives, emerging victorious should hostilities commence.

To deal with this dilemma the PLA has chosen to put its trust in an asymmetric strategy aimed at battlespace denial, or anti-access as it is more commonly known. Rather than confront the United States directly, the PLA believes it can acquire the capabilities to deter an American entrance into the Taiwan Strait, or, should this fail, delay U.S. forces the freedom to operate within the theatre.

Some observers have concluded that China's development of anti-access capabilities neither undermines U.S. sea control nor contributes to a war-wining capability. Such assertions may have been accurate as recently as earlier this decade, but at present, and increasingly in the next several years, this conclusion will appear to be guided more by an overconfidence in American capabilities than by pragmatic realism.

Consistent with the teachings of ancient Chinese warfare, anti-access is comprised of both military and political elements. The Chinese theoretician Sun Tzu wrote that, "supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting." This would appear to be the primary aim of anti-access: successful diplomatic coercion through expanded asymmetric capabilities.