Chinese strategy can be hard to grasp, with wildly different views from politicians and analysts, lots of scary headlines — lots of letters and numbers like the J20, THAAD or the F35 — as well as a certain mysterious quality and lack of knowledge about Chinese history.
But it isn’t as intimidating when you keep in mind a few key concepts.
China’s History Holds Crucial Clues
China boasts a history dating back thousands of years and has arguably the longest continual cultural tradition on the globe. But you don’t have to memorize the names of dozens of dynasties. (Perhaps if you really want to impress the ladies you could). The most important summation of thousands of years of history is to realize that they were the dominant power in Asia for much of their history and the government references this frequently in modern policy discussions.
The most important parts of modern Chinese history include two specific periods. From 1843 to 1949 China entered a period of weakness and civil war that only ended with the Communists taking power under Mao Zedong. During this time, the dynasty was largely helpless to stop Western intrusions. Chinese textbooks still cite the Opium War fought by the British. Various Western powers carved up spheres of influence. The US was the least offensive of these powers, but they still demanded and received open trading ports.
Matters became worse after the last leader of the dynasty fell in 1911 and the result was a general perception of weakness in contravention to much of Chinese history and an earned, but overused complaint of being victims. (See point #3.)
That weakness made the second period, from 1949 to the present, much more pressing for China. When they finally had a strong government and unified country for the first time in 100 years they set about reasserting their dominance. China has fought offensive preemptive wars with every one of their neighbors to settle territorial disputes or (re)assert their primacy. Many of these events tried to change the terms of what they call, unequal treaties, made with imperialist powers during their period of weakness.
The border with India was established when the British ruled there, and China tried to change the terms of the Sino Soviet Treaty of Friendship made when China was the much weaker partner. Regions like Mongolia, the Taiwan Straight, and Korea and Vietnam also represent historically important areas to China they considered part of their strategic interests.
The Difference Between Rhetoric and Reality
Points 1 and 2 combine to form this point. While China seems to be acting in a manner that recalls the traditional vigorous and expansionist early stages of dynasties, they do so under the old Confucian rhetoric which claims China is beset by foreigners and simply asserting their national rights against bullying imperialists. Knowing the simple difference between the rhetoric of being a victim, and their assertive and even aggressive actions explains their defense of those actions.
For example, the last time the US affirmed international law by sailing in international waters the Chinese claimed they fired two missiles as a defense against US aggression. The difference between true defensive measures and aggressive claims such as those in the South China Sea is that China violate maritime law to expand territory, while the US affirms international law to make sure territorial claims aren’t settled by force — which would naturally favor Beijing since it is the biggest power in the region.
China’s Mastery of Technology
Rhetoric verses reality also applies to weapon systems. The most common way Americans learn about China is some fearmongering article that promises to be a game changer, make the carrier obsolete, or expose a fundamental flaw in US strategy. The Chinese are fielding numerous impressive planes and plan to swarm US forces with overwhelming amounts of missiles. But missiles are not a new technology. They might be faster, and harder to track, but the US defenses are also upgrading their tracking technology, adding numerous, low cost defensive layers like lasers, and obtaining better interceptors.
This is a response and counter response between China and America, not innovative game changing technology from one or the other. But newspapers are much like politicians, and find that scary, breathless articles get more clicks than nuanced analysis.
As far back as Santa Anna’s Mexican army invading Texas and as recently as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, there have been supposedly large and advanced armies promising the mother of all battles only to evaporate upon contact with the US military.
Challenges to Chinese Power
That leads to the final point: any potential conflict between the United States and China won’t be fought by weapon systems. Thousands of years ago the classical Confucian scholar Guanzi advocated for a “broad knowledge” of history instead of simply focusing on weapons. Even the robots of the future such as unmanned aerial vehicles, and subs often have a human driver.
China faces similar problems to many of those in Western countries plus a few that are unique to them. Recruits from a sedentary and urban society on average are larger and have more breathing problems. Because of the one child policy many Chinese adolescents have also been spoiled and have what is called little emperor syndrome. One a larger scale, the one child policy is creating a demographic time bomb.
Like other Western countries, China relies on immigrant labor to fill key gaps in the economy, though unlike the West China puts many of them in forced labor camps. Thus, even if it has the best weapons Beijing may not have the best economic foundation or skilled soldiers to fight an actual hot war.
This basic primer on history, geography, rhetoric, technology, and broader knowledge should prepare you for the next breathless article about a mysterious Chinese weapon system, their supposed victimhood, or another flare up in the South China Sea.