The Asian Art Of War
In the 1200’s the Mongols began building the greatest contiguous land empire in human history. Their main advantage was the horse archer. Instead of meeting their enemies with tens of thousands of foot soldiers in the kind of static land battle preferred by the Macedonians and Romans, the Mongols figured it made a lot more sense for their thousands of horse archers to ride up just close enough to the enemy to fire their arrows, then gallop away before the enemy could respond. This essentially meant that the Mongols could attack with impunity by never giving their enemies’ infantry the opportunity to engage them in pitched battle.
The tactic has perhaps been best described by a metaphor used in Dan Carlin’s “Wrath of the Khans” podcast series as “trying to fight a swarm of bees” in that even if the defenders were able to swat down a few horse archers, their efforts did almost nothing to stop the Mongols’ near-continual deadly rain of arrows. Others used this tactic as well, most notably the Parthians when they annihilated several Roman legions at the Battle of Carrhae.
The lesson was simple and enduring: if you can destroy your enemy without ever giving him the opportunity to do the same to you, victory is almost assured.
China’s New Horse Archers
In 1999 a report called “Unrestricted Warfare” was published by two colonels of the People’s Liberation Army. It made quite an impact on Chinese military doctrine by encouraging the view that computer networks, economics, the media, and financial markets are all part of the modern battlefield, and are every bit as important as sheer military strength. The report was almost immediately seen in the West — I believe I first read about it in an issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s “Proceedings” magazine that very year. Unfortunately, for all the implications of that report, we soon forgot about it — and China — after the 9/11 attacks and all the tragic insanity that followed.
In the two decades hence, China has made astounding strides in military preparedness, from its new J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter to its growing submarine fleet and its burgeoning inventory of “aircraft carrier killer missiles”, and has become increasingly belligerent with military skirmishes with India, building islands in the South China Sea to bolster its claim to nearly the entire maritime region, and its never-ending threats to forcibly assimilate Taiwan. Earlier this month it was reported that every time the U.S. Air Force wargamed a conflict with China, we lost, and badly. The more cynical among us might suspect this news was met with cigars and cork-popping in the boardrooms of our military-industrial complex with the prospect of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars in increased revenue.
But in accordance with the recommendations of “Unrestricted Warfare” doctrine, China has been conducting attacks on computer networks, most recently the hack of nearly a quarter million Microsoft customers, which attack carried the implication that it could have been much worse if China had so desired. Moreover, China is exerting an increasing degree of influence on the content of movies produced in Hollywood — when was the last time you saw a movie that was critical of China or its government? — and even over the content of video games. Personally speaking, I try to refrain from conspiracy theories, but there does seem to be a significant degree of evidence that the wildly-popular app TikTok is used by the Chinese government to collect personal data.
The key is this: while America can compete militarily, our logistical and social fabric is becoming increasingly vulnerable to Chinese hacks and social influence operations deliberately implemented by Beijing. As we should have learned by Russia’s efforts over the past two decades, having a society with freedom of press and discourse comes with risks that can be exploited almost completely without risk by those whose motives are not in America’s best interests.
China’s Achilles Heel
Fun fact: China has over 2.8 million factories. That’s nearly as many factories as Kansas has men, women, and children combined. You’ve heard of “Texas-sized”? With apologies to readers from the Lone Star State, that’s small potatoes compared to “China-sized”. At least for the next couple decades, no other nation on the planet can come close to competing with the Chinese manufacturing juggernaut.
So…in the paragraph above, did you see China’s weakness, their Achilles Heel? It’s the “2.8 million factories”.
What happens if, say, much of the rest of the world were to embargo goods manufactured in China? Not only America, but the European Union (which is the world’s largest economy, btw), India, and so on? Those factories would shut down, China’s economy would shrivel, and there’s absolutely nothing they could do about it.
Would the rest of the world do that to China? Could they? Given leadership and the right motivation, the answer to both questions is ‘yes’. Like an economic version of the nuclear option, it would be quite painful to all, but it could be done. And China knows it.
The key to understanding China is that they are smart, motivated, team-oriented, and much more patient than we addicted-to-instant-gratification Americans are. That, and except for nuclear weapons, China is an opponent orders of magnitude more capable than Russia.
When it comes to the aforementioned weakness, Chinese leadership has known about it for some time. In 2013, President Xi Jinping proposed the “Belt and Road Initiative”. It was initially envisioned as a new “Silk Road” of increased trade across South Asia to Africa and Europe, but is now being expanded to many other nations across the globe. The breadth and depth of this economic initiative dwarfs any free-trade agreements previously undertaken by the West. The obvious aim is probably best illustrated by a quote from The Godfather Part II: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” In other words, if a nation knows that an embargo against China would wreck its own economy, it’s highly unlikely that particular nation would join said embargo. The Belt And Road Initiative is, in military terms, an effort to “defeat the enemy in detail” by defeating its lesser parts until the whole is too weakened to resist any further.
Will This Be The Chinese Century? Maybe.
During the 1800’s and early 1900’s, the phrase “The Great Game” was used to refer to the diplomatic conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire. What we see today between China and the West could be referred to as the New Great Game, and it’s easy to look at everything above and assume that China’s winning already, that it’s all over but the bankruptcy proceedings.
But that would be a mistake. Again, the EU and America are the world’s largest two economies. While China’s GDP will overtake America’s within a decade, the EU’s GDP is significantly larger, and an embargo by both the EU and America — without any other nations joining in — would be devastating to China’s economy. It is for this reason that for all their bluster and saber-rattling, it is unlikely that China will invade Taiwan anytime soon unless Beijing is relatively certain that China would not be subjected to an embargo.
Instead, one wonders if China’s threats and rhetoric against Taiwan are simply the shiny object meant to distract us all from the real attacks in the form of installing malware on our networks, influencing the content of our media, and the spreading of the Belt and Road Initiative.
In any case, those of us who grew up and served in the Cold War with the specter of Mutual Assured Destruction hanging over our heads are grateful that whoever wins the New Great Game, it’s much less likely to result in an extinction event.