The late President of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew said in 2012 that “It is China’s intention to be the greatest power in the world, and to be accepted as China, not as an honorary member of the West”. Continuing, he told his interviewers that China’s “great advantage is not in military influence but in their economic influence [… which] can only grow and grow beyond the capabilities of America.” President Lee’s last statement highlights the non-military nature which Chinese pursuit of global ascendancy may take.
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Unrestricted Warfare, a work published in 1999 by two PLA colonels, is argued to inform much of current Chinese strategic thinking. The key tenet of the work is “non-military warfare”, which refers to almost all recognized forms of strife or discord which can arise within states with effects equal to military operations.
As a particularly topical example, the authors delineate a “trade war” as a classic example of non-military warfare. Following this line of thinking, the U.S. and the P.R.C. are engaged (per the Chinese viewpoint) in non-military warfare.
Other means of non-military warfare include, “psychological warfare; smuggling warfare; media warfare; drug warfare; network warfare; technological warfare; fabrication warfare; resources warfare; economic aid warfare; cultural warfare; and international law warfare.”
“The most modern military forces do not have the ability to control public clamor, and can’t deal with an opponent who does things in an unconventional manner.[…] Looking at the specific examples of battles that we have, it is difficult for high-tech troops to deal with unconventional warfare and low-tech warfare […]”
“Public clamor”, as detailed in the above passage, may refer to a non-military superweapon in and of itself. The reaction to the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, during the NATO air campaign over Yugoslavia offers a prime example. The U.S. embassy in Beijing was attacked while tens of thousands of protesters surrounded the facility in a show of P.R.C.-managed “hypernationalism”.
This leads us to beg the question as to what the effect of a US, British or French warship inadvertently sinking a Chinese fishing vessel in the South China Sea would be? Even if the Chinese fishing vessel were to ram the western ship, the issue could be framed within the P.R.C. as an attack upon national interests. Embassies, western businesses operating in China, foreign workers (such as English or French language teachers) or tourists could be targeted as during the the Senkaku Incident in 2010 when the P.R.C. seized 4 Japanese nationals it claimed were photographing military installations.
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This commentary has sought to showcase the various forms which Chinese strategic decision-making can take, along its pursuit of ascendancy in the international order. While much is made of military or technical aspects, China has a wide variety of options, primarily non-military ones, for achieving its regional and international goals. More important, however, is that the P.R.C. perceives nearly all disadvantageous activities by its adversaries as elements of non-military warfare, be they in the realms of economics, media, or even the pursuit of resources and technology. Therefore, notions of Chinese proclivity for “healthy competition” are illusory and instead elements of “non-military warfare”.