Beijing aims to avoid battle but win war with new dark arts

Posted: December 29, 2020 in Sunday Times
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An end of year piece (or beginning of the new decade depending on how you see things), this time projecting forwards looking at how conflict with China is likely to play out for a UK audience in the UK’s Sunday Times. Have a suspicion that this year is going to involve a lot of discussion around this, have a few events already planned which will touch on some of these issues. The newspaper also produced a great graphic to accompany the piece which is posted below and draws on Global Fire Power‘s data.

Beijing aims to avoid battle but win war with new dark arts

As Britain prepares to send the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Asia-Pacific region in a new year show of hard power, 2020 is ending with ringing warnings about the military threat that China presents to the world order.

Shortly before Christmas, the chiefs of the US navy, Marine Corps and coastguard pointed out that Beijing’s naval battle force was bigger than America’s (350 ships and submarines to the US Navy’s 293). The chief of the UK defence staff, General Sir Nick Carter, warned in sync with the Americans that the West needed a long-term strategy against Chinese expansionism.

Is China preparing for war? Not quite. The conflict is likely to be dominated by asymmetry, cyberweapons, clashes in third locations and economic sniping. As Carter explained, paraphrasing the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu: “Their goal is to win without going to war.”

China is aware of its hard-power limitations. While the military has been on a spending spree of dramatic proportions over the past few years, it remains a relatively weak power overall compared with its biggest rival, America. As a consequence, it has sought to harness opportunity where it sees over-reliance and weakness in its principal adversary.

The result is an army that is focused on diversionary conflict, trying to throw the US off balance. On the battlefield this means a focus on electronic warfare, satellites and disruption, making it hard for the highly advanced American fighting machine to talk to itself and deliver its shock and awe capability.Off the direct field of battle, it involves political meddling, using economic levers, and targeting American allies such as Australia in ways that undermine their links with America and create complicated situations that Washington will struggle to confront in classic deterrence terms. It is difficult to calibrate an appropriate response to economic sanctions against Australian wine producers.

This does not, however, mean that China has not also developed advanced weapons to place on the field of battle. The military has swarm drone technology that seeks to overwhelm adversaries with a confusing number of small, unmanned vehicles. Over a tense summer in which the US conducted exercises in the Pacific and a cabinet-level official visited Taiwan, China showcased its ability to conduct exercises simultaneously across its coasts.

It concluded this summer of tension by testing its DF-21D, the so-called “carrier killer” missile. According to a Chinese academic it also deployed microwave weapons to move Indian forces off rival mountaintops during their springtime clashes. China’s army is making sure that it is able to deliver on President Xi Jinping’s demand that it can “fight and win”.

But true to Sun’s maxims, the priority for China is the asymmetric conflict that avoids confrontation on the battlefield. While being ready for conflict and showing strength is important, it is clear that Beijing realises that a catastrophic global conflict would hurt China as well. Reliant on global trade and commerce, Beijing would worry about the consequences of a clash that brings the world’s economy shuddering to a stop.

Translated to the field of battle, this means confronting your enemies in indirect ways: targeting American allies in lieu of angering the US directly.

This means aggressive tariffs on Australian products alongside an escalating war of words played out over social media. It means kidnapping and holding hostage the Canadian consultants Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor as punishment for the detention by Canada of Meng Wanzhou, a senior Huawei executive, in response to an American arrest warrant. Or it means detaining or scaring off journalists from English-speaking publications based in Beijing; an action that is a net loss to both sides, depriving everyone of a key bridge in understanding between China and the world.

And then there is the new bombast of the Chinese foreign ministry. While it still talks of win-win and a harmonious world, it has increasingly taken a tabloid approach to delivering these messages.

Twitter has become populated by a growing number of Chinese diplomats and journalists who use their feeds to shout at and confront adversaries online. Look at the webpages of Chinese embassies, and it seems as though their priority is confrontation with America, rather than the priorities of the countries they are based in.

The UK has been fortunate to have avoided most of the direct fire. The clash over Huawei caused a lot of noise, but resulted in little response. Downing Street walked away from the company, notwithstanding all the menacing talk. Nor, aside from public declarations of anger, has Beijing responded directly to Britain’s criticism of its clampdown in Hong Kong.

When it does so, the response is unlikely to be a military. Rather, it will be a complicated web of pushing and pulling of levers that will hit the UK in different ways. It will materialise in pressure on countries with which the UK is seeking to develop stronger ties or with which it has strong links — in parts of Africa and south Asia in particular we are likely to see this sort of competition heating up.

China usually seems more eager to focus on the UK as a potential partner in these parts of the world, but it is hard to know how long this will last. China might start to try to push the UK out of some of these locations by forcing local leaders to make a choice between China or the UK. The trigger could be a decision by Beijing to more prominently associate the UK with America.

Beijing is also likely to seek to use the UK’s post-Brexit isolation from Europe as a fissure to apply more strategic economic pressure to persuade the UK to take its side on the world stage. Any tensions between London and Washington will be exploited in similar ways. Key trade restrictions may be applied, UK companies targeted for punishment or cyberinterference increased.

So far, none of this has taken place any more than usual, but these are the sorts of options that Beijing is more likely to turn to instead of open warfare.

These actions are ones that recognise that conflict is taking place against a backdrop of a world that continues to be deeply interconnected, meaning that the effort by Beijing (and Washington) will constantly be to keep the adversary on the back foot and off-balance, avoiding the catastrophic consequences of direct confrontation.

These are the choppy waters into which HMS Queen Elizabeth will be steering. A conflict that is neither black nor white, but is made up of moves and countermoves played out across a globe where no one really wants to have to choose sides, and no one really wants to fight.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies

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