What if two Chinese colonels think that warfare is changing, even if you don’t?

What if two Chinese colonels think that warfare is changing, even if you don’t?

By Col. C. Anthony Pfaff, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist

There has been a great deal of discussion lately regarding how political and technological developments have impacted our understanding of war.

More than a decade of frustration combating weaker insurgent forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the likelihood of future frustration to ensure political stability in developing nations and U.S. access to critical markets and infrastructure has led many to question whether we still adequately understand what war is. Central to this discussion has been a debate over whether the nature of war has changed or simply its character. At stake in this debate is not only how we develop, organize, and employ military forces, but also our doctrinal view of war, which has important implications for how we justify the use of those forces. How we justify the use of those forces has equally important implications for how often we find ourselves using it. 

In a recent article on “War on the Rocks,” Christopher Mewett described war’s nature as “violent, political and interactive.” His concern, rightfully so, is that if we do not get the nature of war right, we will not properly prepare for it. However, this view of war is not necessarily shared by at least some possible U.S. adversaries. In their oft-cited 1999 book, Unrestricted Warfare, two Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army colonels, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiansui, argued that the United States narrowly defined war and this narrow understanding exposed it to a vulnerability that weaker states, like China, could exploit. In fact, they stated the U.S. military does a poor job of deliberating upon future fights, adding “lucid and incisive thinking … is not a strong point of the Americans.” If only they knew.

They argued, employing the language of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, that U.S. conventional success has more or less permanently transformed war. Since no adversary can hope to defeat U.S. conventional forces, war for them is no longer about “using armed force to compel the enemy to submit to one’s will,” as Clausewitz might say, but rather “using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and nonmilitary, and lethal and nonlethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests,” which they argue is more in line with Sun Tzu’s thinking.

While they did not explicitly use the words nature or character, their point suggests that something about war has changed that goes beyond simply the means by which we wage it. The shift of war’s aim from imposing one’s will to gaining acceptance of one’s interests in turn changes what it means to fight well, in both the practical and ethical sense. One revision this view suggests is that rather than seeking decisive battles, which Victor Davis Hanson has argued is the signature of the Western style of war, military force may be better used to shape and incentivize the kinds of alternatives adversaries can make. Another revision is to view military force as just one kind of national power that can be employed in war against an enemy.

To underscore their point, Qiao and Wang list numerous “kinds” of warfare which include nuclear, diplomatic, financial, network, trade, bio-chemical, intelligence, resources, ecological, psychological, economic aid, space, tactical, regulatory, electronic, smuggling, sanction, guerrilla, drug, news media, terrorist, virtual, ideological warfare, and many more. Additionally, these elements of warfare can be combined in infinite ways to form various kinds of warfare. For example, the Chinese colonels describe the U.S. war on terror as “national terrorist warfare + intelligence warfare + financial warfare + network warfare + regulatory warfare.” They also describe efforts by the Hong Kong government in 1998, just prior to its return to Chinese government control, as a war fought with “financial speculators,” using financial warfare combined with regulatory, psychological, and news media “warfare.” I would note that not all of these kinds of warfare entail violence, which as previously noted, is often cited as an essential feature of the nature of war.

Further, from this shift in ends emerges a view of war that expands on our traditional conceptions associated with war. Friend and enemy are joined by collaborator and competitor; resistance and surrender are replaced by acceptance and rejection; victory and defeat are replaced by success and failure. Further, “friend” and “enemy” do not refer simply to states, but to sub-state and non-state organizations as well. Additionally, such conflicts are not zero-sum. If one can achieve one’s interests by benefiting the enemy, or some subgroup within the enemy’s community, so much the better.

It is not clear if this shift counts as a change in the nature of war or simply its character. If the nature of war is that it is “political, interactive, and violent,” then perhaps the shift from imposing one’s will to compelling acceptance of one’s interest simply marks a difference in the character of the political component of war’s nature. However, by broadening their understanding of war the way they did, they clearly articulated forms of warfare that do not necessarily entail violence. I think a fair criticism of this view is that given war’s close association with violence they risk expanding the kinds of international engagements that can lead to violent conflict. But that is an ethical concern that doesn’t address directly whether they are right that violence isn’t a necessary feature of warfare. 

Qiao and Wang’s views are instructive on how the Chinese military engages in this debate. However, given that the debate over the nature vs. character of war is largely a linguistic exercise (I don’t mean to trivialize it — words do matter), there is at least some utility in favoring the view that war’s nature doesn’t change and that it is inherently violent. Otherwise, metaphorical uses of the term could conceivably be employed to justify the use of military force in response to non-military “acts of aggression.” Such a situation could set conditions for increased violent conflict, which under our current understanding of war would not be justified.

Col. C. Anthony Pfaff is senior military and Army advisor to the Department of State. The views stated here are his own and do not represent those of the Army, the Defense Department, or the Department of State.