The Two Words That Explain China’s Assertive Naval Strategy

"Active defense" was a favorite tactic of Mao Zedong. How will China use it to harry U.S. ships in the Pacific?

The French navy command ship Dixmude is welcomed by Chinese soldiers upon its arrival at the Wusong naval port of Shanghai on May 9, 2015. The LHD Dixmude is in Shanghai for a port visit during a five month Jeanne Darc mission.  AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE        (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
The French navy command ship Dixmude is welcomed by Chinese soldiers upon its arrival at the Wusong naval port of Shanghai on May 9, 2015. The LHD Dixmude is in Shanghai for a port visit during a five month Jeanne Darc mission. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

The just-completed Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore dwelt largely on China’s maritime ambitions, zeroing in on its construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. In his keynote address, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter vowed to “continue to protect freedom of navigation and overflight principles that have ensured security and prosperity in this region for decades.” There should be no mistake, continued Carter, that “the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all over the world.” The United States, its allies, and its partners will exercise “the rights of all nations” to their fullest, he said. That the U.S. secretary of defense traveled to the far side of the world to speak so bluntly shows how seriously Washington takes the China challenge.

And understandably so. China is a big, ambitious, oftentimes domineering power. It covets dominion, if not ownership, of its maritime environs. It chafes at the liberal Asian maritime order over which the United States has presided since 1945 — and wants to redefine that order in keeping with its own interests and aspirations. This constitutes a challenge of the first order. Hence the fanfare surrounding “China’s Military Strategy,” as Beijing straightforwardly titled its new defense white paper, released in late May.

But let’s not exaggerate the strategy’s novelty. For one thing, this isn’t China’s “first-ever defense white paper,” as one observer maintained. Beijing issued its first public defense white paper in 1998; they have appeared at roughly two-year intervals ever since.

Furthermore, some of the earlier editions were even more in-your-face than this year’s. For example, the 2004 white paper instructed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and Air Force to beef up their “capabilities for winning both command of the sea and command of the air.” Command connotes absolute, permanent control of the waters and skies off Asian shorelines. If the PLA Navy and Air Force fulfilled this decree, Beijing’s writ would become law in seas and airspace under their command. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would make the rules governing the use of seas and airspace. Party leaders could abridge freedom of the seas and skies — or bar access altogether — should they see fit. No one could gainsay their will.

* * *

While the 2015 white paper is doubtless “assertive” (one adjective commonly affixed to it); assertiveness has been standard fare in these missives for quite some time. And the formula for the document remains much the same: Its framers first present the officialdom’s appraisal of the strategic environment, then explain in general terms how the PLA will configure itself to manage that environment — and in so doing, advance the CCP’s purposes.

Typically, the authors’ take on China’s surroundings is at once upbeat and grim. “Peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit have become an irresistible tide of the times,” they proclaim. And yet Japan is “overhauling its military and security policies,” provoking “grave concerns among other countries in the region.” China’s “offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied.”

Nor are these purely intra-Asian problems. The United States is refurbishing “its military presence and its military alliances in this region.” “Some external countries” — care to guess who? — are “busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China.” A lonely nation finds itself under siege, set upon by a bully and his crummy little toadies. Verily, it’s tough being China.

* * *

What to do? Bolstering Chinese sea power will help Beijing accomplish the “long-standing task” of safeguarding “its maritime rights and interests.” But again, China’s seaward turn is nothing new. It began in the 1990s. By the turn of the century, respected commentators were holding forth on it at book length. By historical standards, in fact, China’s navy may be nearing maturity — giving Beijing the military implements to put force behind its words.

Which brings us to another point of continuity between “China’s Military Strategy” and its predecessors: Beijing’s strategic outlook. Notes the strategy, the “strategic concept of active defense is the essence of the [CCP’s] military strategic thought.” So has it ever been. Active defense, say the authors, is a strategic concept that derives from “the long-term practice of revolutionary wars.” By this they mean the Chinese Civil War and the struggle to rid China of Japanese conquerors during World War II.

As the white paper points out, China’s military leadership made active defense the core of its military strategy shortly after the People’s Republic was founded in 1949. Chinese maritime strategy, accordingly, goes by the name of “offshore active defense.” The leadership updates its active-defense strategy periodically to stay abreast of new technology and shifts in the geostrategic setting. But the underlying principles remain, encoded in China’s strategic DNA.

This is not a putdown. There’s wisdom in China’s approach to strategy. The outward character of war changes over time along with advances in weaponry and war-making methods. War’s nature, not so much. That’s why you can profitably study — and learn from — a book about rowboats and spears in Greek antiquity, a how-to guide to martial statecraft in ancient China, or a ponderous tome detailing how to fight Napoleon.

The strategic canon remains evergreen despite the passage of centuries. And so does the concept of active defense, in Beijing’s view. That’s why headlines like “China to Embrace New ‘Active Defense’ Strategy,” under which one report on “China’s Military Strategy” ran in late May, are fundamentally misguided. This is old — but potent — wine in new bottles.

In fact, active defense is a concept older than the People’s Republic itself. Mao Zedong, the CCP’s founding chairman, was also the godfather of active defense. That’s what Mao dubbed the strategy his Red Army used to overcome stronger Nationalist and Japanese opponents from the party’s inception in 1921 until its greatest triumph in 1949. He codified the phrase in a much-studied 1936 essay on the “Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War.”

So much for active defense’s lineage. But what is it? In brief, it’s the strategically defensive posture that a big, resource-rich but weak combatant assumes to weary and turn the tables on a stronger antagonist. Such a combatant needs time to tap its resources — natural riches, manpower, martial ingenuity — so it protracts the war. It makes itself strong over time, raising powerful armed forces, while constantly harrowing the enemy. It chips away at enemy strength where and when it can.

Ultimately the weaker becomes the stronger contender, seizes the offensive, and wins. It outlasts the foe rather than hazarding a battle early on — a battle where it could lose everything in an afternoon.

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There’s a stark geospatial component to active defense. Commanders need lots of maneuvering space to make it work. Fortunately for them, a battlefield as large as China offers maneuver room aplenty. Mao’s Red Army had the luxury of withdrawing into the remote interior. Commanders compelled enemy forces to choose between breaking contact — and ceding the initiative — and giving chase and overextending themselves.

This is a time-honored strategy of large but militarily backward powers. Just think about Russian forces seducing Napoleon, the “god of war,” deep into the Russian interior during the little emperor’s 1812 campaign. The result: disaster for France. It worked for the tsar’s hosts. It can work for Chinese Communists.

Surrendering ground, then, yields operational advantages. By falling back toward their base areas — “lure him in deep,” counseled Mao — Red Army units operated closer to their supplies, ammunition stockpiles, and manpower reserves. That’s a good thing from a logistical standpoint. They could harry oncoming yet increasingly overstretched foes. They could stage raids, cut supply routes, or fall on and annihilate isolated units. They gave the enemy no rest.

Minor tactical victories, then, could add up to major damage to a superior opponent. Driving deep into hostile territory could enfeeble the opponent until it was superior no longer. Mao’s armies would lift themselves gradually to strategic parity, gain ascendancy, and ultimately win through a conventional counteroffensive.

Transposed to the offshore realm, active defense means sniping at U.S. Pacific Fleet reinforcements steaming to the relief of Japan, Taiwan, or some other beleaguered ally during a conflict. U.S. Pacific Fleet expeditionary forces would arrive in the theater battered and overextended.

Luring U.S. Navy expeditionary forces in deep while pummeling them with missiles and torpedoes would help even the force balance. Active defense would grant PLA commanders some prospect for victory should a major fleet action transpire off Asian coasts.

Seaborne active defense, admittedly, looks markedly different from the Red Army slugging it out in the mud against the Nationalists or the Imperial Japanese Army. But the strategic logic remains as sound on the briny main or in the wild blue yonder as it is in China’s hinterlands.

What about individual PLA service branches? One passage from the 2015 white paper that was bandied about in press reports declares that the PLA Navy will “gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defense’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ with ‘open seas protection.’” But Beijing has broadcast its intent to venture beyond the “near seas” — the Yellow, East China, and South China seas — for years now (see here and here). It’s now starting to make good on its intent.

Western commentary also alighted on the 2015 white paper’s mandate for the PLA Air Force to “shift its focus from territorial air defense to both defense and offense.” But again, defense white papers as far back as 2004 directed the flying service to ready itself to wrest air supremacy from rival forces. And here’s the 2006 white paper: “The Air Force aims at speeding up its transition from territorial air defense to both offensive and defensive operations….” Same, same.

The trend lines in Chinese foreign policy and strategy may be worrisome, then, but they’re not new. Beijing has been admirably frank about its purposes and power for nearly two decades now: It wants to remake the Asian order in its interest. What is new is that China increasingly boasts the physical might to put steel behind ambitious words. China, for example, now fields more submarines than the U.S. Navy. Its first aircraft carrier is now at sea. It has settled on a satisfactory design for guided-missile destroyers, modern navies’ premier surface combatant ships. Yes, questions linger about the quality of Chinese hardware and seamanship and tactical acumen within the officer and enlisted corps. Nevertheless, this is a sea power on the move.

This inspires consternation outside China. Why, since Beijing has repeatedly said what it wants? Henry Kissinger writes that the “bane of stable international systems is their nearly total inability to envision mortal challenge.” In other words, the guardians of a mutually beneficial order can’t bring themselves to believe that revolutionaries really mean the wacky things they say about amending it. What fool abolishes a system that provides for the good life — including for the fool?

If Kissinger has it right, complacency dulls status quo powers’ intellectual capacity. And when intellect lags, strategy and forces are apt to lag as well. Only when the revolutionaries do or say something that makes their intentions utterly plain do the status quo’s guardians say, in effect: “Oh, you’re serious!” But by then the hour is late.

The United States, its allies, and its friends seem to be undergoing their “oh, you’re serious” moment vis-à-vis China’s rise to sea power. Intemperate words, brinkmanship on the part of PLA mariners and aviators, and quixotic yet oh-so-provocative projects like island building in the South China Sea have combined to bring about a great awakening. That is good.

Now that we have awoken, by all means let’s parse the words of white papers and other Chinese statements of purpose. They furnish clues as to what to expect from China and how we can reply. But let’s also realize this is a challenge that’s been a long time in the making and, in all likelihood, will persist far into the future. Meeting it will require matching Beijing’s steadfastness of purpose.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.


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