China's Muhammad Ali Military Strategy
So China has no good strategy to counter American intervention—and may not even care that much about doing so—because Chinese officialdom and commentators seldom use the word “counterintervention”? Ah. Glad we straightened that out.
Or at least that seems to be the message coming from MIT professor Taylor Fravel and Naval Postgraduate School professor Chris Twomey, writing over at The Washington Quarterly. Read the whole thing. In brief, the twosome maintain that counterintervention is a Western term for describing Chinese strategy, that it’s so commonplace in Western commentary as to rank as a “meme” or “trope,” and that Chinese strategists rarely use it except to relate what Westerners are saying about China.
Projecting the term onto China, they say, implies that Beijing’s military strategy aims solely at deterring or defeating American intervention, whether in the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere in maritime East Asia. In turn, imputing a U.S.-centric view of Chinese maritime strategy to Chinese strategists obscures other purposes that impel China’s words and deeds.
Beijing, observe Fravel and Twomey, may have other purposes in mind for the warships, aircraft, and armaments the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is busily assembling. Some disputes don’t involve the United States, rendering the question of intervention moot. Nor has the Chinese Communist leadership confined its ambitions exclusively to East Asia. The leadership entertains ambitions in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere on the map. In short, everything’s not about America. Obsessing over the American factor in Chinese strategy skews strategy-making in Washington and allied capitals, narrowing strategists’ field of view.
Now, we can quibble over whether counterintervention really figures that prominently in the U.S. military lexicon. I doubt it expresses any consensus appraisal of the PLA, let alone dominates thinking or obscures much of anything. Apart from a handful of mentions in the Defense Department’s annual reports on Chinese military power, along with scattered mentions in op-eds and think-tank works—all amply documented in Fravel’s and Twomey’s endnotes—it’s far from a household term. Google it if you doubt me. The results will be sparse.
Let’s accept their premise nevertheless. Terminological precision is worthwhile. Fravel and Twomey show convincingly what Chinese strategy is not: it’s not a venture that goes by the name counterintervention. To the extent that counterintervention constitutes conventional wisdom in U.S. defense circles, it deserves to be dethroned. Stipulated!
If not counterintervention, then, what is Chinese strategy? Our doughty coauthors don’t fare so well explaining that. Indeed, only in passing do they mention the term “active defense,” the name Chinese strategists do give their strategy. PLA thinkers term their maritime strategy “offshore active defense,” or sometimes “near-seas active defense.” And as it turns out, active defense is about...countering American intervention. In so doing China grants itself a free hand in its home region.
And it needs one. The capacity to ward off U.S. forces steaming westward across the Pacific constitutes an indispensable enabler for anything coercive China wants to do that might trigger U.S. involvement. That’s a long list, encompassing not just a Taiwan contingency but a conflict over the Senkaku Islands, a clash spawned by China’s efforts to proscribe lawful military endeavors in international waters and skies, and on and on.
The U.S. armed forces could thwart what Beijing sees as China’s rightful aspirations. In turn they comprise the biggest challenge confronting the PLA—and militaries understandably fixate on meeting their biggest challenge. Hence PLA strategists’ emphasis on active defense.
To picture what active defense is, conjure up the faces of Mao Zedong and Muhammad Ali. Chairman Mao formulated the concept during the dark days when stronger enemies like Chinese Nationalists and Imperial Japanese drove Mao and his Red Army to the brink of destruction. Active defense was how the communists turned the tables on the strong—and prevailed.
How did it work? Mao liked sporting analogies. Sorely outmatched Red Army forces, he insisted, should comport themselves like a “clever boxer” squaring off against a stronger opponent. Rather than flail away when the bell rings and waste his energy, contended Mao, the savvy pugilist lets the opponent flail away and waste his energy—exposing himself to a barrage of counterpunches.
And who’s a cleverer boxer than Muhammad Ali? Active defense is reminiscent of the “rope-a-dope” strategy Ali employed to beat a beefier George Foreman during their Rumble in the Jungle back in 1974. Ali played defense for most of the fight, letting Foreman chase him around the ring and pound him repeatedly. Foreman wore himself out in the process—letting Ali grab the offensive and clobber his opponent by a knockout.
In military terms, Chinese forces playing active defense fall back on their base areas, letting stronger foes overextend and tire themselves. They execute tactical engagements wherever they can amass local superiority. That hastens the tiring-out process, while in the meantime they muster superior manpower and resources. Having reversed an unfavorable military balance, the erstwhile defenders seize the counteroffensive and win.
Commanders prosecuting active defense, then, fall back to gain time, jab repeatedly at the adversary to distract and weary him, and marshal sufficient combat power to fight and win on the conventional battlefield. This is an intensely offensive brand of defensive warfare, and again, it’s also a temporary expedient. Defense yields to offense.
And to victory if executed properly. Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy left him holding the contested ground—namely the boxing ring. China’s offensive/defensive approach left Mao’s communists holding Chinese turf following the wars against the Nationalists and Japanese. A nautical variant of active defense might likewise pay off during a Rumble in the Pacific. That’s the idea.
So China does have a strategy—regardless of which words Chinese strategists use to describe it. Consider another example: Fravel and Twomey profess bafflement that the term “sea denial” is missing from Chinese strategic commentary. Denying U.S. forces control of vital expanses—for instance, the waters adjoining Taiwan—would constitute part and parcel of any strategy designed to thwart American intervention. If Chinese commentators don’t use the term, they imply, sea denial must not be part of PLA strategy.
Fine—except that the greats of sea-power theory don’t use the term either, and Chinese strategists are students of the greats. They just describe a strategy that happens to be about denying a stronger enemy the use of important waters. Sir Julian Corbett, the grand master of maritime strategy, sketches a strategy for the weaker naval power. The lesser fleet, writes Corbett, should remain “in being,” avoiding catastrophic defeat while enfeebling a stronger opponent and making itself into the stronger contender.
“Minor counterattacks” with fleet detachments, torpedo boats, or minelayers, that is, weaken the opponent while letting naval commanders mass existing forces, procure new ships or weaponry, or seek allies boasting navies of their own. This approach—which Corbett, like Mao, terms active defense—is an interim solution that allows a navy to reverse the balance, seize command of the sea, and exploit command to win the war. Deny, then command.
Corbett doesn’t talk about sea denial, then. He merely explains how to do it, denying hostile fleets control of the sea while striving to open up new operational vistas. Subsequent maritime thinkers took to calling this approach sea denial, but the method long predated the lingo. Let’s not make too much out of linguistic niceties.
Look. China must grapple with a twofold challenge should it opt to use force. Adversary forces already in the theater pose the immediate threat, while reinforcements coming from beyond pose the more menacing but geographically more remote threat. If the United States doesn’t embroil itself in a contingency, that simplifies PLA commanders’ job. China outmatches most Asian armed forces, with the arguable exception of Japan. The PLA can tend to business in most mano a mano conflicts.
Would waging offense contradict Chinese martial traditions? Nope. Mao prescribed active defense because he assumed China would start out as the weaker antagonist. That’s what his lifetime taught. But it would defy common sense to play defense—even the active sort—against an inferior opponent such as the Philippines or Vietnam. If China were already strong enough to enjoy an offensive option, wouldn’t Mao exhort PLA commanders to grab it? In all likelihood he would.
Should Washington involve itself, needless to say, it will compound the difficulties before PLA commanders. They must deal with U.S. forces stationed in the theater and external forces surging into the theater. Forward-deployed forces, notably the Japan-based Seventh Fleet, depend on reinforcements coming from places like Pearl Harbor or San Diego to shift the balance in their favor. U.S. leaders will send the Pacific Fleet should war erupt.
That poses a dual challenge for Chinese defenders, but a challenge that can be handled in phases. It takes time to traverse the broad Pacific in the best of times, let alone under fire. Rather than wait passively for U.S. reinforcements to enter the Western Pacific or China seas and then try to manage the problem—as Fravel and Twomey suggest Chinese commanders will—they will throw the bulk of their effort against the Seventh Fleet while sniping at Pacific Fleet strike groups as far from Asia as possible.
Taking things in turn is classic Mao. Mao maintains that it’s better to cut off one of an enemy’s fingers than mash them all. In other words, that it’s better to defeat a foe piecemeal if his forces are dispersed into detachments of manageable size and capability. By contrast, waiting until an enemy concentrates overwhelming might before going after him amounts to self-defeating behavior. That’s why Mao proclaims that only fools or madmen cherish passive defense as a talisman.
This is basic strategy: when China is stronger at the decisive place and time, it will fight like the strong. When China is weaker at the decisive place and time, it will fight like the weak while doing things to wear down the foe, build itself into the stronger combatant, and prevail. If U.S. forces in the theater at the onset of war and rescuers coming from afar comprise the challenge, then, the PLA will do its best to pummel the former while subjecting the latter to long-range air, missile, and submarine attacks. A decisive battle, if necessary, will take place deep in Asian waters—but only after U.S. forces overstretch themselves.
That’s why the Pentagon partitions the challenge posed by coastal states like China and Iran into “anti-access” and “area denial,” a.k.a. “A2/AD.” Area denial refers to engaging enemy forces within a theater, anti-access to denying those beleaguered forces outside support. Having met the challenge—having thrown up their guard like Muhammad Ali—PLA commanders can then turn their attention to all of the other missions Fravel and Twomey explore. They can’t ignore the chief impediment to China’s ambitions—the American impediment—for the sake of lesser missions.
That would flout both strategic logic and the Maoist way of war. And assuming away China’s strategic fluency would represent a mistake of the first order. Something called counterintervention isn’t China’s strategy. Countering intervention—and then exploiting the fruits of victory—is.