Chinese Sources and Chinese Strategy
We commend the attention to the study of Chinese strategy that James Holmes’ inaugural column exemplifies. We agree that it is important to deepen our understanding of how China conceives of the ways and means of achieving its chosen ends, in the classic Clausewitz formulation. In our original article, we also characterize many of the capabilities—the means—similarly to Holmes’ column. To advance this debate, we would like to respond to the core elements of his argument where we differ. In particular, we reemphasize the importance of drawing directly on authoritative Chinese military writings to understand the PLA's strategy.
It is important be clear about our argument. We never wrote that China “may not even care that much about” U.S. intervention. To recap our article, in Chinese military writings, counter-intervention is not described as a general military strategy. To be sure, China is developing new capabilities that could be used against the United States if it intervened in a regional conflict involving China. Chinese sources to describe the need to “deal with” or “resist” intervention as a part of specific campaign, especially a conflict over Taiwan. That is, China views dealing with the United States not as the primary goal of its military strategy, but as one component of a subset of possible scenarios it envisions. Once we recognize this, it becomes clear that China faces a range of security concerns, and that presuming it focuses narrowly or solely on the United States can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies and downward spirals.
Prior to highlighting our core point on the utilization of authoritative Chinese sources, a few other points raised by Holmes should be rebutted. First, Holmes questions “whether counter-intervention really figures that prominently in the U.S. military lexicon.” Regardless of how many times it appears in Google searches, it has been used in three Department of Defense reports on Chinese military power and presumably in other internal Pentagon reports as well. Prominent defense policy analysts also use the term in high-profile publications and in Congressional testimony, including Holmes’ reference to “the Chinese term ‘counter-intervention’.” We flagged a dozen or so in the article, and could easily add more. Admittedly, counter-intervention does not trump “assassin's mace” or “A2/AD” in Google searches related to China (although it’s close on the former). But those are tainted terms in distinct ways (the former is not a strategy, and the latter is widely recognized not to be Chinese parlance).
Second, Holmes suggests that China's current strategy under the rubric of "active defense" is just counter-intervention by another name. However, Holmes relies on a outdated understanding of active defense. Mao Zedong first coined the term during the 1930s to describe how to defend against a stronger Nationalist force that was trying to annihilate the Communist forces through a series of counter-encirclement campaigns. Then, Mao described how to engage in the “strategic defensive” or how to defeat to a much stronger opponent's offensive operations by trading time for space and engaging in counter-attacks when local superiority could be achieved. Simply put, Mao's 1930s version of active defense bears little resemblance to China's current strategic situation apart from the gap in capabilities with the United States.
Third, as we noted in our article, some analysts view the term “counter-intervention” as the military component of a broader strategy to push the United States out of the region. Although Holmes may not be suggesting that—a “rope a dope” strategy inferred from Mao may suggest something rather reactive—it surely matters which is correct. In some scenarios, the difference is immaterial: in cases where Chinese interests are clearly expansionary, any Chinese effort to counter U.S. intervention would harm U.S. interests (e.g., Taiwan). In others, the distinction between a broad grand strategy and a narrow operational concept matters critically. (Do the Chinese intend to use militarily force to obtain the Senkakus? Do the Chinese want to use military means to sever the US-Japan alliance? Proactively push the US out of the South China Sea?) An accurate appraisal of contemporary Chinese military strategy might illuminate this. Projecting terms from our own lexicon, or inferring what Mao would do, does not.
Finally, most importantly and broadly, Holmes suggests that China's strategy can be inferred. Our article sought to underscore the importance of understanding how China conceives of its own strategy. Our title was deliberate: “Projecting Strategy” is ill advised. Analysts should take advantage of the Chinese language sources now available to assess what the actual, rather than imputed, strategy is. The best way to do this at the unclassified level is to evaluate authoritative documents from the PLA's professional military writings published by the PLA itself. In our article, we cite dozens, and survey scores, of such Chinese language articles, chapters, and books. Some of the key sources we examined are used as textbooks for in the PLA's own professional military education institutions (akin, indeed, to the Naval War College and Postgraduate School). Some are “classified” in the Chinese system, although readily available through libraries outside of China.
As an evidentiary basis for evaluating contemporary Chinese military strategy, the close examination of these sources is profoundly superior to extrapolating from what Mao's writings in the 1930s might imply for the PLA today, as Holmes does. Fealty to Maoist concepts constrains the Chinese Communist Party’s policy in myriad ways, both domestic and international. But analysts now have access to contemporary and authoritative documents that permit analysis of China’s national security strategy in a fine-grained manner. To ignore these sources in favor of Mao's approach to guerrilla warfare is misguided. Both of us have written about such earlier ideas extensively, here and here, to explain…Mao's historical policies.
By invoking Mao's writings from the 1930s and not contemporary Chinese sources on military strategy and operations, Holmes exemplifies the problem we highlighted in our original article. Although active defense remains part of the PLA's strategic lexicon today, the concept and its application has been redefined many times since the founding of the PRC (see Blasko’s chapter here). How China would combine offense and defense under active defense depends on China's assessment of its current strategic situation, which again demands a careful reading of Chinese sources, not projecting Mao onto the present. The image of Mao watching the Rumble in the Jungle, epitomizing capitalist degeneracy, in the depth of the Cultural Revolution only two years before his death, is beguiling. But Holmes’ idea of a Chinese “rope a dope strategy” is … well, just that: Holmes’ idea.
This is not a mere debating point. It is critical to accurately understand how Chinese strategists conceive of their security environment and threats, how they plan to address them, and what that implies for U.S. forces and commitments in the region. China has changed a lot since Mao coined the concept of "active defense" in the 1930s. Our analysis of it needs to keep up. We hope our article, and perhaps this debate, sparks further study of the topic by those well versed in contemporary Chinese writings to accurately characterize that strategy. This is certainly an area in which we will both continue to toil.