China employs military actions to achieve political outcomes in territorial disputes. Understanding them is important if conflict is to be avoided.
Last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scored a decisive victory in Japan’s Upper House elections. The Chinese leadership’s actions before, during and after the election period shed light on its use of traditional and high-technology warfare strategies and tactics.
This form of warfare uses different types of technology in bounded or protracted military actions to force a political outcome to an existing dispute. It exploits a combination of traditional and advanced technologies – missiles, vessels, jet fighters, surveillance aircraft, tests and interruptive technologies – to send political messages to rivals. That China’s leaders engage in this unique warfare may reflect their feeling that they have reached a point of inadequate returns from solely diplomatic overtures. They may also be seeking new ways to send the desired message. Finally, they might sense that the dispute with Japan has begun to cross a threshold, and now threatens China’s national interests.
In this context, China’s national interests are narrowly defined. According to my research, they include the promises the leadership has made to the Chinese people on eventual national unification as well as protecting the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty from external threats. Counter to conventional wisdom, China’s bureaucracy is not always run according to top-down decision-making by the Standing Committee of the Politburo. In cases where the leadership has made formal promises to the population, domestic sentiment is a formidable driver of policy. In other words, the domestic audience is not only part of the decision-making process but also has the power to hold the leadership accountable for failing to defend these assurances. Accordingly, when China’s rivals and their partners, friends or allies demonstrate the political will and acquire or put in place the military capabilities to undermine the Chinese leadership’s promises on these issues, the leadership is forced to demonstrate some form of resolve. Typically it resorts to the use of traditional and high-technology political warfare to send a political message and force a diplomatic outcome.
Although China’s leaders employ this singular form of warfare, the leaders have little intention of escalating the dispute into some type of militarized conflict. Rather, their primary purpose at any point during the warfare drills is to compel the adversary to the negotiating table and possibly remove the dispute from the public spotlight.
If this approach fails, however, China’s leaders might escalate their activities, which could include resorting to unprecedented military actions to force a political solution. By engaging in escalated military actions, the Chinese leadership signals to its rivals that their exploits are increasingly hostile to China’s national interests. Instead of resorting to the use of force, China’s leaders could demonstrate their political will and military capacity by exacting severe political and economic consequences. These consequences include engaging in actions that might cause the rival’s domestic audience to turn against its policies and/or cause significant economic damage. Throughout the exercises, the Chinese leadership’s goal remains the same: the use of military action to force political outcomes. The application of direct military force against military targets is an option of last resort.
Two cases highlighting China’s unique form of warfare are the 1994-1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis and the 2012-2013 East China Sea Crisis. In the Taiwan Straits Crisis, the event was triggered by what the Chinese leadership interpreted as growing Taiwanese independence. As a result, the leadership ran a series of traditional and high-technology warfare maneuvers. These exercises and tests consisted of large-scale exercises, underground nuclear tests, ballistic missile tests, amphibious exercises, and live-fire exercises. They signaled different messages to different actors whose behaviors increasingly posed a direct threat to China’s national interest. To the Taiwanese electorate and leadership, the message was that no referendum for independence should be placed on the ballot during the 1996 Taiwan presidential election. To foreign powers, the signal was that no external interference in China’s internal affairs would be tolerated. And to the Mainland Chinese audience, the leadership demonstrated its political will and military readiness to uphold its promise to prevent an independent Taiwan. Additionally and perhaps most saliently, the Chinese leadership’s military actions established that it could inflict political and significant economic harm against Taiwan.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which ran on the Taiwanese independence platform, subsequently lost. And the missile tests and other exercises caused not only the stock market to plummet but also signaled the PLA’s capacity to interrupt shipping and damage Taiwan’s island economy.