How China Plans to Win a War in the South China Sea

August 27, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaSouth China

How China Plans to Win a War in the South China Sea

Think about a "People's War." 

In the days of small-stick diplomacy, the naval big stick posed an implicit threat from over the horizon. Philippine or Vietnamese mariners knew the China Coast Guard had backup if they defied it. In all likelihood Chinese commanders will flourish the big stick more promiscuously in the future—rendering the threat overt and visible rather than latent and unobtrusive.

Here’s the third point. A people’s-war-at-sea strategy will confront a motley coalition in which outsiders—America, maybe joined by Japan or Australia—supply the bulk of the heavy-hitting combat power. The Philippines is lopsidedly outgunned. Vietnam has pluck and a formidable military, but it can hardly stand up to the northern colossus without help.

The coalition’s curious makeup would furnish Beijing opportunities for coalition-breaking. China might reckon that any conflict in the South China Sea would be a “ war by contingent ” for the United States, a war in which Washington fixes the size of a force dispatched to support regional allies and instructs the commanders of that force to do the best they can with the resources they have.

Such strategies are excellent for troublemaking but seldom decisive in themselves. Lord Wellington, for instance, led a contingent ashore in Iberia in 1807. The expedition gave Napoleon a “Spanish ulcer,” a nagging commitment on a new front. Yet Wellington never kidded himself that he would win a continent-spanning war with a modest expeditionary force augmented by partisans and the Royal Navy.

Such an approach, in other words, would betray half heartedness on Washington’s part. After all, America would have embarked on an open-ended enterprise in a distant theater off the opponent’s shores without any real thought of victory. Half Heartedness kills in such ventures.


People’s war is about outlasting stronger foes under circumstances like these. If the weaker contender is a China, endowed with sizable reserves of hard power to tap, then that contender needs time. Its armed forces protract the campaign, both to gain time to muster more strength and to wear away at enemy combat strength.

In short, China could win even if it remains weaker than America in the aggregate. The PLA could narrow or reverse the balance of forces in the theater—overpowering the U.S. contingent at the place and time that truly matter. It could dishearten Washington. U.S. leaders might despair of sustaining the undertaking indefinitely. Or, China could outlast America—inflicting numerous tactical losses over a long time, and thus driving the price tag of preserving freedom of the seas higher than U.S. leaders are willing to pay. If America goes home, the venture collapses.

How, in operational and tactical terms, can PLA commanders bring this about? By hewing to their own warmaking traditions. China is politically and strategically predictable in the South China Sea yet operationally and tactically unpredictable. Politically and strategically predictable because party leaders painted themselves into a corner with domestic constituencies. Tactically unpredictable because that’s how Chinese forces have fought since the age of Mao.

Indeed, “active defense,” the concept whereby Mao codified his ideas about people’s war, remains the heart of Chinese military strategy.  Just ask Beijing . To oversimplify, the conceit behind active defense is that a weaker China can lure a stronger pugilist into overextending and tiring himself before delivering a punishing counterpunch. Conjure up the great Muhammad Ali’s  Rumble in the Jungle  in your mind and you get the idea.

If the rope-a-dope approach works on a grand scale, Chinese forces can inflict tactical defeats that enfeeble the foe over time. Active defense, then, is all about harnessing tactical offense for strategically defensive campaigns.

To prosecute it, Chinese commanders seek out isolated enemy detachments they can assault on “exterior lines,” encircling and crushing them. The cumulative effect of repeated tactical setbacks wears down the strong—and could prompt their leadership to question whether the endeavor is still worth its hardships, perils, and costs. If not, cost/benefit logic will prod U.S. leaders toward the exit—and China will prevail even without an outright victory over allied forces.

U.S. and allied mariners and airmen, accordingly, must study China’s martial traditions, gleaning insight into how offshore active defense might unfold in the South China Sea. If you’re Beijing and have built up a seagoing militia, an impressive coast guard, Asia’s biggest indigenous navy, and a sizable arsenal of land-based weaponry to influence events at sea, how do you alloy those components into a sharp combat implement—and consolidate control over a semi-enclosed sea?

Essaying some foresight into these matters now could pay off handsomely if China tries to put General Chang’s—and Mao’s—strategic concept into practice.

Speaking of whom, a final bit of advice from Mao Zedong. Chang deployed China’s traditional lexicon, centered on people’s war, to describe how Beijing may transact business in Southeast Asia. But bear in mind that a strategy of the weak was expedient for Mao, not his strategic preference. He was writing for a China that was flat on its back, wracked by civil war and foreign invasion.