Leadership: Fighting The Quiet War With China

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April 22, 2012: Western military leaders are having a hard time figuring out what Chinese military strategy is. It’s becoming clear that China is not looking for a war, as that would turn the population against the communist dictatorship that still runs the country. The communist leaders survive mainly by ensuring that the economy keeps growing. Any kind of war would endanger that, especially if the foe were someone with a large navy (like the U.S. or Japan). Yet China is fighting a war and they're winning. China has, for over a decade, been quietly fighting its way into Western computer networks and stealing military and technology secrets. The stolen tech is fairly easy to spot when it increasingly shows up in Chinese made products but with no convincing explanation of how they developed this technology that is identical to stuff already patented in the West. Lawsuits have been more effective in fighting this than any military or diplomatic efforts, but most of the time the Chinese get away with the theft.

There is another aspect of the Chinese "Quiet War" that has not garnered much attention, and that is the large quantity of stolen military tech and data that (in theory) enables the Chinese to deceive many high-tech Western systems. Particularly vulnerable are electronic warfare, communications, and satellite based systems. Interfering with satellite communications or taking over control of satellites is a major nightmare. With the quantity of data China has stolen such meddling becomes possible. The Chinese are not going to reveal what they can do until they have to do it.

But are the Chinese really backing away from preparations for conventional war? Consider the evidence. First, China is reducing the size of its armed forces, by over a million troops in the last decade and still going. China has also doubled its defense spending (to over $100 billion a year) in the last decade. The big mystery is figuring what the Chinese military up to with all this spending? This question's been rattling around inside intelligence agencies, and among diplomats, for the last decade.

China is not buying a lot of high tech weapons but is mainly trying to replace the large quantities of ancient weapons and equipment many of their troops are still equipped with. By world standards the Chinese armed forces are decidedly second rate, although numerous. China spends a lot of money on developing new military technologies but then does not buy a lot of the stuff. Instead they go on to developing the next generation. The Chinese appear to be trying to catch up with the West in the quality of their military tech, before building a lot of it.

Meanwhile, the Chinese have some major internal problems. Chinese military analysts, commanders, and politicians decry the sorry state of their military leadership, training, and doctrine. It's easier to build new weapons than it is to train and maintain troops capable of using them effectively. The Chinese are more concerned with that but are having a hard time making it happen.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Defense wants to portray China as a formidable foe, in order to justify a large defense budget. This is a pattern that developed during the Cold War and continues. China has replaced Russia as the arch-foe. While the U.S. still pays attention to the defense of Taiwan, Chinese military power is seen expanding farther and farther into the Pacific and Asia.

Just how real is Chinese military power? Technically, a lot of Chinese gear is well built. This we know by observing how China has absorbed Western (including Russian) technology over the last sixty years. They can build good stuff (if you have an iPhone or iPod you are using Chinese built, or at least assembled, tech). China is still learning how to invent, design, and build many of the iPhone/iPod components. Chinese have the talent and persistence to acquire the needed management and technical skills. It takes time and Chinese leaders like to take the long view. That means realizing that current Chinese armed forces are not so good. Peacetime soldiers in general and Chinese ones in particular develop a lot of bad habits that translates into defeats early in a war. But in a world with nuclear weapons the old Chinese strategy of fighting a long war and grinding down a superior (man-for-man) force no longer works. If you use conventional forces you strike first and fast, then call for peace talks before the nukes are employed. This situation does not work to China's advantage. Chinese generals are going through the motions of creating a well-trained and led army, like many Western nations have, but are making very slow progress. Meanwhile, the Americans are particularly admired, with all their practical training methods and combat proven NCOs and officers. China still has far too much corruption in their military establishment and too little initiative and original thinking to create a force that can match the Americans. Going through the motions may work in peace time but not once the shooting starts.

China insists that its growing military power is for defense only. That makes sense, as a lot of money is going into the navy, which protects the imports (mainly of food and raw materials) and exports (of manufactured goods) that are driving the unprecedented economic growth. The Chinese try to explain away the military buildup opposite Taiwan as political theater. This may be true, for a failed attempt to take Taiwan by force would not only disrupt the economy (and create a lot of unhappy Chinese), but would be a major failure by the government. Dictatorships cannot survive too many such failures or too many angry citizens.

So it makes sense that the Chinese military growth is largely for defense. But those large defensive forces can also be used to bully or intimidate neighbors, which is what the neighbors are worried about. Meanwhile, the Cyber War forces no one talks about much fights a quiet war that wins victories you don't dare celebrate.

 


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