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Tuesday, June 30, 2020
Three Turning Points of China's Military Strategic Thoughts
Chan Kung

The Chinese military forces are long known for its experience in the ways of strategic and tactical warfare. Being a country that boasts a large population, it has an endless supply of troops. Having adopted the core values of Western military warfare, Chinese strategists like Mao Zedong and many others came up with unique political and military ideological systems to suit China. These days, most of its military school of thought have been successfully passed down. Despite China's somewhat extensive military ideological system, the core of its system boils down to two values, namely highly mobile operations, and a highly self-sacrificial spirit. For instance, the Chinese army, known for its Guerrilla Warfare, which is a part of mobile operations, is itself an understanding and application of the knowledge. Military strength on the other hand, is a manifestation of the country's strong self-sacrificial spirit, a trait that is observed in political warfare too. These two attributes are what make up the core of China's military strategic thinking and served as a catalyst to propel the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) to greater heights.

Both core values are largely related to China's long years of warfare. The guerrilla warfare in the region of Jinggang Mountains during the 1920s allowed Chinese army leaders to realize that mobile operations were key to surviving and coming out on top. Meanwhile, the war against Japan during the 1930s to 1940s taught the then highly illiterate and disorganized Chinese army, the importance of sacrificial spirit. Consequently, China's military leaders began emphasizing the importance of practical knowledge and downplayed the importance of military ideology and theory, which they were known to blindly uphold, owing to their military tradition and long years of wars.

Following decades of peace, China eventually entered a political stalemate. Though when the Cultural Revolution swept over the country, and politics took a turn for the extreme, it affected the Chinese military and strategic ideology and caused the systems to be expressed in an abstract and overly simplified multi-faceted manner. To cite some examples, these were the words spoken by Lin Biao, then marshal of China. "First of all, you must fear no hardships. Second, you must fear no death". To which PLA General Xu Shiyou added, "There is only death in failure". Given China's political environment then, the Chinese army turned into a political organization and its military power fell.

Even in that political environment, the Chinese commanders' speeches varied based on the context. For example, while most of Lin Biao's publicized speeches were political, in some unique occasions, however, they were spoken with foresight and showed Lin Biao's true capability. During the meeting at the Military Commission on February 27, 1960, he was reported saying, "(1) In the future, wars are determined by the press of a button. (2) The most urgent, most important, and largest priority in our preparation for war is to revolutionize cutting-edge weapons. (3) Future wars will not only rely on infantry, but the air force and missiles too. Air forces will play a greater role on the battlefield, it may even determine the outcome of the war at some point, and we need to prioritize its development." Lin Biao's speech gave China the wake-up call that it needed to revamp its military, though it was ultimately three major events that truly allowed the country's military to break away from politics and begin redefining their objectives.

The first major event took place in 1979.

Between February 17 to March 16, 1979, a brief but large-scale, heavy casualty war broke out between China and Vietnam. China had invested in a total of 9 infantry and 29 army division of alarming sizes in the east and west lines, namely the 11th Army, 13th Army, 14th Army, 41st Army, 42nd Army, 43rd Army, The 50th Army, 54th Army, 55th Army and 20th Army 58th Division, Guangxi Military Region Independent Division, Yunnan Provincial Military Region Independent Division, 2 Guangxi Military Region Frontier Regiments & 1 Frontier Battalion, 4 Yunnan Provincial Military Region Frontier Regiments and 3 border defence battalions, 2 artillery divisions (1st artillery, 4th artillery), 3 anti-aircraft artillery divisions (65th artillery division, 70th artillery division, 72th artillery division), and finally, military units such as railway, engineering, and communication troops. The troop size was estimated to be 220,000, rivalling the military strength of the Korean War at one point, though with further and better technical equipment. The Vietnamese troops confronted China with 6 infantry divisions (3rd, 345, 346, 316A, 338, 325B divisions), more than 10 local regiments & 20 independent battalions, and 4 artillery regiments. Later, they were joined by the infantry 327, 337 divisions and several independent regiments, independent battalions, special battalions, artillery, engineering, communications among many other units. About 100,000 people joined Vietnamese's army forces, which depended on local troops and large numbers of armed militias to coordinate assaults. The entire battle stretched up to hundreds of kilometers and the Chinese army seized more than 20 small and medium-sized cities, and rural counties in northern Vietnam within a month.

Many officers' account and battle records about the war were declassified from 2018 to 2020 and made public. Unlike most conventional news or qualitative reports, the records detailed the brutalities of the war and the Chinese PLA's actual combat capabilities at the time. This includes blind commands issued by senior generals and plans revealing the detachment strategy formulated based on the battlefield. To quote an example, during the Cao Bang Campaign, the Chinese army deployed 6 troops and 11 divisions against 1 division (15,000 troops) from the Vietnamese army. They employed large-scale penetration manoeuvre to surround and annihilate the Vietnamese forces. Originally, the campaign was meant to last for 3 to 5 days only, yet it dragged on for 28 days, and continued to persist even as the Vietnamese army had retreated. The Chinese commanders ordered the annihilation of all oppressing forces, though after passing through several ranks of officers, the order was misinterpreted as an attempt to defend the site at all costs, even as the Vietnamese forces had successfully penetrated into Chinese territories following a surprise attack. Since many grassroots officers lacked the cartographical concept, most senior officers within the division were demoted, and were made to replace the grassroots officers to assume command over the troops instead, veteran commanders included. Chaos broke out among the grassroots officers, soldiers were openly holding senior officers at gunpoint for food, discarding many weapons and equipment at random, regiment-level cadres faked injuries to return to China. The Chinese battalion cadres relinquished their controls over the troops, resulting in large casualties and an eventual surrender. The sight of a few Vietnamese agents was enough to send the Chinese army into panic, causing them to shoot and kill one another, resulting in hundreds of deaths and the loss all supplies.

The Sino-Vietnamese war was led by second-line generals who had experienced wars. They were pick from the best veteran generals possible who were battle-hardened and could still be called to arms. In terms of high-level strategic command, the Chinese army was commanded by Yang Dezhi during the early stages, followed by Zhang Quanxiu later at the west line, while the east was commanded by Xu Shiyou. For advanced strategic command, Wang Shangrong, head of the War Department of the General Staff, was tasked with overseeing all preparations and decision-making concerning the operation. A week before launching the counterattack, Wang Shangrong mobilized the command team into the command center. The counterattack lasted for a month. For tens of days, he did not leave his post. Looking at the Sino-Vietnamese War in the grander scheme of things, even the Western media who chose to side with China then remarked that the country relied heavily on infantry assaults in dense formations, and that it employed warfare tactics similar to the Korean War in the 1950s. The Indian army, who were closely observing the war, too found that the Chinese army was far different from the 1962 Sino-Indian War.

The tragic reality and the outcome of the Sino-Vietnamese war caused China's military community to realize old-fashioned strategies, traditional means and conventional military school of thoughts no longer work in modern wars. Following the war, Xu Shiyou, who was infamous for his mediocrity and excessive use of brute force to resolve matters, was immediately relieved of any substantial military command post after the war. Concurrently, the issue of military reform was finally brought to attention due to the impact of the war, and the country began unifying its military school of thought, with Deng Xiaoping launching a massive disarmament eventually. That said, while the Sino-Vietnamese war served as a critical turning point for China's strategic thought, the major problems that plagued the Chinese military remained. How should the Chinese military fight and how should modern warfare be fought? Conventional strategic thought continued to be super controversial. Be it to enhance and strengthen the original military system and strategic thought, or to carry out reforms on a larger scale, many disputes concerning these major issues could not be resolved. However, these issues were finally addressed during the second major event.

The second major turning point came in 1990.

A major event that shocked the world in 1990 was the outbreak of the Gulf War. The Gulf War refers to the war between the U.S.-led coalition consisting of 34 countries and Iraq during the period of August 2, 1990, to February 28, 1991, which was also known as Operation Desert Storm. On August 2, 1990, Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, overthrew the Kuwaiti government, and declared the "return" of Kuwait and the "unity" of Greater Iraq. After obtaining the authorization of the United Nations, the multinational force led by the United States launched a military offensive against the Iraqi forces in Kuwait and Iraq on January 17, 1991. The main combat consisted of 42 days of air strikes and 100 hours of ground combat on the borders of Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.

The Gulf War was the first large-scale war led by the U.S. forces since the Vietnam War, and also the first war between United Nations member states. In the war, the US military put a large number of high-tech weapons into actual combat for the first time. In particular, the U.S. Air Force used various guided bombs to attack from aircraft carriers, showing overwhelming superiority in air and electronic control. The new modern war and the first live broadcast by satellite left a deep impression on the whole world and China. The U.S. Air Force conducts thousands of sorties a day, using guided bombs, cluster bombs, air-fuel bombs, and cruise missiles. The primary objective of the U.S. forces was to destroy the Iraqi air force and air defenses, a task that was quickly accomplished, and allied air forces were virtually unimpeded throughout the rest of the war. Although Iraq's air defenses were better than expected, U.S. Air Force only lost one F/A-18C fighter (AA403) on the first day of the war.

In the ground warfare, the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions, in coordination with the 1st brigade of the 2nd Armored Division, attacked Kuwait from the east and quickly liberated Kuwait. The main American forces consist of five units of the 7th Infantry Division, including the 1st Infantry Division, 1st Cavalry Division, 1st Armored Division, 3rd Armored Division and 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, with the 1st Armored Division of the British Army in Germany. It carried out a roundabout attack in the southern part of Iraq, bypassing the key defense areas of the Iraqi army and directly entering the western desert of Iraq. This unit quickly annihilated the Iraqi Republican Guard, which was far better equipped than the Chinese army and experienced in combat after the Iran-Iraq war. At the same time, the U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps completed a spectacular detour, cutting off the main Iraqi forces and closing in. A long line of Iraqi army convoys and equipment formed on the highway leading from Kuwait to Iraq in front of live television cameras. The long convoy was so heavily bombed by U.S. aircraft that it earned the nickname "The Highway of Death".

Within 100 hours of the ground warfare, then-President Bush declared victory and a multinational cease-fire. To the astonishment of the Chinese generals who commented on TV, the casualties of the U.S.-led allied forces in such a large-scale war were very small, with only 148 American soldiers killed, 47 British and only 2 French. On the Iraqi side, nearly all of its main forces, including the elite Republican Guard, have been hit hard. Most scholars believe that the number of Iraqi troops killed in war is between 25,000 and 75,000, and the number of wounded is unclear. In addition, the number of Iraqi troops captured by the Americans alone stands at 71,000.

Such a sharp contrast caused the war to have a subversive impact on China's military strategic thinking. When Zhang Zhaozhong, an expert on Chinese military studies, and others commented on the progress of the war on CCTV, they were struck dumb by these scenes. Their error-prone comments even caused CCTV hosts to show dissatisfaction and questioning on the spot. It should be said that the modern mode of warfare demonstrated in the Gulf War deeply stimulated the whole Chinese army and completely overturned their conventional cognition. In the face of the war footage, it was not just a few television commentators who were stunned. In fact, it was the objective reflection of China's military strategic thinking at that time. Judging from the results of the Gulf War, China's conventional military strategic thinking, in fact, has been completely turned into "historical rubbish", which has prompted China to reflect on its military thinking deeply. Because the objective fact is that China knows very well that it cannot defeat Vietnam in guerrilla warfare; it is no match for a modern military power like the United States in regular warfare. The practical conclusion is clear: the modern mode of warfare in the world has been completely changed, and China must carry out major reforms in military thinking and system to adapt to future wars.

Of course, the origin of China's military reform is a long story, but it actually began after the 1990 Gulf War. It is worth noting that even with the emergence of modern war such as the Gulf War, the military reforms of that period only addressed a small number of minor issues. If the Chinese military system including the military is regarded as a person, the post-1990 reform, which involved merely the reform of the "limbs". However, the reform of the military-strategic thinking and the military system, that is, the reform of "head of the armed forces" and the strategic thinking, were almost entirely left untouched. If there was any progress at all, it was slow and minimal. In fact, it was not until the military reform after 2012 that this problem was truly solved.

The third major turning point occurred in 2015.

Since China entered the 21st century, its national conditions have undergone major changes. First of all, population decline has become an unshakable reality. There is a widespread one-child policy throughout the country. The supply of soldiers is highly limited. The cost of recruiting is rising rapidly, and even RMB 200,000 subsidies are required for every soldier recruited in developed regions and cities. Secondly, China's economic growth has developed rapidly during the golden decade, with great improvement in the economic foundation and great progress in the military industry and equipment industry. The third is that after "China Can Say No" and "Peaceful Rise" thoughts, a more assertive China has moved towards the world and the vast ocean with "Belt and Road Initiative".

In March 2014, the Central Military Commission (CMC) leading group for deepening reform on national defense and the armed forces was established, headed by President Xi Jinping, and the first plenary meeting was held, marking the beginning of the substantive progress of the reform. In January 2015, the leading group for deepening reform on national defense and the armed forces held the second plenary meeting and made arrangements for the proposed reform plan. In July of the same year, at the third plenary meeting of the leading group for deepening reform on national defense and the armed forces, the overall planning for deepening the reform of national defense and armed forces were reviewed and adopted in principle. Later, Xi presided over a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and the Standing Committee of Central Military Commission meeting to review the overall plan. On September 3, 2015, at the conference marking the 70th Anniversary of The Victory of the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and The World Anti-Fascist War, Xi Announced that China would cut its troop levels by 300,000. The following month, the Standing Committee of Central Military Commission meeting deliberated and adopted the "Implementation Plan for the PLA Leadership and Command System Reform". On November 24-26 of the same year, the Central Military Commission Reform Work Conference was held. On November 28, the Central Military Commission issued the "Opinions on Deepening Reforms on National Defense and Armed Forces", marking the official launch of military reform.

The national defense and military reform plan are based on the principle that the CMC is in charge of the chief command, the war zone and the services, including the adjustment of military headquarters system, implement CMC multi-sectoral system, establish army leading institutions and improve the services and arms lead management system, readjust the delimited war zone, establish joint operations command structures in commands, and improve the military commission agency and other measures. With the reform of the armed forces, the "The Fourth Department of the Chinese People's Liberation Army", the "seven military regions" and the "continental army" were all dismissed. The "Second Artillery Corps" was replaced by the "Rocket Force", and the strategic support force was introduced. In addition, five major war zones were established, including major streamlining, major optimization, major readjustment, and major relocation of military forces. This is the most significant military reform in the history of the Chinese armed forces. Different from previous military reforms, this reform is real reform of the organizational system of the head of the armed forces. It represents and reflects the beginning of the construction and formation of a modern strategic ideological system in the Chinese armed forces.

As the Chinese army was initially formed by guerrilla warfare, then decades of war formed the ideological system of the "Continental Army" in the Chinese army, and its progress since then is more on the basis of Rudolf's concept of "total war". In 2015, after the first two major transitions, China finally entered the stage of joint campaign development in the third one. The so-called joint campaign refers to the campaign carried out jointly by two or more military service groups under the unified command of the joint command. This is where the Chinese military will be after the third major turn. Such a definition can also be proved in the "Vostok-2018" strategic exercise. The large-scale strategic exercise held by China and Russia after China's military reform was a joint campaign exercise, which showed a certain degree of confidence.

To sum up, although the Chinese military has advanced to the stage of the joint campaign in terms of modernization after the three major transitions, it still has a long way to go before it becomes a powerful military force in the modern sense. Because the strategic thinking of modern world war lays the most emphasis on the ideas of the precision strike and war efficiency, the main progress of the world army is reflected in these aspects, while the Chinese army is still in the stage of the joint campaign, and the gap is still obvious. It is worth noting that since the massive Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979, China's military is actually the only peaceful army among the world's major powers, and it has not waged a real war for as long as 40 years. So, even though the Chinese army has undergone three major military changes, it is still military in a theoretical sense.

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