Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army caused quite a stir last week when he threatened to nuke “hundreds” of American cities if the U.S. dared to interfere with a Chinese attempt to conquer Taiwan.
This saber-rattling comes while China is building a lot of sabers. Although its defense budget, estimated to be as much as $90 billion, remains a fraction of the United States’, it is enough to make China the world’s third-biggest weapons buyer (behind Russia) and the biggest in Asia. Moreover, China’s spending has been increasing rapidly, and it is investing in the kind of systems -- especially missiles and submarines -- needed to challenge U.S. naval power in the Pacific.
The Pentagon on Tuesday released a study of Chinese military capabilities. In a preview, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a Singapore audience last month that China’s arms buildup was an “area of concern.” It should be. But we shouldn’t get overly fixated on such traditional indices of military power as ships and bombs -- not even atomic bombs. Chinese strategists, in the best tradition of Sun Tzu, are working on craftier schemes to topple the American hegemon.
In 1998, an official People’s Liberation Army publishing house brought out a treatise called “Unrestricted Warfare,” written by two senior army colonels, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui. This book, which is available in English translation, is well known to the U.S. national security establishment but remains practically unheard of among the general public.
“Unrestricted Warfare” recognizes that it is practically impossible to challenge the U.S. on its own terms. No one else can afford to build mega-expensive weapons systems like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which will cost more than $200 billion to develop. “The way to extricate oneself from this predicament,” the authors write, “is to develop a different approach.”
Their different approaches include financial warfare (subverting banking systems and stock markets), drug warfare (attacking the fabric of society by flooding it with illicit drugs), psychological and media warfare (manipulating perceptions to break down enemy will), international law warfare (blocking enemy actions using multinational organizations), resource warfare (seizing control of vital natural resources), even ecological warfare (creating man-made earthquakes or other natural disasters).
Cols. Qiao and Wang write approvingly of Al Qaeda, Colombian drug lords and computer hackers who operate outside the “bandwidths understood by the American military.” They envision a scenario in which a “network attack against the enemy” -- clearly a red, white and blue enemy -- would be carried out “so that the civilian electricity network, traffic dispatching network, financial transaction network, telephone communications network and mass media network are completely paralyzed,” leading to “social panic, street riots and a political crisis.” Only then would conventional military force be deployed “until the enemy is forced to sign a dishonorable peace treaty.”
This isn’t just loose talk. There are signs of this strategy being implemented. The anti-Japanese riots that swept China in April? That would be psychological warfare against a major Asian rival. The stage-managed protests in 1999, after the U.S. accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, fall into the same category.
The bid by the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Co., to acquire Unocal? Resource warfare. Attempts by China’s spy apparatus to infiltrate U.S. high-tech firms and defense contractors? Technological warfare. China siding against the U.S. in the U.N. Security Council over the invasion of Iraq? International law warfare. Gen. Zhu’s threat to nuke the U.S.? Media warfare.
And so on. Once you know what to look for, the pieces fall into place with disturbing ease. Of course, most of these events have alternative, more benign explanations: Maybe Gen. Zhu is an eccentric old coot who’s seen “Dr. Strangelove” a few too many times.
The deliberate ambiguity makes it hard to craft a response to “unrestricted warfare.” If Beijing sticks to building nuclear weapons, we know how to deal with that -- use the deterrence doctrine that worked against the Soviets. But how do we respond to what may or may not be indirect aggression by a major trading partner? Battling terrorist groups like Al Qaeda seems like a cinch by comparison.
This is not a challenge the Pentagon is set up to address, but it’s an urgent issue for the years ahead.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.