Mid-2020 saw the world at war, actual strategic war as far as the Forbidden Palace in Beijing was concerned. This was almost disbelievingly acknowledged by some in Washington, DC, London, Canberra, Ottawa, New Delhi, and Tokyo. It was a war that was viewed tentatively and with incredulity in much of the West because it was a war of a very new type. And it was a war in which the West — for the first time in a century or more — did not write the rules of engagement.
Indeed, because it had emerged from covert war to overt war, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) leadership was aware, certainly by early May 2020 (and probably even by January of that year), that it had to move quickly to use the cover of the global coronavirus preoccupation and lockdown in order to make and consolidate some key strategic advances while it could do so unopposed. These initial objectives for Beijing included:
- Locking down control of the autonomous Hong Kong region — a significant source of the PRC’s access to foreign exchange generation — once and for all, and hoping to do so with minimal foreign reprisal;
- Rebuilding a PRC position whereby it could resume domination of global supply chain origination manufacturing, something which it had essentially been losing even before the 2020 crisis;
- Consolidate military domination of the South China Sea region;
- Break up the revival of a coherent US alliance structure in the Indo Pacific (including the Middle East) and ensure that there were no viable options to allow the Russian Federation to expand its rapprochement with the West. Essentially, it needed to end the prospect that the “second Silk Road”, dominated by Russia and supported by Japan (in particular) would not be strategically threatening to Beijing;
- Make progress in shortening the timescale for a military-led option to remove Taiwan — the Republic of China (ROC) — from any chance of depending on strategic military cover from the United States and Japan.
There were no immediate, clearcut successes visible for Beijing by late May 2020, but the urgency was there, and so was the momentum. The PRC had no option but to make gains quickly, and it was clear that it had, despite reviving fear, distrust, and counteraction by the US, UK, and Australia, in particular. Beijing’s economic position and outlook, worsening for at least the previous decade, could not sustain the PRC’s strategic competitiveness visàvis the US and its allies much longer unless the crisis could be used to actually ruin the relative economic and military positions of its opponents.
It was, then, a decision that, if Beijing could not succeed in recovering its economic (and therefore strategic) competitiveness, then all others needed to lose their ability to compete.
It was a war plan consciously written by the Communist Party of China (CPC), and particularly in the image of the CPC and PRC leader, Xi Jinping. It had its ideological origins in the globalism pioneered by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), but it took on Maoist characteristics (consolidated by the updated Maoism of Xi Jinping), including the clarity of the 1999 doctrinal watershed of the publication of the Unrestricted Warfare total war strategy.
So the new war doctrine — the 21st Century version of “total war” — was a long time in coming. Its development was also, most importantly, an evolution of the Allied victory of World War II, with its development of global supply chain thinking: logistics and industrialization.
The CPC, starting with Deng Xiao-ping, learned to truly create “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, but that meant something very much modernized over historical Marxist-oriented interpretations. This led, progressively, to the understanding by Beijing that it needed to rebuild the traditional “global” supply chain pattern through which the Middle Kingdom had made itself the central power through much of ancient history. Its supplicant, or tributary vassals, had depended on the Silk Routes, overland through Eurasia and by sea through the Indo-Pacific (and beyond), and must be made to do so again.
This became Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, which in May 2017 became the “Belt & Road Initiative” (BRI) when it was clear that Moscow, Tokyo, and Washington were attempting to create a “second Silk Road” across Russia, bypassing Beijing’s attempted domination of the South China Sea (to control the Silk Road at Sea).
But in the period up to mid-2020, the “new total war” was viewed — particularly in the West — as nebulous. This new total war format is, by definition, amorphous, and deliberately so, as I note in my new book, The New Total War of the 21st Century and the Trigger of the Fear Pandemic. Direct, kinetic confrontation — the measure by which the uniformed military and much of society viewed “war” — was absent, although the threat of it had finally emerged by April/May 2020, and this galvanized thinking among Western leadership.
It even generated enough alarm to see the deep internal political schisms in the US and Australia heal at least to a degree. In the US, the emerging threat saw Democratic Party and Republican Party politicians coming together in relative unanimity — largely unreported in the US media — to reject the PRC’s threat to US and Western interests. It also caused the UK Government to finally be able to move, with broad public acceptance, to end the PRC’s strategic leverage in Britain, including ending the question of reliance on the PRC’s 5G communications technology from Huawei.
However, it was, to use the term at the start of World War II, a period of “phony war”, just as it appeared from September 1939, until May 10, 1940. And it was akin to the thinking which, after World War I was enjoined in August 1914, saw soldiers happily reassuring their families that they would be “home by Christmas”.
Both those episodes of wishful thinking characterized the start of the two total wars of the 20th Century.
But in both those conflicts, as with the new total war of the 21st Century, those who had long planned secretly for an offensive war knew that their canvases extended beyond the mere vision of formal military conflict. They planned for a victory which had global, and indeed globalist, ramifications: a total world system unified under the nexus of the visionary power.
But these titanic struggles are usually won or lost by factors determined well in advance of the opening shots of kinetic war, and during the “phony war” period before the targets of the initial aggressor are aware that they have been caught at a disadvantage. In the Napoleonic Wars, World Wars I and II, and the Cold War, the aggressors (France, Germany twice, and the Soviet Union coupled with the People’s Republic of China) sensed that they were at a significant strategic disadvantage. This caused them to undertake strategic preparations and operations without and well before any formal declaration of war.
They needed to steal a march on their adversaries. Significantly, in all of those “total wars” — and the Cold War was even more total than the earlier great wars — the initial aggressor never overcame its fundamental lack of comprehensive strategic strength.
Is the new total war of the 21st Century likely to be different?
Is it likely to be as protracted as the four-decade Cold War? Certainly, given technologies and the extent to which some three decades of “peaceful” globalism had allowed Beijing to dominate supply chains so that its trading partners became dependent on it, it was to be a far more amorphous war than even the Cold War.
Pres. Xi had some cause for optimism, but also — because of the PRC’s fundamental and increasing economic weakness — cause to accelerate the timescale for initiating operations which he knew would bring about a major strategic response, a pushback, from his adversaries.
The late 2019 outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID19) viral epidemic provided the trigger point for open offensive operations by the PRC, but they were operations that were still within the boundaries of amorphous warfare.
Beijing, going into the 2020 breakout, understood completely the limitations and strengths of its existing formal military capabilities. In the words of the US Country and Western song, it “knows when to hold ‘em, knows when to fold ‘em, knows when to walk away, knows when to run”. Beijing knew that it must essentially win the new total war before it became globally kinetic, and therefore it must preclude the formation (or the rejoining) of Western alliances and strategic economic gains against it, and prevent Russia, in particular, from being drawn into the Western camp.
Although the PRC had depended heavily (and resentfully) on Moscow during the Cold War, by the 21st Century it was Russia — still, in many ways, technologically more innovative than the PRC — which now depended on Beijing.
Russia was, to draw an imperfect parallel from World War II, Italy to Beijing’s Germany in the new total war.
Relative Foundational Strategic Capabilities
One-time US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
While that is as true today as it was in the early post-Cold War period when Rumsfeld made his comment, it is also true that all aspirant powers discreetly attempt to gain as much force development — and strategic technology — as possible before having to show their hand in a major war.
This was the case with the PRC in the 21st Century, and particularly since Pres. Xi Jinping came to supremacy in 2012.
It may not be reasonable to say the same about the Russian Federation in this timeframe. Russia was indeed, in the post-Cold War era, able to step out from the shadow of the Soviet-era to prepare its forces, doctrine, and technology to a state where the US regarded it as its “pacing threat”: the capability which most challenged US capabilities. But it was the PRC that worked discreetly to pose the actual threat.
To a significant degree, the economics of Eurasia and the Russian dependency on cashflow from the PRC meant that Beijing largely had access to Russian technology during its critical buildup period for war against the US and its allies. But the PRC also had access (even in the pre-Xi era) to much Western strategic technology through the intelligence-driven acquisition of Western intellectual property. This included the very technology of strategic precision targeting and guidance for ballistic weapons and hypersonic weapons which threatened US and allied capabilities in the offshore oceans of East, and Southeast Asia, by 2020.
Beijing knew that, if it needed to force the US to “go to war with the army it has”, rather than the defense force it needed to have, it had best do so before the defense modernization plans driven by the US Donald Trump Administration could take effect.
Beijing had clear confirmation by early 2019 that the intended Trump upgrades to the US defense capabilities had not yet taken hold, and that some of the US capability improvements were unlikely due to longterm commitments to, for example, the Lockheed Martin F35series combat aircraft. On March 7, 2020, a RAND organization warfare analyst, in a speech to the (significantly, Democratic Party-controlled) Center for a New American Security, announced that RAND conflict simulation had seen the US fail to prevail in a comprehensive military engagement with either the PRC or Russia. RAND analyst David Ochmanek noted: “We lose a lot of people. We lose a lot of equipment.
We usually [in these engagements] fail to achieve our objective of preventing aggression by the adversary.”
The conclusions were supported by a presentation by former US Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work. “In every case I know of,” said Work, “the F35 rules the sky when it’s in the sky, but it gets killed on the ground in large numbers.” But subsequent failures of the F35 to achieve anything like acceptable operational readiness rates do not even justify DepSec Work’s qualified optimism.
A gathering of the Aspen Security Forum in the US in July 2019 brought further reinforcement of the relative weakness of US forces in the Pacific. Much of this analysis was based on the 2015 RAND study, The US-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996-2017, but with follow-on simulation strengthening the case.
The 2018 bipartisan official study for the US Defense Department, entitled Providing for the Common Defense: The Assessment and Recommendations of the National Defense Strategy Commission, noted: “If the United States had to fight Russia in a Baltic contingency or China in a war over Taiwan, Americans could face a decisive military defeat.” The Commission highlights the PRC’s and Russia’s ongoing efforts to develop advanced anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) weaponry, systems which could result in “enormous” losses for the US military in a conflict. It went on: “Put bluntly, the US military could lose the next state versus state war it fights”.
The Trump Administration, however, was moving rapidly to attempt to rectify the challenge, moving belatedly to accelerate the introduction of maneuverable hypersonic weapons for offensive and defensive operations. Indeed, the speed with which the Trump White House was committed to recovering US defense capabilities clearly played a key role in spurring Beijing to action to achieve essential objectives in the “near-abroad” before the US could rectify its disadvantage.
Already, Xi had moved the PRC’s defense emphasis from ground force operations of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) toward the PLA Navy (PLAN) and the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and — even more importantly — the Strategic Rocket Force and the Strategic Support Force. Essentially, the PRC was attempting to do something which it had not achieved since the first half of the 13th Century: to become a (if not the) globally dominant maritime power. But the first order of business was to dominate the First Island Chain (and particularly Taiwan) and subdue the US control of the Central Pacific (based on Guam) into defeat or at least a defensive impotence.
That a window of opportunity continued to exist into 2020 for the PRC to use its largely mobile ballistic missile capabilities to neutralize both US fleets at sea within around 1,000 n.miles from the PRC coastline and against US air (particularly B52, B2, and B1 bomber) and missile assets on Guam and the Japanese islands was evident.
An open report in the UK newspaper, The Times, on May 16, 2020, indicated that continuing US simulation exercises showed that US forces would be overwhelmed, and that the situation was worsening with the introduction of new PLAN attack submarines, aircraft carriers, and destroyers through 2030. The Times article quoted Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, and a consultant for the US Government on East Asia, as saying: “Every simulation that has been conducted looking at the threat from China by 2030 have all ended up with the defeat of the US. … Taiwan is the most volatile issue because that could escalate to a war with the US, even to a nuclear war. In the Pentagon and State Department and the White House, China is now seen as the biggest threat. We have been too passive in the past.”
PRC military and intelligence analysis clearly recognized that short-term military success would not necessarily equate to longterm victory. The Japanese decision to strike at US naval and air assets at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, actually ensured longterm Japanese defeat in World War II, and Beijing had no desire to create a similar outlook for itself.
But Beijing had no option but to initiate conflict with the US alliance at this time if it wished to avoid short term implosion due to economic and internal resource shortcomings. There is no doubt that Beijing has had a decade to consider this, and to formulate its broader strategic plan to help foment a more broadly-based collapse of US and Western strategic and economic resilience, at least sufficient to enable the PRC to consolidate its geostrategic space and sufficient economic strength to ensure domestic population control.
Initial PRC Targets
Xi Jinping needed, by May 2020, to show early strategic progress for substantive and prestige reasons. Both are critical to ensure domestic support and compliance and to move regional and global competition into a defensive and possibly conciliatory posture.
Consolidation and demonstration of PLA capabilities in the South China Sea and against the ROC on Taiwan were ongoing, but did not yet reach the level of a definitive, iconic, and durable outcome for Beijing.
Beijing, through its National People’s Congress on May 22, 2020, introduced a new national security law for Hong Kong to suppress “sedition, secession, and subversion” as well as foreign involvement, “terrorism”, and autonomy. Despite Beijing’s denial, this represented the effective end of the “one nation, two systems” policy guaranteed under the terms of the July 1, 1997, handover of Hong Kong to the PRC by the United Kingdom
Politicians from 23 nations had, by May 24, 2020, signed a petition of complaint against Beijing for the action, but the real test of how much it would impact the economy of the PRC would be determined by whether the US ended its special economic relationship with Hong Kong. That would be a significant blow for Beijing, but the CPC leadership had already calculated that the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong had already effectively destroyed significant contributions by Hong Kong to the PRC economy, and the coronavirus shutdowns had merely cemented that reality.
So bringing Hong Kong under direct Beijing control was worth the loss of whatever economic benefits the territory might still have had. And it would send a firm indication of Beijing’s resolution to Taiwan. But real questions persisted as to how much the act would calm or enflame unrest against Beijing in Hong Kong, and whether it would caution or enflame anti-Beijing sentiments being aroused by economic and COVID19 related issues around the rest of mainland China.
Again, clearly, Beijing could not accept the situation in Hong Kong, and had no option — if the CPC wished to retain control — but to suppress by force the “pro-democracy movement” which had refused to bend to any other entreaties. Similarly, internal security in the rest of the PRC would be undertaken forcefully. And Beijing was aware of the escalation of US and Turkish fomenting of the Uighur (Turkic) population of Xinjiang (with the “East Turkestan” independence movement). The now naked USPRC hostilities meant that Washington would be less discreet in its support for the Uighurs against their suppression by Beijing.
The question there was how much Beijing could pressure Moscow to make Turkey cease cooperation with the US on this issue. Ankara sees itself as the pan-Turkish patron of the East Turkestan movement.
Beijing had, by early May 2020, begun (once again) to probe a military flexing against India in the Pangong Tso Lake and Galwan Valley areas of Eastern Ladakh, part of Kashmir, along the “Line of Actual Control” in the unresolved border area. The Indian Army immediately matched the PLA buildup which had taken place in the two weeks to May 22, 2020. At least five rounds of talks at local levels there had, by May 22, 2020, failed to calm the tensions, and there had been violent confrontations between the Indian Army and PLA forces on May 5, 2020, and a similar incident in North Sikkim on May 9, 2020.
From the PRC perspective, this manageable exercise was a form of probasila (Soviet term): reconnaissance to the point of contact, to gauge enemy strength, reaction, and resolve. It gave Beijing an option to escalate or distract, and possibly to divert India away from broader cooperation with the US and other SouthEast Asian nations on the question of PRC advances. But the PLA operations were also key to its resolve to support Pakistan’s claims to its part of Kashmir which determines the PRC’s critical overland access to the Indian Ocean, something threatened by India’s 2019 invasion of Kashmir.
So the Ladakh escalation was a key indicator of Beijing’s need to ensure consolidation of its close geographic links in the Indo-Pacific region.
But of overriding importance to Beijing was its campaign to ensure that US Pres. Donald Trump was not re-elected to the Presidency in the November 3, 2020, election, and that the Republican Party would lose its majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate. In some respects, and using the contrived narrative of US initiation of, engagement in, and mismanagement of the COVID19 crisis, the CPC was able to make common cause with such anti-Trump US influencers as The New York Times and the CNN cable network. Yet as tempting as this tactical alliance was in helping the Democratic Party to seek the ouster of Trump and the Republicans in November 2020, it was clear by mid-May 2020 that many in the Democratic Party leadership were also turning against Beijing over the COVID19 issue and its hostility toward both the US and its allies, and Hong Kong.
To be sure, Beijing would never have expected an overt alliance with anti-Trump elements in the US, but it aimed at achieving sufficient “net effect” that it could sustain momentum against a Trump/Republican victory in November 2020. There was little doubt in Beijing that had Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in the 2016 election, the PRC would not have seen the sharp end to two decades of unopposed PRC strategic expansion in the Indo-Pacific and the AfricaMiddle East regions.
Initial Strategic Operations
Beijing’s initial strategic operations in the new total war had been underway for some time before the 2020 watershed.
However, with the watershed of the COVID19 crisis, the PRC’s most urgent initial strategic operation was to ensure that it consolidated its hold on markets around the world. It had been losing market share gradually to other manufacturing states as labor costs mounted in the PRC.
The initial strategic operation of the CPC in early 2020 was to ensure that the PRC’s factories returned to full production as quickly as possible so that an abundance of PRC-made goods could be dumped at concessionary prices onto the world market. This would, if done rapidly and at enticing prices, make it more difficult to stimulate the reestablishment of manufacturing in the major “pseudo postindustrial” client states of North America, Europe, and Australasia.
This operation was a race against time for Beijing. It relied on the marketplace lure of cheap goods to overturn the instinct to resist Beijing and recreate — and incentivize and protect — revived local industry. The ability of client states to resist the dependence on the PRC would require legislation and government programs, and Beijing hoped that, over time, the urgency of those efforts would fade and the client states would fall back into the slumber of dependency on the PRC as the supplier of goods.
Beijing also hoped that by returning to robust economic production early in 2020 it could reinforce its claims that its form of governance had triumphed over the chaos of liberal democracy as evidenced by the COVID19 malaise in Western and other “Western-style democracies”.
These were reasonable strategic exercises, but there was no evidence by May 2020 of success, or that, on the other hand, the US and its allies would have the ability to regrow their independent strategic capabilities in the near-term. And Beijing clearly hoped that, by dampening a return to vigorous Western dominance in the short term, it could then deliver, with kinetic operations as well as ongoing splitting operations within target societies, a further process of reducing USled abilities to withstand the relative growth and dominance of the PRC.
Initial Kinetic Operations
Pres. Xi was, in May 2020, clearly hoping to postpone the initial kinetic operations of the new war for as long as possible. It was in his interests to make as much progress as possible before his opponents began their own strategic revival
That “strategic revival” by Beijing’s opponents was the prospect that the US and other PRC client states would reduce or substantively end their supply chain and general trade reliance on the PRC quickly. In fact, the public and governmental reaction against the PRC in Beijing’s trading partners was swift and strong.
Beijing’s attempts to bully the Australian Government into withdrawing its demand for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus epidemic were successful in that the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva on May 1819, 2020, dampened down the Australian-led call for an independent inquiry in favor of a World Health Organization (WHO) commitment to a “lessons learned” inquiry “soon”.
This actually only served to anger the US and its allies further, something compounded by a statement on May 19, 2020, from the PRC embassy in Canberra noting that the terms of the COVID19 resolution were “totally different from Australia’s proposal of an independent international review … All those who know the consultation process that led to the resolution understand this. To claim the WHA’s resolution [as] a vindication of Australia’s call is nothing but a joke.”
PRC Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye had, until a few months earlier, been able to get lead articles in Australian national media to berate Australians into thanking Beijing for Australia’s economic success. By mid-May 2020, every appearance or statement by Amb. Cheng generated more Australian calls to rebuild the Australian industry and reduce reliance on trade with the PRC.
Beijing had numbed, or paralyzed, North American, European, Australasian, SouthEast Asian, and other target audiences for a decade. It had made resistance to the “rise of China” unthinkable. But that period was now over. The war had been enjoined.
So where and how would kinetic operations begin?
It seems clear that Beijing is reluctant to initiate military action, but is ready to engage once it has begun. Both the PRC and the US see advantages and disadvantages in delaying decisive tactical or theater action. The path to escalation to nuclear engagement is also far less clear — and deterrence far less sure — than during the NATO Warsaw Pact “mutually assured destruction” era. There seems a greater willingness by the PLA to engage in nuclear capabilities (ie: against military targets).
Military action in the near-term could well consolidate the PRC position in its “near abroad”. It could even achieve de facto or de jure control of Taiwan, a critical legitimizing goal for the CPC, if the US did not rush in tripwire assets and support to show a preemptive tripwire to deter PRC escalation.
But what after that?
Would it give Beijing the breathing space to “fight another day”, given that — had it left matters as they were — it would not have had that chance, given its growing economic difficulty (and the potential for collapse)?
Like Japan in 1941, the CPC must buy time if it is to survive and consolidate control over markets and sources of supply. But, like Japan in 1941, would a precipitate action cause not just the US, but a variety of its allies to rebuild in the longer-term?
The wager is now in the air.
By Gregory R. Copley via Defense and Foreig Affairs