“The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected. ” -- Sun Tzu, The Art of War
So how does one fight and win against a world superpower? One method is to make such a conflict so costly that the superpower will finally decide that it isn’t worth the effort and leave. This approach relies on the ability to break the superpower’s political will to continue regardless of actual tactical success on the field of battle. The ultimate target is not the forces of the superpower in the field, but rather the softer target of the will of the people supporting the battle back home.
This tactic is being used today in Iraq against the United States. It is a tactic that has proven effective against the United States in the past in Vietnam, Beirut, and Somalia. It is a tactic that appears to work well against western democracies, whose open societies are particularly susceptible to information warfare tactics. Given time, it also can work even against repressive totalitarian regimes, as demonstrated by the successful resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
It is also a very expensive tactic. It has the unfortunate characteristic of usually being fought inside your own country, resulting in a large amount of collateral damage to basic infrastructure and civilian population. It is extremely disruptive; once the occupying power is expelled, it can take quite a while to recover, both in terms of rebuilding material losses and in terms of civil disorder and unrest. This is not a tactic one would choose to employ; rather one that is thrust upon you. Typically you don’t enter into a conflict by asking the enemy to occupy your country so that you can inflict upon him death by a thousand cuts.
So perhaps the question should be rephrased thus: How does one fight and win against a world superpower without disemboweling oneself in the process?
What does it mean to “win”? Put simply, to “win” is to achieve a desired objective or set of objectives. It is possible to win an overall objective but still lose some of your minor objectives. It is also possible for both sides to “win”, depending on what their objectives were and whether or not both sides found them satisfactorily achieved.
For example, my objective may be to obtain a nice steak dinner for under $10. Your objective might be to obtain from me $9.95 in exchange for an item off your dinner menu, one of which happens to be a steak dinner. We both achieve our objectives; we both “win”.
When it comes to things like trade, win-win situations are common. When it comes to political objectives between countries, win-win solutions are still possible. Sometimes, issues arise between nations where win-win solutions are not possible. Sometimes these issues become issues of such significance that the result is what Clausewitz described as a “continuation of politics by other means” – war.
Such is the situation between the United States and China with regard to a tiny bastion of Democracy known as Taiwan.
Since the United States passed the Formosa Resolution in 1955, we have been committed to come to the aid of Taiwan in the face of PRC (People’s Republic of China) aggression. Since the end of the Chinese civil war, Taiwan has remained a piece of unfinished business on the part of the PRC.
Though originally dedicated to retaking the mainland, Taiwanese rulers since Chiang Kai-shek have come to realize the utter impossibility of this goal and have instead embarked upon a goal of de jure status as an independent nation. This is complicated by the PRC’s claim that Taiwan is in fact a breakaway, rebellious province of China which will be, voluntarily or by force, returned to Chinese control. The PRC referrs to this as “reunification”. While voluntary reunification is preferred, if Taiwan insists on proclaiming its status as an independent nation, the PRC has vowed that it will finish the civil war it began in 1927 and Taiwan will be reunified by force.
The only thing standing in the way of reunification is the desire of the Taiwanese to resist it, and the Formosa Resolution of 1955.
For the Chinese, to “win” means to bring Taiwan back into the fold and make it part of China once more. Additional “wins” would be to do so peacefully, and failing that, to do so without involving the United States in a shooting war, and failing that, to do so without triggering a wider conflict between the United States and China which might include attacks on the Chinese mainland and escalate to a nuclear exchange.
To do this peacefully, they need to have the capability to successfully attack and occupy Taiwan. For this to be successful, they have to demonstrate the capability to attack and occupy Taiwan, and also the ability to force the United States to not abide by the terms of the Formosa Resolution, or failing that, to defeat the United States in its attempt to enforce the Resolution. And they have to convince the government and people of Taiwan that this is in fact, inevitable. Should they succeed in this goal, they will have fulfilled Sun Tzu’s principle of war that states:
“To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
This is the long-range strategy in play in the effort to reunify Taiwan with the rest of mainland China. The strategy is being played out across the entire spectrum of conflict; economically, militarily, culturally, and diplomatically. Much of this strategy to bring Taiwan back into the fold also dovetails with China’s ascent to first-world status; a country in the throes of modernization requires increased access to resources which lie beyond her borders. Competition for resources has, throughout history, resulted in military action, either to secure the resources or to defend access to them.
In this regard, countries are like living organisms; those successful in this competition rise to the top, while those less successful slide to the bottom. Such competition can take many forms; military force being only one component of the mix, and not necessarily the most important. One need only look at the former Soviet Union to see a nation that exhibited extraordinary military might and yet failed due to an inability to compete on other fronts, such as economically. What makes China such a formidable opponent is its recognition of this, and its demonstrated intention to engage on multiple fronts, coupled with its ability to pursue long-term objectives; an ability which we here in the United States increasingly lack.
Our increasing myopia when it comes to perceiving threats to our well-being, coupled with our increasing inability to focus on long-term issues may presage the beginning of our long slide from the top of the heap to just another has-been country competing for the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.
In order to respond to threats, it is first necessary to perceive them. Wherever Chinese and U.S. purposes coincide, there will be peace and harmony. Where they do not, there will be friction. Such points of friction will result in conflict in the various arenas mentioned above. To the general public, as long as military action does not occur, we will be at “peace”. But peace is more than the absence of war. A battle lost economically, for example, can be just as devastating to a country as a military conflict. The effects may not be as graphic, but the results can be similar. Submission is submission, whether by force of arms or force of economics.
In succeeding articles, I will discuss the various ways that China is preparing itself for conflict, and how these preparations challenge us in our ability to respond to actions China may take in accordance with its desire to achieve its national objectives in areas where those objectives conflict with ours. I will use Taiwan as a case study for this purpose; please understand however that the ramifications of these issues extend well past Taiwan, for Taiwan is not China’s only national objective, and the same preparations made to constrain our actions there will also serve to constrain our actions in other areas as well.