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CCP War Games – A Lesson from History

Undeniably, China is a consequential player in the prolonged and devastating 2022 Russia-Ukraine War. Officials and pundits have expressed pressure or have had expectations for China to behave the way they desire, but one has to look at the true motives behind the CCP’s gameplay. To that end, a deep-dive into history is useful.

Mao Zedong’s 1925 book, Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society, started with the wording, “Who is our enemy? Who are our friends? This is the primary issue of the Revolution.” The sentence, familiar to generations of Chinese people, provides the key to understanding the CCP’s strategy and tactics throughout the century.

To defeat an enemy, the CCP would ally with any parties, even infamous ones, to form a so-called “united front,” in order to weaken, distract, or divide the enemy. When the timing was not in their favor, they would build up quietly, but remain concealed while strengthening and biding their time and while waiting for the best opportunity. When the time was right, they would deal a fatal blow. Deception was necessary because illusions can mislead the enemy.

A classic example was the 1937 to 1945 Sino-Japanese War during World War II. The CCP took advantage of the conflict to  grow its own military force massively while maximally consuming its arch enemy, the government of the Republic of China under the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) led by Commander-in-chief Chiang Kai-shek.

After Japan’s full-scale invasion, in September 1937, Mao Zedong openly called upon “all political parties and groups, as well as the people throughout the country, to organize a united army and an anti-Japanese government of national defense for a common fight against Japanese imperialism.” In contrast, at a high-level CCP meeting one month earlier, Mao advised his fellow comrades, “Do not be misled by patriotism and do not go to the front lines to play anti-Japanese heroes. We ought to know that the harm of Japanese planes and artillery will be far greater than the harm Chiang Kai-shek dealt us before.” Mao commanded the CCP forces to avoid direct confrontation with the Japanese front. Instead, they were instructed to go behind enemy lines to engage in guerrilla warfare with the task of expanding CCP territory and troops under the CCP’s control.

Under the banner of anti-Japanese cooperation with the KMT, the CCP renamed its Red Army and guerrilla troops, Eighth Route Army and New Fourth Army, while placing them under the nominal control of the Nationalist government. Both CCP armies wore Nationalist uniforms, flew the flag of the Republic of China, took weapons, money, and supplies, but no orders from the KMT government. Instead of fighting the Japanese, they backstabbed Commander-in-Chief Chiang by launching relentless attacks against KMT troops, in de facto cooperation with Japan’s ambition of conquering China.

Historians, comparing and contrasting Japanese and Chinese sources, found evidence of the CCP’s collusion with Japan. Mao instructed his red spies to sell military intelligence obtained from the Chiang Kai-shek government to the Japanese Imperial Army in order to incapacitate the KMT forces. After the CCP took over mainland China in 1949, Mao Zedong repeatedly thanked visiting Japanese guests for Japan’s invasion, unabashedly stating that, without Japan’s help, the CCP could not have defeated the Nationalist Party. In 1972 Mao returned the favor by renouncing Japanese war reparations.

Throughout the eight bloody years, the KMT government fought over 20 large-scale campaigns and some 1,000 important battles, losing more than 3 million troops, including over 100 general-grade officers. All of its naval ships were sunk, 2,500 warplanes were shot down, and 4,000 air force pilots killed. In contrast, by 1945 the CCP occupied large sections of Northern China and commanded a formidable force of over 1 million troops, 50 times its size in 1936.

The result? When the whole nation, through rubble and debris, finally won the hard-fought war, and needed it no more, the CCP’s war came. With Stalin’s assistance, after years of hide-and-bide, the CCP defeated the KMT government within three years.

After 1949, the United States became the CCP’s No. 1 enemy. In the book The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, foreign policy strategist Michael Pillsbury wrote that China has a long-term strategy to subvert the U.S.-led world economic and political order. The goal is to replace it with communism by 2049, the one-hundredth anniversary of the CCP’s rise to power in China.

Internationalism is in Communism’s DNA. In the early days, the Soviet Union used internationalism ferociously to  advance the sphere of Communist influence across Europe. Meanwhile Mao did the same, backing Communist insurgencies across Asia. Starting in the 1990s, Beijing rose as the new storefront of the movement, surreptitiously infiltrating every fiber of Western society while attempting to accomplish the revolution from within.

Tactics may differ, but the goal remains unchanged – dominance of the world with communist ideology. The Chinese Communist Party is still the Marxist party with aims to unseat the “old world” by destroying all states, nations, and classes, in order to “liberate all humanity,” or in Xi Jinping’s words, to build a “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind.” To achieve this, the CCP has to overthrow the U.S., the shepherd of the current world order. The CCP is keenly aware that  the ultimate showdown is inevitable. Therefore it is preparing for an all-out offensive against the United States. Arthur Waldron, a China expert and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out at a 2004 Senate hearing, “Americans should understand that the new Chinese military is the only one being developed anywhere in the world today that is specifically configured to fight the United States of America.” (1)

Today’s Russia-Ukraine War allows the CCP to play its old tricks anew. The war has relieved the CCP of the heightened international pressure it has faced ever since the U.S.-China trade war and ensuing COVID-19 pandemic, similar to the Japanese invasion that successfully prevented the KMT government from annihilating Mao’s Red Army. Now Russia, not China, has become the world’s No. 1 enemy. While atrocities in Ukraine have engaged everyone’s attention, the CCP happily steps aside, potentially completely off the hook. Even after the war ends and the dust settles, Russia will remain in the spotlight, at least for a while. Under the duress of Western sanctions, the West’s alienation of Russia bodes good news for China. Moscow is now even more in China’s pocket and will rely on China like never before.

No doubt Beijing will support Russia the way it colluded with Japan back in the day. What better way to distract and occupy the West than with a prolonged war in Europe? Making Russia a jumbo-sized North Korea would cause ten times the inconvenience to the West compared to the Kim family. If Russia can no longer be the bulwark against the West, then the CCP itself will become the next target. Liu Xin, an anchor for China’s state-run TV channel China Global Television Network (CGTN), when commenting on Biden’s threat to Xi if China supports Putin’s war, said Biden’s request was like saying, “Can you help me fight your friend so that I can concentrate on fighting you later?” At the opening of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in February, China and Russia declared a friendship of “no limits” and a cooperation of “no forbidden areas.” In late March, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi vowed again, “Both sides are more determined to develop bilateral relations and more confident in advancing cooperation in various fields.”

Unlike the Japanese invasion that seriously pounded the KMT government, the Russia-Ukraine War did little to seriously damage the U.S. For Beijing, more needs to be done, such as working on other countries to isolate the U.S.

During a video conference with European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on April 1, Xi Jinping told the E.U. leaders to “form an independent China policy” and “take a primary role for the Ukraine resolution.” The underlying message was clear. The E.U. should not follow the U.S. in formulating China-related policy and the E.U. should not be America’s yes-man in regard to the crisis in Ukraine. Disconnecting the E.U. from the U.S. fold has been the CCP’s long term goal. Meanwhile, the CCP’s carrot-and-stick approach with respect to trade policy in the E.U., has come a long way. Since 2021, the E.U. has become China’s top trading partner in terms of total imports and exports. Now that energy-rich and nuclear-powered Russia stands as the E.U.’s primary and imminent security threat, China may even leverage its relationship with Russia to influence its European interests.

On March 1, the United Nations voted on a resolution opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, calling for the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces. India was among the 35 countries casting abstention votes. The CCP was shrewd enough to grasp the opportunity of India’s disagreement. During the previous U.S. administration, India was a solid American ally. The two countries exchanged head of state visits, with Prime Minister Modi having developed a friendship with President Trump. To China, sharing 2,000 kilometers of its border with a neighbor that is partnering with its greatest enemy, is reason for concern. Against that backdrop, the 2020 Sino–India border conflict broke out. Seeing new cracks in the India-U.S. alliance, China’s Wang Yi hurried to New Delhi in late March to tell India that “both countries should not allow its (border disputes) to ‘define or even affect’ their overall ties.” It’s unclear whether India got Wang’s message, but Beijing will certainly manipulate the Washington-New Delhi-Moscow triangle relationship to its benefit.

The U.S. and the E.U. have threatened with Russia-style sanctions if China chooses to support Putin’s war or invade Taiwan. But is it a problem? Beijing is famous for making promises and never delivering. The World Trade Organization (WTO) promises aside, what about the Phase One trade deal between the United States and China signed in 2020? China agreed to “expand purchases of certain U.S. goods and services by $200 billion for the two-year period from January 1, 2020, through December 31, 2021, above 2017 baseline levels.” With the two-year period having elapsed, China purchased only 57 percent of its original commitment. So far there has been no push back from the Biden administration. If the CCP can repeatedly get away with failing to deliver on its promises, it will certainly cheat time and time again. When tempers flare, verbal assurances are all it takes to placate Western politicians.

Since the birth of the Chinese Communist Party, it has survived through treachery and thrived on deceit. After one hundred years, the CCP has become adept at feigning “united fronts,” mastering “divide and conquer,” perfecting its game of “hide-and-bide,” and refining its deception. Georg Hegel once said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” To deal with CCP in a way that is neither too simple nor too naïve, it is vital that we do learn from history.

(1) Testimony of Arthur Waldron, Lauder Professor of International Relations Department of History University of Pennsylvania