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PLA Strategist: China’s Rise Requires Great Wisdom

[Editor’s Note: Oriental Outlook Weekly interviewed People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Major-General Qiao Liang on China’s military strategy on the issue of China’s rise. Qiao Liang is the PLA strategist who co-authored the book, Unrestricted War.

In the interview, Qiao argued that the Diaoyu Islands and the islands in the South China Sea are not China’s current core interest and that, for the next 10 to 20 years, China should focus on its continued economic development so that it can become a super strong economic power. He also talked about how China can counter the U.S.’s military superiority in the information technology field.

Although the interview was conducted in March 2014, his points and his perspective are still relevant today. The following are excerpts from the article.] [1]

I. We Must Use Wisdom to Take Back the Diaoyu Islands

Oriental Outlook Weekly: In the past couple of years, the issue of the Diaoyu Islands has heated up and become the most sensitive topic between China and Japan. A number of people have suggested ways to resolve it, including the use of force. What do you think?

Qiao: Japan occupies our territory. We cannot let that be. First, there is a legal issue. When did Japan take over the Diaoyu Islands? About 100 years ago, the Qing Dynasty lost the First Sino-Japanese War and signed the “treaty of Shimonoseki” under which China ceded Taiwan to Japan. Because the Diaoyu Islands were under the jurisdiction of Taiwan’s Ilan County, the Diaoyu Islands went to Japan.

The problem was that later, Japan lost World War II. According to the “Cairo Declaration” and the “Potsdam Proclamation,” the Diaoyu Islands were returned to China. This is a fact that everyone needs to accept. You chose to fight and then lost. You, Japan, have no choice but to concede. Why is this controversial now? It is because Japan “got” it due to an unexpected reason.

Taiwan was returned to China after World War II. The Diaoyu Islands were supposed to be returned to Ilan County, Taiwan at the same time. However, then the U.S. stationed a large troop in Okinawa. The American troops used the Diaoyu Islands as their shooting range. As the Korean War and the Vietnam War developed, the relationship between the U.S. and China kept deteriorating. On June 17, 1971, the Americans decided to return Okinawa to Japan. At the same time, they also gave the Diaoyu Islands to Japan.

This clearly did not follow international law and was also contrary to the “Cairo Declaration” and the “Potsdam Proclamation.” The Diaoyu Islands are, for sure, China’s territory. We should, for sure, take them back.

Oriental Outlook Weekly: Then, specifically, how can we get them back?

Qiao: First of all, we should demand their return in a clever way, with reason and restraint. “Restraint” means ingenuity – we must wait for the right time. Taking them back does not mean that we should take them back today when our people are angry [with Japan]. We must seize the right opportunity.

Is today the best time? Definitely not, because Abe wants to have a strained Sino-Japanese relationship to get the Japanese people to support him. To create tension, the best card for Abe is this desert island of several square kilometers that grows nothing.

For Japan, the greatest significance of the Diaoyu Islands is that Abe needs to use them to achieve his political goals. He needs the Japanese people to support him overwhelmingly so that public opinion can pressure the Japanese parliament to let him revise Japan’s Peace Constitution. He wants to make Japan a “normal country,” with the right to defend itself or to fight war with other countries. This will turn the Japanese Self-Defense Forces into the national defense forces.

This will let Abe accomplish what all of the ninety-some Japanese prime ministers in post-war history wanted but could not do: to let Japan move away from the restraints of the Peace Constitution that the U.S. imposed. Abe would become Japan’s greatest prime minister in postwar history.

The Diaoyu Islands are the best tool for Abe to achieve his agenda. Two years ago, when he came to power, his support rate was 60 percent, while 60 percent of the Japanese people were also antagonistic to China. In the middle of 2013, his support rate rose to 80 percent and the rate of enmity toward China also rose to 80 percent. At the end of 2013, his support rate dropped to 49 percent, but the rate of enmity toward China continued its rise to 85 percent. This was the first time that the Japanese people’s enmity toward China continued to rise while Abe’s support rate declined.

What caused it? In addition to the Japanese right-wing kidnapping public opinion, which led to a nationwide anti-China sentiment, was there any cooperation from the Chinese people? The answer is yes. It included burning Japanese cars, boycotting Japanese products, and writing on store doors, “Japanese and dogs not allowed.” The Abe cabinet used all of these acts, which the Japanese media exaggerated, leading to increased hostility from the Japanese toward China. The more the Japanese dislike China, the more they support Abe in his actions today.

Are the Chinese people so willing to make Abe successful and so willing to cooperate with him? Of course not, but many people just do not understand the situation. If anyone is a little rational, he will immediately be accused of being a traitor. The question is: is taking a tough stand the only way for a country to solve an international problem? If so, what’s the use of strategic wisdom?

Oriental Outlook Weekly: What should be our way?

Qiao: In addition to enthusiasm, we must be rational. “Being rational” means using wisdom. This is not enough. The rise of a great power needs strategic patience. It must select the best path and wait for the right timing. It certainly is not the best time now, because the tougher we are, the more help we give to Abe. Should we just ignore him? That won’t work either.

What we can do today is that, if the enemy can go to the Diaoyu Islands, we can too. If they patrol them, so can we. This way, the Diaoyu Islands become a dispute acknowledged by the international community. Why should we make it a dispute? When the time to resolve this issue comes, our opponent cannot pretend that there is no dispute so as to refuse to resolve it.

Why is it not the best time right now? The reason is that we have more pressing issues. What is more pressing? Should China continue [with economic development] and beef up our power over the next 10 years so that we can face any opponent however strong it is, or should we take back a small island? There is always the issue of priorities.

Oriental Outlook Weekly: Do you think it possible for misfires to occur during this process?

Qiao: Yes, it is possible. There is the possibility of accidental misfires, but also the possibility of intentional misfires. None can be ruled out. So we should be prepared. Do not always blindly say that we will not fire the first shot. Sometimes in war, if you do not fire the first shot, you will not have the opportunity to fire the second shot. When you find your opponent ready to pull the trigger, you must make a determination whether you should fire the first shot.

Oriental Outlook Weekly: Will this conflict expand into a military confrontation between China and Japan?

Qiao: No, it will not. Why? To engage in a full confrontation with China, Japan must have U.S. support. It is impossible for the U.S. to support Japan in a war with China. The U.S. only needs Japan to contain, but not to have a war with, China. So if Japan has an all-out war with China, it will drag the U.S. in. This certainly is not what the U.S. wants to do. At least not now.

Oriental Outlook Weekly: On the South China Sea dispute, some people advocate the use of force against Vietnam and the Philippines. What do you think of that?

Qiao: We will never give up our territory. This is a basic position, but going back to what I mentioned earlier, we need to prioritize.

For China, is the South China Sea’s oil the sole thing that determines China’s fate? If China’s modernization process would be stopped if we could not get the South China Sea’s oil, we would, for sure, fight a war for it. However, that is not the case.

I think China still has a long way to go from learning to be a major power to actually becoming one. Americans have already formed a set of standard response procedures in tackling international issues. China does not even have such a system. It is still learning bit by bit. After a mistake, we learn a lesson. Sometimes, we learn a lesson after ten mistakes. It is the same for the Chinese people. The state should learn how to become a major power and citizens should learn how to become a major power’s citizens. We cannot talk about China’s rising to become a major power while acting with a small country mentality.

II. “We Chinese People Must Know What Our Core Interests Are”

Oriental Outlook Weekly: So the issue of the South China Sea is the same as the one of the Diaoyu Islands.

Qiao: We should not focus too much on these disputes. What does China need most now? We need at least ten and at most 20 years of [economic] development. If we can ride out this period of time, there will not be any country in the world that can stop us. We can then do anything we want to do. Then we can move towards creating a new civilization.

Civilization must have a material basis. Americans began to develop in the early 18th century. After the Civil War in the 1860s that re-united the country, its economy began to take off. At the end of the 19th century, the U.S. economy was about where we are today, one of the world’s leading GDP producing countries. When they found they simply could not break through the global system of the British Empire, they patiently waited for an opportunity.

Americans were more patient than we are. With their military strength, they would have had no problem defeating the British Empire. Though they did not do so, they did create a plan on how to fight a war against the British. They waited until World War I. They watched the Germans fight against the British. After the Germans were defeated and the British severely injured, the Americans still did not obtain the global hegemony that they dreamed of. The soft power that Britain built over 200 years was still there. In ruling the world, it was still more effective than hard power.

So the U.S. waited patiently for another twenty years for the next World War. On the eve of the outbreak of World War II, the U.S. had been helping Germany to restore its economy, using the so-called “Dawes Plan.” Americans told the Germans that they would not take home the World War I reparations Germany owed the U.S. Rather, they invested all the money in the German military industry. Big companies such as Krupp, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz grew up quickly under the U.S. “Dawes Plan.” The products of the recovered defense industry were not for peaceful consumption, but only for war. Finally Hitler lived up to the “expectations” and led Germany back on the path of World War II. It aimed at the British Empire again. This time Germany lost again, but it also dragged down the British. The Americans then claimed the top seat without much hassle.

Oriental Outlook Weekly: In terms of a “major power’s wisdom,” do you have any suggestions for the Chinese people?

Qiao: In retrospect, we can see that for a country to become a global power, it must first have a vast territory, secondly enormous resources, and thirdly a large population. Two hundred million is not enough. How many countries are there today that meet these conditions? China, the U.S., and Russia. The U.S. is the only superpower. Russia has been dragged down by its economic development. China is the only possibility left.

We Chinese people must know what our core interests are. As of today, not many people are clear. Ultimately China has two core interests. First, the ruling status of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cannot be rivaled. Second, the revival of China cannot be interrupted. Only these two are core interests; anything else is not.

Using those two criteria to measure what is China’s core interest, the Diaoyu Islands are not and the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island in Chinese) is not, either. Even Taiwan is not. Why?

In the past 30 years, Taiwan did not participate in China’s economic reform. China could still develop, which indicates that Taiwan is not a necessary condition for China to become strong. So it cannot be regarded as a core interest. At most, it may be considered as a material interest that may affect the core interests.

Oriental Outlook Weekly: For the next 10 years, what, in your opinion, is the biggest challenge for China?

Qiao: One of the biggest domestic challenges is whether there is a strong, limited anti-corruption campaign.

Oriental Outlook Weekly: What does “limited” mean?

Qiao: It means we should use “mousetrap” rather than “rat killer” medicine. Mousetraps allow you to catch the targets. Rat killers will kill not only the rat, but also chickens, ducks, fish, and geese.

Oriental Outlook Weekly: What is the biggest challenge internationally?

Qiao: I think it is a resource bottleneck issue. China is actually a large country with “thin” per capita resources. For the large scale and fast pace of development in China today, we need enormous resources. We can only get them overseas.

Can we get them effectively? It seems difficult today. Why? Let’s take a look. We wanted to take oil from Sudan. We did well in the beginning. The Western countries became jealous and started creating trouble. Quickly, we were done: first was the Darfur incident; second, North and South Sudan split; and third, there was a civil war in southern Sudan.

Another example is iron ore and mineral resources. Just look at how we lost the acquisition and merger of Rio Tinto. It is not a business activity; it is the Western world’s concerted and joint repression against China.

How we get enough resources is what we really should worry about. This requires us to make a number of different efforts. One is to enhance China’s soft power to improve our image, while also exercising self-restraint. We cannot kill the hen to get its egg. Instead, we should strive for win-win with countries that are rich in resources. Also, we should have the ability to resist pressure from those countries that want to suffocate us.

Oriental Outlook Weekly: How do we resist?

Qiao: First, we need to have a strong military. The military will safeguard China’s overseas investments. Wherever Chinese businesses invest, the Chinese military must have the ability to provide protection. This does not mean China wants to fight with everyone in the world, but to alert some countries about China’s military strength. The U.S. is a good example in doing this.

Oriental Outlook Weekly: Since both soft and hard power need to go hand in hand [and it is easier to build up hard power], will soft power lag behind hard power for a long period of time?

Qiao: It does take a long time to build up a country’s soft power, especially in creating a new form of civilization. 100 years may not achieve much. However, rapid economic development and military strides have given us no choice. As a major power, there are things you have to do. That being the case, we should make a determined effort to enhance from top to bottom our image and soft power. We should be able to see results after 20 years.

III. China’s Military Needs a “Paradigm Shift”

Oriental Outlook Weekly: You wrote the Unrestricted War in 1999 and accurately predicted the trend that future wars will go beyond military boundaries. 15 years later, what new trend do you see in the evolution of the military in the world?

Qiao: The information technology that is driving the evolution of the military is nearing its end. That is, it has fully matured. “Mature” means its potential is about to be exhausted; it is unable to bring about the next round of global military development.

In this round, all weapons and equipment that are closely related to information technology have become known. There is not much potential left in terms of the core of information technology – chip technology. However, China’s new military evolution is half way through, so some Chinese military researchers believe that this round of military evolution is still in full swing, reflecting their own limited frame of reference. The truth is that we are starting to work on something that others have already completed.

As this round of new military evolution is about to close, the Americans are aware that their issue is how to make better use of their information technology, rather than how to explore its potential more fully. At the same time, the evolution of the U.S.’ information technology has upgraded its combat capability, which has also brought about a fatal weakness about which the U.S. is more worried.

As an illustration that I have used before, a wealthy man kept worrying that his wealth at home might be stolen. Then he thought, “Why don’t I box it up so that nobody can steal it?” One day, a thief broke in and took the box. He easily took all of the man’s wealth.

This is what is happening in the U.S. Its highly developed information technology has integrated all military powers into a whole, so that its strength is without precedent. Yet its vulnerability is now also without precedent. If one link were to fail, the entire system could collapse.

Why did information technology make weapons more powerful? It is due to a small chip. However, technology, such as an electromagnetic pulse or a microwave bomb, can control the chip, rendering the entire information technological system useless.

The U.S. is also powerful because it has dominion over space. Its reliance on weather information systems has become its weakness. The space reconnaissance early warning system is a U.S. advantage, which, in fact, is also very fragile. It cannot survive an anti-satellite weapons’ attack; even broken satellite pieces can destroy it.

The U.S. can fight Saddam and Gaddafi, or even the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Those countries have not developed the ability to counter U.S. information technology or space technology. Big countries are different. Russia, China, Britain, and France, all have the ability to attack space systems. They are fully aware of the United States’ critical weakness. Every U.S. soldier has a GPS. If the GPS fails, they will be totally lost.

The U.S. is truly worried. When it finds itself most powerful, it also realizes that it is most vulnerable. As we are still half way through our military development, we do not really understand this yet. We still believe that once we achieve informationization, we will win the war. The result of informationization is what the U.S. has – the coexistence of power and vulnerability. Since the U.S. has started to worry about it, why can’t the Chinese military now learn this lesson?

In my opinion, the most important element in the transformation of the Chinese military is a paradigm shift, not weaponry or institutional change. If we just follow the U.S. and do what it does, we are not transforming but imitating.

Oriental Outlook Weekly: What do you mean when you say, “learn the lesson now?”

Qiao: First, we should stop imitating the U.S. style military evolution, which has lost its direction. We should find a new way of thinking and new ideas. For example, what can effectively overcome the opponent’s information system? We should invest in what the opponents most fear. That is the path we should adopt.

Secondly, we should reduce costs. This is also a very important way of thinking. The U.S. fights the war in a luxurious manner. We cannot afford that. The cost to engage in all aspects of information technology everywhere is too high. In fact, if we can find a way to control the chips, we can control the information technology and the cost can be very low. So we must keep the cost effectiveness concept in mind.

To win the war under conditions of informationization, we should spend more of our limited resources and funding to contain informationization, rather than to imitate someone else’s informationization.

Oriental Outlook Weekly: Are there any countries moving to contain informationization?

Qiao: Not many countries have consciously taken this path. While many countries have more or less recognized this approach, none has consciously turned it into a military strategy.

If the Chinese military can follow this way of thinking, it will really be a valuable dramatic change. Now the American’s “Hollywood style” military performances have deluded everyone. As the U.S. troops fight, it broadcasts the battle to the world via television. One will be completely shocked and taken in, so people have become obsessed with following the U.S. steps.

In fact, this is the U.S.’s agenda. They are very clear that if they informationize and others do not follow, they cannot control others. They implemented the informationization and set the standards for all to follow, so they will be forever ahead of everyone else. No one will ever catch up with them.

However, if others do not follow this line of thinking at all, the situation could be different.

IV. Future Warfare Will Be “High-Tech Guerrilla Warfare”

Oriental Outlook Weekly: Then, after informationization, what will be the focus of the next competition of military forces around the world?

Qiao: As far as the military is concerned, I think the most effective new way of war in the future, in fact, will continue to be a guerrilla war. It will simply be high-tech guerrilla warfare. Actually the U.S. military has begun to have some capabilities of “high-tech guerrilla warfare,” but they have not yet formalized this concept.

In many people’s minds, to fight a war, one must first gather the troops. Take the air force for example. Aircraft take off from airports, reach the designated airspace, form groups, and then fly to the targets. Hundreds of aircraft fly past like locusts, bombing the opponents off their feet. This was the World War II approach but it is no longer needed.

Now the military is deployed to different locations. Then they, from different locations, launch attacks against the same or different targets simultaneously. Each unit completes its own task and returns to its own base. If a target is not destroyed, a unit can also be diverted immediately to re-attack that target.

This flexible approach actually is similar to guerrilla warfare. I think that whoever can be the first to make their forces more flexible with more “high-tech guerrilla warfare” capability will be the next winner.

Oriental Outlook Weekly: What kind of new combat capability will this require?

Qiao: Although I advocate that we develop the capability to overcome the opponent’s informationization, we cannot abandon informationization. On the contrary, we should figure out how to develop our own unique informationization capabilities, rather than to imitate the U.S. military’s high-tech guerrilla warfare.

First, take air combat for example. The command must quickly identify the target and complete the decision-making on the attack. The decision and related maps and data must quickly be distributed to the pilots. When the pilot turns on the computer, he knows exactly what the mission is, how to fly the route, what type of munitions to bring, and what kind of targets to destroy. Everything is clear. These tasks can even be done by drones.

Second, the integration of different forces must be “modular,” like building blocks. Depending on the task, the army, navy, and air force must all play the same game and cannot march to their own tunes.

This high-tech guerrilla warfare jointly carried out by the army, navy, and air force makes the concept of joint operations obsolete.

For example, a combat mission may need the collaboration of the army, navy, and air force. One air force division may be shared by two army divisions. A navy squadron may be needed to provide transportation for the army. The collaboration is modular and easy to accomplish. Currently, each military force reports to its own chain of command and it relies on the higher level command to coordinate its actions.

A modularized military will be very flexible. A key feature of guerrilla combat is the high flexibility in the composition of fighting units. How could a clumsy conventional military fight a guerrilla war?

[1] Sina, “China’s Rise Requires Great Wisdom,” March 28, 2014. (However, the article is no longer available. The same article can be found at the next source).
[2] China Social Science Network, “Qiao Liang: The Future Relationship between China and U.S. and the Strategy for China’s Rise,” March 11, 2015.