The recent OPM hack has highlighted (again) Chinese strategic opposition to the United States. While the Chinese use of cyber and economic warfare is no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, it may well be worthwhile to look into some of the literature the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has produced on the subject. As our own Coriolanus has pointed out, the Chinese have announced everything they’ve done; it’s just been overlooked in the mass of documentation and communication (with too few Mandarin speakers to sift through it), or it hasn’t fallen into our set categories.

Falling into set categories that the U.S. considers “war” is in fact addressed in the 1999 white paper produced by two PLA colonels, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui. Entitled “Unrestricted Warfare,” the paper is one of those bits of intention, strategy, and technique announcements that didn’t get overlooked, as it’s been translated into English. This article is going to be the first in a series, going through this paper/book chapter by chapter.  Know your enemy.

The preface

The paper starts with the assertion that Operation Desert Storm changed war and changed the world. The authors admit that this is an extraordinary claim to make about such a short, relatively unopposed war. And in fact, they go on to assert that the change wasn’t in the “future high-tech, push-button hyperwar” direction that most Americans thought Desert Storm represented. Instead, the assertion is that Desert Storm was the last time any player—including the sole remaining superpower, the United States—would find itself in such a position of overwhelming strength. By Qiao’s and Wang’s logic, Desert Storm ensured that any actor in the future would have to address war in an “unrestricted” way, expanding it into economic, terroristic, cyber, and guerrilla forms.

The significance with which Qiao and Wang address Desert Storm is described as, “Who could imagine that an insufferably arrogant actor, whose appearance has chagned the entire plot, suddenly finds that he himself is actually the last person to play this unique role?” They proceed to point out the subsequent failure of the U.S. to attain a clear-cut victory in places like Somalia and Bosnia, as well as the attempt to resolve the later tension with Iraq in 1994 by bombing, which proved utterly ineffectual.

They point to other examples to illustrate their model of new forms of warfare replacing the old: “…there is a reason for us to maintain that the financial attack by George Soros on East Asia, the terroist attack on the U.S. embassy by Usama Bin Laden, the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the disciples of the Aum Shinri Kyo, and the havoc wreaked by the likes of Morris Jr. on the Internet, in which the degree of destruction is by no means second to that of a war, represent semi-warfare, quasi-warfare, and sub-warfare, that is, the embryonic form of another kind of warfare.” The new principles of war, they say, “…are no longer ‘using armed force to compel the enemy to submit to one’s will,’ but rather are, ‘using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.'”

China as a strategic rival of the United States is not a new concept, although it has tended to be dismissed by those with financial interests in China and Chinese industries. Indeed, the Chinese and American economies are very intertwined, but that does not preclude a strategic rivalry, as evidenced by the recent cyber operations conducted against the American intelligence community. But the insistence that there can never be a war with China because of that economic interplay is based on a model of “war” that, according to “Unrestricted Warfare” (a sixteen-year-old document), the Chinese no longer subscribe to.

There have been numerous reports lately pointing to the weaknesses and fragility of the PLA’s conventional forces. Although it’s worth noting that a force of over one million under arms doesn’t have to be as hard as the men who executed human-wave attacks on semi-hardened positions in sub-zero temperatures at the Chosin Reservoir to do a lot of damage. Of course, China’s conventional power projection capability is also extremely weak (though they are building it up rapidly).  But “Unrestricted Warfare” suggests that concentrating on the PLA’s conventional military capability is viewing too small a cog in the machine.

“Unrestricted Warfare” is a discussion of 21st-century unconventional warfare, specifically for “developing countries.” Recent events have shown that, as a whole, most of the world is embracing the changes in the principles of war that Qiao and Wang wrote about in 1999. If we are to cope with a world that views and wages war in the sort of unrestricted way outlined, it would help to broaden our own definition of what does and does not constitute war before we lose one we don’t even realize we’re in.