China’s PLA revives the art of war

by J. Michael Waller, Insight magazine, 28 February 2000.

Should U.S. financiers whose trading adversely affects Chinese “red-chip” companies be assassinated? China’s People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, is discussing the concept.

Should Beijing covertly fund political-influence operations in the United States? A new PLA book openly asks the question. Facing a potentially huge nuclear-weapons buildup as well as an even bigger high-tech conventional-arms race to reach parity with the United States and Russia, members of the echelon of senior colonels who will be among tomorrow’s PLA flag officers are looking beyond the nuclear age to a new and more stealthy form of war.

The book, titled Unrestricted Warfare, is part of a larger effort within the PLA to develop a means of challenging the United States through “asymmetry” – not by trying to match the United States missile for missile, but by turning the strength of China’s adversaries against themselves as a judo artist subdues a larger, stronger foe. “Understanding and employing the principle of asymmetry correctly allows us always to find and exploit an enemy’s soft spots,” PLA senior Cols. Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui write in their 1999 book. They say they got the idea for the book during the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis when Beijing stood by helplessly as two U.S. aircraft-carrier groups made a show of force during Beijing’s mock missile attack on Taiwan. Insight has obtained a CIA translation of the volume.

Unrestricted Warfare, according to a CIA commentary, “proposes tactics for developing countries, in particular China, to compensate for their military inferiority vis-a-vis the United States during a high-tech war.” Accordingly, “Hacking into Websites, targeting financial institutions, terrorism, using the media and conducting urban warfare are among the methods proposed.” In an interview with the official daily of the Chinese Communist Party youth league, the 44-year-old Qiao said, “The first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.”

The book implies that the infrastructure for such warfare should be built and in place well in advance of any possible military confrontation. “From this point on, war will no longer be what it was originally,” the colonels write, but will be unrecognizable as it is waged in the heart of American society. “Does a single hacker attack count as a hostile act or not? Can using financial instruments to destroy a country’s economy be seen as a battle? Did CNN’s broadcast of an exposed corpse of a U.S. soldier in the streets of Mogadishu shake the determination of the Americans to act as the world’s policeman, thereby altering the world’s strategic situation?”

The colonels have laid an intellectual framework for such warfare with high-level sponsorship in the Chinese military and the ruling Communist Party. “The PLA has placed special emphasis on the modernization of its info-war capabilities, in accordance with the emphasis on information dominance in the classic book Art of War by Sun Tzu,” according to Al Santoli, editor of the China Reform Monitor bulletin. “The rationale for this approach,” Santoli says, is articulated in Unrestricted Warfare. “The PLA decided it cannot match the United States in conventional weapons. Instead, it is emphasizing development of new information and cyberwar technologies and viruses to neutralize or erode an enemy’s political, economic and military information and command-and-control infrastructures,” according to Santoli.

Much of the debate is out in the open. The PLA is encouraging officers to think more about unrestricted warfare in general and information warfare in particular. Last year it also published a companion work, Introduction to Information Warfare, “as part of its integrated combined operations for fighting future wars,” Santoli says. The book “was approved by the PLA General Staff Department and the powerful Central Military Commission,” and was recommended for reading by the PLA newspaper Jiefangjun Bao.

The PLA authors are explicit in Unrestricted Warfare, arguing that China can outmaneuver U.S. high-tech sensors, electronic countermeasures and weaponry by employing different methods entirely. “If the attacking side [i.e., China] secretly musters large amounts of capital without the enemy nation being aware of this at all and launches a sneak attack against its financial markets,” they write, “then after causing a financial crisis, buries a computer virus and hacker detachment in the opponent’s computer system in advance, while at the same time carrying out a network attack against the enemy so that the civilian electricity network, traffic-dispatching network, financial-transaction network, telephone-communications network and mass-media network are completely paralyzed, this will cause the enemy nation to fall into social panic, street riots and a political crisis.”

Or so the PLA hopes. Unrestricted Warfare calls for widening the very idea of warfare to nearly every aspect of political, economic, cultural and social life in Western countries. The elegant CIA translation reveals an extremely well-reasoned approach and a profound understanding of the U.S. military, the U.S. political and economic systems and American popular culture.

Unrestricted warfare, the PLA colonels write, “means that all means will be in readiness, that information will be omnipresent and the battlefield will be everywhere. It means that all weapons and technology can be superimposed at will, it means that all the boundaries lying between the two worlds of war and nonwar, of military and nonmilitary, will be totally destroyed.”

While paying great respect and open admiration for the far-superior U.S. weaponry, logistics and military doctrine, the authors believe China could defeat the United States on the new battlefield. “Viewed from the performance of the U.S. military in Somalia, where they were at a loss when they encountered [warlord Mohamed Farah] Aideed’s forces, the most modern military force does not have the ability to control public clamor and cannot deal with an opponent who does things in an unconventional manner,” the colonels argue. “On the battlefields of the future, the digitized forces may very possibly be like a great cook who is good at cooking lobsters sprinkled with butter, but when faced with guerrillas who resolutely gnaw corn cobs, they can only sigh in despair.”

So the weaker side indeed can defeat the United States, the PLA colonels maintain. U.S. military thinking, they argue, has not kept pace with the amazing leaps in military technology. “The Americans have not been able to get their act together in this area. This is because proposing a new concept of weapons does not require relying on the springboard of new technology, it just demands lucid and incisive thinking. However, this is not a strong point of the Americans, who are slaves to technology in their thinking.”

Americans, in the Chinese colonels’ view, are too wedded to “weapons whose immediate goal is to kill and destroy.” In unrestricted warfare, “there is nothing in the world today that cannot become a weapon.” So the war should be brought into every aspect of American life: “As we see it, a single man-made stock-market crash, a single computer-virus invasion or a single rumor or scandal that results in a fluctuation in the enemy country’s exchange rates or exposes the leaders of an enemy country on the Internet can be included in the ranks of new-concept weapons. A new concept of weapons provides direction for new-concept weapons, while the new-concept weapons give fixed forms to the new concept of weapons. With regard to the flood of new-concept weapons, technology is no longer the main factor; the true underlying factor is a new concept regarding weapons.”

This argument gives new urgency to those in the United States who are pressing for greater vigilance of Communist Chinese penetration of the United States stock and bond markets. Roger W. Robinson, who served on President Reagan’s National Security Council and now chairs the William J. Casey Institute at the Center for Security Policy, has been behind a transparency initiative to allow U.S. investors to know what their pension funds and mutual funds might be financing in China (see “China Cashes In,” Dec. 20, 1999).

Unrestricted Warfare, in Robinson’s view, “should give pause to those who believe that China’s integration into global financial and trading systems is an entirely benign and civilian development.” It likens currency speculator George Soros to Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden, the late Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar and the Japanese Aum Shinri Kyo cult that in 1998 attacked a Tokyo subway with sarin poison gas. Soros is named at least a half-dozen times as one who has waged “financial warfare” and “financial terrorism” on East Asia. Financiers such as Soros, the colonels suggest, could be legitimate targets of assassination.

Contrary to the conspiratorial worldview fostered by one-party systems such as that in China, the PLA colonels recognize that individual speculators and other nongovernmental actors are indeed independent and not necessarily agents of Western capitalism or appendages of the U.S. government. Such individuals and groups, they say, are threats in their own right: the “nonprofessional warriors.” And they must be dealt with.

“This person is not a hacker in the general sense of the term, and also is not a member of a quasimilitary organization,” the colonels argue. “Perhaps he or she is a systems analyst or a software engineer, or a financier with a large amount of mobile capital or a stock speculator. He or she might even be a media mogul who controls a wide variety of media, a famous columnist or the host of a TV program. His or her philosophy of life is different from that of certain blind and inhuman terrorists.” But they might as well be the same: “Who can say that George Soros is not a financial terrorist?”

The colonels blame Soros for an attack on the Chinese economy by causing a run on “red-chip” stocks – companies listed on the Hong Kong stock market but controlled by Communist Chinese interests. “The main protagonist in this section of the history book will not be a statesman or a military strategist; rather, it will be George Soros. After Soros began his activities, [Taiwan President] Lee Teng-hui used the financial crisis in Southeast Asia to devalue the New Taiwan dollar, so as to launch an attack on the Hong Kong dollar and Hong Kong stocks, especially the ‘red-chip stocks.’” In such a case, the PLA officers argue, why not assassinate people such as Soros? The question is explicit: “When protecting a country’s financial security, can assassination be used to deal with financial speculators?”

The colonels appear to endorse the idea of the “traditional terror war,” such as the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by Saudi terrorist bin Laden. “The advent of bin Laden-style terrorism has deepened the impression that a national force, no matter how powerful, will find it difficult to gain the upper hand in a game that has no rules.”

But bin Laden’s terrorism doesn’t go far enough, the colonels argue. Bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and hijackings “represent less than the maximum degree of terror” against the target. “What really strikes terror into people’s hearts is the rendezvous of terrorists with various types of new, high technologies that possibly will evolve into new superweapons.” The casualties from Aum Shinri Kyo’s sarin nerve-gas attack “accounted for just a small portion of the terror,” according to the PLA officers. “This affair put people on notice that modern biochemical technology had already forged a lethal weapon for those terrorists who would try to carry out the mass destruction of humanity.”

Such thinking, experts say, provides an intellectual framework for Beijing’s sale of technology to make weapons of mass destruction to regimes supporting terrorism.

The book argues that it is better to control than to kill. “Technological progress has given us the means to strike at the enemy’s nerve center directly without harming other things, giving us numerous new options for achieving victory, and all these make people believe that the best way to achieve victory is to control, not to kill. The approach of using uncontrolled slaughter to force the enemy into unconditional surrender has now become a relic of a bygone age.”

Sowing fear and uncertainty in military and civilian ranks will become increasingly important weapons in unrestricted war, the colonels conclude. “We can create many methods of causing fear which are more effective” than killing. “Even the last refuge of the human race – the inner world of the heart – cannot avoid the attacks of psychological warfare. There are nets above and snares below, so that a person has no place to flee.”

The PLA authors see the United States as vulnerable to such unrestricted warfare. The U.S. military is culturally unequipped to deal with the problem, they argue; “they have never taken into consideration and have even refused to consider means that are contrary to tradition and to select measures of operation other than military means.” The United States, the Red Chinese officers say, should be better prepared: “What is surprising is that such a large nation unexpectedly does not have a unified command structure to deal with the threat.”