“Preparing for War”: What Is China’s Xi Jinping Is Trying to Tell Us?

 In Land, China, Forces & Capabilities, P5, Energy

Xi Jinping paid a visit to a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Marine Corps base in Guangdong Province this past Tuesday. During his tour the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) supre­mo exhorted marines to devote their “minds and energy” to “prepar­ing for war,” to “main­tain a state of high alert,” and to remain “absolute­ly loyal, absolute­ly pure, and absolute­ly reli­able.”

Xi’s words set China-watch­ers in the West aflut­ter, but what do they mean?

Less and more than it might seem. As a rule, nation­al lead­ers aim their remarks at more than one audi­ence, and Xi is no excep­tion to the rule. Let’s start with what he com­mu­ni­cat­ed to the imme­di­ate audi­ence, the Chinese marines on hand for inspec­tion, then spec­u­late about the mes­sages he broad­cast — delib­er­ate­ly or inad­ver­tent­ly — to hear­ers else­where in China and the world.

In one sense Xi’s words were ano­dyne, even trite. Military forces exist to pro­vide polit­i­cal lead­ers with options. To give polit­i­cal lead­ers options should they resort to war, armed ser­vices have to pre­pare for war in peace­time. That’s doubly true of indus­tri­al-age mil­i­taries. You don’t impro­vise a high-tech force at the out­break of fight­ing. You devel­op and build imple­ments of war, devise tac­tics and doc­trine for using them, and train — over and over again.

In war­fare as on the grid­iron or bas­ket­ball court, prac­tice before a con­test makes per­fect. More reps make better habits and a more pro­fi­cient team. Nineteenth-cen­tu­ry psy­chol­o­gist William James paid homage to the part habits play in the pro­fes­sion of arms. James con­jured up the Duke of Wellington, the victor of Waterloo, as an author­i­ty on the sub­ject: “‘Habit a second nature! Habit is ten times nature,’ the Duke of Wellington is said to have exclaimed .… The daily drill and the years of dis­ci­pline” trans­mute ordi­nary people into fight­ing sol­diers, sailors, or avi­a­tors.

Executing tac­tics and oper­a­tions becomes second nature. Such a force acquits itself well in battle.

Élan is crit­i­cal to mar­tial prowess. Only a skilled and ded­i­cat­ed wield­er can extract max­i­mum design per­for­mance from a weapon or piece of kit. To ful­fill their duty, in other words, mil­i­tary folk must devote their minds and energy to prepar­ing for war and main­tain a state of high alert should they be ordered into battle. Xi was simply entreat­ing the PLA Marines to do their job, not announc­ing that war is immi­nent. That’s the banal part.

Xi may have telegraphed an unin­tend­ed mes­sage by entreat­ing the marines to remain absolute­ly loyal, absolute­ly pure, and absolute­ly reli­able. Few U.S. or allied lead­ers see the need to plead with troops to remain loyal; loy­al­ty to the nation and its con­sti­tu­tion is assumed. But the PLA is the mil­i­tary wing of a polit­i­cal party, not a soci­ety and its gov­ern­ment. CCP grandees con­stant­ly hector the Chinese people and their mil­i­tary to remain sub­servient to party ide­ol­o­gy.

That they feel the need to demand what con­fi­dent lead­ers expect beto­kens doubt about the PLA’s fealty.

Military sage Carl von Clausewitz supplies a couple of tools for deci­pher­ing Xi’s mes­sage to audi­ences out­side China. The main target audi­ences are Taiwan, an off­shore island the Chinese Communist Party has vowed to make its own, by force of arms if nec­es­sary; the United States, Taiwan’s chief (if ambiguous) defend­er; and Asian and allied powers likely to oppose Beijing’s ambi­tions for ter­ri­to­ry and extrare­gion­al clout.

Clausewitz main­tains that any war­like soci­ety can be broken down into three “dom­i­nant ten­den­cies,” or com­po­nents, namely ratio­nal sub­or­di­na­tion of mil­i­tary endeav­ors to policy; chance and cre­ativ­i­ty; and pas­sion, in par­tic­u­lar dark pas­sions like fear, rage, and spite. It’s up to polit­i­cal lead­ers to ensure the armed forces serve polit­i­cal ends. Chance and cre­ativ­i­ty are the realm where gifted mil­i­tary com­man­ders prac­tice the art and sci­ence of bat­tle­field strat­e­gy. And the pop­u­lace is the pri­ma­ry locus of primal pas­sions.

Strategy, it seems, comes in threes. Clausewitz also con­tends that there are three ways to win in mar­tial strife. One com­bat­ant can over­come the other in action and dic­tate terms. An armed clash charts the most direct route to vic­to­ry in war. But the other two ways are more inter­est­ing, and they apply not just in wartime but during peace­time strate­gic com­pe­ti­tion. A com­peti­tor can try to con­vince its rival that the rival cannot win, or at least that its prospects are doubt­ful. Or a com­peti­tor can try to con­vince its rival that the rival cannot win at a cost accept­able to it.

Again, ratio­nal­i­ty is the sphere of polit­i­cal lead­er­ship. By Clausewitzian logic no respon­si­ble polit­i­cal leader should take up the sword in a hope­less cause. It should forego the attempt, or extri­cate itself from the con­flict if a once-viable cause becomes hope­less after battle has been joined. Nor, by Clausewitzian logic, should a con­tender over­spend on its polit­i­cal goals. How much the lead­er­ship desires its goals gov­erns how much it spends mea­sured in lives, mil­i­tary hard­ware, and nation­al trea­sure to obtain them, and how long it keeps up the expen­di­ture.

In other words, one antag­o­nist can pre­vail by defeat­ing its antag­o­nist, dis­heart­en­ing its antag­o­nist, or con­vinc­ing its antag­o­nist that vic­to­ry will cost more than it’s worth or is alto­geth­er unaf­ford­able.

Things have been tense in the Taiwan Strait of late. Look at Xi’s mes­sage to Taiwan’s gov­ern­ment, mil­i­tary, and people through these lenses. The mes­sage is straight­for­ward: he wants to cow the islanders into sub­mis­sion, con­vinc­ing them they cannot win and that defeat is a fore­gone con­clu­sion should they balk Beijing’s will. His bom­bast sig­nals not just that the PLA is an increas­ing­ly well-equipped force with more ships, planes, and mis­siles than Taiwan’s armed forces can match, but that main­lan­ders will fight with skill and zeal.

A ratio­nal lead­er­ship should lay down arms and accept sub­ju­ga­tion rather than resist an unbeat­able foe. Clausewitz would instant­ly rec­og­nize Xi’s rhetor­i­cal meth­ods. He wants to over­awe an oppo­nent into sur­ren­der, much as China’s rulers have striv­en to do since the age of Sun Tzu.

America is more inter­est­ing as a target audi­ence. Return to the Taiwan Strait once again. To over­sim­pli­fy, Beijing has con­struct­ed forces to slow down and weaken U.S. rein­force­ments as they cross the Pacific to join with sea, air, and land forces based in Guam, in Japan, and else­where around mar­itime East Asia. Xi may or may not believe he can per­suade U.S. polit­i­cal lead­ers, the armed forces, or the American people the PLA would defeat U.S. forces out­right. He can try to per­suade them U.S. forces would reach the scene of action too late and too feeble to accom­plish their goals. In which case, what’s the point of offer­ing battle?

If suc­cess­ful Xi could con­vince Washington not to make what looks like a fruit­less attempt to succor Taiwan.

And then Xi can try to manip­u­late U.S. per­cep­tions of how much it would cost to repel a cross-strait assault against the island. The nar­ra­tive goes some­thing like this: it may remain pos­si­ble for U.S. mar­itime forces to achieve their goals vis-à-vis Taiwan, but even if so, America will pay a penal­ty for suc­cess — per­haps a heavy one. Xi can ask Americans, sotto voce, how much they’re pre­pared to pay for the inde­pen­dence of a small island inhab­it­ed by just 23 mil­lion people and lying per­ma­nent­ly under the shadow of a giant enemy’s sea­coasts.

If they don’t care enough to sac­ri­fice for Taiwan’s inde­pen­dence, Clausewitz would advise them not to make the outlay.

And even if they do care enough, the oppor­tu­ni­ty costs could prove severe. The U.S. mil­i­tary is already strapped for resources trying to police the Indo-Pacific, and this is peace­time. If the United States lost a siz­able frac­tion of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and affil­i­at­ed joint forces in a con­test in the Taiwan Strait — even a tri­umphant one — its capac­i­ty to retain its super­pow­er stand­ing and pre­side over the lib­er­al mar­itime order would be dimin­ished. It could win local­ly but lose glob­al­ly.

So again, Xi can ask U.S. polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary lead­ers and the elec­torate: what’s it worth to you? An indif­fer­ent, dis­tract­ed, pandemic-riven society might decide Taiwan is not worth the effort when bal­anced against com­pet­ing pri­or­i­ties — all of them com­pelling.

Clearly, then, Xi Jinping has much to gain from tout­ing China’s bur­geon­ing mil­i­tary might and the virtues of those who march under its banner. A long-dead Prussian helps us inter­pret the CCP chieftain’s words — and ponder strat­e­gy of our own.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and the coau­thor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.

National Interest source|articles

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