To deter the PRC … is written by Lieutenant Colonel Kyle Marcrum, a United States Army foreign area officer specializing in China, and Dr Brendan S. Mulvaney, director of the China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI). The report launches a series of essays, workshops, and events seeking to improve understanding of what the Chinese Communist Party and its People’s Liberation Army mean by ‘deterrence’.
The series is a joint ASPI–CASI project which will examine how both democratic countries and the People’s Republic of China approach deterrence, what liberal democracies are doing to deter China and what China is doing to deter those nations. It will assess the impacts of those efforts and will draw heavily from original PRC and PLA documents, as well as interviews and personal experiences, to help understand PRC thinking.
The authors note that an understanding that the PLA conceives of ‘deterrence’ along the lines of what Western militaries think of as ‘coercion’ is a baseline to better determine what courses of action might be effective when attempting to shape the PRC’s actions.
This idea of offensive deterrence becomes more appealing if you believe your opponent suffers from weak resolve, the authors say.
Decision-makers must understand that the PRC may conduct what it expects to be limited strikes to deter the US and its partners and allies, the authors say, without intending them to spiral into a war.
In December 2018, Rear Admiral Lou Yuan of the PLA Navy said, ‘What the United States fears the most is taking casualties,’ and suggested that sinking two US aircraft carriers would be sufficient to expel the US from the South and East China seas. ‘We’ll see how frightened America is.’
The authors say that using this concept of ‘offensive deterrence’ by conducting strikes that kill Americans or Australians would not have the deterrent effect the PRC seeks or expects ‘and the risks of escalation from such a deterrent effort are extremely high’.
So, they say, planners must take this into account both when seeking to deter China as well as when thinking through what actions it might take or how it might react to our actions.
In examining how China might be deterred from actions inimical to international goals and standards, the report contains various definitions of what deterrence actually is. One is that of strategist Thomas Schelling, described as the contemporary father of coercion theory: ‘To be coercive, violence has to be anticipated. And it has to be avoidable by accommodation. The power to hurt is bargaining power. To exploit it is diplomacy—vicious diplomacy, but diplomacy.’
Zhao Xijun of the PRC’s National Defense University defines ‘offensive deterrence’ in his book Coercive warfare: a comprehensive discussion on missile deterrence as ‘a military deterrence that mainly aims at attacking’ and writes that ‘the characteristic of offensive deterrence is to use “pre-emptive strike” to deter the other side’. Zhao also states that this concept is ‘“using war to stop war” by [using] small war to constrain large war’.
The authors compare the current situation to the way the US and the Soviet Union related to each other during the Cold War. Apart from contact at organisations such as the United Nations, the two sides had little interaction, little trade, little commerce and relatively little overlap in their geographical spheres of influence.
‘There was tension and conflict on the margins with clear escalatory potential, but the two sides managed to avoid direct or large-scale confrontations, albeit narrowly at times. That was in large part because the two sides developed a shared basic understanding of the world.’
Everyone in the military and the broader defence and security establishment knew something about the Soviets and their military. People studied what the Soviets thought, how they spoke and the actions that they took, down to the smallest details.
Each side developed a solid basis for understanding the signals the other side was sending, and typically sent clear signals of its own.
The authors say that that is not the case today.
‘The CCP’s understanding of the world, and thus its approach to it, is significantly different from Western views. It’s neither right nor wrong, just a different perspective, and one that isn’t common in Western liberal democracies; nor is it commonly taught in Western education systems, or indeed even in professional military education.’
They say that Australian and US partners and allies such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have a historical appreciation and can help contribute to a better understanding of historical concepts. But, since 2001, the US and many of its partners have been focused on fighting terrorist groups and managing the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the broader Middle East.
Only during the latter part of the Trump administration did the US truly focus the whole of government on addressing the competition with China, bringing in Congress as well as the military, the State Department, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States and others.
While it takes years to build a deep and wide group of specialists in any field, the authors say, it stands out that the US Air Force has the same number of foreign area officer places for Chinese specialists as it does for Portuguese speakers.
They warn that if the US and its allies and partners hope to avoid conflict with China, they must build a deeper shared understanding of how the CCP and the PRC see the world. That will require sustained effort over several years and involve a deep partnership with partners and allies who have vital knowledge and expertise.
They also urge planners not to ‘mirror ourselves onto our analysis of PRC thinking and action’.
They say that: ‘With sustained effort, we can do better at understanding Chinese thought and concepts and the twists that CCP ideology gives them. In that way, we can maximise our opportunities to ensure that our strategic goals are met and our interests are protected.’
Brendan Nicholson is executive editor of The Strategist where this first appeared.