This week I returned to the mothership for the first time in a dozen years, to take part in a conference at Vanderbilt University asking whether Chinese strategy is “universal or unique?”
My answer: Chinese maritime strategy is novel but not unique. Chinese strategists excel at combining and recombining the same concepts available to everyone, and to do so in ways that often baffle outsiders. Confounding prospective foes is a feature for them, not a bug.
The presentations made me think. Thinking is good.
China, the Korean War, and Modern Warfare
During the proceedings something dawned on me with regard to the Korean War. Namely that the forgotten war could furnish future combatants clues as to how the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) may wage war in maritime Asia. The China seas and Western Pacific comprise an oceanic battleground, but then the Korean Peninsula south of the “narrow neck” that roughly coincides with the inter-Korean border is a maritime theater in its own right.
Sea power can range all across it.
In geostrategic terms southern Korea is a half-island grafted onto continental Asia. In effect it’s part of the first island chain that plays such a prominent part in regional politics and strategy. It’s worthwhile mining the war for lessons applicable to today. The main thing PLA commanders must have learned from studying the conflict: it’s hard and perilous to fight on an island unless you command the air and sea around it.
Fresh off its victory in the Chinese Civil War, Communist China intervened on the peninsula to stem General Douglas MacArthur’s offensive short of the Yalu River. Whether Mao Zedong’s motives for intervening in the forgotten war were more strategically offensive or strategically defensive in outlook is debatable. Mao (and his successors) invariably cast their strategies as defensive. And, of course, the founding Chinese Communist Party chairman was an exponent of the doctrine—which verged and verges on dogma for the PLA—of “active defense.”
Long story short, active defense is a weaker combatant’s method for flipping the script on on stronger foe. The weak start off on the strategic defensive, buying time to tap their military potential. In the meantime they seek out opportunities to engage and annihilate isolated enemy units, enfeebling the foe by increments. Active defense portends strategic defense through offensive tactics and operations. It narrows, then reverses, an adverse military balance.
To borrow from boxing legend Jack Dempsey, the best strategic defense for Maoists is a good tactical offense.
But it can be a forward defense as well. China is not strategically autistic. It need not—and will not—mindlessly rerun the Maoist script in all future contingencies. Nor will it forever condemn itself to resisting foreign forces that invade the country. It will adapt time-honored practices to the realities of great power. Even for a contender with China’s leanings, then, it is possible to dispatch forces into unguarded or lightly guarded geographic space and defend it by harnessing active-defense principles.
In fact, the Prussian martial guru Moltke the Elder once pronounced strategic offense coupled with tactical defense the strongest form of warfare. You grab something and hold it—daring an assailant to come and take it while fighting at a tactical disadvantage. In warfare as in ordinary life, possession is nine-tenths of the law.
For Communist China, fighting in Korea deployed active defense with an offensive twist. But the expedition didn’t flout Maoist orthodoxy. Nothing in Mao’s writings proscribes going on the strategic offensive. In fact, the very point of active defense is to set the conditions to unleash a conventional counteroffensive culminating in a crushing battlefield victory. Active defense simply defers the counteroffensive till a more propitious time, once the correlation of forces has come to favor the active defender. There’s no reason to postpone the offensive if the PLA already commands battlefield parity or superiority. You can skip the strategic defensive.
That was the case in northern Korea after MacArthur and his U.S./UN army overshot their ability to sustain offensive operations. Intervening in Korea was not some outlandish abandonment of active defense.
But that doesn’t mean the campaign was fated to succeed. It’s no accident that Chinese forces fared relatively well during the opening phase of the intervention late in 1950. Northern Korea, a predominantly continental theater, constituted the arena for the ground-war phase. The Chinese host was thrown back when it made its own lunge toward the far reaches of the peninsula. Sea power—carrier aviation, ship-launched ordnance, amphibious forces—can make its weight felt far more easily south of the narrow neck than in the wide, mountainous north.
And it did. The PLA had little ability to oppose allied maritime operations around southern Korea, either by dispatching barely existent seagoing forces or by using shore-based forces to sling antiship and antiair weapons out to sea. That’s a deficit the PLA has worked feverishly—and with a considerable measure of success—to correct over the past quarter-century or thereabouts.
Our Chinese friends are students of history, and they do their homework. You can bet they will do their utmost to avoid repeating the mistakes their forebears committed in Korea.
Maybe Korea shouldn’t be a forgotten war after all.
Author Expertise and Biography
Dr. James Holmes, a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”
March 13, 2023 at 9:59 am
God bless people in the world.
Thank you, Doctor.
Yes, fighting on a peninsula or island is very difficult, army worry about the air strike from enemy, so the Communist Party fight South Korea in the difficult terrain of Korea peninsula.
And coastal combat is more difficult. Therefore, the CCP know that they don’t have decisive force, so they learn and plagiarize technologies from many countries to accomplish the ultimate care stated in the Communist Manifesto.
Tactics of CCP Air Force are based on pack attack capability to replace single defense, so active defense is also offensive tactic. They are proud of promoting Darwin’s thought to people in Asia with pack tactics.
God bless America.
March 13, 2023 at 12:28 pm
Any regional war versus China, say over Taiwan, will end up being World War Three.
A shooting war against China where 3 or 4 U. S. Navy ships are sunk puts America on the verge of declaring and/or going to war against China.
China sinking a U. S. aircraft carrier, with 5000 men & women on board, will, guarantee, the start of World War Three.
With all the Warhawks both in government & in the body politic, how long would it be after the sinking of a U. S. aircraft carrier before the U. S. is in a flat out, full on, unlimited war with China?
How long before it goes nuclear?
In addition, if for any reason the U. S. attacks the Chinese mainland… expect America’s mainland to be attacked… expect mirror treatment… from China.
Any Chinese attack on the U. S. mainland will result in World War Three.
Taiwan is not independent, it’s part of China, as the U. S. has agreed to and does to this very day… look @ the U. S. State Department’s website… “One China.”
Taiwan is not a Vital National Security Interest of the United States… instead, it’s the “fatal attraction” which will cause World War III.
Stop now… while we still can.
We need to bite the bullet and tell Taiwan we don’t support independence, rather, we will continue to support Taiwan as a self-governing island, as part of one nation-state… China!
This is the responsible foreign policy position to take… box # 2, war over Taiwan is a war the U. S. would likely lose… but even if the U. S. won… it would be a pyric victory because for the rest of the 21st Century the U. S. would be dealing with a sullen, seething China looking for any pretext to hit the U. S. squarely in the nose or worse.
War over Taiwan is the worst possible scenario for U. S. Vital National Security Interests. Period. Stop.
Anybody who says different is naive, ill informed, or reckless… with America’s best interest.
March 13, 2023 at 5:51 pm
“Taiwan is part of China.” Yes, but what is China? The Mainland likes to pretend that the Chinese civil war ended and their side won. But then where is the final treaty and the signed surrender?
Reactivating the war is not a good idea. That’s why the US does not and has never encouraged Taiwan to try to invade the Mainland. The Mainland should reciprocate this by looking for a political solution to the cross-straits question.
They might start by making a complete reversal of their recent crackdown in Hong Kong, and revoking their latest Taiwan White Paper and replacing it with a new one, based on much greater realism about what is politically acceptable to the people of Taiwan.
March 14, 2023 at 9:09 am
In the famous korean conflict, macArthur sneered at the peoples volunteer armies and branded them ‘peasant armies’ and in a way he was correct.
Many, or all of them grew up in an atmosphere of constant endless war, and there were reports of shortages of many things, including rifles.
Today, things have completely changed. Especially after the massively grand demo of shock & awe warfare by USA and allies in the middle east.
Today, the chinese possess enough military firepower to reduce top forward pacific bases to a cinder the moment hostilities erupt.
That could rapidly escalate the confrontation or conflict into a runaway condition, and so, US military commanders in the pacific must never be in charge of US foreign policy.
But sadly, US is a top warplanning nation today, and so generals and admirals are likely to be in the driver’s seat in any coming US-china shooting war starting from day one.
In the totally famous nam war, during the very difficult months of 1968, general Earle Wheeler asked his sidekick general westmoreland whether it was ‘time to use nukes.’
If those people are (still) in the driver’s seat during a US-china shooting war (2025 ? yeah ?, no), it’s almost guaranteed the pacific forces will resort to use of nukes.
Therefore, korea is not gonna be representative of any coming pacific fighting involving the chinese.
It will be like opening the gates of megiddo with the end result of world witnessing the rise and fall of babylin.
March 14, 2023 at 6:44 pm
God bless people in the world.
South Korea and Australia are preparing to build the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and nuclear-powered missile submarines, both the South Korea and Australia military officers understand that strategic deterrence is the future nuclear war, so they want to have counteroffensive weapons. Even though USN have detailed plans and sufficient training, the people of USS CVN-84 let themselves into hands of God.
God bless America.
March 30, 2023 at 4:10 pm
“The Million Man Swim” aka an invasion of Taiwan isn’t happening. Taiwan is worthless to anybody as a smoldering pile of rubble. China needs its industrial capacity and commercial markets.
They can get more with flexing economic/political power than any aircraft carriers and landing craft will get them. Putin’s subversion of the American political landscape points to how China could do it. Using democracy against itself. Something far cheaper and more difficult to fight than a navy.
Moreover, both South Korean Navy and the JSDF Maritime forces have pledged to defend Taiwan as well. Both countries have far more experience in this sort of thing than China. China’s navy’s primary use has been to harass commercial vessels in the South China sea.
April 3, 2023 at 6:13 pm
US corporations wholesale exported technology and manufacturing to China for the last 40 years. In fact the middle-class here has been hollowed out. We have no long term foreign policy or strategy except in the short term. Very reactive and driven by corporate interests sometimes to the detriment of national security.
We don’t have the capacity to build 3 Arleigh-Burke DDG-51 Block IIIs a year, can’t deliver SM6s that have already been ordered; Xhina launches 9-12 Type 055 guided missile cruisers a year. Their progress and capabilities are gaining momentum. They have been running blue water operations in the Gulf of Aden for many years now.
We need to go back to our smart strategies on multi-lateral relationships as we did vs. Soviet Union but updated to 21st century. We also need to open talks with Zxheena and negotiate nuclear weapons reductions. Calm but prepared.
April 4, 2023 at 5:07 am
Why exactly is everyone so convinced that China has such a great military force ? They have not been proven in combat since the communist revolution other than human wave attacks in Korea that ultimately failed. They have only recently attempted to project power outside their home waters.
We also have no example of a major power in a naval conflict with the US. Remember what happened to a massive Japanese naval force when our aircraft did not have in air refueling and were using torpedos and gravity bombs. If you want something to think about, consider the life expectancy of any countries major surface combatants against an enemy with long range aircraft and anti-ship missiles. We need to stop building aircraft carriers and accelerate work on global strike missiles and autonomous systems rather than putting thousands of Americans on prime targets. We need to improve missile defenses while working to defeat enemy missile defenses. Remember with modern missiles our defensive capability needs to be 100 percent or we will lose carriers. Is there any doubt that a very large missile strike would get through eventually and eliminate a carrier, several thousand sailors, and take years to replace. While we hear a lot about how many vessels China is building and trying to match that we should be concerned with how to eliminate them with much cheaper and more quickly replaced systems. I envision a future war with autonomous systems that are more than willing to sacrifice themselves for an asymmetrically greater target. All of this fancy “analysis” ignores a basic tenet of warfare which is if the enemy is losing their lives while you are not, then you are winning. The officer corps of the US Navy and US Air Force is more than willing to sacrifice our sons and daughter before they upset their power structure and accept that AI and remote systems will dominate our future wars. Does anyone doubt that an intelligent or remotely piloted aircraft or missile is capable of outperforming humans? Dr Holmes you really need to look at whether all this analysis of wars before computers, drones, and global surveillance is really relevant to today’s wars. Russia is proving as we speak that past power does not equal current power. Their vaunted armored forces are being lost to off the shelf surveillance drones and precision artillery fire. If the Ukraine had air superiority it would be even worse for them.
I don’t think the US has much to worry about. We deployed a limited number of advanced systems into that hands of barely trained Ukrainian soldiers, with limited air forces and they have fought the big bad Russians to a standstill. How do we expect the US would fare with their full naval forces, superior air forces, and many more powerful systems ? It would be a total disaster for Russia. How do we compare Russian and Chinese combat power respectively ? Do we truly believe they are that much more capable ? Do we believe that Chinese commanders are much more honest about their readiness as compared to Russia or North Korea ? Get ready folks, the Russian boogey man is dead and now the military industrial complex needs a new one.
Here is a statement I would like for you to consider and write on. I believe aircraft carriers are not useful when put against a capable air force or submarine force. They are only useful in parking an airfield near a much weaker enemy.
April 4, 2023 at 5:14 am
Oh one more thing, please don’t look to wars over fifty years ago to see how China would fight today.
1. They were geographically bordered with Korea. All their potential enemies today are across oceans.
2. There was not computer targeted missiles and artillery systems.
3. There was no satellite reconnaissance.
4. Single weapons did not sink ships.
5. Human wave attacks are not effective unless,you protect them with air superiority.
6. There were no autonomous or unmaned systems.
April 8, 2023 at 5:28 pm
According to Pew Poles less than one in five Americans trust the Federal Government. That statistic has remained true for more than a decade. We should spend more time and money building ourselves up, without that great battle plans and ships are meaningless.
April 10, 2023 at 7:18 pm
Let’s not make the mistake of ignoring these important factors.
First, there is the inexperience of the PLA. After WW2, the Chinese Communist Army was very experienced in fighting first the Japanese and then the Nationalists. Today, the great majority of troops have zero experience in any combat, shedding of blood, and loss of limbs and life.
Second, the PLA command structure is controlled by Communist Party officials, most of who love dressing up in uniform and have zero combat/war command experience.
Third, the PLA is a centralized command structure with very little room to allow for battlefield adjustments by those who are fighting. We we see this paralysis in the Russian Army invading Ukraine.
Keep in mind the numerous missteps the PLA has committed in dealing with India regarding the LOC.