Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 7

Chinese strategic and military experts are scrutinizing the U.S. war in Iraq, and for several reasons. First, if American and British forces become bogged down in their effort to liquidate the regime of Saddam Hussein, then it is much less likely that Washington will soon target other rogue regimes with weapons of mass destruction, such as North Korea, a Chinese ally.

Of more importance, as was the case during the 1991 Gulf War, officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are meticulously analyzing the deployment of the latest American weaponry. The intriguing turn that the campaign of the Allied Forces in Iraqi has taken will have a major impact on Chinese military thinking in at least ten ways.

After the 1991 Gulf War, the Kosovo conflict and the recent Afghan War, the PLA’s top strategists conducted marathon sessions to study the state-of-the-art hardware used by U.S. forces. As Academy of Military Sciences expert Peng Guangqian pointed out, the ongoing incursion into Iraq would provide the Pentagon with “a testing ground for new military equipment and strategies.”

In light of what they have learned in Iraq, fourth generation PLA officers will modify a former president’s famous edict about “winning regional wars fought under high-tech conditions.” More funds are expected to go into specific areas including missiles, aeronautics, electronic surveillance, and IT warfare.

In commentaries on Chinese TV, military specialists dwell on instances in which top-of-the-line weapons such as Tomahawk missiles, high-precision bombs, Patriot antimissile batteries and Apache attack helicopters have missed the mark or otherwise under-performed.

A PLA source in Beijing said experts were analyzing evidence that Russian-made equipment–reportedly used by the Iraqis to counter and “deceive” US missiles and electronic systems–had been relatively effective. “Conclusions that military professionals have drawn concerning how U.S. weapons can be rendered less potent will underpin a key area of future R & D,” the source said.

Chinese experts have studied asymmetrical warfare for decades. Now they have been inspired by the manner in which the Iraqi army has used such tactics to slow the Allied Forces’ advance to Baghdad. In contingency planning on the subject of a possible military confrontation with the United States, PLA think tanks have recommended that resources be concentrated on tackling areas of relative weakness in American weapons and strategy.

As Chinese viewers have remained glued to their television sets over the past fortnight, they have witnessed a comeback of certain of Mao’s theories of defense. They include “people’s warfare,” guerrilla warfare and “protracted warfare.”

Song Xiaojun, a military scholar and frequent TV commentator, said there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had studied–or asked Iraqis to follow–Mao’s edicts. But Song did point out that there are similarities between Mao’s teachings on “whole-people warfare” and the way the Iraq people had quite spontaneously used different strategies, including guerrilla tactics and suicide raids, to counter the “American invaders.”

Other analysts have dug into Mao’s classic texts to explain why the Allied Forces had met with unexpectedly fierce resistance as they made their way to Baghdad. In essence, people’s warfare means turning ordinary citizens into fighters. Such fighters will be particularly effective in urban and street combat. Mao also pointed out that a crafty employment of people’s and guerrilla warfare could enable a militarily backward–but politically well-motivated–country to win over a much stronger power.

At the recently concluded National People’s Congress, the PLA was awarded a budget increase of 9.6 percent. That is actually eight percentage points lower than comparable figures for 2002 and 2001.

However, given the common perception among civilian and military leaders that, in the words of veteran military analyst Yu Guohua, “the goal of the U.S. is to be master of the world,” there is widespread support for further strengthening China’s defenses. According to intellectual circles in Beijing, a group of scholars from elite think tanks such as the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) is planning to petition the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and government for a bigger expansion in defense outlays.

The Iraq war may also have the effect of postponing or limiting a large scale demobilization planned for the upcoming three to four years. Earlier this year, the policy setting Central Military Commission decided in principle to lop off up to half a million military staff, a reduction that will primarily affect units from the infantry and academies.

The pitched battles in Iraq, however, have demonstrated that infantry and other ground forces are every bit as important as the air force and missile units. These are the PLA departments that have benefited in recent years from a hefty expansion.

The administration of new Premier Wen Jiabao is expected to highlight the need to concentrate economic resources on building up sizeable reserves of oil, as well as on developing defense-related industries.

Veteran CASS economist Yang Fan said that even at a time of market reform, the government and state-owned companies should continue to play a big role in such strategic sectors as energy, electronics, communications, and infrastructure.

The apparent ability of Saddam’s Baath Party machinery to maintain control over–and enhance the morale of–the army and militiamen in individual Iraqi cities will serve to justify the CCP’s long-standing doctrine that “the party must be in control of the gun.”

Contrary to the expectations of Washington and London, desertions from Saddam’s clique have not been widespread. Beijing has drawn the conclusion that the CCP must also boost patriotic education to augment the nation’s cohesiveness as well as its defense capabilities. There will also be a revival of the Maoist doctrine of the “synthesis between [the ideals and duties] of soldiers and citizens.”

In comments made on the official CCTV, PLA expert Fan Gaoyue noted the pivotal role played by psychological warfare in this conflict. “The Pentagon has beefed up its special psychological warfare operations,” Fan said. “A bitter struggle is being waged between Washington and Baghdad to win the hearts and minds not only of the soldiers and citizens [of the countries concerned], but also those of the world.”

Apart from Mao, the other great military strategist most often cited in the Chinese media is Sun Tzu. Chinese commentators have made much of the fact that American forces have tried–but sometimes failed–to live up to Sun Tzu’s teachings about the use of feinting and decoying, as well as subduing the enemy through the sheer display of overwhelming might.

The Iraq war will also go down in history for the dexterity which both Washington and Baghdad have used to manipulate the media to score political points. As Beijing-based international affairs expert Jin Canrong indicated, “how to achieve political and military objectives through controlling and using the media has become a large part of the war operations.”

This war marks the first time that the official CCTV is providing round the clock live–and generally comprehensive–coverage of a major international event. Analysts say Beijing strategists are studying the impact that such extensive coverage will have on the thinking of Chinese citizens in the event of a regional conflict that involves the Chinese military.

Most PLA “invasion scenarios” involving Taiwan do not include dispatching amphibious forces and other troops to the self-ruled island. And even if Beijing were to use the military option, the preferred mode of operation would most likely involve surgical missile strikes against military and civilian installations. The goal would be to bring the Taipei administration to its knees.

However, Chinese military theorists will be scrutinizing any flareup of urban or street warfare that might occur in Baghdad. This will be directed in part at contingency planning for the eventuality–however unlikely–that PLA forces will have to “liberate” large cities in Taiwan. Some PLA analysts believe Taiwan residents lack the resolve–and the ability to live without creature comforts–that would be necessary to fight off “invaders.”

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.