China’s Assessment of the War in Iraq: America’s “Deepest Quagmire” and the Implications for Chinese National Security

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 17

Chinese analysts assess that the United States has been unable to achieve its strategic objectives in Iraq despite its stunningly rapid victory over the Iraqi armed forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Moreover, Chinese observers argue that the prolonged and brutal conflict that developed in the wake of this early victory has left the United States mired in a deepening morass from which there are few if any options for an easy exit. In the words of one Chinese commentator, since the end of major combat operations in Iraq, the United States has “become bogged down in the deepest military quagmire since the end of the Cold War” [1]. Consequently, Chinese observers have concluded that the Iraq war is weakening the United States militarily, economically, and diplomatically, which at least some believe may make Washington less likely to intervene with military force in other potential hotspots.

Chinese Views on Political and Diplomatic Issues

Chinese assessments of the war in Iraq indicate that the United States is in an extremely unenviable position at the strategic level. Chinese scholars assess that Washington is facing three critical problems: an Iraqi government incapable of producing the required results, the fragmentation of its diplomatic coalition and withdrawal of some countries’ troops from Iraq, and flagging domestic support for an increasingly unpopular war.

First, Chinese analysts highlight the serious weaknesses of the Iraqi government. They argue that these problems must be resolved if the United States is to have any chance of achieving its strategic objectives. This requires nothing less than a broad reconciliation that would serve as a basis for progress on key issues related to national security and reconstruction. According to one Chinese researcher, “A truly effective means of resolving the Iraq issue is to enable the factions in Iraq to achieve reconciliation quickly. There will then be a foundation for resolving issues such as the stationing of foreign troops, sectarian conflicts, the infiltration of al-Qaeda and the rebuilding of infrastructure” [2].

For many Chinese analysts, however, the prospects of achieving any such reconciliation appear slim at best given the failings of the Iraqi government. According to another Chinese scholar, “the al-Maliki government has not only failed to calm down the domestic situation since coming to power, but has caused a widespread sectarian conflict, and made the country face the risk of all-out civil war and division” [3]. This scholar suggests that these problems derive in large measure from the Bush administration’s attempt to quickly establish a democratic government in a country that was woefully unprepared for such a transition: “When Iraq was in crisis, it urgently needed a strong central government to redeem the situation, but the United States blindly grafted Western-style democracy, which gave rise to a volatile situation and an extremely unsuitable ‘weak government’…the grave turmoil in Iraq shows a simple truth: blindly transplanting Western-style democracy will not bring prosperity and stability, and will only trigger new chaos and turmoil and even create a truly ‘failed state'” [4].

Second, Chinese observers argue that the United States faces serious diplomatic challenges abroad. In particular, Chinese analysts assess that international support for the occupation of Iraq is waning. According to one recent commentary, “faced with the chaotic situation on the main ‘counter-terrorism’ battlefield of Iraq, many countries that sent troops to Iraq have withdrawn or are preparing to withdraw their forces” [5]. Most analysts, however, portray the departure of some coalition troops as more of a diplomatic problem than a military one. For example, according to a recent People’s Daily article, “for the United States, the multinational force in Iraq has far greater strategic significance than tactical significance…for this reason, the withdrawal of any country’s troops will not affect America’s overall strategic plans and combat capability in Iraq…but looking at it from another perspective, the successive withdrawal of troops from various countries is a huge blow to the Bush administration’s political influence and indicates that U.S. policy on Iraq is being increasingly called into question” [6]. Similarly, according to another recent People’s Daily article, “although the impact of this wave of troop withdrawals from Iraq on the existing power structure is not great from a military perspective, its psychological impact is still quite large, and the ‘coalition forces’ are gradually turning into a ‘lone force’” [7].

Third, Chinese observers assess that the Bush administration confronts declining domestic support as a result of mounting casualties and lack of clear progress on the ground. Chinese newspaper reports frequently highlight U.S. public opinion polls that show the war in Iraq is becoming increasingly unpopular in the United States. In all, many Chinese observers have concluded, the United States is in serious trouble at the strategic level. They assess that Washington is becoming increasingly frustrated with the failures of the Iraqi government and is facing growing international and domestic opposition to the war. Moreover, Chinese observers have concluded that Washington is having great difficulty deciding how to extricate itself from this deteriorating situation. According to another recent article in People’s Daily, the Bush administration is “facing strong internal and external pressure to withdraw, but the United States is involved too deeply, its ‘responsibility’ is too heavy, and it is having difficulty deciding on whether to stay or go…the facts are increasingly clear that the United States made a major strategic error in Iraq” [8]. In short, Chinese analysts paint a consistently grim picture of U.S. prospects at the strategic level.

Chinese Analysis of U.S. Military Operations in Iraq

At the operational level, the conflict in Iraq is more of a mixed picture from the Chinese perspective. The speed with which relatively small numbers of U.S. forces shattered the Iraqi military and overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime clearly impressed Chinese military analysts, even though the outcome was never in doubt given the overwhelming superiority of the coalition forces and the weakness and fragility of the Iraqi military. Writing in April 2003, PLA General Xiong Guangkai described this early stage of the war as “an extensive test of the fruits of the new U.S. military transformation” and pointed out that it would yield important lessons for Chinese military modernization [9]. Indeed, OIF largely reinforced China’s previous appraisals of the growing importance of high technology equipment, C4ISR, logistics and transportation, psychological warfare, special forces, and joint operations. In particular, Xiong argued, the key difference between other recent U.S. military operations and OIF was that the latter displayed even greater advances in U.S. military technology, especially in the areas of precision-guided weapons and C4ISR capabilities. The U.S. military’s performance in OIF thus reflected a further acceleration in the pace of the revolution in military affairs (RMA) [10].

The U.S. military’s use of high-tech equipment and advanced C4ISR technology in the Iraq War is a particular area of interest for Chinese analysts. Indeed, a number of PLA analysts are clearly seeking to apply “lessons learned” from the U.S. military’s use of high-tech equipment in its operations in Iraq to the transformation of the PLA. For example, Chinese authors have focused on the employment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in multiple roles in the Iraq War and the potential lessons for the enhancement of the PLA’s C4ISR capabilities [11]. Moreover, Chinese admiration for U.S. technological prowess is often intermingled with a keen interest in developing means to exploit the vulnerabilities of some of the U.S. military’s most critical high-tech capabilities. For instance, Chinese researchers have shown a particularly strong interest in the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) and its potential vulnerability to jamming. According to one Chinese aerospace industry researcher, “The GPS system has achieved clear military success, but in a complex wartime jamming environment, its vulnerability and fragility have been progressively revealed” [12].

Beyond their assessments of OIF, Chinese military analysts have also shown very strong interest in the setbacks the United States and its allies have encountered in the subsequent phase of counter-insurgency operations in Iraq. Chinese writers have also studied the tactics and operations of various insurgent groups in Iraq and how these insurgent groups have bedeviled coalition forces [13]. In contrast to Chinese analyses of the OIF phase of the war, Chinese assessments of the events of the past four years generally focus on the U.S. military’s vulnerabilities rather than its strengths. Many Chinese observers conclude that the U.S. military faces a worsening predicament on the ground in Iraq. Furthermore, they doubt that the Bush administration’s troop “surge” is enough to turn the situation around [14]. Finally, Chinese observers assess that the resultant lack of security is one of the major problems undermining attempts to move forward with Iraq’s economic reconstruction and political development.

Chinese Analysis of the Implications for the PRC’s National Security

Although Chinese scholars continue to express concerns about U.S. willingness to engage unilaterally in preventive wars, as demonstrated by the invasion and occupation of Iraq, they also appear to have concluded that the problems the United States is facing as the conflict in Iraq drags on will have benefits for China’s national security and standing in the world. Indeed, Chinese experts have concluded that the Iraq war has weakened the United States economically and militarily. They also assess that it has strained America’s alliances, undermined its international image, and weakened its “soft power” [15]. Some Chinese analysts expect the United States to be less aggressive in its efforts to transform authoritarian regimes into democracies as a result of the high costs imposed by the conflict in Iraq. For example, one PLA analyst concludes that even some of the most enthusiastic proponents of the Iraq war “have begun to realize that the gap between their ambition and reality is too wide” [16].

Some Chinese analysts also appear to have concluded that the Iraq war has diminished U.S. willingness and ability to intervene militarily in other hotspots. This conclusion has potentially troubling implications for Chinese assessments of the likelihood of U.S. military intervention in a Taiwan crisis or conflict. In particular, some Chinese assessments suggest there is a danger that Chinese analysts will overestimate the extent to which the U.S. military’s prolonged involvement in Iraq would influence its capability to intervene rapidly and decisively in a Taiwan Strait conflict. Although the war in Iraq is clearly tying down a large proportion of U.S. ground forces, senior U.S. military officers have attempted to disabuse Chinese observers of the notion that this would prevent the United States from responding to China’s use force against Taiwan, stating publicly that U.S. air and naval forces in the Asia Pacific region are sufficient to respond to any potential crisis [17].

Finally, Chinese assessments of the problems the United States has encountered following the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq will likely influence Beijing’s thinking about what would happen in the aftermath of a war with Taiwan. Indeed, any serious analysis of the U.S. experience in Iraq would undoubtedly compel Chinese strategists to confront the possibility that the Chinese military would face a long and bloody insurgency even following a seemingly quick and decisive victory over Taiwan’s armed forces. Chinese analysts would do well to heed the warning in the U.S. Defense Department’s most recent report on Chinese military power that even if China managed to accomplish its operational objectives in a cross-Strait conflict, “an insurgency directed against the PRC presence could tie up PLA forces for years” [18].


In all, Chinese analysts assess that the war in Iraq represents a major strategic failure for the United States. Despite the quick victory of coalition forces in OIF, they write, sectarian violence and the shortcomings of the Iraqi government have frustrated Washington’s attempts to achieve its overall political objectives, and the U.S. military has become bogged down in an increasingly costly and unpopular conflict. In short, as one Chinese scholar puts it, the United States “won the war, but lost the peace” [19]. As for the military dimension of the conflict, Chinese analysts have seized the opportunity to study the world’s premier military in action. Chinese writings on military operations in Iraq indicate that China is further refining its understanding of the U.S. military’s strengths, seeking to identify and prepare to exploit its potential vulnerabilities, and applying the “lessons learned” from the Iraq war to the ongoing modernization of the PLA.


1. Zhou Rong, “Meiguo xianru lengzhan hou zui shen de zhanzheng nitan” (America Sinks into the Deepest Quagmire since the end of the Cold War), Guangming ribao (Guangming Daily), August 25, 2007,

2. Liu Weidong, “Yilake zhengfu ‘bu keneng wancheng de renwu’ (The Tasks the Iraqi Government is Unable to Complete), Xin jing bao (Beijing News), August 26, 2007,

3. Tian Wenlin, quoted in Guoji Xianqu Daobao (International Herald Leader), August 20, 2007, in Open Source Center, “BBC Monitoring Quotes From China, Taiwan Press 20 Aug 2007,” CPP20070820950001, August 20, 2007.

4. Ibid.

5. Quote from Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily), August 20, 2007. In Open Source Center, “BBC Monitoring Quotes from China, Taiwan Press 20 Aug 2007,” CPP20070820950001, August 20, 2007.

6. Yang Jun, “Yilake jiujing shi shui de zhanchang” (Whose Battlefield is Iraq in the End?” Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily), August 10, 2007,

7. Huang Qing, “Yilake tuijun” (Troop Withdrawals from Iraq), Renmin ribao (People’s Daily), August 10, 2007,

8. Ibid.

9. Xiong Guangkai, “Guanyu xin junshi biange wenti” (Some Issues Concerning the New Revolution in Military Affairs), Xuexi shibao (Study Times), April 2003,

10. Ibid.

11. Zhang Wei, Yang Lei, and Jin Zhao, “Yilake zhanzheng zhong wurenji zuozhan shiyong ji qishi” (Employment and Lessons of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in the Iraq War), Diannao kaifang yu yingyong (Computer Development and Applications) 2006:7, pp. 44-46.

12. He Liping, “Cong yilake zhanzheng kan GPS ganrao he kang ganrao de fazhan” (The Development of GPS Jamming and Anti-Jamming Technology as Seen in the Iraq War), Hangtian dianzi duikang (Aerospace Electronic Warfare), 2004:1. The author is a researcher at the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC), 2nd Academy, 208 Institute.

13. See, for example, Mao Xinle and Liu Fengliang, “Yilake fanmei wuzhuang junshi xingdong tedian fenxi” (Analysis of the Military Operations of the Anti-U.S. Armed Groups in Iraq), Zhuangjiabing gongcheng xueyuan xuebao (Journal of the Armored Force Engineering Academy) 2005:3, pp. 20-24.

14. See, for example, Zhang Jiye, “What ‘Wine’ has been filled into Bush’s ‘New Bottle?’” People’s Daily, January 12, 2007,

15. Xiong Guangqing, “Yilake zhanzheng dui meguo ruan shili de xueruo” (The Iraq War’s Weakening of U.S. Soft Power), Xueshu tansuo (Academic Expression), 2005:4, pp. 95-98.

16. Meng Xiansheng, “Yi ge junren dui zhongguo heping jueqi de zhanlue sikao” (A Soldier’s Strategic Thought on China’s Peaceful Rise), Zhongguo Qingnian, June 15, 2007, pp. 14-17.

17. James Mulvenon, “Make Talk, Not War: Strategic U.S.-China Military-to-Military Exchanges in the First Half of 2007,” China Leadership Monitor No. 21 (Summer 2007),

18. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2007, p. 33.

19. Sun Bigan, “Zhongdu yilake zhanzheng (Thinking about the Iraq War), Alabo shijie yanjiu (Arab World Studies), 2006:2, pp. 11-16.