What would China’s counterinsurgency strategy look like?


From cybersecurity to maritime issues, America’s national security community has left no stone unturned in understanding the future of the conflict with China. Except for one problem: counterinsurgency. Some do believe Insurrection instead of conventional wars is the future of competition between the US and China. And other claim that lowering counterinsurgency priorities does not mean that the United States can reject them altogether. If these beliefs are true, the United States must analyze how its competitor might fare on similar adventures.

“Counterinsurgency” appears only once on the Department of Defense’s 200-page page report on China’s military and security developments, published last year. And in a way, the lack of attention is understandable.

The first and most obvious is that China did not fight any War since 1979, and therefore there is no large-scale foreign military intervention to support their counterinsurgency strategies. However, the last war China waged was the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, in which 200,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers withdrew from Vietnam after encountering the same guerrilla tactics that the United States fled four years earlier was.

Second, if China has militarily intervened in non-war missions abroad, then only to a small extent. These ventures took place in places like Africa and Afghanistan, where the Chinese were involved in limited proxy conflicts with the Soviet Union. That reluctance comes from Chinese leaders as early as 1985 noticed that the primary threats do not come from high-intensity conflicts abroad, but in border areas such as Taiwan, Tibet and India. And even if they were to venture outside of these zones, during the Cold War the PLA was too ill-equipped to engage in long-range combat.

Thus, after World War II, Chinese military history lacks not only a foreign counterinsurgency movement, but also experience with large-scale conflicts as a whole. Given these limitations, what could give some insight into China’s counterinsurgency strategy? Three elements provide an answer: Mao Zedong’s experience with insurgents, Xi Jinping’s suppression of the Uyghurs, and the approaches of authoritarian governments to counterinsurgency in general. When viewed side by side, patterns of Chinese counterinsurgency doctrine take shape.

Clausewitz, but with a Maoist twist

To get started, it is imperative to understand Mao’s insurgency doctrine. Mao, the founding father of the Chinese Communist Party, derives from this teaching from Carl von Clausewitz, especially when it comes to aiming the focus of an opponent. “Insurrection can neither exist nor flourish,” Mao conditions, “when it separates from their sympathies and collaborations.” In his opinion, the political mobilization of the population allows insurgents to interfere, establish bases for operations and launch attacks with the help of the population. Here it is important to remember who was Mao’s enemy at the time: Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Japan lacked the hard labor to occupy territory the size of China, but it lacked militant nationalism fueled his will to fight and to pursue other strategies not to give up the war entirely. Mao knew he had to avoid a crucial engagement that would have mobilized the entire Japanese people.

Following in Clausewitz’s footsteps, Mao postulated that the best way to beat the insurgent’s center of gravity would be the same as a military should beat any other center of gravity: by repeatedly hitting its core. Mao used both demoralization tactics and brutal violence to convince the enemy that fighting China would be such a devastating endeavor that surrender is the only way out.

These are not just theories: When Mao’s Red Army fought the anti-communists in Tibet, crucified, burned, or boiled living civilians who supported the rebels. For demoralization, Mao recommended soldiers carry leaflets extolling the virtues of communism when they meet anti-communist peasants to ensure the people never rebel.

Mao would love the oppression of the Uyghurs

In Xinjiang, Mao’s doctrine of brutal violence combined with propaganda has found its way into contemporary Chinese counterinsurgency. Alden Leader, editor at Georgetown International Affairs Journal, summarized it like this:

“The Chinese efforts to prevent an uprising in Xinjiang are authoritarian and brutal. […] The conditions in the camps are inhuman and prison-like, with people who endure torture and Die. These concentration camps are teeming with Brainwashing and indoctrination. ”

Instead of cooking insurgents, Beijing tortures prisoners, forcibly sterilizes women, and uses forced labor. In addition to handing out pro-communist brochures, it forces prisoners to praise Xi, greet the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and renounce Islam.

These methods suggest that China’s suppression of the Uyghurs rooted in nationalism, as well as uprisings themselves. In its endeavors to unite separatists into a national image and to attain the status of a great power, China sinks identities that threaten the collapse of the nation. But it doesn’t work without the Chinese people. Through an online campaign portraying Uyghur separatists as terrorists, the CCP is trying to get popular supportT for increasingly repressive actions against the Uyghurs. If they fail to do so, not only is the state’s security at stake, but above all its rise to a great power.

China is likely to export these repression methods overseas, if ever it happens, because … they are effective. The CCP has followed the same strategy since the late 1950s to great success: The prospects of a Uighur uprising are slim, China controls its security interests in the region without fear of so-called “terrorist” threats, and separatist movements in Xinjiang have never gone beyond petty attacks here and there.

Authoritarian counterinsurgency

Finally, understanding Chinese counterinsurgency approaches requires an analysis of the bigger picture of authoritarian states in general. Since authoritarian powers are defined by pervasive intelligence and repressive abilities, a comparison of the Chinese counterinsurgency, for example, with the methods of the Soviet Union can shed light on which instruments it could use.

As for intelligence, authoritarian governments will certainly export their domestic capabilities overseas. she establish Intelligence dominance through the gathering of human information not through goodwill, but through extortion, torture, and various other tactics. In some cases, like Algeria, they even can infiltrate Rebellions masquerading as sympathizers and slaughtering villagers to create disgust among the people. Currently, China is exporting its intelligence capabilities through cyber espionage and sales from surveillance systems to other authoritarians. But in counterinsurgency campaigns, China can use these now mature instruments to stay one step ahead of insurgents.

About repression, authoritarians cut off Civil societies such as universities, professional associations, churches and, if necessary, even football clubs. Civil society is a primary source of coordination for rebels, which is why the Soviets forbidden the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church for its possible links with Ukrainian rebels. The elimination of civil society also fits the notion that the population is the “focus” of the insurgents because it blocks a source of recruitment and resistance and forces supporters to go underground instead of staying out in the open where insurgents are prefer to operate.

Last but not least, authoritarian Governments, like Joseph Stalin’s actions in the North Caucasus or Burma‘s response to the communist opposition to “turn the conflict zone into a closed system” by blocking trade or imposing curfews. The isolation of the area separates insurgents from supporters so that they cannot retreat to the mountains or other geographically advantageous areas. Aside from physically isolating rebels, the government can cut off access to food, funds, and intelligence information, most of which comes from civilians.

Taken together, Mao’s insurgency doctrine, dealing with Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, and authoritarian counterinsurgency approaches provide a theory of Chinese counterinsurgency strategies: that it will prioritize the brutal repression of the insurgent population through violence and propaganda, while using its military dominance to crack down on impenetrable ones Secret services and geographic isolation. With the PLA, China will seek to overwhelm its enemy with sufficient force to prevent non-combatants from joining the insurrection. Then it will rely on its intelligence skills to learn of rebellious movements before they occur, likely through the use of cyber espionage, signal intelligence and / or threats of violence. As a last resort, China can use ground forces to not only isolate insurgents from supporters but also to prevent insurgent foreign allies from providing supplies.

Will all of these strategies work?

Both the Tibet and Xinjiang examples refer to China, where China has a lot of political will and a lack of foreign interference. But in order to export these strategies successfully, it must adapt to the political environment and recognize that there are other centers of gravity than the supporters of the insurgents. It is also possible that these strategies work best when introduced gradually. Chinese leaders could choose to start a counterinsurgency with light manpower and propaganda and end with isolation and brutalization when the situation unravels.

Why China and America should care

For China, dealing with an uprising is approaching the non-theoretical. With investments in infrastructure, trade and military bases, combined with simply more Chinese citizens abroad, China is opening up to terrorist attacks. Right now, extremist groups are more preoccupied with attacking the United States, however Chinese efforts “Often local dynamics change and create new terrorism risks.” These changing dynamics take place in countries with a terrorist presence, like Nigeria where China is built a $ 1.5 billion railroad last year. Certainly China will not be blowing up weapons in Afghanistan or Iraq for the foreseeable future, as they have little incentive to do so, but an all-encompassing military policy should not ignore counterinsurgency.


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