Don’t Bring A Knife To A Gunfight With China

Don’t Bring a Knife to a Gunfight with China · June 2, 2020

Even after two frustrating decades of counterinsurgency campaigns, some American military thinkers want more of the same. Their argument typically goes something like this: high-intensity warfare with China or Russia is impossible because of the persistence of nuclear weapons.[1] Instead, our adversaries will employ proxy forces and insurgents to challenge us indirectly, in the gray zone.[2] Rather than ruthlessly prioritizing large-scale combat operations and de-prioritizing and running the risk of forgetting counterinsurgency, they urge us to remember how to eat soup with a knife and prepare for new types of small wars.[3] John Vrolyk riffed on these common refrains in War on the Rocks earlier this year, arguing that because future U.S. competition with China is “almost certainly going to consist of fighting proxy wars and insurgencies around the globe where American and Chinese interests clash.”[4] Vrolyk makes many excellent points about the U.S. armed forces, but his confident prediction of China using proxy forces is highly unlikely. The simple fact is that China has not supported any foreign insurgencies since the 1980s, during a period when American, Russian, and Iranian use of proxy insurgents has been typical. Despite his immense global ambitions, Xi Jinping is not going to dust off Mao’s On Guerilla Warfare anytime soon. To compete with China, the U.S. armed forces need a carefully balanced toolkit that includes both integrated campaigning below the threshold of armed conflict, and conventional overmatch, should war come.[5] Preparing for counterinsurgency campaigns against an adversary who is unlikely to back insurgents is not the right approach.
There are several durable reasons why China is the principal U.S. competitor least likely to employ insurgency-“the organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify or challenge political control of a region”-either directly or by proxy, in the future.[6] First, despite its global ambition and revisionist aims, China turned its back on supporting revolutionary insurgents decades ago. Second, China’s approach to great-power competition focuses on economic competition, nonviolent subversion, and, if that fails, high-intensity warfare. Third, the international situation has rendered classic Maoist people’s war anachronistic, as Chinese military thinkers recognize. Finally, China’s leaders are acutely afraid of internal rebellion, and thus have strong normative reasons to not support insurgents.

Cold War Redux

Before Sino-American rapprochement in 1972, Chinese-backed insurgencies were a primary concern of U.S. foreign policy. From 1949, when former guerilla leader Mao Zedong seized control, China supported numerous insurgent groups conducting “people’s war” including the Malayan Communist Party, the Naxalites in India, the Khmer Rouge, and the Zimbabwean African National Liberation Army.[7] Maoist guerillas seemed terrifying and unstoppable, and as Robert Bickers notes, a 1969 Gallup poll found that fully three quarters of Americans considered China the greatest threat to world peace, in large part because of its efforts to export Maoism.[8] The Beatles were less concerned, singing in their 1968 song “Revolution” that “pictures of Chairman Mao” could not change the world. They proved right, and Maoist adventurism was not broadly successful. Julia Lovell concludes that global Maoism’s “failures were multiple” and overall it achieved “patchy results” (much like the KGB’s failed gambit to win the Cold War in the Third World, or America’s mostly unsuccessful attempts at covert regime change).[9]
Mao in 1938 (Wikimedia)
China decisively turned away from its legacy of Maoist insurgency in 1978-9 when its new leader Deng Xiaoping undertook a series of foreign trips during which he downplayed China’s role as a revolutionary challenger and emphasized China’s need for a peaceful environment to modernize. Chinese outbound foreign aid fell significantly and support to insurgent armed groups tapered off to zero.[10]
America’s relationship with China is now transforming again. China is more powerful and aggressive than it has been at any time since Mao died in 1976. Xi Jinping, who became General Secretary of the Communist Party of China in 2012, is pursuing an ambitious plan to achieve China’s “National Rejuvenation” which ultimately seeks to make China the world’s preeminent political, military and economic power by 2049.[11] But despite his pretensions, he is no Mao.[12] As Xi himself said in 2009, “China is not exporting revolution.”[13] Whatever the failings of U.S. engagement, since Nixon, China has transitioned from a rogue state that actively armed Maoist groups around the world into a reluctant stakeholder in the international order that shows no inclination to support insurgencies abroad.[14]

High-Intensity War is In, But Only if China Can’t “Win Without Fighting”

China’s greatest strength is its economic might. It is the world’s leading trading nation, and uses its global reach to export everything from consumer goods to high-tech tools for authoritarian repression.[15] The Chinese Communist Party leadership hopes to translate economic power into global preeminence. Their main effort is the Belt and Road Initiative, in which Chinese firms have spent more than $450 billion building infrastructure around the world since 2013.[16] Belt and Road Initiative investment has been declining since 2018, and the initiative has long been troubled by poor local business partners who fail to repay lavish Chinese loans-a trend sometimes bizarrely mischaracterized as intentional “debt trap diplomacy”-but given that the Belt and Road Initiative is enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution, it is very likely to continue.[17] Although Xi claims the Belt and Road Initiative will advance “win-win cooperation,”[18] China’s efforts to become rich, then powerful through trade are better characterized as an attempt to follow Sun Tzu’s dictum and “win without fighting.”[19] When inducement fails, China does not hesitate to employ coercion and even espionage to achieve desirable trade terms.[20] Moreover, China is willing to exploit asymmetric economic interdependence in order to force other states to take political and military actions it desires, as it demonstrated when it used economic pressure to force South Korea to block the deployment of American air defense systems in 2016.[21]
President, Tsai Ing-wen (Taiwan Presidential Office)
There is no better example of China’s efforts to win without fighting than its approach to Taiwan, as one of China’s main foreign policy goals is to subjugate what it considers a wayward province. Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, contends that China’s plot against Taiwan is to force Taiwan to trade sovereignty for economic gains.[22] This process is often called “Hong Kongization,” a reference to Beijing’s successful effort to use threats of force and appeals to justice to cause the United Kingdom to cede control of Hong Kong in 1997.[23] After the handover, China’s gross domestic product grew by nearly a fifth.[24]
If “Hong Kongization” fails in Taiwan, China does not expect to deploy guerrillas to undermine Taipei as a last resort. Instead, the People’s Liberation Army is planning to employ armed force in a conventional “local war” to compel Taiwanese submission.[25] The People’s Liberation Army’s role is to take advantage of a “Revolution in Military Affairs with Chinese characteristics” and prepare for these “local wars.”[26] This focus on “local war” explains why China is spending a lot of money to buy tanks, planes, ships, and even militarized islands, and why rather than training to support insurgencies, People’s Liberation Army ground forces train to fight U.S. Army-style brigade combat teams in their major exercises.[27] Chinese leaders simply do not think that “high-intensity conventional maneuver war is out,” as Vrolyk argues. They are developing capabilities that will let them avoid and, if necessary, win a modern war, but they have not prioritized support to insurgent proxies.
The tools China is employing against Taiwan will also be useful in China’s efforts to project force globally. China has proven willing to employ nonviolent subversion worldwide.[28] There is ample evidence that China’s leaders consider actions below the threshold of armed conflict, including the exercise of discourse power and the employment of public opinion, legal and psychological warfare-sometimes called the Three Warfares-essential to success in future competition.[29] In practice, the People’s Liberation Army seems to consider these competitive activities modern substitutes for the people’s war of their grandfathers.

More of a Counterinsurgent than an Insurgent

President Xi Jinping visiting a Beijing neighborhood (Pang Xinglei/Xinhua)
China’s leaders continue to pay lip service to people’s war, such as when Xi Jinping recently declared a people’s war on coronavirus. However, it has been shorn of its historic, revolutionary meaning.[30] The People’s Liberation Army recognizes that the current international situation makes traditional insurgency ineffective-if it ever worked-and has updated their doctrine accordingly. Until 1980, people’s war was the foundation of the People’s Liberation Army’s strategic plans. However, as M. Taylor Fravel notes, the 1980 People’s Liberation Army strategic guidelines introduced a new strategy of “people’s war under modern conditions” that was meant to maintain “superficial ideological continuity” with Mao but rejected his focus on guerilla operations.[31] Today, China still sees popular mobilization as key to military effectiveness, but in new ways, arguing in their 2019 defense white paper that people’s war will enhance military innovation and emphasizing that military-civil fusion is key to enhancing their defense industrial base.[32] The People’s Liberation Army seems to assess that in future wars, cyber militias will be more useful than guerillas.[33]
Given China’s significant tradition of “people’s war,” it is remarkable how little the People’s Liberation Army considers the insurgent perspective today. The 2017 Party Congress work report, which is the most authoritative statement of the Chinese Communist Party’s intentions, directs the People’s Liberation Army to focus on “maritime rights, countering terrorism, maintaining stability, disaster rescue and relief, international peacekeeping, escort services in the Gulf of Aden, and humanitarian assistance.”[34] With these roles in mind, when People’s Liberation Army thinkers study insurgencies, they identify with the counterinsurgents and seek to learn lessons from the conduct of U.S. and Russian counterinsurgency campaigns.[35] Chinese cinema reflects this, too: 2018’s blockbuster “Operation Red Sea” featured People’s Liberation Army commandos shooting up Yemeni terrorists, and even the wildly popular “Wolf Warrior 2” pits ex-soldier, “loose cannon” hero Leng Feng, with People’s Liberation Army Navy support, against American mercenaries. Even Unrestricted Warfare, a widely-cited unofficial book on future war written by two People’s Liberation Army colonels in 1999, contains few references to guerilla warfare.[36] This broad lack of attention to PLA support to insurgents suggests a failure of imagination on the PLA’s part.
The one case where China does continue to employ classic people’s war principles is the South China Sea. However, that case is misleading because China considers the South China Sea its territory. Mao’s strategy to defend China was to lure the enemy in deep and take advantage of cooperation between regular forces and guerillas. Today, with foreign fleets conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations deep inside what China considers Chinese sovereign territory, the People’s Liberation Army has given much thought to maritime people’s war and the use of guerilla sea forces, more typically called “maritime militias.”[37] Because of this, maritime counterinsurgency concepts may prove useful for competing with China afloat near its shores, mainly if they are conceptualized as a response to People’s Liberation Army thinking on “guerilla warfare on the seas.”[38] However, China’s actions in the South China Sea are not evidence that China will support foreign insurgent groups outside its territory.

China is Afraid of Insurgency

In a world where international sovereignty norms discourage support to insurgent groups, China stands to lose more than most other states. China’s leaders have long demonstrated concern about the risk posed by color revolutions against authoritarian regimes, and their paranoia is growing more acute.[39] Their greatest nightmare is that China’s heavily Muslim western provinces could become “China’s Syria or China’s Libya.”[40] Michael Pillsbury writes that America “[assisting] rebels inside China” and “fomenting riots, civil war, or terrorism inside China” are among the state’s seven foremost fears.[41] These fears are expressed clearly in China’s 2019 defense white paper condemning external separatist forces, which it claims launch frequent actions, and promises to crack down on them.[42] These fears drive China to spend more on internal security than on defense, react aggressively to threats of subversion, and cooperate with Russia on internal security.[43] Of course, China arming insurgent groups in the Philippines would not directly lead to the U.S. arming Uyghurs in Xinjiang. However, it is reasonable to assume that the former could make the latter more likely. Arming proxy groups could also threaten China’s desired ability to control escalation through war control and prevent local wars from spiraling out of control.[44] Given China’s extreme sensitivity to the threat of violent non-state actors, its leaders will have durable normative reasons to not resume their historic policy of arming insurgent groups.
Two Uyghur women pass Chinese paramilitary policemen (Peter Parks/AFP)

A Better Approach

Given China’s existing strategy, military thought, and fears of rebellion, renewed state support for insurgents is far from certain. Instead, China is more likely to employ economic and informational tools to achieve its aims, while focusing on partnerships with state actors and striving to remain below the threshold of armed conflict. While this does not mean we can afford to disregard counterinsurgency entirely, as China is not our only competitor and could always adopt new stratagems, it does suggest a different set of defense priorities for countering China. To compete with China, what the United States armed forces need most are ways and means for integrated campaigning to further U.S. interests, which would allow them to counter Chinese actions below the threshold of armed conflict. We also certainly need capabilities for high-intensity combat, in case all else fails.
T.S. Allen is a U.S. Army officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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[1] For the most succinct statement of this argument, see Sean McFate, New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder (New York: William Morrow, 2019), 25-36, which argues “conventional war is dead” at length. McFate provides a compelling vision of what the future of war will look like in the event there is no general war between major powers, but he underrates the risk of miscalculations by major powers leading to a general conflict. For a more balanced view of specifically the risk of a US-China war, see Christopher Coker, The Improbable War: China, The United States and Logic of Great Power Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). See also Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), a wildly popular history which armed many policymakers with a useful analogy for how major powers can stumble into conflict.
[2] The paradigmatic statement of these beliefs is the US Special Operations Command White Paper on “The Gray Zone,” published in 2015. For a more recent statement of them, see David Axe, “This is What War Looks Like in 2029,” The Daily Beast, 2019,
[3] Alexandra Evans and Alexandra Stark, “Bad Idea: Assuming the Small Wars Era Is Over,” The RAND Blog, 18 December 2019, See also McFate, New Rules of War, 241-248.
[4] John Vrolyk, “Insurgency, Not War, is China’s Most Likely Course of Action,” War on the Rocks, 19 December 2019,
[5] “Integrated campaigning” is a novel military concept described in the “Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning,” Joint Chiefs of Staff, 16 March 2018,
[6] This is the official definition used by the U.S. Government. See Joint Publication 3-24, Counterinsurgency (U.S. Department of Defense, 2018), ix.
[7] Mao’s principles of “people’s war” are compiled in the famous “Little Red Book:” Quotations from Mao Tse Tung, (Beijing: Peking Foreign Languages Press, 1966), Chapter 8.
[8] Robert Bickers, Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), 351.
[9] Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History (New York: Knopf, 2019), 465. For a history of the KGB’s failed efforts in the Third World in the Cold War, see Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World (New York: Basic Books, 2006). For a history of American regime change, see Lindsey A. O’Rourke, Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018).
[10] PRC official statistics have never been trustworthy, and counting covert PRC foreign aid in the 1970s is exceptionally challenging. However, the best analysis indicates that in 1979-1980, “China’s real [outbound] aid declined significantly,” in part because of “greater concern over domestic economic development and the fact that Chinese leaders perceived that they could better use the funds at home.” See John Franklin Copper, “China’s Foreign Aid in 1979-1980,” [Maryland Series in Contemporary Asian Studies Number 5 – 1981 (42)], 2-3.
[11] For the best account of the PRC’s ambitions, see Jonathan D.T. Ward, China’s Vision of Victory (Arlington: Atlas Publishing, 2019).
[12] For the most compelling critique of Xi’s pretensions, see Xi Zhiyong, “Dear Chairman Xi, It’s Time for You to Go,” trans. Geremie R. Barmé, China File, 26 February 2018,
[13] François Bougon, Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping, trans. Vanessa Lee (London: Hurst, 2018), 179.
[14] Alistair Ian Johntson critique the “failure of engagement” myth in “The Failures of the ‘Failure of Engagement’ with China,” The Washington Quarterly 41(2), 2019, China’s status as a “reluctant stakeholder” is best described by Evan A. Feigenbaum, “Reluctant Stakeholder: Why China’s Highly Strategic Brand of Revisionism is More Challenging Than Washington Thinks,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace MACROPOLO blog, 27 April 2018,
[15] The PRC became the world’s leading trading nation by volume in 2013. See McKinsey Global Institute, “China and the world: Inside the dynamics of a changing relationship,” 2019,, 2. The PRC’s export of tools for “digital authoritarianism” is discussed in Steven Feldstein, “When it comes to digital authoritarianism, China is a challenge — but not the only challenge,” War on the Rocks, 12 February 2020,
[16] Derek Scissors, “China’s global investment in 2019: Going Out goes small,” American Enterprise Institute, 14 January 2020,
[17] Derek Scissors, “AEI China Tracker: Chinese global investment and construction dip in 2018,” American Enterprise Institute, 23 January 2019, The claim that PRC “debt trap” diplomacy is an intentional PRC stratagem and poses a threat to the U.S. is critiqued in Gerard Gayou, “Who’s Afraid of the Belt and Road?” The Wall Street Journal, 9 June 2019, The place of the Belt and Road Initiative in the PRC constitution is described in Brenda Goh and John Ruwitch, “Pressure on as Xi’s ‘Belt and Road’ enshrined in Chinese party charter,” The Associated Press, 24 October 2017,
[18] “China President Xi says goal of Belt and Road is advance ‘win-win cooperation’” Reuters, 25 April 2019,
[19] Ross Babbage, “Winning Without Fighting: Chinese and Russian Political Warfare Campaigns and How the West Can Prevail,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2019,
[20] Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil, Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2019), 145-194.
[21] Darren J. Lim, “Chinese Economic Coercion During the THAAD Dispute,” The Asan Forum, 28 December 2019,
[22] Cindy Wang, “Taiwan’s Tsai, Challengers Focus on Cross-Strait Links in Debate,” Bloomberg News, 29 December 2019, See also Charles I-hsin Chen, “Why the US May Lose Taiwan to Beijing Economically,” The Diplomat, 14 June 2019,
[23] The best account of how “Hong Kongization” actually proceeded is Piers Brendan, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997 (New York: Vintage, 2010), Chapter 22: “All Our Pomp of Yesterday.”
[24] Hong Kong’s GDP was equivalent to 18.4% of mainland China’s GDP in 1997, when Hong Kong reverted to PRC rule. This declined rapidly thereafter and as of 2019, Hong Kong only accounted for 2.7% of the PRC’s GDP. Noah Sin, “How Important is Hong Kong for the Rest of China?” Reuters, 4 September 2019,
[25] M. Taylor Fravel, “China’s New Military Strategy: ‘Winning Informationized Local Wars,’” Jamestown Foundation China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 13, 2 July 2015,
[26] Dennis J. Blasko, “Steady As She Goes: China’s New Defense White Paper,” War on the Rocks, 12 Augsut 2019, See also State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s National Defense in the New Era,” (Beijing, 2019),
[27] On PRC military spending, see Michael Kofman and Richard Connolly, “Why Russia’s Military Spending Is Much Higher Than Commonly Understood (As is China’s),” War on the Rocks, 16 December 2019, On PLA training see Don Tse, “China’s Americanized Military,” The Diplomat, 13 December 2017,
[28] Clive Hamilton, Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia (Australia: Hardie Grant, 2018). See also Clive Hamilton, “St George and the Dragon,” Standpoint, 25 March 2020,
[29] On the “three warfares” see Peter Mattis, “China’s ‘Three Warfares’ In Perspective,” War on the Rocks, 30 January 2018, On “discourse power” see Elsa Kania, “The Right to Speak: Discourse and Chinese Power,” Center for Advanced China Research, 27 November 2018,
[30] Bill Bishop, Sinocism newsletter, 4 February 2020,
[31] M. Taylor Fravel, Active Defense, China’s Military Strategy since 1949 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), 140.
[32] Elsa Kania, “In Military-Civil Fusion, China is Learning Lessons from the United States and Starting to Innovate,” The Strategy Bridge, 27 August 2019,
[33] Nicholas Lyall, “China’s Cyber Militias,” The Diplomat, 1 March 2018,
[34] Xi Jinping, “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China October 18, 2017,’s_report_at_19th_CPC_National_Congress.pdf, 5. On the authoritativeness of this report see Peter Mattis, “The Party Congress Test: A Minimum Standard for Anlayzing Beijing’s Intentions,” War on the Rocks, 8 January 2019,
[35] See Martin Andrew, “The Influence of U.S. Counterinsurgency Operations in Afghanistan on the People’s Liberation Army” and Yu Bin, “Learning from the Neighbors: The People’s Liberation Army Examines the Small Wars and Counterinsurgencies Waged by Russia” in Chinese Lessons from Other People’s Wars ed. Andrew Scobell, David Lai, and Roy Kamphausen (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2018),
[36] Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare (Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, February 1999), trans. Foreign Broadcast Information Service.
[37] Dennis J. Blasko, “Chinese Strategic Thinking: People’s War in the 21st Century,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 6, 18 March 2010,
[38] Hunter Stires, “The South China Sea Needs a ‘COIN’ Toss,” Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, Vol. 145/5/1,395, May 2019,
[39] John S. Van Oudenaren, “Beijing’s Peaceful Evolution Paranoia,” The Diplomat, 1 September 2015, See also Evan Osnos, “The Future of America’s Contest with China,” The New Yorker, 13 January 2020,
[40] Jérôme Doyon, “‘Counter-Extremism’ in Xinjian: Understanding China’s Community-Focused Counterterrorism Tactics,” War on the Rocks, 14 January 2019,
[41] Michael Pillsbury, “China’s Seven Fears When it Comes to America,” Real Clear Defense, 11 February 2015,
[42] State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s National Defense in the New Era,” 6.
[43] On spending see Adrian Zenz, “China’s Domestic Security Spending: An Analysis of Available Data,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 4, 12 March 2018, On PRC overreaction to the threat of terrorism see Sheena Chestnut Greitens, Myunghee Lee and Emir Yazici, “Counterterrorism and Preventive Repression: China’s Changing Strategy in Xinjiang,” International Security Volume 44 Issue 3, Winter 2019/20, pp. 9-47, On the motivation for PRC-Russian counterterrorism cooperation see in particular “Briefing by Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson M.V. Zakharova on the sidelines of the Territory of Meanings All-Russian Youth Educational Forum, Solnechnogorsk,” Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, August 9, 2019,”
[44] Burgess Laird, “War Control: Chinese Writings on the Control of Escalation in Crisis and Conflict,” Center for a New American Security, 30 March 2017, · June 2, 2020

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