What would China’s counterinsurgency strategy look like?


From cybersecurity to maritime issues, the U.S. national security community has spared no effort in trying to figure out the future of the conflict with China. Except for one problem: counterinsurgency. Some already believe that insurgency rather than conventional warfare is the future of US-Chinese competition. And others argue that the deprioritization of counterinsurgency doesn’t mean the United States can abandon it altogether. If these beliefs hold true, then the United States must analyze how its competitor might get away with a similar adventurism.

The “counterinsurgency” appears only once in the Defense Ministry’s 200-page report on China’s military and security developments that was released last year. And in some ways, the lack of attention is understandable.

First, and most obvious, China did not fight all war since 1979, so there is no large-scale foreign military intervention to inform its counterinsurgency strategies. However, the last war waged by China was the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, in which 200,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers withdrew from Vietnam after facing the same guerrilla tactics. that the United States had fled four years earlier.

Second, when China intervened militarily abroad in non-war missions, it was on a small scale. These ventures occurred in places like Africa and Afghanistan, where the Chinese engaged in a limited proxy conflict against the Soviet Union. This reluctance comes from Chinese leaders who, as early as 1985, noted that the main threats did not come from high-intensity conflicts abroad but in border areas like Taiwan, Tibet and India. And even if they had to venture outside these areas, the PLA during the Cold War was too ill-equipped to maintain long-range combat for long periods of time.

Thus, not only does Chinese post-WWII military history lack a foreign counterinsurgency movement, it also lacks experience with large-scale conflicts as a whole. Given these limitations, what could provide insight into China’s counterinsurgency strategy? Three elements provide an answer: Mao Zedong’s experience with the insurgency, Xi Jinping’s repression of Uyghurs and the counterinsurgency approaches of authoritarian governments in general. Taken side by side, the models for a Chinese counterinsurgency doctrine are beginning to take shape.

Clausewitz, but with a Maoist twist

To begin with, it is imperative to understand Mao’s insurgency doctrine. Mao, the founding father of the Chinese Communist Party, draws this doctrine from Carl von Clausewitz, especially when it comes to targeting an opponent’s center of gravity. “The insurgency can neither exist nor prosper,” says Mao, “if it is separated from their sympathies and cooperation.” According to him, the political mobilization of the population allows the insurgents to blend in, set up bases to carry out operations and launch attacks with the help of the population. Here it is essential to remember who was Mao’s enemy at the time: Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Japan lacked the manpower to occupy a territory as large as China, but militant nationalism fueled its willingness to fight and adopt different strategies, not to give up the war entirely. Mao was able to avoid a decisive engagement that would have mobilized the entire Japanese people.

Following in Clausewitz’s footsteps, Mao postulated that the best way to beat the insurgents’ center of gravity would be in the same way that an army should beat any other center of gravity: by repeatedly hitting its core. Mao used both demoralizing tactics and brute force 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, it crucified, burned or boiled alive civilians who supported the rebels. To demoralize himself, Mao recommended that soldiers carry leaflets extolling the virtues of Communism when they meet anti-Communist peasants to ensure that the people never rebel.

Mao would like Uyghur repression

In Xinjiang, Mao’s brute force doctrine combined with propaganda has made its way into contemporary Chinese counterinsurgency. Alden Leader, editor at Georgetown International Affairs Journal, summarized as follows:

“Chinese efforts to prevent an insurgency in Xinjiang are authoritarian and brutal. […] The conditions in the camps are inhumane and prison-like, with people suffering torture and dying. These concentration camps are teeming with brainwashing and indoctrination.

Instead of boiling insurgents, Beijing tortures prisoners, forcibly sterilizes women, and uses forced labor. Beyond distributing pro-communist pamphlets, it forces prisoners to praise Xi, salute the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and renounce Islam.

These methods suggest China’s crackdown on Uyghurs is rooted in nationalism, as much as the insurgencies themselves are. In its drive to unite the separatists into a single national image and achieve the status of a great power, China overwhelms the identities that threaten the disintegration of the nation. But he cannot do it without the Chinese people. By waging an online campaign that portrays Uyghur separatists as terrorists, the CCP seeks popular supportt for increasingly repressive actions against the Uyghurs. If they don’t, China says, not only is state security at stake, but more importantly, so is its rise to great power status.

China will probably export these methods of repression abroad if there is one because… they are effective. The CCP has been using the same strategy since the late 1950s with great success: the prospects for a Uyghur revolt are slim, China controls its security interests in the region without fear of so-called “terrorist” threats and separatist movements in Le Xinjiang never went beyond small-scale attacks here and there.

Authoritarian counterinsurgency

Finally, to understand Chinese approaches to counterinsurgency, we need to analyze the big picture of authoritarian states in general. As authoritarian powers are defined by keen intelligence and repressive abilities, comparing Chinese counterinsurgency to the methods of the Soviet Union, for example, sheds light on the tools it could use.

When it comes to intelligence, authoritarian governments are sure to export their national capabilities abroad. They establish intelligence dominance by collecting human intelligence not out of goodwill but through blackmail, torture and various other tactics. In some cases, such as in Algeria, they can even infiltrate rebellions posing as sympathizers and slaughter villagers to arouse the disgust of the population. Currently, China is exporting its intelligence capabilities through cyber espionage and the sale of surveillance systems to other authoritarians. But in counterinsurgency campaigns, China can use these now sophisticated tools to stay ahead of insurgent movements.

On repression, the authoritarians cut off civil societies such as universities, professional organizations, churches and even football clubs if necessary. Civil societies are a primary source of coordination for the rebels, which is why the Soviets banned the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church because of its potential links with the Ukrainian rebels. The elimination of civil societies also corresponds to the idea that the population is the “center of gravity” of the insurgents because it blocks a source of recruitment and resistance, forcing the partisans to go underground instead of remaining in the open, where the insurgents prefer to operate.

Finally, authoritarian governments, like the actions of Josef Stalin in the North Caucasus or Burma’s response to communist opposition, “turning the conflict zone into a closed system” by blocking trade or imposing curfews. Isolating the area separates the insurgents from the partisans so that they cannot retreat into the mountains or other geographically advantageous areas. Beyond the physical isolation of the rebels, the government can cut off access to food, funds and intelligence, which mainly come from the civilian population.

Together, Mao’s insurgency doctrine, the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, and authoritarian approaches to counterinsurgency provide a theory about China’s counterinsurgency strategies: that it will prioritize the brutal repression of the insurgent population by force and propaganda while using its military domination to establish intelligence networks and geographic isolation. With the PLA, China will seek to invade its enemy with enough force to discourage non-combatants from joining the insurgency. Then, it will draw on its intelligence capabilities to learn about rebel movements before they happen, possibly through the use of cyber espionage, signals intelligence and / or threats of violence. As a last resort, China can use ground troops not only to isolate insurgents from their supporters, but to deter foreign insurgency allies from providing supplies.

Will all of these strategies work?

The two examples of Tibet and Xinjiang are national in China, where China can rely on strong political will and a lack of foreign interference. But in order to successfully export these strategies, it will have to adapt to the political environment and recognize that there may be other centers of gravity than the supporters of the insurgency. It is also possible that these strategies will work better if they are gradually imposed. The Chinese leadership may choose to launch a counterinsurgency with light troops and propaganda at first, and end in isolation and brutality if the situation collapses.

Why China and America Should Care

For China, facing an insurgency is akin to the non-theoretical. With investments in infrastructure, commerce and military bases, combined with simply more Chinese nationals overseas, China is opening itself up to terrorist attacks. For now, extremist groups are more concerned about attacks on the United States, but Chinese efforts “often change local dynamics, creating new terrorist risks.” These shifting dynamics are occurring in countries with a terrorist presence, like Nigeria, where China built a $ 1.5 billion railroad last year. Of course, China isn’t going to Afghanistan or Iraq anytime soon, as it has little incentive to do so, but a comprehensive military policy should not neglect counterinsurgency.