China and U.S. go for 'grey war', not shooting war

November 18, 2021 06:00
Photo: Reuters

The worsening Cold War between China and the United States will remain a “grey war” and not turn into a military conflict.

That is the judgement of Jean-Pierre Cabestan, one of France’s top Sinologists, in a new book “Demain la Chine: Guerre ou Paix?” (China Tomorrow: War or Peace).

He is Professor of the Department of Government and International Studies at Baptist University. He is also associate researcher at the Asia Centre, Paris and at the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong.

“The China of Xi Jinping is more willing to take risks than that of Deng Xiaoping or even Mao to reach its objectives, because it has the will and the means, even if that places it in direct confrontation with the United States,” he said.

But Xi is restrained by several factors.

“The fact that the U.S, China, India and Russia are nuclear power forces the governments of these countries to think twice before engaging in direct military conflict. Paradoxically, this reality is factor for peace.”

The second factor is the lack of combat experience of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). “It has not engaged in a real war since the frontier battle of 1979 with Vietnam, more than 40 years. By contrast, the U.S. military has been in almost constant war since the start of the 1990s.”

Thirdly, the belligerence of China has created a multinational alliance against it – not only the Quad countries, Australia, U.S, India and Japan, but also Vietnam and Indonesia to a certain extent.

“The Chinese navy has become the largest in the world. But, if there were a conflict around Taiwan or in the South China Sea and the navies of the U.S., Japan, Taiwan, Australia and India were involved, they would be stronger than China.”

The Communist Party dares not launch the PLA into a war whose outcome is uncertain. “For the party, the priorities are stability and a perpetuation of the regime, ahead of unification with Taiwan. Between power and Taiwan, the party prefers power.”

Fourthly, the Chinese public are ill prepared for a war that would bring many coffins back to the national soil. “Look at the reactions to the death of each Chinese soldier serving with the United Nations in Africa. Through their propaganda films and programmes on the military, nationalist Chinese have often an unreal, even fictional, view of war. The aggressive tweets of the ‘wolf warriors’ seem like psychological compensation for the hesitation of China to embark on an actual armed conflict.”

All these factors have persuaded China instead to conduct a “grey war” against its adversaries, taking advantage of what is called the “grey zones and conducting operations short of actual fighting, like the dozens of flights around Taiwan airspace by PLA jets.

These include action in cyberspace and in space, “The cyber war started a long time ago without having to be declared. The Chinese and Americans are preparing to destroy the spatial and cybernet abilities of their opponents before the start of hostilities.”

But the risk of an accident or incident provoked by one side or the other is growing.

“Each side may provoke an incident, to test the reactions of the other. The harassment of the U.S. Decatur in 2018 and the attack (by PLA soldiers) with clubs on Indian soldiers in June 2020 are hard to deal with. The fact that one followed the other is disturbing, since it shows a clear wish to take a bigger risk.”

On September 30 2018, a Chinese destroyer came within 45 yards of the Decatur, a destroyer, as it went through a disputed island chain in the South China Sea. The Decatur had to manoeuvre to avoid a collision. The U.S. Navy called the action “unsafe and unprofessional.”

Over the long term, Cabestan expects a world with two giant military powers, rather than China replacing the U.S.

“It is doubtful that China can replace the U.S., even in 2050. It will without doubt have the most important army in the world, in terms of ships, airplanes and conventional missiles, forcing others to adopt a strategy of assymetrical defence in the Western Pacific. But, supported by an industrial defence base that is more dynamic, the U.S. forces have great chance to remain more global, advanced and sophisticated.”

So he sees a strategic rivalry between the two sides that is largely peaceful and the emergence of a new Cold War quite different from the first.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.