Whether it be the intrusions of hackers, a major explosion at the World Trade Center, or a bombing attack by Bin Laden, all of these greatly exceed the frequency bandwidths understood by the American military.” This is a quote from Unrestricted Warfare (UnWar), a book written by two then-colonels in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, in 1999, two years before the Bin Laden-led Al Qaeda brought down the two towers. The book is required reading in all Chinese military academies. Looking back from the vantage point of 2021, UnWar is both exceptionally prescient and a chilling blueprint for China building a new world order. Yet, very few people paid attention—or still do—to this remarkable book.
In the last few weeks, the Indian media has not found the Indo-Chinese situation in Ladakh particularly newsworthy, focusing instead on protests by farmers from states like Punjab and Haryana. Yet the face-off between thousands of soldiers on both sides continues, with no end in sight. The chaos over the election results in the US that saw pro-Trump protesters storming the Capitol has seriously undermined the US’s stature and it will take some time to recover its position as leader of the free world.
Meanwhile, China has been steadily recovering from its massive image setback post the covid pandemic. It signed an important trade agreement with the European Union last fortnight with vague promises about the use of forced labour. This is a big victory for Chinese President Xi Jinping. A battle won. But the war goes on, even if it is visible only to a few.
Says UnWar: “The first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, and nothing forbidden.” And right in Chapter 1, the authors foresaw the present that we live in: “Information will be omnipresent… All the boundaries between war and non-war, of military and non-military, will be totally destroyed, and… the rules of war may need to be rewritten.”
The authors evoke “the side-principal rule” of ancient Chinese warfare, which proposes avoiding a frontal collision with an enemy’s powerful sword at his point of strength, but rather using one’s sword to cut into the warrior’s exposed side—“to cut things apart without one’s sword getting damaged”.
They acknowledge that fomenting terror is the most obvious tool of unconventional warfare, but also list many other forms of a new domination strategy: economic aid (for instance, the Belt and Road Initiative that drags countries into a debt trap); smuggling (by one estimate, 80% of the world’s counterfeits—a $1.8 trillion industry—are produced in China); cultural (the hundreds of Confucius Institutes set up in universities across the world); media and fabrication (manipulating foreign media by influencing journalists and opinion makers through cash and kind, and providing media outlets revenue through advertisements); international law (China lobbied for more than a decade to become a member of the World Trade Organization, and after having achieved that, it has been subverting and ignoring its rules), and so on.
In this new schemata, the line between soldier and civilian gets blurred. Are the hackers who downloaded detailed personal data of thousands of US government employees—including those working in intelligence agencies—or stole the design of the American fighter jet F-35 to build China’s J-20, civilians or soldiers? What about hiring the enemy’s own countrymen to influence policy?
China pays Western leaders as “advisers” or “consultants”. They include former US secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Sandy Berger, former US trade representative Carla Hills. David Cameron, former British prime minister, heads the UK-China Fund, which seeks to raise $1 billion for projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
An arms race can only lead to national bankruptcy, says UnWar. “Proposing a new concept of weapons does not require relying on… new technology, it just demands lucid and incisive thinking,” write Qiao and Wang. “This is not a strong point for the Americans, who are slaves to technology in their thinking.” For instance, the US watched silently when the contract for management and operation of the Cristobal and Balboa ports at the two ends of the Panama Canal, which links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and has vital strategic importance, was awarded to the Beijing-linked Hutchison Whampoa group.
If one studies China’s geopolitical activities over the last decade, it becomes clear that UnWar is its manual. The funny thing is that the book has been around for 21 years, and it proposes, openly and without subterfuge, how China could hobble the free world and establish its hegemony. But the free world’s leaders do not seem to have noticed, and have fallen for almost every Chinese trick. Don’t the China policy experts in the West read what is out there in the public domain?
It is imperative that as our brave soldiers face Chinese forces on the highest battleground on earth, our leaders also examine how Beijing’s non-military strategies may have created fifth columnists within the country, working surreptitiously for China’s interests and against India’s.
Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines