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C3S Book Review: The Dragon’s Bite — Strategic Continuum and Chinese PLA evolving fire and teeth

Updated: Aug 1

By Sruthi Sadhasivam

Image Courtesy: Amazon

Article 20/2023

The Dragon’s Bite: Strategic Continuum and Chinese PLA’s Evolving Fire and Teeth (Lancer Publishers), ISBN : 8170623472

The book, “The Dragon’s Bite — Strategic Continuum and Chinese PLA Evolving Fire and Teeth” written by Maj. Gen. Rajiv Narayanan outlines the security psychology of China. Maj Gen. Rajiv Narayanan has been able to capture China’s military and strategic culture by discussing and examining the policies of all Chinese presidents, rooting the rationale behind their policies in Chinese traditional political thought.

General Overview of the Book : Structure, Research Gap & Observations

The book is divided into 3 parts consisting of 9 chapters. The first part delves on the evolution of China’s military, its strategy and PLA's doctrines. The second part delves in detail about China’s grand strategy, the military’s reorganization and restructuring of combat arms and combat and service support structures. Finally, the third part, drawing inferences from the first two parts, predicts the future trajectory of the PLA. By assessing China’s military modernisation, the author presents the nature of China's threat to India and lists down the options for overhauling India’s military organizational framework and ways to balance China. Further, the author examines the measures that the US and the world can undertake to tackle the China threat.

The author chose to write this book as he felt there was an absence of research work concerning all facets of PLA and a lack of substantial work on the implications of China's military modernisation and reorganization on the Indo-Pacific region and the world. Further, he felt that most of the publications focussed on China and its threat to Taiwan.

The book has been thoroughly researched, comprising significant inputs from the works of several Chinese scholars and military personnel. The infographic in the book greatly helps the readers comprehend the concepts. Most of the images and maps are clear, helping readers to understand the arguments clearly. In the course of the book, the author has comprehensively explained the organizational structure of the wings of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) - PLAN, PLARF, PLASSF, PLAAF.

The author starts out with the assumption that a country will advance its national interests (grand strategy) and adopt a military strategy to meet this objective. If a state wants to develop its military strategy, it will naturally focus on capability development. This indicates that the state will undertake military modernisation (military modernisation involves reorganization and restructuring).

Xi’s grand strategy is directed towards establishing a world order based on Chinese characteristics- the middle kingdom (national interest). In late 2015 and early 2016, Xi Jinping realized two major issues in the state’s military— the need for political control over the PLA and the need for strengthening the military’s capacity to conduct modern joint operations (national interest). In order to further its national interest, China adopted the burn and bite strategy (military strategy) encompassing the forward edge defense, unrestricted warfare strategy, three lawfare strategy, and warzone campaign doctrine. To implement its military strategy, China undertook military modernisation comprising major structural and organizational reforms undertaken right from “Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping”— China’s strategic continuum of its strategies. The above explanation is indicative of the fact that the author’s hypothesis stands proved.

The evolution of PLA’s military modernisation has been dealt with in detail to understand the hard power of China. Using this assessment, the author has predicted China's future trajectory and recommended options for India, the US and the world to balance the multi-domain threat from China. The author claims that the major reasons for China to modernize its military are the 1996 third Taiwan crisis and the display of overwhelming US military capability during the gulf war, 1991.

From reading China’s strategies and doctrines discussed in the book, readers can get acquainted with the “China’s way” of handling its security threats. For instance, the reference to Mao Tse Tung’s “You fight your way and I will fight my way,” as mentioned and substantiated in the book clearly indicates that China has managed to develop its own strategy to combat its adversaries as defined by it. In addition, the book at various instances frequently reiterates the theoretical foundations of China’s strategic culture (Sun Tzu, Sun yat sen, Mao tse sung) and it elaborates on their influence in China’s military strategy.

It is admirable that the author, despite being a former military personnel, exerts restrain from wielding unfair criticism on the trajectory of China’s military strategy. In this light, the author has carved out a well balanced analysis. For instance, the author has made it a point to mention both the strengths and weaknesses of all wings of the PLA and based on this has predicted the likely threats and possible options for India, the US and the world. The author has refrained from making value added statements or remarks of China’s military, making the work more credible in essence.

Major Arguments & Analysis

(i) China’s Military Strategy, Military Modernisation & Limitations

One of the chief arguments of the author which he has substantiated in detail is that the cause for Xi Jinping’s rise is not because of the latter’s efforts alone but because of the foundation set by his predecessors namely Deng Xiaoping, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Previous leaders set the foundation for Xi to shift from an “approach of docility to adopt an aggressive policy at all domains.” The book debunks the myth that Xi is the reason for China’s rise. The book discusses the transformation of the character of the PLA under each Chinese leader. During Mao’s leadership, the PLA became highly politicized, therefore the actual modernisation of China’s military institutions occurred in the post-Mao period. Hu jintao set up the structures and systems to help China penetrate into other countries and subvert the target population. Both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao followed Deng Xiaoping's policy of “hide your claws and bide your time.” From the book it can be deciphered that the coordination of policies amongst all Chinese leaders (1945-2023) and the phased approach that every Chinese president undertook helped China witness some gains in its military modernization.

Fig 1.1 China’s Pillars of Comprehensive National Power (CNP)

Unlike the West’s definition of Comprehensive National Power (CNP) which focuses only on military, economy, and diplomacy, China’s CNP attaches great significance to the human dimension. The most important pillar of the CNP of China is the human index as the efficacy of the economy, military, and diplomacy of a state is dependent on human efficacy. From the book, it can be inferred that the human dimension is the base while military, economy, and diplomacy collectively constitute the superstructure, indicating that if the base is attacked, automatically the superstructure will collapse.

Fig 1.2 China’s Strategy

In this light, China has been subverting the CNP of its opponents by using asymmetric means such as “China study centers, cyber warfare, financing relevant politicians and political entities, media, students, think tanks, intelligentsia, entertainment industry, trade unions and NGOs.”

China, the author claims, would also burn its adversaries’ CNP by using cognitive superiority operations along with integrating Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) in maritime, continental, aerospace, cyber and information domains, and unrestricted warfare strategies. Further, geoeconomic coercion also is used to subvert the CNP of China’s opponents. This book argues that in the modern day, the BRI creates inroads for Beijing to topple the economies of target nations, leaving them vulnerable to China.

Therefore, the author postulates that China metaphorically referred to as the “dragon” will burn the opposing nations with its information warfare wing, PLASSF and UWFD by using cognitive superiority operations even during peacetime and will “bite the remnants with its teeth” (PLA) — navy, airforce, rocket force and ground forces and destroy the target nations. The writer argues that China strives to win battles without waging wars partly because of the internal weakness of the PLA. China resorts to a ‘burn and bite strategy’ that deploys the PLA only as a secondary fighting force after the target nations have already been successfully destabilized by using asymmetric means.

However, the author predicts that this strategy will only be effective with weak nations and if strong nations choose to form an alliance, it would be disastrous for China. This is the reason, China resists any alliance or partnership such as QUAD and AUKUS and prevents efforts at diversifying the supply chain.

At present, the author discerns China's military infrastructure and culture to be inconducive to achieving Xi’s vision. However, the author clearly postulates that these limitations do not mean that the threats to China’s neighbours are minimized. China, the author perceives, can still use its asymmetric tactics and Unrestricted Warfare (URW) tactics to denude the CNP of its opponents.

Despite the scope of threat posed by the PLA, the author discusses in detail some major limitations that make China’s military to be quite ineffective. Firstly, the major issue is the autocratic leadership style that restricts officers from sharing their opinions if it's contrary to Xi’s thoughts. Secondly, China attaches importance to loyalty over merit in selection of its officers (problems of mediocracy). Thirdly, there is an absence of directive style of command. Fourthly, China hires conscripts on a bi-annaul basis, by the time one round of training is completed, it's time for the recruitment of the next batch of conscripts making the PLA always deficient in strength.

In addition to the despotic military culture, the PLA is strife with its own technical issues. PLAGF has antiquated weapons systems, PLAAF’s air to air refueling capability is low, making its outreach limited. Although China’s PLARF has a regional outreach, it's still restricted because the conventional and nuclear capabilities are mixed and China’s navy has less field experience. In the continental theater, the PLA has a very long logistics chain. Thereby, in a long drawn conflict with India, the author contends that China might be underprepared. The worrisome state of China’s PLA makes them unreliable as a force in assisting China in securing its national interest.

The author has been able to strike the right chords by clearly establishing — the continuum of China's military strategy. He has extended strong evidential reasoning behind China’s use of unconventional warfare and also examined the veracity of the threat of China’s asymmetric warfare.

(ii) Options for India, the US & the World

The author has recommended options for India, the US and the world to manage the aggressive China.

In terms of reforms to India's security architecture, the author calls for an integrated security headquarters, which would enable jointness of plans and better utilization of the defense budget. Several reforms and recommendations for restructuring internal bureaucratic agencies were also made in the book.

The author contends that India faces a three front scenario - China in the north, Pakistan in the west and China's joint multi-domain internal threats. To tackle the same, the author emphasized on the need for the state to adopt an integrated strategy to effectively counter the multi-domain threat posed by China. The author called for the optimum militarisation of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Lakshadweep, to enhance India’s maritime outreach. Further, the author recommended that India develop a maritime doctrine similar to that of China Navy’s A2AD/ counter intervention strategy. The author suggests that India takes to Tushnim Yuddha (modified to incorporate present geopolitical norms) as prescribed by Chanakya to blunt the dragon and it's all weather friend, markhor.

The author proclaims that the world is in a period of “cold peace” where there is an absence of a leader that can curb China’s rise. Given this, the author claims that India must emerge as a “bridge power balancing the US and the West with Russia.” The author suggests that India must perceive the concept of strategic autonomy at the global level and create a coalition of the willing in the Indo-pacific.

In the case of the US, the author opines that the country’s CNP has diminished and therefore must stop prioritizing its own national interest and focus on shared interest that would promote security and growth for all in the region.

For the Indo-Pacific region and the world, the author recommends the creation of an Indo-Pacific Regional forum/Commission, a global entity for regional, economic, political, diplomatic and security architecture. The forum would encompass all like minded parties and would facilitate growth, stability and peace. He also suggests that the regional groupings such as QUAD and AUKUS would be placed as verticals within the commission. This option was suggested to prevent duplication of efforts by major powers in catering to small powers and foster better coordination between major powers, bridge powers and weak powers.

The author has been able to articulate all his recommendations in a concise manner. However, the realization of those recommendations will be dependent on the political will of state actors whose policies are formulated based on realist principles— statism, survival and self help.

Suggestions & Conclusion

The book was certainly insightful, it’s a must read for people who desire to study China’s military in an all encompassing manner. For a wonderful reading experience, some suggestions are being made below.

It's understandable that it's not possible for the author to explain all military terms in the course of substantiating an argument. However, a glossary page consisting of all military terms would have helped the readers from non-military background to read the well researched piece with ease.

In the course of part III of the book, the portion that covers the author’s assessments, there could have been a mention of tentative years rather than resorting to phrases such as near term, medium term and long term. This suggestion is being made for the only reason that the author would prefer that readers understand the time frames as the author has defined it rather than making their own interpretations.

Undoubtedly, the author has put serious effort in examining all white defense papers, doctrines, organizational structure and composition of every branch of the PLA and has done due justice to the same. In this light, as a reader I would choose to ignore those aforementioned errors, which are anyways minor by nature and get enlightened by the author's insights.

The book is of major relevance as it covers all aspects about China’s military- past, present and the future. There is a mention of China's ideas on future warfare, the unattained targets of China’s military and strategies of China, taking cognisance of these insights can help state actors stay militarily prepared and vigilant. Further, the operationalisation of the burn and bite strategy of China can be witnessed in the present unrest in Manipur, in China’s assistance to terror groups in the Northeast and Naxal belts of India, and China using Pakistan as its catspaw to create instability within continental and peninsular India. The work, having high contemporary relevance makes it a must read for anyone interested in China, its geostrategy and geopolitics.

(Sruthi Sadhasivam is a Research Officer at C3S. The views expressed in this book review are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)

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