Is there a Chinese Way of War?
any English-language books have appeared during the past 15 years on the subjects of warfare, strategy, and violence in China. Before the 1990s, volumes published on such subjects, while certainly not unknown, were few and far between and could be tracked fairly easily by those interested in Chinese military affairs. This essay reviews five of the more recent works to evaluate their usefulness and ascertain what they tell us about Chinese approaches to warfare.
Political Success Trumps Operational Victory
Bruce Elleman’s 2001 book, Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795-1989, is billed as a history of the subject. He devotes 18 chapters (and 363 pages) to examining 25 foreign and domestic conflicts spread out over almost 200 years of Chinese history. While this is an admirable undertaking, it falls short on a number of counts. Elleman does a good job of outlining in a coherent fashion the basic facts of more than a score of wars and providing the context for each. However, the author does not have much to offer in terms of analysis concerning how the Chinese conduct warfare or identifying patterns of how and when China goes to war—these matters are left up to the reader to discern. Elleman is content to categorize each war within a “dynastic cycle” framework without teasing out the larger implications of this conception. In fact, Modern Chinese Warfare is not really about warfare at all. There is remarkably little in the way of coverage or analysis of actual military operations. Rather, most of the pages are heavily descriptive, recounting the political and diplomatic context of each conflict, although the author does offer some nuggets of astute commentary on each. For example, the chapter on the 1979 Vietnam conflict focuses on the level of grand strategy and geopolitics rather than on how China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) actually fought the war. Elleman’s discussion of the logic and aims...