Eurocentrism, which, alas, is still obsessed with our society, sometimes prevents from seeing quite amusing and instructive historical examples, even recent ones. One such example is the approach of our neighbor, China, to the use of military force. In Russia, it is not customary to think about it, and in many cases a sober assessment of the actions of the Chinese is also hindered by stupid clichés that have come from nowhere in the minds of our people: “the Chinese cannot fight,” “they can crush with the masses, and that’s all,” and so on.
In fact, everything is so different that it will not even be able to “reach” a significant number of people. The Chinese approaches to the use of military force are totally different from what the rest of humanity practices, just as the Chinese themselves are different in relation to all other people (this is a very important remark).
Let’s start with combat experience. After World War II, the Chinese army was regularly used against other countries.
From 1947 to 1950, the Chinese were engaged in a civil war. It must be said that by that time several generations of Chinese had already been born and died in the war. But civil war is one thing, but soon after it began something completely different.
In 1950, China took over Tibet, eliminating the local ugly regime. And in the same year, the Chinese military contingent, under the guise of “Chinese People’s Volunteers” (CPV) under the command of Marshal and future Minister of Defense of the PRC Peng Dehuai, attacked the United States and its allies (UN troops) in North Korea.
Famous photo – Chinese units crossing the Yalu River. The deployment of Chinese troops in the DPRK, their enemy “slept”. Attention is drawn to the lack of transport and heavy weapons . But this light infantry will soon take Seoul
As you know, the Chinese threw UN troops back to the 38th parallel. To appreciate the significance of this fact, one must understand that they were opposed by troops with the most advanced military equipment for that time, trained and equipped according to the Western model, having powerful artillery, fully mechanized and possessing air supremacy, which at that time there was simply no one to challenge ( Soviet MiG-15s will appear in the areas bordering China only five days after the start of battles with the Chinese, and will begin to fight in full force even later).
The Chinese themselves were mostly foot troops with a minimum of animal-drawn transport, armed mainly with small arms only, with a minimum of mortars and outdated light artillery. There was a critical shortage of transport, even horse-drawn transport, radio communication in the company-battalion link was completely absent, in the battalion-regiment link – almost completely. Instead of radios and field telephones, the Chinese used pedestrian messengers, bugles and gongs.
It would seem that nothing shines for the Chinese, but their blow almost led to the complete defeat of the UN forces and led to the largest retreat in American military history. Soon, the Chinese, with the slowly recovering Korean People’s Army, took Seoul. Then they were knocked out of there and further all the battles went on in the vicinity of the 38th parallel.
It is difficult for a modern person to appreciate this. The Chinese pushed back the United States and its allies with all their might with their bare hands. Moreover, they often dominated the battlefield without having any heavy weapons or any kind of military equipment. The Chinese were able, for example, to guess the moment of deployment from pre-battle formations to combat formations and the beginning of a foot attack exactly at the moment when the last rays of the sun disappeared and darkness fell. As a result, with minimal light, they managed to accurately reach the enemy’s location and launch an attack, and during the attack itself, immediately take advantage of the darkness for cover.
The Chinese fought well at night, bypassed enemy defensive positions in complete darkness, and attacked without retreating in the face of losses. Often, having engaged in a battle with a defending enemy at dusk, they bypassed it in the dark, breaking through to the positions of the artillery, destroying the crews of the guns and ultimately reducing the entire battle to hand-to-hand combat. In hand-to-hand and bayonet attacks, the Chinese outnumbered the Americans and their allies.
The Chinese have introduced a huge mass of organizational and tactical techniques, which to some extent compensated for their lack of heavy weapons and military equipment.
The motivation and training of the Chinese, their ability to disguise and misinform the enemy, the ability of their commanders to plan combat operations and control their course, were sufficient to, together with numerical superiority and moral readiness to endure huge losses, to defeat the enemy, which in terms of its weapons, organization and equipment was one historical epoch ahead.
Military history knows few such episodes. This is a very important moment – the Chinese army defeated the US troops with the allies on the battlefield and put them to flight. Moreover, the main problems with the inability of the Chinese to advance south of Seoul, after it was taken, lay in the plane of logistics – the Chinese simply could not properly supply their troops at such a distance from their territory, they had practically no transport and among the soldiers deaths from starvation were a mass phenomenon. But they continued to fight, and fought with the utmost stubbornness and ferocity.
Fans of the theory that the Chinese do not know how to fight should think about how this was possible.
Marshal Peng Dehuai, one of the most prominent military leaders in recent history
The Korean ceasefire, on the one hand, froze the conflict and left Korea divided. At the same time, the threat of the defeat of the DPRK, which at the end of 1950 already seemed a foregone conclusion, was completely removed.
After Korea, a series of small local wars began. In the fifties, the Chinese carried out armed provocations against Taiwan, crushed the uprising in Tibet by force, attacked Burma in the sixties, forcing its authorities to sever relations with Chinese nationalists, and defeated India in the 1962 border conflict. In 1967, the Chinese re-tested India’s strength in the then independent protectorate of Sikkim, but the Indians, as they say, “resisted”, and the Chinese, realizing that there would be no easy victory, calmly “fixed the defeat on points” and retreated.
In 1969-1970, China attacked the USSR. Unfortunately, the real content of the conflict was hidden behind our national mythology. But it was Damansky who most clearly demonstrated the Chinese approach to war.
The analysis of this approach must begin with the result of the battles, and it is extremely unusual and looks like this: the USSR completely defeated the Chinese troops on the battlefield, but lost the clash itself. Interesting, huh?
Let us list what China received as a result.
1. China has shown that it is no longer a junior partner of the USSR, even nominally. Then the consequences of this were still not clear to anyone, but the future American strategy to pump China with money and technology in order to create a counterbalance to the USSR was born as a result of the Soviet-Chinese clashes in Damanskoye and later near Lake Zhalanoshkol.
2. China has shown that it is not afraid of a war with nuclear powers. This seriously raised its political weight in the world, in fact, the formation of China as an independent military-political “center of power” in the world began just then.
3. China received a high-tech trophy weapon for study and copying – the T-62 tank. Especially important for the Chinese was the acquaintance with the smoothbore tank gun and all that it gives.
4. China de facto subsequently seized the disputed island. After the collapse of the USSR, this territory even de jure became Chinese.
Now let’s see what the USSR got.
1. The ability to defeat the Chinese on the battlefield has been proven. But in fact, no one doubted her. This was the only positive outcome of the battles for Damansky.
2. The USSR, shackled by the confrontation with NATO in Europe, actually received a second front. Now it was also necessary to prepare for a confrontation with China. The question of what it cost the Soviet economy and how it influenced the collapse of the USSR has not yet been sufficiently studied, but it was worth it and influenced – this is unambiguous. Moreover, the behavior of the Soviet military-political leadership in subsequent years bore certain signs of panic.
So, in all seriousness it was discussed how to stop the Chinese hordes when they go across the border. Barrage lines were created, including with the use of nuclear weapons, new divisions were deployed, and in such numbers that the road network of eastern Siberia and the Far East would never have allowed even half of these troops to maneuver. The Chinese threat even influenced the weapon systems being created, for example, the 30-mm six-barreled gun on the MiG-27 appeared precisely as a response to the Chinese tank threat.
All this cost in the end a lot of resources. The Chinese doctrine in relation to the USSR was defensive until the very end, the Chinese were not going to attack Vladivostok and cut the Trans-Siberian Railway. At least independently, without the help of third countries.
3. The USSR has shown that military operations against it are politically possible and in some cases permissible. If the Soviet Union had happened to arrange a serious punitive operation against the Chinese, this would not have happened, but the USSR did not arrange anything like that.
4. The disputed territory was eventually lost.
It is unpleasant to admit, but the USSR is the loser in that conflict, despite the fact that, we repeat, the Chinese troops were defeated. That this was no coincidence was shown by the next conflict – the Vietnam-China War of 1979.
The “first socialist” war
To our great regret, this war is also not understood in our country, in addition, it is seriously mythologized, despite the fact that its course is mostly unknown to the domestic man in the street. There is no point in retelling well-known facts in the case of this war, the course of the battles is described in open sources, but it is worth focusing on what is usually overlooked in Russia.
We often like to say that the Chinese troops were inferior to the Vietnamese in quality. This is absolutely true – the Vietnamese were much better in battle.
However, and for some reason we don’t remember about this, the Chinese plan of operation reduced the importance of the qualitative superiority of the Vietnamese to zero. The Chinese secured themselves an overwhelming numerical superiority, so great that Vietnam in its northern part could do nothing about it.
We have an opinion that the regular units of the VNA did not have time for this war, but this is not so, they were there, it is just that the Vietnamese command did not enter into battle everything that could be due to poor communications. Units of at least five regular divisions of the VNA took part in the battles, from the auxiliary ones, which were turned into a construction battalion a year earlier, to the fully combat-ready 345th and elite 3rd and 316th infantry divisions, which, although they showed themselves in battles as first-class formations, did with the Chinese numerical superiority, they could not do anything, could only inflict losses on the Chinese, but the Chinese were indifferent to the losses.
It is known that Deng Xiaoping, the “father” of this war, wanted to “punish” Vietnam for the invasion of Kampuchea (Cambodia) and cooperation with the USSR. But for some reason, the fact that the Chinese ultimately did it disappeared from the domestic consciousness – Vietnam received a very painful blow to the economy of the northern provinces, the Chinese there destroyed absolutely all infrastructure, in some areas they blew up all housing, drove all livestock, and even in some places, special teams fished out all the fish from the lakes. North Vietnam was literally plundered to the skin and then recovered for a long time.
Deng Xiaoping wanted to hit the “tentacles” (as he called it himself) of the USSR – and hit, the whole world saw that it was possible to attack the Soviet allies, and the USSR would endure it, limiting itself to military supplies. This was the beginning of the end for the USSR.
Were the Chinese troops defeated? Not.
The Chinese, due to their numerical superiority, won all the main battles. And they left after faced with a choice – to go further to the south of Vietnam, where troops from Cambodia were already massively transferred and where the units withdrawn from the Chinese attacks were concentrated, or to leave. If the Chinese had gone further, they would have engaged in a full-scale war with units of the VNA, and the further south they advanced, the more the front would narrow and the less important would be the Chinese superiority in numbers.
Vietnam could bring its aviation into battle, and China would have had nothing to answer, in those years, Chinese fighters generally did not even have air-to-air missiles, none at all. Fighting Vietnamese pilots in the sky would be a beating for the Chinese. In the rear, a partisan movement would inevitably begin, moreover, in fact, it has already begun. The war could take on a protracted nature, and in the future the USSR could nevertheless intervene in it. All this was not needed by Deng Xiaoping, who had not yet finished his struggle for power; as a result, the Chinese declared themselves victors and retreated, plundering everything they could reach. The retreat of the Chinese was their own decision, the result of calculating the risks. They were not forced out of Vietnam.
Let’s see what China got from this war.
1. A powerful “slap in the face” was given to the USSR, which did not fight for an ally. To tell the truth, in conditions when there are Vietnamese fighters on the spot, and at the airfields of the Far East Tu-95 and 3M tankers, the Chinese in Vietnam should have been bombed at least a little, at least for demonstrative purposes. That did not happen. The chill between Vietnam and the USSR after this war was inevitable, and it happened in the mid-eighties.
2. All the expansionist plans of the Vietnamese, who were trying on the role of a regional power, were buried. Convinced of the reality of the Chinese threat, Vietnam began to scale back its foreign operations in the 80s, and by the early 90s it had completely finished them. It must be said that later on the border and in the South China Sea, China constantly reminded Vietnam of its dissatisfaction with Vietnamese policy. The constant Chinese attacks ended only when Vietnam ended all attempts to establish regional dominance and the USSR collapsed. In 1988, the Chinese attacked Vietnam again, capturing a group of islands in the Spratly archipelago, just as in 1974 they seized the Paracel Islands, which belonged to South Vietnam. Now Hanoi is almost completely brought to submission,
3. China has again confirmed to the whole world that it is an independent player who is not afraid of absolutely anyone.
4. Deng Xiaoping significantly strengthened his power, which made it easier for him to start reforms.
5. The Chinese military-political leadership became convinced of the need for an early military reform.
Vietnam and the USSR as a result of this war did not get anything except the opportunity to beat the retreat of the Chinese from a propaganda point of view and declare Vietnam the winner.
Now let’s look at the specifics of how and at what point the Chinese use military force.
War vice versa
It is noteworthy that the Chinese in all cases try to avoid unnecessary escalation. With the exception of Korea, where China’s own security interests were at stake, all their wars were limited. Faced with the prospect of escalation, the Chinese retreated.
Furthermore. Again, with the exception of Korea, the Chinese have always used a force limited in numbers and weapons. Against the USSR on Damanskoye, initially, insignificant forces went into battle. And when they were thrown back, there was no use of additional military contingents from China. Before that, it was the same with India. In Vietnam, the Chinese advanced until a sharp increase in the scale of the conflict loomed ahead, and immediately retreated.
For China, there are no problems at all with simply “winding up the rods” and leaving with their heads held high, the Chinese do not persist and do not wage hopeless wars until they can no longer be waged. Neither the USSR in Afghanistan, nor earlier the United States in Vietnam could do this and lost a lot, not getting anything in the end; for the USSR, Afghan in general became one of the nails in the coffin. The Chinese don’t do that.
In addition, nowhere did China use the full range of its weapons. There were no Chinese tanks on Damanskoye, and Chinese aircraft were not used in Vietnam. This also minimizes escalation risks.
But in Korea, where it was not political gain that was at stake, but the security of China itself, everything was different – the Chinese fought for a long time, tough and with huge forces, eventually forcing the enemy (the United States) to abandon offensive plans.
Often, as is often the case with empires, military actions against neighbors are determined not only by foreign policy factors, but also by domestic policy. Thus, some American historians believe that provocations against the USSR were needed most of all to enhance the sense of internal cohesion of the Chinese population, and some domestic experts are inclined to believe that the reason for the attack on Vietnam in 1979 was mainly Deng Xiaoping’s desire to strengthen his power.
The most important thing in Chinese wars is that the political results that China achieves by military force, for the most part, do not depend on the outcome of the battles.
This is the absolutely cardinal difference between the Chinese approach to war and the European one.
Soviet troops drove the Chinese out of Damansky. But what has changed? China got everything it wanted anyway. Similarly, if the Vietnamese in 1979 had retained, for example, Lang Son, the capture of which was the main victory of the Chinese and the peak of their success, this would ultimately change almost nothing. All the political benefits that China received from the war, it would have received without taking this city by storm. And the USSR and Vietnam would have suffered the same political, economic and human losses as in reality.
The Chinese use military force to “educate” the governments they dislike with metered attacks and exactly until they incline them to the desired line of behavior. An example is again Vietnam, which has not been attacked since 1991. This is very different from the American approach, when unsympathetic countries fall under the pressure of sanctions and constant military pressure forever, and if it comes to war, the enemy is completely destroyed. Instead of “educational” strikes, the United States and Western countries inflict punitive ones, which cannot persuade the enemy to change the line of behavior, but cause him suffering for the previously made steps. We have seen an example of this sadistic approach in the form of American missile strikes on Syria.
And it is also very different from the Western approach that the Chinese always leave the enemy the opportunity to get out of the conflict without losing face. None of China’s adversaries have ever faced a choice between a complete loss of national pride and an end to the war on reasonable terms. Even the defeats of other countries by China were insignificant in the material dimension and did not force them to wage a war with the maximum effort.
The West, however, always strives for the complete destruction of the opponent.
It must be admitted that the Chinese way of waging war is much more humane than the Western one. To do this, you can simply compare how many Vietnamese died in battles with China, and how many in battles with the United States. These numbers speak for themselves.
Let’s draw conclusions.
First, China is committed to military action that is limited in scope and time.
Second, China is retreating at the risk of escalation.
Third, China is trying to leave the enemy a way out of the situation.
Fourthly, with the maximum degree of probability, the use of military force by China will be such that the political result desired by the Chinese will not depend on how successfully these troops can operate – China’s political goals will be achieved already at the start of hostilities, and at the same the moment the opponents of the Chinese will lose. It doesn’t matter how the troops will eventually show themselves on the battlefield, they may simply die, like under Soviet missile strikes in 1969, it will not matter. This is a fundamental difference between the Chinese approach to war and the European one.
Fifth, when the security of China is at stake, none of this works, and the Chinese are desperately fighting in large forces and fighting VERY GOOD. At least the only example of such a war involving the Chinese since World War II speaks to this.
Another important feature of China’s use of military force is that it is always applied in advance, without waiting for such an increase in conflict in relations with the “opponent” that cannot be resolved without a really big war.
Of course, things change over time. China is one step away from achieving not only numerical, but also technological superiority in the military sphere over all countries in the world except the United States.
China’s Armed Forces are changing rapidly
The growth of China’s military power is accompanied by ongoing attempts to foster initiative and independence in Chinese commanders of all levels, which are usually not characteristic of the Chinese. Judging by some indirect signs, the Chinese have achieved success on this path too. The growth of China’s military capabilities in the future may partly change the country’s approach to the use of force, but it is unlikely that the old methods will be completely abandoned, because they are based on the Chinese traditions laid down even before Sun Tzu and the mentality, which are changing very slowly.
This means that we have some opportunities to predict Chinese actions in the future. Chances are, the Chinese wars of this century will have a lot in common with their past.
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