This act of digital sabotage offered an intriguing glimpse of things to come. China is increasingly embracing such high-tech tactics as a way of destabilizing potential enemies, including the U.S. In the past three years, the People's Liberation Army has moved quickly to implement a new military strategy that relies heavily on this kind of technological know-how. In the future it even wants to add such high-tech gizmos as laser beams to zap U.S. satellites that monitor battlefields, bombs emitting electromagnetic pulses that blind missile guidance systems, and computer attacks that could put U.S. command networks on the fritz.
Many of China's gee-whiz weapons may prove to be nerd fantasies that never work. But the significance of these well-documented research programs lies in the thinking behind them. They reflect China's new approach to war, especially a possible conflict with the U.S. over Taiwan. In the past, China was set on building a force that could invade and occupy Taiwan and even win a local conflict with the U.S. However, realists within the Chinese military now accept that it might take two decades to catch up with the U.S., so China has adopted a more pragmatic approach. In the short term, it increasingly views military force as a political tool to drag Taiwan into negotiations on Beijing's terms and deter the U.S. from interfering. "The question the Chinese are asking now," says a Western military attaché in Beijing, "is can they achieve their goals before the Americans have a chance to intervene by using a rapid, limited action?"
China's more realistic strategy grew out of the 1991 Gulf War. Back then, its military doctrine, "People's War," hadn't changed since the Korean conflict, when it sought to drown U.S. forces in human waves of troops. China's top brass was stunned by the power of the U.S. air campaign and by cnn clips of smart bombs diving through ventilator shafts. In response, they shaved a million men off their army, and embarked on a modernization campaign. But they drew another lesson too: that Iraq had erred by not attacking U.S. forces as they arrived at the staging area in Saudi Arabia. It's a conclusion that lends itself to China's new strategy of striking against American forces before they're fully deployed.
Subsequent U.S. actions hardened this conclusion. They're laid out clearly in Asymmetrical Warfare Theory, a book published two years ago by three officers from the Nanjing Military Region which is tasked with attacking Taiwan, and bears a stamp reading "internal military distribution." The authors critique U.S. actions in Yugoslavia and Africa and draw disturbing lessons. For one thing, they write, the U.S. wouldn't have dared launch its long-distance strikes against Serbia if Belgrade had possessed "the ability to take the war into the enemy's territory"—as China can do with missiles that can hit U.S. bases in Japan. And in Somalia, where a warlord's ragtag militia killed 18 soldiers in 1993, "The American people immediately had a strong response, forcing the U.S. Army to withdraw," the authors observe.
The P.L.A.'s new doctrine came together in 1999, say military analysts. It still carries its old name, "Active Defense," but the stress has moved to the first word. Especially worrying to Washington is the movement "toward the goal of surprise, deception and shock effect in the opening phase of a campaign," according to a July Pentagon report. China's strategy is simple: take advantage of America's distance from China by attacking it early, possibly in Japan, raising the body count higher than Washington can accept and buying time to force Taiwan to negotiate. "Active Defense" is laid out in a new book, Zhanyi Xue, edited by senior P.L.A. officers and considered China's new doctrinal manual. It authorizes the Chinese military to fire its missiles first, not only if "separatists" split the country but also if "foreign powers use military means to interfere in China's domestic affairs"—or even when "our vital strategic targets, such as nuclear power stations, hydroelectric dams or major cities are seriously threatened by an enemy's high-tech weapons."
Of course, China might have over-learned its lessons, and underestimated America's resolve. The U.S. went to war with Iraq in 1991 even though the Pentagon predicted 10,000 American casualties. Whether the U.S. would defend Asia's most vibrant democracy against a nuclear-armed foe in the same way it defended its access to oil in the Gulf is debatable. However, asked about Taiwan, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz says the U.S. will "strongly oppose any attempt to settle that issue by force." As for Beijing, it genuinely doesn't want to fight over Taiwan. Failure to win might bring down the Communist Party, and success would leave China a pariah.
Meanwhile, the U.S. still boasts a clear military edge. China's newest weapons from Russia—a pair of Sovremenny-class destroyers with advanced Sunburn anti-ship missiles, and four Kilo-class submarines—could damage the U.S. fleet. But U.S. ships and their systems "were designed to deal with the much more capable Soviet Navy with scores of excellent subs," says Walter Slocombe, Under Secretary of Defense in the Clinton years.
Pentagon officials say China's more aggressive strategies haven't led to changes in U.S. military policy, but could in coming years. For now, the odds of a sudden Beijing lunge for Taiwan seem remote. Still, wars can arise from misperceptions, and the disconnect between Chinese and U.S. positions leaves ample room for misunderstanding. Qiao Liang, a P.L.A. colonel who is about to publish a book called Decisive Strike, is among those in China who wonder if America has the stomach for a showdown. "Is the U.S. prepared to spend all its national wealth defending Taiwan?" he asks. "Because China will be a thousand Afghanistans."