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Book Review - Unrestricted Warfare

28 August 2020
Book review
Cover of book Unrestricted Warfare with Book Review on left of image

Understanding the conceptual foundations of Chinese military thought is important for placing present Chinese actions into context and analysing what might come next. One of the most accessible and frequently cited primary sources translated to English is Unrestricted Warfare. Its influence and contents should therefore be of interest to many.

Unrestricted Warfare is a treatise authored by two PLA Senior Colonels in 1998. Once translated, it garnered considerable interest in the West. Mentions in English-language books peaked in 2009 as measured by Google’s Ngram Viewer but from 2016 it has experienced a revival as China’s aggressive statecraft has captured the world’s attention. The book reportedly led Steve Bannon to conclude China was engaged in economic warfare, influencing his approach to China as President Trump’s chief strategist. One of the authors recently appeared in English-language Chinese media to explain how Unrestricted Warfare might apply to the forceful unification of Taiwan.

Despite the book’s impact, western readers of Unrestricted Warfare should proceed with caution. The hyperbolic tagline of this edition, China’s Master Plan to Destroy America, and the introduction by Al Santoli accusing China of having a hand in the September 11 attacks are illustrative of the exaggerated reactions Unrestricted Warfare has too often generated. Such analysis tends to overestimate both the ongoing influence of Unrestricted Warfare within the Chinese establishment and the quality of the ideas it contains.

To the first point, China analyst Peter Mattis argues relying on Unrestricted Warfare gives a poor insight into China’s thinking on war. He instead recommends The Science of Military Strategy, a publication from the PLA Academy of Military Science. Recent versions of this document, however, are much harder to obtain in well-translated English. This probably goes some way to explaining why Unrestricted Warfare might have a bigger influence outside China than inside. In a bare pantry, it is one of the few sources of calories available to hungry western readers.

With that caveat aside, we turn to the ideas. The authors use part one to argue warfare is undergoing dramatic change. War is being fought on multiple battlefields that are no longer confined to military and physical domains. Boundaries between combatants and non-combatants are breaking down. This offers opportunity to those willing to exploit these changes.

According to the authors, the nature of war, as described by JFC Fuller, went fundamentally unchanged from the Napoleonic Wars onwards. Now, however, ‘the situation has changed, because of all that happened during and after the Gulf War.’[1] Accounting for possible translation issues I will assume the text means the character of war and not nature. Even so, the bar is extraordinarily high for any pundit to successfully argue the character of war was consistent for almost 200 years but then was overturned in the deserts of Iraq in 1991. Unrestricted Warfare stumbles in the attempt and the reader is left feeling the authors are merely rediscovering coercive statecraft in a form Bismarck would have well understood.

The Gulf War clearly had an extraordinary impact on the Chinese military establishment. The authors spend two chapters pulling apart US strategy, the war’s operational aspects and subsequent US analysis of their victory. In a churlish tone, they conclude Saddam foolishly gave the US precisely the war it wanted. They attribute much of the US success to fortuitous timing and the media, arguing success in future war demands avoiding Saddam’s errors by finding new means and methods. The options proffered include trade war, financial war, ‘new terror war’, ecological war, and new methods of warfare: psychological, smuggling, media, drug, network, technological, fabrication, resources, economic aid, international law.

In part two, the authors seek to articulate how these new methods might be applied to future warfare and then contemplate the rules and principles that will lead to victory. Broadly, they propose that using these new methods in almost infinitely variable combinations is the recipe for future success:

… battlefield and non-battlefield, warfare and non-warfare, military and non-military which is more specifically combining stealth aircraft and cruise missiles with network killers, combining nuclear deterrence, financial wars and terrorist attacks...[2]

The authors argue transcending existing boundaries can do for warfare what Machiavelli did for politics. This is insightful, but hardly revolutionary. In another section they simply discover Clausewitz when they assert the outcomes of war may now be decided by political, diplomatic or any manner of non-military factors. What is more interesting is the attempt in chapter six to lay down some rules of victory.

While they authors acknowledge there is no formula for guaranteed success, they nevertheless seek out rules of victory ‘hidden in the waves of military practice of mankind’. Here the book takes a turn for the bizarre, delving into numerology to detect the Golden Ratio in Mongol cavalry, Gustavus Adolphus’s combined arms formations, the timing of Napoleon’s withdrawal from Russia and the battle of Stalingrad, and Iraqi losses in the Gulf War.  Once the reader makes it past this spell of apophenia, the rules of victory become more sensible but rather less original. Two others are offered: the side-principal rule and the dominant element rule.

The side-principal rule is something akin to the concepts of critical capabilities and critical vulnerabilities in manoeuvre theory. The dominant element rule mirrors the idea of centre of gravity. The text then lays down eight principles of modern warfare, all of which are wholly unremarkable except for the potential insight into Chinese thinking found in the two dealing with matching means to objectives.

The principles assert objectives must be carefully selected, eschewing those ‘beyond one's abilities, even though they may be proper’. Once selected, however, wise leadership pursues those limited objectives with unlimited measures. Using the example of the Egyptians in their 1973 War, the authors contend that limiting one’s means because the objectives are limited leads to failure. Returning to the theme of transcending arbitrary boundaries, the authors declare ‘unlimited measures to accomplish limited objectives is the ultimate boundary’. This assertion, and the use of war and warfare interchangeably throughout the book, leaves readers pondering a most important question: does China understand the difference between warfare and war?

Warfare is the business of military action: projecting force, manoeuvring forces, applying violence and attaining military objectives against an adversary striving to resist. War is the application of force to achieve political objectives. History provides ample evidence it is possible to be very good at warfare, at least for a period, without being good at war. Napoleonic France, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan are all examples of this phenomenon.

Success in warfare but a failure to understand war courts catastrophe. Advocating unlimited means, whatever the objective, suggests the authors have not fully comprehended Clausewitz despite their discovery of the political nature of war. It demonstrates a chilling lack of appreciation for the utility of force, even if that force is coercion skirting the edges of military violence. On the other hand, it also points to vulnerabilities in China’s practice of aggressive statecraft. The danger of succeeding in warfare but failing in war is perhaps best summed up by the maxim: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Unrestricted Warfare may not represent the current strategic thinking of the Chinese establishment but it does provide an easily accessible text for western audiences offering some insight into Chinese world views. With an understanding of the text’s place in history and an appropriately sceptical eye for the ideas it espouses, readers can skim some cream from what is at times bland milk. Regardless of whether the nuances of Unrestricted Warfare are or ever were reflected in Chinese policy and strategy, readers are left with the strong impression China will do everything in its power to ensure it never gives a superpower adversary its preferred mode of warfare.


[1] Liang Qiao, Al Santoli, and Xiangsui Wang, Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America (Panama City, Panama: Pan American Publishing, 2002), 176.

[2] Qiao et al., 2002, 120.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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