Communist China Readies New Tactic: ‘Non-War Military Actions’

Beijing is, among other things, testing America and the West.

AP/Danial Hakim
China's defense minister, General Wei Fenghe, during the 19th International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la Dialogue, June 12, 2022. AP/Danial Hakim

“There was never an open declaration of war between China and Japan,” Ralph Townsend wrote in his “Asia Answers,” of 1936. “That part of the world makes a specialty of undeclared wars.” Little appears to have changed since Townsend’s time, for Beijing yesterday issued an order that outlines permissible “non-war military actions” that will govern the People’s Liberation Army. The order takes effect tomorrow. 

The order, which comprises six chapters and 59 articles, is intentionally vague. It references such measures as “responding to and dealing with emergencies,” “safeguarding national sovereignty,” and “maintaining world peace and regional stability.” Short of a declaration of war, it ostensibly expands Communist China’s military mandate while leaving much room for its interpretation — perhaps too much for comfort. 

Consider the implications. In the name of “responding to emergencies,” say, might Chinese warships one day lend additional muscle to World Health Organization mandates? Or might biomedical weapons be deployed to maintain “world peace?” Could Beijing’s advance on Free China be justified as a “non-war military operation?”

Chinese military officials, in meetings with their American counterparts, have in recent months maintained that the Taiwan Strait is not international waters. At the Shangri-La security conference in Singapore last week, China’s defense minister, General Wei, warned that Beijing would “smash to smithereens” any Taiwan independence efforts. 

The term “international waters” is not well-defined in international law, and Beijing is seeking to exploit the ambiguity. Until the negotiation in 1982 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea — which China has ratified but America has not — “international waters” referred to waters beyond territorial waters — that is, beyond 12 nautical miles from the shore. This is how Washington continues to interpret the term. 

Yet the convention introduced another zone, the exclusive economic zone, that stretches another 200 nautical miles, after which are the high seas. Beijing equates “international waters” with the high seas. Everything prior it regards as its sovereign territory. 

Could it then not be conceivable that Beijing would conduct a freshly minted “non-war military action” in the Taiwan Strait and against Taiwan, justifying its effort — should it choose to do so — on its interpretation of the relevant legalese? Could it also not be that the West’s eventual efforts to aid Taiwan could then be framed as provocations, as Beijing could claim its action was not an act of war but a “non-war” activity?

Through Beijing’s steady stream of pronouncements and rhetorical maneuvers — some, like the most recent, which end up codified as government-issued orders — China is advancing its war aims without saying the word. This is true with respect to Free China as well as further afield. It is also testing America and the West. Neither should let it slip away.  

The New York Sun

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