China’s ‘Liquid’ Warfighting Shift and Its Implications for Possible Future Conflict

Published date01 June 2024
AuthorRyan R. Swan,Max Mutschler
Date01 June 2024
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
China’s ‘Liquid’
Warfighting Shift and
Its Implications for
Possible Future Conflict
Ryan R. Swan1 and Max Mutschler1
Some suggest that remote, precision strike warfare is a Western phenomenon
motivated by aversion to high troop casualties among democratic leaders subject
to re-election. Others contend that it is the result of a global transition in the
way of modern war towards ‘liquid warfare’, centred around the disruption of
adversary networks in the increasingly integrated and high-tech battlespace. This
article advances the debate by applying the liquid warfare hypothesis to China’s
post-1993 military reforms. It finds (a) that China’s development and embrace
of its prevailing ‘systems destruction warfare’ concept constitutes a liquid shift
in its warfighting approach, dispelling the contention that such transformations
are necessarily linked with democratic political systems; and (b) that the liquidi-
fication of China’s warfighting approach has immediate implications for possible
regional conflict scenarios, particularly those involving the United States, making
them mutually costlier and susceptible to rapid escalation.
China, military strategy, United States, Taiwan, warfare
Intense nuclear arms racing in the 1950s culminated in the new reality of mutu-
ally assured destruction, creating credibility problems for strategic postures based
chiefly on nuclear deterrence (Powell, 1990). Accordingly, a shift in focus, primarily
led by the United States, to building out conventional capabilities took shape in the
1960s (Grant, 2016; Haffa, 1984; Mahnken, 2011). This precipitated a ‘revolution’
in precision-guidance conventional weaponry that would gain momentum through
1 Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies, Bonn, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
Corresponding author:
Ryan R. Swan, Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies, Pfarrer-Byns-Strasse 1, Bonn, North
Rhine-Westphalia 53121, Germany.
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
11(2) 169–189, 2024
© The Author(s) 2024
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970241250100
170 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 11(2)
the latter decades of the Cold War (Gillespie, 2009; Mahnken, 2011; Mearsheimer,
1979). By the start of the 1990s, the United States had cultivated a unique capacity
for precision-strike warfare on clear display in the First Gulf War, where US-guided
munitions decisively defeated numerically superior Iraqi forces (Davis, 1996;
Gunzinger & Clark, 2015) in a display of aerial dominance that Fravel (2015) later
described as constituting a ‘fundamental change in modern warfare’.
This change manifested itself in an increased reliance on remote precision strikes,
identified as creating a ‘physical and political distance’ between attacker and target
to minimise attacker’s need for ground troops in immediate battle zones (Biegon &
Watts, 2020). This brand of remote warfare, effectuated by novel technologies and
advanced precision strike weaponry, became a principal modus operandi for the
United States and its Western allies in the network of military interventions follow-
ing 11 September 2001 (Prinz & Schetter, 2016). A primary objective was the debil-
itation of critical nodes, such as key leaders and command and control centres, with
targeted strikes to render adversary forces ineffective without having to directly
engage and defeat them on the battlefield (Mutschler, 2016).
Western reliance on these practices led to the hypothesis that the explanation for
this observable shift lay in a ‘new Western way of war’ in which Western states
could significantly transfer the risk of warfighting from their own soldiers to adver-
sary combatants by avoiding their own boots on the ground and relying instead on
air power (Shaw, 2005). This was seen as particularly attractive to leaders in Western
democracies, subject to regular elections and thus particularly sensitive to casualties
of their own soldiers and high costs of war (Coker, 2009; Sauer & Schörnig, 2012;
Shaw, 2013, 2005). Furthermore, this view suggests that as Western citizenries have
become more averse to large-scale military operations in the aftermath of the unpop-
ular Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, lower-profile remote warfare tactics are
essential in ‘retooling’ the Western approach to force projection in key regions
around the world amid rising systemic competition with Russia, China and the
Global South (Biegon & Watts, 2020; Hippler, 2017; Neocleous, 2014).
However, as the recent literature on remote warfare illustrates, fighting from a
distance and reliance on proxies and precision strikes has not been restricted to
Western or democratic countries. In an analysis of the warfighting approach of
Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Mutschler and Bales (2024) show that the Saudis were
keen to avoid larger deployments of ground troops and, accordingly, relied chiefly
on air strikes in carrying out their military intervention in the Yemeni civil war
from 2015 onwards. In explaining this result, they draw on Bauman’s seminal
work on ‘liquid modernity’ and his recognition of the fast-evolving and variable
nature of the contemporary social and geopolitical landscape (Bauman, 2000).
According to Bauman, physical occupation of territory ‘with its cumbersome cor-
ollaries of order-building’ inherent in traditional conceptions of power and domi-
nance has ‘ceased to be the stake of the global power struggle…’ in the ubiquitous,
interconnected and globalised world (Bauman, 2001, p. 13).
Mutschler and Bales (2024) suggest that, from such a liquid modernity per-
spective, the reliance on precision strikes from a distance to destroy the most impor-
tant nodes of the enemy network without large-scale occupation of territory—
a warfighting approach they term ‘liquid warfare’—is not the result of the casualty

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