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How Americans Can Fight China’s Cold War Without Rules

A book by Air Force Gen. Robert Spalding, ‘War Without Rules,’ highlights how the CCP is willing to fight dirty to achieve global dominance.


Since Russia invaded Ukraine, many people have wondered if China will be motivated to invade Taiwan soon. Should that happen, will the United States and China fight a war over the future of Taiwan? In his new book War Without Rules: China’s Playbook for Global Domination, retired Air Force Brigadier Gen. Robert Spalding says the United States and China are already at war, and it is a war without rules. 

Spalding’s book doesn’t present any new thesis. Instead, it explains the idea presented by another book published more than two decades ago. That book was titled Unrestricted Warfare. It was written by two Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) colonels, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, published in 1999. 

In Unrestricted Warfare, the two colonels argue that China must learn not to rely on armed forces alone to achieve global dominance. Instead, future warfare is about “using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.”

The non-military means could include everything from corporate sabotage to manipulation of international laws. Here are a few examples:

  • Technological warfare (creating monopolies by setting standards independently)
  • Cultural warfare (leading cultural trends along in order to assimilate those with different views)
  • Drug warfare (obtaining sudden and huge illicit profits by spreading disaster in other countries)
  • Media warfare (manipulating what people see and hear in order to lead public opinion)
  • Psychological warfare (spreading rumors to intimidate the enemy and break his will)

In an interview, Qiao summarized the key thesis of Unrestricted Warfare this way: “the first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.” In such unrestricted warfare, anyone is a soldier, whether he wears a uniform or not, anywhere is a battlefield. 

Unrestricted Warfare caused quite a stir in China after it was published in 1999. At the time, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still followed its paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s advice, “Hide our strength and bide our time.” Deng wanted his comrades to keep a low profile and not disclose the party’s ambition of global dominance but to focus on gaining economic and military strength. 

Biding Their Time

Deng’s advice made sense because China in the ’90s was still in the early stage of economic growth, and it needed all the help it could get from the west, from investment capital to technical know-how. Chinese leaders didn’t want to reveal their true motives and alarm China’s strategic rivals, such as the United States. Therefore, it was shocking that the party leadership allowed the publication of a book discussing strategies for fighting unrestricted wars with the west so openly and with the bluntness and frankness that is out of the norm of the party’s communication style.

The U.S. government’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service translated Unrestricted Warfare from Mandarin into English. But according to Spalding, the book was “not an easy” read because its Chinese authors have done deep dive into military history and cultural theory. Many of the authors’ metaphors were either lost in translation or unfamiliar to native English speakers. Consequently, many policymakers and defense think tanks didn’t take it very seriously.

Spalding thought otherwise. He believes Unrestricted Warfare is “the main blueprint for China’s efforts to unseat America as the world’s economic, political, and ideological leader.” He argues “If you look closely at everything China has done since 1999 – at all aspects of its economic, military, diplomatic, and technological relations with the rest of the world – it’s like watching Unrestricted Warfare come to life.” He points to many examples of how the CCP has fought unrestricted warfare outside of battlefields, including:

  • The CCP seized on Covid as a weapon to be used to their benefit, not a humanitarian crisis to be solved.
  • The CCP viewed the climate change issue as a bargaining chip to win them economic concessions from global elites in return for reforms that they never intend to make.

Spalding decided to re-introduce insights from UW to Americans because he believes “our leaders have a moral obligation to understand what’s happening,” and “It’s time for every influential person in America – policy makers, diplomats, business executives, investors, journalists, scientists, academics, and more – to become part of the resistance to the Chinese Communist Party.”

In his book, War Without Rules, Spalding excerpts essential parts of Unrestricted Warfare and explains them in ways that “capture the writing style and ideas of the two literary colonels while paring down some long and sometimes confusing digression.” Such an approach makes it easier for native English speakers to grasp Unrestricted Warfare’s key insights fully.

Spalding is probably one of the most qualified people to interpret UW for non-Mandarin speakers because he is fluent in Mandarin, and has a long and distinguished career in the defense sector. Besides his military services, he is a former China strategist for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, and senior defense official and defense attaché to China. Under the Trump administration, he was credited as the chief architect of the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy, which introduced fresh thinking and a new approach to the Sino-U.S. relationship based on realism. 

Resistance to the CCP

I share Spalding’s concerns that too many Americans, from political leaders to business elites, misunderstand or ignore the CCP’s war without rules. He points out that “the Biden administration, despite some positive moves, is seriously underestimating the malevolence and power of the Chinese threat,” an assessment I couldn’t agree with more. 

Arguing that “the United States has never confronted anything quite like modern China,” and “we are already at war with China,” Spalding presented recommendations on what Americans should do to fight the CCP’s unrestricted warfare in his final chapter. Here his emphasis that the United States is only at war with the CCP, not the Chinese people, is laudable.

The book’s final chapter is where I disagreed with Spalding on some issues. For example, under “Education,” he suggests preventing Chinese students from using any Chinese apps like WeChat in the United States. Those apps “are indeed censored and curated by the CCP.” Still, it is unrealistic to prevent Chinese students from using them because most foreign apps are banned in China, and WeChat is the only means for many Chinese students to keep in touch with their families.

If the U.S. government is serious about minimizing the CCP’s influence through apps, I would recommend banning TikTok, the made-in-China app widely popular among American youth. There are enough reports of TikTok serving as a tool for the CCP’s censorship and surveillance. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, requested the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to investigate TikTok in October 2019. Banning TikTok rather than WeChat will do way more to protect America’s national security interests and safeguard millions of Americans’ privacy and freedom of expression. 

Despite a few disagreements such as this, I welcome Spalding’s timely book. It is a reminder that in an age of unrestricted warfare with the CCP, Americans can no longer rely on our military alone. We must “change our mindset about what constitutes war and how it’s fought.” We all have to become the resistance to the CCP’s war without rules, in order to protect our country and our way of life.