PLA Doctrine and Strategy: Mutual Apprehension in Sino-American Military Planning
Paul H.B. Godwin
This chapter explores the evolving doctrine and strategy of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) as it prepares for a potential military conflict with the United States. It argues that although the primary near-term concern of the PLA is the use of force to prevent the permanent separation of Taiwan from the People's Republic, the United States is perceived as China's most dangerous potential adversary for two reasons. First, Beijing assumes that the United States will be militarily involved in any conflict over Taiwan. Second, because the United States perceives China as the single state in Asia likely to challenge American preeminence in maritime East Asia, U.S. security strategy is designed to contain China. PLA planners, therefore, have to prepare for two contingencies: a military conflict with the United States over Taiwan, and a probable long-term confrontation in which both Washington and Beijing view each other with mutual apprehension.
In exploring PLA doctrine and strategy, the focus is on the military issues involved. This is not to suggest that political issues are not relevant. They are clearly important. Indeed, they are probably more important than the military viewpoints that this essay explores. Nonetheless, to obtain as clear an image as possible of PLA preferences, the political issues are put aside.
Finally, the essay does not attempt to encompass doctrine and strategy for the entire PLA. It focuses specifically on the doctrine, strategy, and concepts of operations PLA researchers are contemplating as they analyze the formidable challenges presented by the capabilities of U.S. forces and their operational doctrine.
Four core concepts are used in this chapter: military doctrine, strategy, operations, and operational doctrine. These terms encapsulate three different conceptual levels defining how military force is to be applied. Military doctrine consists of the fundamental principles by which those planning the application of military force guide their actions. These principles are developed from experience, analysis of past wars, and speculative analysis of future military conflicts. Strategy consists of the manner in which military force is applied to achieve the desired outcome of a potential or actual military conflict. Operations are the campaigns planned and conducted to achieve strategic objectives. Operational doctrine guides the employment of military forces in an operation. For the past two decades, Chinese military journals have focused primarily on operational doctrine.
The Context: Mutual Apprehension
Perception of China as a potential military threat to U.S. interests in East Asia emerged with the deterioration of Sino-American relations following the Tiananmen tragedy and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.1 Apprehensions in the United States were matched by China's response to the radically changed post-Cold War international environment. Beijing's security assessments concluded that the United States was bent on using its unchallenged post-Cold War political and military strength to contain and encircle China with rejuvenated military alliances.2 The Taiwan Strait crises of the mid-1990s confirmed apprehensions on both sides of the Pacific. Observers in the United States saw the PLA live-fire exercises and use of ballistic missiles as the centerpiece of coercive Beijing diplomacy as demonstrating China's dangerously increasing military capabilities.
The dispatch of two aircraft carrier battlegroups (CVBGs) to the Taiwan area was viewed in Beijing as more than demonstrating the American commitment to come to the island's defense. China saw this action as demonstrating U.S. covert commitment to an independent Republic of China. Despite the easing of Sino-American relations with the summits of 1997 and 1998, Beijing remained suspicious of U.S. intentions. Distrust of the United States was reinforced by the intent of the Bush administration to revise U.S. national military strategy and place greater emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region. Together with the new President's hard-line stance on Taiwan, the administration was viewed as hostile toward China.3 In the United States, the maturing Sino-Russian entente and Moscow's willingness to grant Beijing access to its most advanced conventional weapons systems was viewed with increasing suspicion.4 Hence, on both sides of the Pacific, Sino-American relations are viewed with considerable apprehension.
Not all U.S. observers are so fearful of China's rise. Although recognizing China's increasing military and economic strength and Beijing's hostile reaction stemming from its suspicion of U.S. strategic intentions, less apprehensive assessments tend to stress two aspects of Beijing's external policies. First, despite tensions with some of its neighbors, Beijing's primary goal is to maintain an international environment permitting China to sustain its economic development and modernization goals. Foreign policies significantly reducing the high levels of foreign investment and international commerce that China needs to sustain its economic growth and modernization are seen by Beijing as undermining China's primary long-term interests. Second, notwithstanding their modernization programs and acquisition of advanced weaponry from Russia, China's armed forces are far from acquiring the capabilities required to challenge U.S. regional preeminence.5 A potential military confrontation over Taiwan is viewed as a distinct possibility, but although demonstrating the clear intent to use military force to prevent the island achieving de jure independence, China seeks to avoid such a war if possible. Indeed, the publicity China grants the military exercises conducted adjacent to Taiwan, including the development of elite forces' joint and amphibious joint warfare capabilities, could well be designed in part to deter Taipei from taking steps that Beijing would likely view as the final move toward independence.
Most assessments agree that the pattern of mutual suspicion now characterizing the relationship between China and the United States contains the seeds of strategic competition. This does not imply that areas of Sino-American cooperation are unimportant but that the dominant dynamic is one of competition. In his discrete assessment of East Asia's power structure, Robert Ross introduced evaluations of importance to this competitive relationship.6 First, China is now a great power--not a rising power. Second, although the United States is a global superpower, it is not the regional hegemon in East Asia. East Asia has become bipolar; the United States and China share the regional balance of power. China dominates continental Asia, and the United States is preeminent in maritime East Asia. In large part, this pattern of bipolarity was created by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Not only did former Soviet military strength in East Asia disappear, but also Moscow's influence in Asian states was significantly diminished. Both consequences left an economically dynamic, politically active China with increasing military strength substantially more influential in continental Asia than had been the case before the Soviet demise. Sino-American security relations in East Asia are therefore those of a major continental power confronting the world's most powerful maritime power.
China's primary external interests are threefold:
With the critically important exception of Taiwan, and secondarily the Spratly Islands, the past decade has seen Beijing achieve its primary interests. China is now militarily more secure than at any time in the past 150 years. There is no state on its borders threatening the security of continental China. The overwhelming nuclear and conventional military threat the former Soviet Union presented to China in the 1970s and 1980s has been replaced by a quasi-alliance with the new Russia. Moreover, Moscow has again become the principal source of PLA advanced military technologies and weaponry. China's rapprochement with Russia is paralleled by Beijing's diplomatic ties with its neighbors. For the first time since the People's Republic was established in 1949, China's relations with its neighbors have been normalized, and trade and commerce with the region is flourishing. Border issues with India are being carefully managed as both Beijing and New Delhi seek to avoid again militarizing their longstanding border disputes.8
China's lengthy frontiers with Russia and the new Central Asian states are similarly the focus of intense diplomacy and confidence-building measures. Thus, Inner Asia, historically the principal source of external threats to China, is no longer a primary security concern. Certainly, ethnic unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang remains a source of localized instability, but China does not confront a major threat to its security from Inner Asia.
In a similar manner, and again with the critical exception of Taiwan, primary U.S. regional interests are presently secure. U.S. security interests depend upon its ability to sustain an unwavering political, economic, and military presence in the region but do not require the United States to compete with China in continental Asia. Even so, politically and economically, no other state wields the degree of influence exercised by the United States in East Asia. Militarily, alliances and cooperative states provide American maritime, air, and ground forces access to extensive and excellent basing facilities on Asia's periphery extending from the Republic of Korea in Northeast Asia south to Australia and into the Indian Ocean. Whereas there may be questions about U.S. ability to bring sufficient military strength to the region under specific scenarios, there is no regional power with the capability to challenge successfully American military preeminence on Asia's maritime rim.
The extent to which China and the United States will become strategic competitors therefore depends on the desired futures sought by their respective capitals. At the core of U.S. apprehensions are two concerns, and both assume that China's economic, technological, and military modernization programs will be sustained over the coming decades. First and more immediately, as China's military capabilities increase, Beijing will be more willing to risk a military confrontation with the United States over Taiwan. Second, some decades hence as its economic, technological, and military strength increases, China will use its continental dominance as the foundation for challenging U.S. preeminence on the Asian periphery.9 Furthermore, and as Ross observes, it is inevitable that the United States will focus more on China because it is the only regional power likely to challenge American preeminence.10
Chinese apprehension of U.S. strategic intentions stems back at least a decade. At its core, Beijing's suspicion is that American policy seeks not to engage (jie chu) but to contain (e zhi) China. Despite Washington's public commitment to a prosperous, unified People's Republic, America's strategic objective is to restrain China's emergence as a great power and uphold at least the de facto independence of Taiwan. Militarily, China's most recent defense white paper11 makes no effort to mask Beijing's apprehension over the menace presented by U.S. military power and purpose. The "new negative developments" Beijing ascribes to the Asia-Pacific region are attributed to the United States. Strengthening the U.S. military presence and alliances, revising the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines, planning the deployment of missile defenses, and selling advanced weaponry to Taiwan are all seen as directed at China. In the white paper's reference to the South China Sea disputes, the United States is clearly the most important of the "extra-regional countries" seen as interfering in the issue. Following Beijing's assertion that it is China's policy to resolve international disputes peacefully, the white paper states:
However, in view of the fact that hegemonism and power politics still exists [sic] and are further developing, and in particular, the basis for the country''s peaceful reunification is seriously imperiled, China will have to enhance its capability to defend its sovereignty and security by military means.12
It is important to note how vigorously and directly Beijing stated its apprehension over the purpose of U.S. policy and military strategy in the Asia-Pacific region.13 The 1998 white paper had limited its references to the United States to the code words "hegemonists" conducting "power politics." While retaining these oblique references, the 2000 white paper deliberately referred to the United States, indicating increasing apprehension over U.S. policy and strategy.
Mutual apprehension has created a condition in which both China and the United States view each other's military deployments, and the strategy behind them, as at least potentially threatening to their security interests. It is also probable that the degree of apprehension will vary within each country's security community, with the defense establishments of both having the harshest perception of the other's intentions and capabilities. Therefore, the context of Chinese military doctrine and strategy is no doubt developed around the most dangerous potential threat. Lesser threats to China's security will not be ignored, but the focus and priority will be on the most dangerous probable military threat. For the past decade, this threat has stemmed from the United States and the maritime approaches to China. Military concerns over China's Inner Asian periphery have not been eliminated, but they are currently and will be for the next decade far less a security concern than the potential threat presented by the United States.
Because the U.S. Armed Forces are the most technologically advanced, best equipped, and operationally competent in the world, preparing for a near-term clash with the United States over Taiwan and possibly even a long-term regional confrontation has placed China at a severe disadvantage. Furthermore, defending China's maritime approaches presents the PLA with a realm of warfare in which it has only extremely limited experience. PLA strength and experience is in land warfare. Even today, ground forces dominate the PLA, with the air and naval services functioning as their junior partners. The PLA is therefore confronting the United States in a theater of operations in which its weakest services have the heaviest operational responsibilities.
The Roots of Doctrine
To understand current and probable future PLA doctrine, it is necessary to look briefly at its roots in Mao Zedong's essays on military strategy and preparations prepared in the 1930s. These essays define the doctrine, strategy, and concepts of operations that the PLA and its predecessors were to apply when fighting Kuomintang (KMT) forces and the occupying army of Japan.14 Mao's doctrinal principles were specifically developed to respond to the superior size, arms, and training of these adversaries. Because the military problem faced by Mao continues to confront China's military planners, these essays remain the touchstone of PLA thought. As such, the published writings of China's military theorists continue to use Mao's doctrinal precepts, even if applied in quite different types of operations.
Although a protracted war (chijiuzhan) of attrition was at the core of Mao's doctrine, at the operational level of war he stressed offensives conducted with speed and lethality to crush enemy combat effectiveness in the shortest possible time. Mao named this combination of protracted war joined with offensive operations "active defense" (jijifangyu). He feared that without the doctrinal tenet and operational principles of active defense, his forces could become bogged down in "passive defense" (xiaoji fangyu). Active defense forms the core of Chinese military thought today as the PLA assesses the doctrinal requirements for current and future warfare.
Active defense places utmost emphasis on gaining and retaining the battlefield initiative. Mao held that commanders holding the initiative would have the greatest flexibility in employing their forces. As he stated this principle, "flexibility is the concrete expression of the initiative in military operations."15 A commander with the initiative will have freedom of action, which delivers him from passivity in the face of the enemy. Mao viewed deception as a useful tool in gaining the operational initiative. Deception creates "misconceptions" in the enemy commander's mind, leading to incorrect judgments and battlefield errors. By exploiting these mistakes, Mao's commanders could take the initiative away from the adversary.16
At the operational level of war, Mao's doctrine requires quick-decision engagements to annihilate enemy units. To ensure victory in battles of annihilation, superior forces were to be brought to bear on the enemy at the point of engagement. Moreover, because the opening engagements had a critical if not determining effect on the course of an offensive, Mao emphasized that "the first battle must be won."17 The PLA has sought to apply Mao's operational doctrine in all the military conflicts China has fought since 1949.
China's Evolving Threat Environment
Revisions to PLA doctrine and strategy required by Beijing's response to China's changing threat environment have been significant. The principal organs of the PLA and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) state that there have been two "strategic shifts" or "historic leaps" in Central Military Commission (CMC) guidance on national defense and war preparations.18 First was the mid-1985 CMC decision that the defense of China no longer required preparation for a major, possibly nuclear, war with the Soviet Union. Because no major wars were anticipated, the PLA was directed to prepare for local, limited wars on China's periphery--essentially contingency planning.19 In 1991, as the PLA was undergoing extensive reform and reorganization in response to its new guidance, the Persian Gulf War erupted. In many ways, the Gulf War was precisely the kind of military conflict PLA analysts had been assessing since the 1985 change in its strategic guidance. It was a short, high-intensity war fought for limited political objectives within a confined theater of operations. Chinese military researchers not only saw their earlier speculative analyses confirmed but were also stunned by the demonstrated effectiveness of high-technology warfare conducted by highly trained forces carrying out joint operations.
PLA deficiencies in arms and operational skills had been recognized for a decade, but the Gulf War demonstrated how far behind U.S. capabilities China's armed forces actually were despite 12 years of reform. These assessments led to an early 1993 enlarged meeting of the CMC where Jiang Zemin as chairman directed the PLA to henceforth prepare for "local war under high-tech conditions." This guidance was formalized in January 1999, when Jiang ordered a new "operational ordinance" issued to establish "strategy and principle for the new period" intended to unify the operational doctrine of the PLA and to establish "an operational theoretical system fitting local wars under high-tech conditions."20 Jiang's authoritative guidance came just a few months before the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), led by the United States, conducted Operation Allied Force against Serbia. The intense use of precision guided munitions (PGMs) in that campaign heightened China's awareness of the deficiencies in its defenses and focused the PLA on the requirement to provide an adequate defense of its military facilities and critical civil infrastructure should China go to war with the United States.
Although a potential military conflict over Taiwan is Beijing's primary near-term focus, the demands on the PLA have to be placed within a broader context. First, although defense of its maritime territories and claims is now the most salient near-term concern of the PLA, China remains a continental power and cannot neglect its extensive land borders. These borders extend some 13,729 miles and embrace 14 countries. Historically, the principal threats to China have originated in Inner Asia. No matter how well Beijing has managed its border disputes over the past decade, it cannot ignore the possibility that these disputes will again flare up. Nor can China assume that Russia will forever be so economically, politically, and militarily weak that Moscow will continue to view Beijing as a useful foil to counterbalance American influence in Asia. The history of Sino-Russian and Sino-Soviet relations will certainly argue against any such confidence. Similarly, relations with a nuclear-armed India could enter a period of extreme tension in which unresolved border disputes could again be the source of military conflict.
Second, Chinese assessments of U.S. security strategy and intentions over the past decade suggest that Beijing does not view Sino-American tensions as limited to the Taiwan issue. Rather, the dispute over Taiwan is symptomatic of a broader American strategy to contain China and undermine CCP authority and control of Chinese polity. Beijing recognizes U.S. fears that the growth of China's economic and military power will result in a challenge to American regional hegemony and that U.S. security policy is designed to sustain this preeminence against any challenger. These apprehensions over U.S. strategy were heightened by the new Bush administration's hard-line position on China. Beijing perceives the new administration's national military strategy as making two principal and threatening changes from the past. First, it sees the focus of U.S. military power shifting from Europe to Asia. Second, U.S. military planning is changing from preparing for two major regional contingencies to preparing for a large-scale regional war in East Asia, together with one extra-regional minor military operation. This major war would be with China.
These assessments see the emerging U.S. military strategy as offensive and the American perception of China as its single most important potential adversary lasting for some considerable time.21 That the threatening posture toward China adopted by the United States is not a transient, short-term strategy is reinforced by the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) Report. Even if not by name, the QDR has clearly identified China as the most dangerous potential adversary of the United States in East Asia.22 China's defense modernization and revisions of PLA doctrine and strategy have therefore to incorporate Beijing's expectation that China faces a long-term strategic confrontation with America.23
Responding to the U.S. Military Threat
PLA analysts have spent the last decade assessing the doctrine, strategy, and operations of the U.S. Armed Forces. They have conducted methodical assessments of American operations in the Gulf War and against Serbia in 1999, and they are certainly beginning their initial assessments of U.S. operations against Afghanistan. These evaluations have been accompanied by equally detailed assessments of American military strategy and objectives in the extensive U.S. Pacific Command area of responsibility. Furthermore, China's military researchers have conducted extensive analyses of U.S. approaches to future warfare and the implications of the revolution in military affairs for the conduct of these wars. From these extensive and detailed assessments, PLA researchers have developed what they believe to be a thorough understanding of how the United States will conduct military operations should war break out over Taiwan. They also believe they understand how U.S. strategy in East Asia will be implemented over the coming decade. In particular, the United States is strengthening its regional alliances and increasing its ability both to respond quickly to any military contingencies and to conduct sustained operations from regional bases. They are taking careful note of the American buildup in Guam and see the new large docking facility at Singapore's Changi naval base as providing a "bridgehead" for U.S. naval operations in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.24 It is no exaggeration to suggest that PLA analysts perceive the United States as reinforcing an encircling set of alliances and military arrangements extending from Japan and South Korea in Northeast Asia through Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean, where the American rapprochement with India is viewed with deep suspicion.25
PLA analysts interpret the primary U.S. military threat as the ability to project and sustain high-intensity warfare on China's periphery and deep into its interior. Whereas operating out of its home bases does grant the PLA the advantage of proximity in a potential conflict with the United States, reliance on overseas bases buttresses the heart of U.S. doctrine, which places critical importance on significantly degrading if not crushing the adversary's defenses in the opening phase of a campaign. These analysts therefore fully expect PLA command and control networks, air defenses, air, missile, and naval bases to come under intense attack in the opening hours of a war. The PLA is thus confronted with two distinct problems. U.S. operational doctrine demonstrated in the Gulf War and in the campaigns against Serbia and currently against Afghanistan requires an effective homeland defense. Such a defense, however, can become passive. The problem for PLA planners is to join homeland defense with an active defense that quickly and effectively degrades the U.S. capability to sustain offensive operations.
Preparing to confront the United States required China's military planners to meet head on the deficiencies inherited from the final two decades of Mao Zedong's rule. When he died in 1976, Mao left a defense establishment in chaos. His domestic campaigns had so deeply involved the PLA in China's internecine politics that it had not undergone systematic training for a decade or more. The defense industrial base and its research and development infrastructure had been similarly degraded by Mao's foreign and domestic policies. The Soviet Union had severed all support programs in 1959-1960. Mao's policies in the Great Leap Forward, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and the so-called Third-Line strategy transferring defense industries and research centers to inner China compounded the consequences of Moscow's withdrawal. In essence, the aftermath of these policies was a military industrial complex that had eroded into chaotic obsolescence. Deng Xiaoping recognized the defense establishment's extensive deficiencies in the mid-1970s, but correcting them was properly seen as a long-term undertaking. There was no short-term fix for the problems created by two decades of neglect and ruinous policies.
Both the PLA and the Chinese military industrial complex (CMIC) have been under continuous reform and reorganization since the early 1980s as Beijing has sought to overcome the burden of Mao's legacies. Whereas progress has been made in both the armed forces and the defense industries, with few exceptions both remain dependent on foreign sources of supply. The most important exceptions are in technologies related to nuclear weapons, cruise and ballistic missiles, space, and communications. In each of these areas, the CMIC has reached capabilities adequate for basic military applications without extensive application of imported technologies. China's missile forces and space and communications technologies, although far from the level of sophistication found in U.S. programs, are therefore advancing with less dependence on foreign sources of technology. Nonetheless, China remains reliant on foreign acquisitions for the extensive range of weaponry and technologies required to transform the conventional general-purpose forces of the PLA into a late 20th-century defense force and prepare for 21st-century requirements.
For the most part, Chinese air, ground, and naval forces remain equipped with arms based on 1950s and 1960s technologies. Even China's small strategic deterrent remains dependent on missile technologies of the 1960s, although the weapons currently being developed have advanced the Second Artillery Corps into the 1970s. In essence, for the near term, PLA planners have taken into account the reality that the bulk of their force structure is composed of legacy forces. With their obsolescent arms and equipment, these forces cannot conduct the kinds of military operations China's military analysts observed in the Gulf War and over Serbia. Those few units equipped with the most advanced weapons and supporting systems available to the PLA can be defined as contingency forces. These units would have the most intense training, with their experience used as the basis for upgrading legacy forces as modern arms and equipment become available. Even contingency forces, however, would have great difficulty successfully conducting sustained operations against an adversary as powerful and competent as the U.S. Armed Forces. Against lesser potential adversaries, such as those that might appear on China's Inner Asian frontiers, the degree of modernization currently achieved and under way provides sufficient capability for any border conflicts that could occur.
In the long term, a period measured in five decades and more, the PLA seeks a multidimensional force structure capable of conducting military operations across a realm incorporating land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. There is no sense, however, that China seeks the global reach seen in U.S. military capabilities. Rather, Beijing's objective is to attain sufficient regional capabilities such that no country, but specifically the United States, can threaten China with impunity. The PLA dilemma is how to respond to the potential U.S. threat over the next decade. What can be observed in China's military journals are systematic analyses of ways in which the PLA can compensate for its multiple deficiencies. It is this near-term problem that creates the most difficulties for PLA doctrine, strategy, and operations.
Doctrine and Strategy
Fully understanding that many years will pass before China's armed forces have the capability to conduct war effectively over the entire spectrum of conventional and nuclear military operations, PLA analysts have returned to their core doctrine. Nonetheless, defeating adversaries superior in the instruments of war is recognized as now much more difficult than it once was. In large part, this is because PLA planning is focused on short, high-intensity wars fought for limited political objectives within confined theaters of operations. In these types of conflicts, as the Gulf War convinced the PLA, forces equipped with advanced weaponry exploited by well-trained troops using appropriate joint operations have a potentially overwhelming advantage. While recognizing there are too few cases to draw a firm conclusion, a PLA analyst has observed, "There never has been an actual case of the weak defeating the strong or the inferior defeating the superior" in a high-intensity local war.26 Despite these recognized deficiencies, PLA planners have to prepare for a confrontation with the United States embracing doctrine and strategy extending from strategic deterrence to conventional warfare.
Any near-term military conflict with the United States, and certainly the anticipated long-term confrontation, will take place under the shadow of nuclear weapons. As with the conventional general-purpose forces, doctrine and strategy for China's strategic deterrent face hazards from advanced military technologies. These hazards originate in the U.S. ballistic missile defense program. China's core strategic deterrence strategy has been based on the principle that even states with overwhelming nuclear power can be deterred from the threat or use of nuclear weapons when threatened with a punitive second strike. Such a strategy does not require nuclear parity. Rather, it requires that the state to be deterred believe that even after absorbing a first strike, China will retain the capability to inflict unacceptable damage in a second strike. Beijing did not see such a strategy requiring large numbers of warheads. Rather, the ability of some few strategic forces to survive a first strike was considered adequate. Since initial operational capability in 1981, China has deployed perhaps 20 DF-5 full-range (8,060 mile) intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Twenty DF-4 limited-range (2,945 mile) ICBMs have been deployed since 1980. Beijing's single nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) carries 12 JL-1 intermediate-range ballistic missiles with a range of 1,054 miles.27 Despite a successful subsurface test launch in 1988, it is unlikely the SSBN ever entered operational service.
Beginning with the 1983 Reagan administration strategic defense initiative, Beijing has seen its deterrent strategy threatened by ballistic missile defense (BMD) technologies.28 A national missile defense (NMD) system, even if designed to defeat only a small number of missiles launched by a rogue state or to defend against an accidental launch, would undercut the logic used by Beijing to limit its strategic force size. With NMD on the operational horizon, already existing pressures from China's strategists to change nuclear doctrine and strategy are granted greater influence within Beijing's security community.29
Apprehension that the credibility of its nuclear deterrent will be eroded presents Beijing with a number of choices. The most obvious choice is to increase the number of missiles in an effort to overwhelm thin national ballistic missile defenses. A second choice would be to develop and deploy multiple warheads to place penetration aids in the bus, thus diminishing BMD capabilities. A third and more difficult choice would be to change the strategy and operational doctrine for the use of nuclear forces.
Changing strategic doctrine from its relatively primitive punitive second strike "minimal deterrence" core will be the most problematic because moving beyond such strategy makes greater demands of China's research and development and defense industrial capabilities. Doctrine and strategy changes must be accompanied by operational capabilities to be effective. In many ways, therefore, the dilemmas facing China's strategic doctrine are the same as those confronting the conventional general-purpose forces. The strategy change most often considered is toward limited nuclear deterrence (you xian he weishi).30 Such a strategy is designed to provide greater flexibility in the use of nuclear forces than a countervalue punitive second strike provides. Some analysts perceive minimum deterrence as being too sensitive to a disarming first strike. Limited deterrence is viewed as requiring the capability to deter strategic, theater, and conventional war.31 Operationally, this demands the capability to respond effectively to any level of attack and provides an intrawar deterrent by demonstrating the ability to prevent escalation by managing the response to match different kinds of nuclear attack.
The range of targets is also more extensive than the countervalue "city busting" punitive strikes at the core of minimum deterrence.32 Limited deterrence involves counterforce capabilities in addition to countervalue targets. Among those suggested by Chinese analysts are strategic missile bases, command and control centers, and communications hubs. Striking such targets while retaining sufficient forces to control possible escalation requires far more missiles than China currently deploys and far more sophisticated command and control and battle damage assessment capabilities than Beijing has at this time. In short, there is a significant gap between current capabilities and the operational demands of a limited deterrence strategy.
Force modernization under way since the early 1980s33 will redress some of these deficiencies. Mobile, solid-fueled missiles, similar to the road- and rail-mobile DF-31 ICBM, have a much quicker response time and greater survivability than the liquid-fueled silo-based DF-5 that they will replace. The new weapons, however, do not redress a set of other requirements if Beijing were to shift to a strategy of limited deterrence, even if they are produced in much greater numbers than the current force.34 First is the requirement to strike hardened targets, such as missile silos. With a circle error probable in the range of 1,000 meters, current accuracy of the DF-4/5 is insufficient for hardened targets. The DF-31 will have to demonstrate much greater accuracy. Second, there must be some kind of space-based early warning and reconnaissance system to warn of a coming attack and provide close to real-time assessment of targets. There is no point in shooting at empty silos. Third, to be effective at each rung of the escalation ladder, Beijing will need a significantly larger force structure of ICBMs. Fourth, in a BMD world, China would need some kind of missile defenses to ensure its own weapons survive. Currently, China has no such capabilities and is therefore not equipped to implement a revised nuclear strategy.
With the extensive constraints that it has to face, Beijing will most probably decide to sustain its minimum deterrent posture by increasing the number of ICBMs. With the new series of mobile, solid-fueled weapons that are almost certainly more accurate than the DF-5s they will replace, Beijing can be reasonably confident that its strategic deterrent will be survivable and thereby retain its credibility. It is also plausible that because these ground-based weapons are survivable, the cost of developing and deploying a new series of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines will limit the program to one or two in order to confirm operational effectiveness.
The Problem of Duplicate Operational Principles
With the exception of its doctrine for strategic deterrence, the PLA core doctrinal tenet for defeating militarily superior adversaries is to gain battlespace initiative through offensive and possibly preemptive operations. Winning the first battle of a campaign, however, is as central to American military doctrine as it is to that of the PLA. In any military conflict with the United States, therefore, the opposing forces will likely be attempting to apply identical operational principles.
Although PLA analysts had identified U.S. offensive doctrine as central to American operations in their assessments of the Gulf War, defense of China's homeland did not become a central issue for the PLA until late 1999, following the NATO air campaign against Serbia, in part because of Chinese estimates that the percentage of PGMs used against Serbia was so much greater than those used in the Gulf War. Liberation Army Daily states that only 8 percent of the weapons used in the Gulf War were PGMs, but 95 percent of those used against Serbia were precision munitions.35 The PLA, therefore, assumes that the United States will open any military conflict with China by initiating an extremely intensive attack employing long-range cruise missiles and other types of PGMs launched from ships and aircraft. This opening attack would be designed to damage Chinese air defenses severely, as well as air, missile, and naval bases. Moreover, these hard attack weapons will be joined with the soft attack of electronic and information warfare to disrupt PLA communications, intelligence, and air defense networks. From its assessments of the air campaign against Serbia, it is also assumed that transportation networks, fuel reserves, oil refineries, and other economic targets will be attacked.36 Chinese military analysts are clearly anticipating an opening phase of a war in which the United States seeks both to crush China's defenses and to cripple its ability to sustain offensive combat operations.
The incentive to preempt such a U.S. assault is high, but the PLA is also planning and developing tactics to defend against these attacks. These preparations have been given the rubric "three attacks and three defenses," referring to attacks against stealth aircraft, cruise missiles, and helicopter gunships, as well as defense against precision attacks, electronic warfare, reconnaissance, and surveillance.37
Because China lacks a national integrated air defense system, antiaircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles are limited to point defense. This is not an effective defense when aircraft and missiles will be attacking targets from multiple directions. It also is unlikely that the People's Liberation Army Air Force will gain air superiority over U.S. airpower. Consequently, China is paying great attention to camouflaging installations, deception, dispersal, and hardening. Such passive defenses can limit the effectiveness of U.S. reconnaissance capabilities and the damage inflicted by weapons. Defense of military communications will depend in part upon redundancy. Command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence (C4I) modernization has been a longstanding PLA priority. In essence, China will use multiple transmission systems to build a national C4I infrastructure that is secure, mobile, and less susceptible to either hard or soft attack.38 Defense against computer network attack is a clear PLA concern, but it is difficult to determine what, if any, progress has been made in this realm of defense.
China's military press has numerous references to the application of People's War methods to homeland defense. In addition to the expected mobilization of militia, reserve, and People's Air Defense units, the Chongqing military garrison introduced the "militia network warfare fendui." This unit, reportedly the first of its kind in the PLA, was formed out of graduate students, professors, and other computer specialists to conduct network warfare.39 Additional People's War tactics suggested are the use of civil-defense installations to store military supplies and the use of local telecommunications, media and network systems, and civilian technological services to assist the military.40 Major General Yao Youzhi of the Academy of Military Science credited Serbia with using People's War methods to preserve its military strength when under attack. He also declared that Mao's doctrine would remain a "magic weapon for prevailing over enemy forces in the future."41
An unidentified Group Army deputy commander sounded a far less optimistic note in the Beijing Military Region newspaper.42 He charged that the training for the three attacks and three defenses was far too "idealistic." He criticized the training for underestimating the generation gap between the weapons employed by the attacking and defending forces, and that imagination was given precedence over reality. As examples, he cited the use of rifles to down Apache helicopters and artillery to attack Tomahawk cruise missiles. Misconceptions such as these, he declared, were not only wishful thinking but also using such misconceptions in training would produce bad results. He recognized that it is necessary to defeat the enemy using existing equipment, but to be effective, training must be realistic and "seek truth from facts."
Despite the much-publicized People's War methods used to implement the "three attacks and three defenses," these methods would be viewed as a passive defense and anathema to PLA doctrine. The ultimate homeland defense is to destroy enemy assets before they can directly threaten Chinese territory. In applying the tenets of active defense to a military conflict with the United States, PLA analysts have identified what they believe to be two critical American vulnerabilities. To conduct their high-tech offensive operations effectively, U.S. forces are critically dependent on information nodes for command, control, communications, and intelligence. These same forces are critically dependent on aircraft CVBGs and forward basing to sustain a high-intensity campaign.
Seriously degrading the communications nodes linking the systems acquiring, transmitting, and processing operational information is undertaken to erode if not disrupt U.S. hard attack capabilities. Attacking information nodes is therefore seen as a force multiplier because reducing the U.S. capacity to conduct offensive operations increases PLA offensive strength. It is also viewed as a form of "asymmetric warfare"43 performing the same operational function as the short battles of annihilation conducted in the 1930s and 1940s.44 This form of warfare, however, differs from Mao's tenets by replacing his principle of "accepting the first blow" (houfa zhiren) with gaining the initiative by striking first (xianfa zhiren).45
Both soft and hard weapons will be used to attack the U.S. information infrastructure. Soft attack employs jamming and other electronic warfare means and computer viruses.46 The preferred hard attack weapons are standoff PGMs using information technologies for accuracy. Such munitions can be air-, land-, or sea-launched and are directed to their target by a variety of means, including terminal guidance, satellite guidance, and other information-based technologies. Of critical importance, given their targets, is the ability of PGMs to be launched outside the adversary's defenses.
American space-based surveillance, target acquisition, and communications capabilities are the targets of China's evolving antisatellite capabilities. Laser radars can be used to track satellites, and electronic jammers can be used against global positioning system receivers. China might already have the capability to damage or degrade satellite optical sensors, and ground-based high-energy lasers hold the promise of weapons that can destroy satellites themselves.47
Attacking U.S. foreign-hosted forward bases and the U.S. Navy CVBGs forms the second leg of active defense. China's space and unmanned aerial vehicle programs can dramatically improve PLA situational awareness and its ability to strike bases, ships, and aircraft carriers before they can launch their missiles and aircraft (although submarine-launched cruise missiles present a more difficult problem). Ballistic and cruise missiles are again the weapons of choice for hard attack.48 There is, however, a disturbing facet of China's approach to limited war. Since the late 1980s, Beijing's military theorists have suggested that future high-intensity limited wars will be fought in the shadow of nuclear weapons. Should this view become accepted, China's extensive arsenal theater-range missiles grant Beijing some dangerous options.
Theater nuclear missiles include the 2,900-mile-range DF-4, the 1,800-mile-range DF-3A, and the 1,100-mile-range DF-21A. Short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) include the conventionally armed but nuclear-capable 370-mile-range DF-15/M-9 and the 186-mile-range DF-11/ M-11. With perhaps 20 DF-4s, 60 DF-3As, 50 DF-21As, 400 DF-15s, and 200 DF-11s, this diversity of missiles permits a choice of conventional and nuclear warheads to be employed in offensive operations.49 It is also plausible that a theater missile, such as the DF-21A, could be armed with a conventional warhead, allowing a theater-range capability that avoids crossing the nuclear threshold.
Whereas SRBMs are clearly offensive weapons and their concentrated deployment is directed at Taiwan, no doctrine for the employment of theater nuclear forces has been announced. Nonetheless, a strategy for their use can be inferred. As Bates Gill and James Mulvenon suggest,50 Beijing could adopt the former Soviet Union's strategic objective for the SS-20 by using the threat of a nuclear attack to decouple the United States from its East Asian allies. It is also possible that conventionally armed theater weapons could be employed for the same purpose. Active defense consequently takes on a different image when ballistic missiles are introduced. Decoupling the United States from its allies and their base facilities would vastly complicate American force capability to conduct sustained operations in the region.
China's theater and battlefield ballistic missile capabilities, however, are confronted with American theater missile defense (TMD) programs. TMD will almost certainly be deployed in Japan and quite possibly in defense of Taiwan. Beijing's simplest response would be to overwhelm missile defenses with increased numbers of both theater and short-range ballistic missiles. One also must assume that the accuracy of these weapons will be improved and warheads designed to increase the lethality of the missiles against a variety of targets. Using missiles to saturate TMD will reduce the number of available weapons for follow-on attacks, making the accuracy and lethality of those remaining important to ensure that their targets can be damaged.
Parallel with increasing the numbers and accuracy of its theater and tactical ballistic missiles, it is certain that China will improve the range and accuracy of its cruise missiles and introduce a long-range land attack cruise missile. TMD is relatively ineffective against cruise missiles, making them an almost automatic choice to supplement SRBM and theater-range weapons. Improved range and accuracy of cruise missiles will also add lethality to the PLA navy's ship-to-ship missiles and the air-to-ship cruise missiles of naval aviation.
Active defense against forces as capable as those of the United States is clearly a demanding task. Indeed, it is a measure of the difficulties PLA planners understand they face that the operational concepts they are developing are dependent upon advanced military technologies for their success. Success in information warfare, antisatellite attacks, and missile offensives all require cutting edge technologies. It is most definitely the conclusion of PLA analysts that it now takes advanced technology to defeat advanced technology. This is far distant from Mao's pride in what his forces could achieve with "millet and rifles" 65 years ago.
Retrospect and Prospect
PLA doctrine originating in the 1930s holds that when facing militarily superior adversaries, it is critical to seize and sustain battlespace initiative. In preparing for a potential military conflict with the United States, China's military research centers have assessed American doctrine and the military operations conducted in the Gulf War and against Serbia asking two critical questions. First, what will be the intent of U.S. military operations in the opening phase of a war? Second, what are American vulnerabilities as they conduct these operations? The intent of these questions is to develop the operational capabilities to blunt U.S. offensive operations and simultaneously attack U.S. vulnerabilities. Linking operational doctrine with the answers to their questions, Chinese military researchers have concluded that to seize battlespace initiative and blunt U.S. offensive operations, it is necessary strike first--to preempt.
Traditional PLA doctrine also contains the principle that an asymmetric strategy permits militarily inferior forces to defeat adversaries who are superior in arms and equipment. This longstanding doctrinal principle has been partially abandoned. Although the PLA trusts that its outdated weaponry will perform useful roles, advanced technology weapons and supporting systems will form the sharp point of the PLA spear. The information warfare, antisatellite operations, and missile attacks contemplated by Chinese military researchers rely on advanced technologies for their success.
Should the operational concepts and capabilities outlined by Chinese military authors come to fruition, then there is a clear danger of escalation. The high-technology approach to fighting a quick, decisive war suggests a contradiction between the doctrine and weapons used to conduct the war and the intent to keep such a war limited. How would the United States react if its forward-deployed forces and supporting space assets and base facilities came under a preemptive attack? What would the United States consider a "proportional response"? This uncertainty together with the complementary offensive doctrines of the U.S. and Chinese forces raises the distinct possibility of an escalation dynamic expanding the scope of the war beyond the intent of either adversary. The danger inherent in this dilemma is that the mutual apprehension guiding the military preparations of both China and the United States serves only to enhance the probability of escalation.
1See Thomas J. Christensen, "Posing Problems without Catching Up: China's Rise and Challenges for U.S. Security Policy," International Security 25, no. 4 (Spring 2001), for an assessment of this perception. [BACK]
2See, for example, Yan Xuetong, "Forecasting International Politics at the Beginning of the Next Century," Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, no. 6 (June 20, 1995), in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report--China (henceforth FBIS-China), September 20, 1995; and Wei Yang, "How Should We Understand and Face the World," Liaowang, no. 50 (December 11, 1995), in FBIS-China, December 18, 1995. [BACK]
4Among the many assessments of the threat that China presents to the United States are Nicholas Kristof, "The Rise of China," Foreign Affairs 72, no. 6 (November/December 1993), 59-74; and Richard Bernstein and Ross Munroe, "Coming Conflict With America," Foreign Affairs 76, no. 2 (March/April 1997), 18-31. [BACK]
5See, for example, Michael C. Gallagher, "China's Illusory Threat to the South China Sea," International Security 19, no. 1 (Summer 1994), 169-194; Andrew J. Nathan and Robert S. Ross, The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress: China's Search for Security (New York: Norton, 1997); and Avery Goldstein, "Great Expectations: Interpreting China's Arrival," International Security 22, no. 3 (Winter 1997-1998), 36-73. [BACK]
6Robert S. Ross, "The Geography of Peace: East Asia in the Twenty-first Century," International Security 23, no. 4 (Spring 1999), 81-118. Much of the author's discussion is taken from this chapter. [BACK]
8For a review of border developments, see Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu and Jing-dong Yuan, "Resolving the Sino-Indian Border Dispute: Building Confidence through Cooperative Monitoring," Asian Survey 41, no. 2 (March/April 2001), 351-376. [BACK]
14The two most complete essays outlining Mao's doctrinal principles are "Strategy in China's Revolutionary War" (December 1936) and "On Protracted War" (May 1938), both in Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-tung (henceforth Selected Military Writings) (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1972). [BACK]
18See Su Ruozhou, "A Great Military Reform--Roundup of Strategic Changes in Our Army Building," Jiefangjun Bao, December 18, 1998, in FBIS-China, January 20, 1999; Editorial, "Basic Guidelines for Our Army's Combat Drill in the New Period--Written on the Promulgation of Operational Ordinance of a New Generation," Jiefangjun Bao, January 25, 1999, in FBIS-China, February 1, 1999; and Xiao Yusheng and Chen Yu, "Historic Leaps in China's Military Scientific Study," Renmin Ribao, February 25, 1999, in FBIS-China, March 3, 1999. [BACK]
19For a detailed assessment of these changes, see Paul H.B. Godwin, "From Continent to Periphery: PLA Doctrine, Strategy and Capabilities Toward 2000," The China Quarterly, no. 146 (June 1996), 464-487. [BACK]
21Among the many assessments presenting this argument, see "Renmin Ribao Analysis: China's State Security Considered from Perspective of U.S. Strategic Trend," Renmin Ribao, May 17, 2001; and Wu Xinbo, "How Should We View U.S. Policy of Military Containment of China," Jiefang Ribao (Shanghai), January 16, 2000, in FBIS-China, June 19, 2001. [BACK]
23For a detailed assessment of Beijing's view of Sino-American relations, see Bonnie S. Glaser, "Trends in Chinese Assessments of the United States, 2000-2005," in East Asia and the United States: Current Status and Five-Year Outlook (Washington, DC: National Intelligence Council and the Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, CR 2000-02, September 2000), 21-35. [BACK]
25See, for example, "Weekly Talk" by Yang Li and Wang Ruolai, "The U.S. is Cooking Up an Asia 'Containment Net,'" Renmin Ribao (Guangzhou South China News Supplement), May 18, 2001, in FBIS-China, May 18, 2001. [BACK]
27"Natural Resources Defense Council Nuclear Notebook, Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2001," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 57, no. 5 (September/October), accessed at <http://www.thebulletin.org/issues/nukenotes/so01nukenote.html>. [BACK]
28For further analyses of China's response to SDI, see Bonnie S. Glaser and Banning N. Garrett, "Chinese Perspectives on the Strategic Defense Initiative," Problems of Communism 35, no. 2 (March/April 1986), 28-44; and John Garver, "China's Response to the Strategic Defense Initiative," Asian Survey 26, no. 11 (November 1986), 1220-1239. [BACK]
29See Iain I. Johnston, "China's New 'Old Thinking': The Concept of Limited Deterrence," International Security 20, no. 3 (Winter 1995/1996), 5-42, for a thorough analysis of the pressure to change China's nuclear strategy. [BACK]
31See, for example, Major General Wu Jianguo, "The Nuclear Shadow in High-Tech Warfare Cannot Be Ignored," Zhongguo Junshi Kexue, no. 4 (November 20, 1995), in FBIS-China, April 18, 1996, 37-41. [BACK]
33See John Wilson Lewis and Hua Di, "China's Ballistic Missile Programs: Technologies, Strategies and Goals," International Security 17, no. 2 (Fall 1992), 5-39, for an assessment of these programs. [BACK]
38For a detailed assessment of China's aerospace defense programs, see Mark A. Stokes, China's Strategic Modernization: Implications for the United States (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, September 1999), chapter 5. [BACK]
43See, for example, an article (no title) presented by Professor Liu Kejun at the September 15, 1997, Defense Modernization Symposium organized by the Chinese Electronics Society, Beijing Yuguangtong Science and Technology Development Center, and Zhongguo Dianzi Bao held at the General Staff Department Research Institute 61, Zhongguo Dianzi Bao, October 24, 1997, in FBIS-China, January 14, 1998. [BACK]
44Major General Zhang Bibo, People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), and Senior Colonel Zhang Song, PLAAF, "New Subjects of Study Brought about by Information Warfare--Summary of an Army Command Seminar on 'Confrontation of Command on Information Battlefield,'" Jiefangjun Bao, November 11, 1997, in FBIS-China, January 14, 1998. [BACK]
48See Shirley A. Kan, China: Ballistic and Cruise Missiles (Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, 97-391 F, updated August 10, 2000), for a valuable assessment of China's progress in these weapons. [BACK]
49See Bates Gill and James Mulvenon, "The Chinese Strategic Rocket Forces: Transition to a Credible Deterrent," in China and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Implications for the United States: Conference Report (Washington, DC: National Intelligence Council, November 5, 1999), 11-57, for a more detailed discussion of this topic. [BACK]
|Table of Contents I Chapter Seventeen
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