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Military Power of the People's Republic of China

Chapter Three
China's Military Strategy and Doctrine

"You fight your way and I fight my way."
- Mao Zedong


Drawing on lessons learned from observing foreign conflicts (particularly U.S.-led campaigns), Soviet and Russian military theory, and the PLA's own, albeit limited, combat history, Chinese military theorists have developed a framework for a doctrine-driven reform that affects all parts of the Chinese armed forces.

PLA theory on fighting and winning "local wars under conditions of informationalization" emphasizes the role of technology, particularly information technology, as a force-multiplier enabling PLA forces to conduct relatively limited military operations with precision at greater distances from China's borders. However, in practice, the PLA remains untested. The lack of operational experience hampers outside assessments of the extent to which PLA reformers have produced a force capable of meeting the aspirations of its doctrine. The same applies to internal PLA assessments as well, giving rise to the potential for false confidence or other miscalculations in crises.

China does not publish a doctrinal statement equivalent to the U.S. National Military Strategy. Based on analysis of available documents, speeches, and writings, we can discern that China uses what it calls the "National Military Strategic Guidelines for the New Period" as its national military strategy.

Evidence suggests the "Guidelines" feature two primary components: an operational component - "active defense" - and an organizational component - "new-period army building." The specific contents of the "Guidelines" are unknown. Outside observers have few direct insights into the leadership's thinking about the use of force or into contingencies that shape the PLA's force structure or doctrine. The PLA's role as an organ of the CCP rather than the State is also a factor to consider, adding another element of uncertainty with respect to decisions to use force.

The "active defense" guideline posits a defensive military strategy and asserts that China does not initiate wars or fight wars of aggression, but engages in war only to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity. This, according to a PLA text entitled the Science of Campaigns (Zhanyixue) (2000), "determines that justice is on [China's] side." Beijing's definition of an attack against its territory, or what constitutes an initial attack, is too vague to clarify matters to outsiders, however. In cases where Chinese use of force involves core interests, such as sovereignty or territorial claims (including Taiwan), Beijing could claim military preemption as a strategically defensive act. For example, China refers to its intervention in the Korean War (1950-1953) as the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea. Similarly, border incursions and conflicts against India (1962), the Soviet Union (1969), and Vietnam (1979) are referred to in authoritative texts as "Self-Defense Counter Attacks." This logic could also add ambiguity to the dimension of China's policy of "no first use" of nuclear weapons.

Once hostilities have begun, evidence suggests the characteristics of "active defense" stress seizing the initiative and offensive operations. According to Zhanyixue:

The essence of this strategic guideline of active defense is to take the initiative and to annihilate the enemy . . . While strategically the guideline is active defense, in military campaigns . . . the emphasis is placed on taking the initiative in active offense. Only in this way can the strategic objective of active defense be realized.

Assessments of China's military modernization indicate that the PLA's capability for limited and relatively precise uses of force is growing, expanding the military options available to PRC leaders. Chinese operational-level military doctrine defines these options as "non-war" uses of force - an extension of political coercion and not an act of war. Examples of such "non-war" uses of force can be seen in the 1995 and 1996 amphibious exercises and missile firings in the Taiwan Strait. Chinese doctrinal materials suggest this concept of "nonwar" use of force goes beyond missile firings to include air and missile strikes, assassinations, and sabotage. Chinese planners run a risk, however, that the international community may view these actions, if applied, as acts of war.

Deception in Chinese Military Strategy

The writings of classical Chinese military figures Sun-tzu, Sun Pin, Wu Ch'i, and Shang Yang all contain precepts on the use of deception by successful leaders and generals. In recent decades there has been a resurgence in the study of ancient Chinese statecraft within the PLA. Whole departments of military academies teach moulüe, or strategic deception, derived from Chinese experience through the millennia. Authoritative contemporary doctrinal materials define the goals of strategic deception as "to lure the other side into developing misperceptions . . . and to [establish for oneself] a strategically advantageous position by producing various kinds of false phenomena in an organized and planned manner with the smallest cost in manpower and materials."

The regime's approach to state secrecy is another barrier to transparency in national security decision-making, military capabilities, and strategic intentions. While we see improvements in the quality of reporting in official Defense White Papers, in other areas China takes a selective approach to transparency restricted to secondary areas of military activity such as military exchanges, joint exercises, and confidence-building measures involving visits to previously secret facilities.

The Strategic Direction of PLA Modernization

The PLA is transforming from a mass infantry army designed to fight a protracted war of attrition within its territory to a modern, professional force, sized for and capable of fighting high-intensity, local wars of short duration against high-tech adversaries at, or beyond, China's borders. PLA theorists and planners believe future campaigns will be conducted simultaneously on land, at sea, in the air, in space, and within the electronic sphere. The PLA characterizes these conflicts as "local wars under conditions of informationalization."

Ground Forces. PLA ground forces focus on offensive combat employing deep battle concepts with support by joint forces. "Deep battle" envisions electronic and information warfare to paralyze the enemy followed by precision strikes throughout the depth of enemy formations to destroy key nodes and disrupt cohesion. Longrange precision strikes combine with airborne, air assault, and special operations to further disrupt enemy plans. "Deep battle" operations facilitate ground maneuver combat with armor and mechanized infantry providing the main offensive force. Characteristics of the "deep battle" concept include non-linear combat, continuous operations, and rapid transitions between offensive and defensive combat.

Naval Forces. The PLA Navy (PLAN) is focused on protecting state sovereignty and national integrity, and appears to be increasingly thinking about regional contingencies, including the protection of maritime resources and sea lines of communication. This concept is also discussed in geographic terms, such as the "first" or "second island chain" strategy, or by the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claimed by the PRC. China has an expansive view of its rights in the EEZ, treating the area as fully sovereign territory in a manner not consistent with international law. In addition to protecting China's littoral zone, naval modernization seeks to present a credible threat to Taiwan and to any third party that might intervene on Taiwan's behalf in a crisis.

Air Forces. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) focuses on enhancing its defensive capabilities while developing a robust, "out of area" offensive capability to provide effective support for joint operations. The PLAAF's goal is to develop a mobile, all-weather, day-night, low-altitude, overwater force that is capable and flexible enough to quickly perform multiple operational tasks and to project power beyond the "first island chain." Priorities include: weapon system acquisition and integration; integrated C4ISR; automated command and control; information operations; joint operations; increased quality, training, and retention of recruits; development of a knowledgeable NCO corps; greater mobility in operations; and improved logistics and maintenance support.

China's Evolving Special Operations Forces

Based on press accounts, China's current special operations forces (SOF) comprise "rapid reaction" forces in the army, air force, and navy as well as dedicated army, marine, army aviation, and airborne SOF units. SOF employ various small arms and explosives (e.g., light machine guns, assault rifl es, grenade launchers, anti-rocket launchers, fl amethrowers, underwater demolitions, UAVs and ultralights) to perform a variety of reconnaissance, direct action, and counter-terrorism missions.

Following observations of U.S. Special Forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the PLA began to place greater emphasis on expanding China's own SOF capability, particularly as a force multiplier in a Taiwan Strait scenario. PLA researchers continue to study SOF involved in U.S. and Coalition operations. In 2002, the PLA reportedly set up a dedicated unit to monitor U.S. Special Operations activities, including target acquisition and use of UAVs, in Afghanistan. The PLA also studied the role of special operations forces in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.

PLA SOF training emphasizes physical fitness in activities, such as martial arts and long-distance running, swimming, and the use of specialized equipment. Recent exercises reported in the PLA press featured reconnaissance and attack elements inserted into target areas at night using powered parachutes, helicopters, and assault boats.

Joint Operations. The PLA's ambition to conduct joint operations can be traced to lessons learned from U.S. and Coalition operations since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Although the PLA has devoted considerable effort to developing joint capabilities, it faces a persistent lack of inter-service cooperation and a lack of actual experience in joint operations. The PLA hopes eventually to fuse service-level capabilities with an integrated C4ISR network, a new command structure, and a joint logistics system. The 2004 inclusion of service commanders on the Central Military Commission is an example of how China is attempting to strengthen interservice cooperation.

Since 2000, the PLA has conducted some 16 multiservice exercises with "joint" characteristics and/ or "joint" command and control, improving PLA experience levels, and yielding some insights into its future direction. These insights will become clearer as more advanced weapons, sensors, and platforms enter the inventory and training begins to reflect true multi-service operations.

China has devoted considerable energy and effort to develop military strategy and doctrine to meet evolving conditions in the world. Yet analysis of Chinese writers' extensive study of coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests China continues to be surprised at the rapid pace of change in modern warfare. The lack of personal military experience within China's top leadership contributes to the problem. The April 2001 EP-3 incident was a concern for many reasons, including for what it seemed to imply about leadership miscalculations and the quality of communication between the military and civilian leaders.

Doctrinal Evolution - Local Wars Under the Conditions of Informationalization

Despite advances in technology, Mao Zedong's concept of "People's War" remains a dominant theme in Chinese military thinking on a par with Soviet "national military doctrine." For Chinese leaders, "People's War" serves as the underlying principle for, and provides a scientific assessment of, how wars must be fought. It envisions defense of the Chinese mainland against a more advanced adversary by capitalizing on China's inherent strengths (large population and depth of land-mass), employing civil-military integration and mobilization, and applying traditional warfighting skills of speed, surprise, deception, and stratagem. For Chinese military planners, the most likely type of future combat they will face - local wars on China's periphery - will be fought with the principles of "People's War" in mind.

In response to China's evolving security environment and threat perceptions, however, China's military planners understand that the types of wars they must prepare to fight have undergone a series of transformations. During the Maoist era, China focused on preparing to fight an "early war, a major war, and a nuclear war," prescribing "army building" based on mass, depth, and preparation for protracted wars.

In the post-Mao era, this focus shifted as PLA strategists began to conceive of future wars as being short, intense, and of limited geographic scope. External factors, such as U.S.-Soviet détente and U.S.-China cooperation, also diminished the perceived threat of China's involvement in a nuclear confl ict. A concept of "local war under modern conditions" emerged during the 1980s to guide "army building" through the major round of military-wide reforms launched in 1985, during which the PLA cut one million personnel, reduced the number of military regions from 11 to 7, and restructured the PLA's 36 army corps into combined-arms group armies. Ground forces received less emphasis in favor of navy and air force programs, responding to new requirements for greater speed, mobility, and multi-service operations.

Following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which brought home to China's leaders how the advance of technology threatened to leave them behind, PLA planners began preparing for "local wars under high tech conditions." This shift refl ected lessons learned from that confl ict with an emphasis on C4ISR, information warfare, precision strike, and advanced air defense and logistics. The 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis served as a catalyst to focus China's efforts and mobilize resources for military modernization and expansion. The crisis also provided China's military planners with a specific scenario to guide force planning - a war over Taiwan that featured U.S. military intervention. This view was reinforced by the 1999 NATO Operation ALLIED FORCE over Kosovo. In its December 2004 Defense White Paper, China replaced "local wars under high tech conditions" with "local wars under the conditions of informationalization." This new concept summarizes China's experiences and assessments of the implications of the revolution in military affairs - primarily the impact of information technology and knowledge-based warfare.

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