Find a Security Clearance Job!


Military Power of the People's Republic of China

Chapter Three
China's Military Strategy and Doctrine

". . . resolutely and effectively carry out the sacred duty of defending national sovereignty, unification, territorial integrity, and security . . ."
- Hu Jintao


Chinese military theorists have developed a framework for doctrine-driven reform to build a force capable of fighting and winning "local wars under conditions of informatization." This concept emphasizes the role of modern information technology as a force-multiplier enabling the PLA to conduct military operations with precision at greater distances from China's borders. Drawing upon lessons learned from foreign conflicts, particularly U.S.-led campaigns up to and including Operation ENDURING FREEDOM and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, Soviet and Russian military theory, and the PLA's own, albeit limited, combat history, Chinese military planners are pursuing transformation across the whole of China's armed forces.

The pace and scale of these reforms is impressive; however, the PLA remains untested in modern warfare. This lack of operational experience complicates outside assessment of the PLA's progress in meeting the aspirations of its doctrine. The same applies to internal assessment and decision-making among China's senior civilian leaders who, for the most part, lack direct military experience, giving rise to a greater potential for miscalculations in crises. Such miscalculations would be equally catastrophic whether based on advice from operationally inexperienced commanders or from "scientific" combat models divorced from the realities of the modern battlefield.

Military Strategic Guidelines

China does not publish an equivalent to the U.S. National Military Strategy. Outside observers therefore have few direct insights into the leadership's thinking about the use of force or into the contingencies that shape the PLA's force structure or doctrine. Analysis of authoritative speeches and documents suggests China relies on a body of overall principles and guidance known as "Military Strategic Guidelines" to plan and manage the development and use of the armed forces.

The PLA has not made the contents of the "guidelines" available for outside scrutiny. Scholarly research suggests that the current "guidelines" most likely date to 1993, reflecting the impact the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union had on PRC militarystrategic thinking, forming the basis for much of the PLA's transformation over the past decade. However, speeches, authoritative commentary, and new military training guidance suggest that some elements of the 1993 "guidelines" may have been revised recently. These revisions appear to reflect China's perceptions of its security environment and the character of modern war (i.e. "local wars under conditions of informatization"), progress in and lessons learned from China's military modernization, a shift from "building" forces for modern, information-age warfare to training to "win" such wars, as well as Hu Jintao's own ideological imprimatur.

The operational, or "active defense," component of the "guidelines," appears to remain intact. The "active defense" posits a defensive military strategy in which China does not initiate wars or fight wars of aggression, but engages in war only to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Beijing's definition of an attack against its sovereignty or territory is vague, however. The history of modern Chinese warfare is replete with cases in which China's leaders have claimed 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 the United States and Aid Korea. Similarly, authoritative texts refer to border conflicts against India (1962), the Soviet Union (1969), and Vietnam (1979) as "Self-Defense Counter Attacks." This logic suggests the potential for China to engage in military preemption, perhaps far from its borders, if the use of force protects or advances core interests, including territorial claims (e.g., Taiwan and unresolved border or maritime claims).

Is China Developing A Preemptive Strategy?

Over the past decade, as the PLA transformed from an infantry-dominated force with limited power projection ability into a more modern force with long-range precision strike assets, China acquired weapon systems and adopted operational concepts that enable military preemption (including surprise attack) along its periphery.

  • As of October 2006, the PLA 2nd Artillery Corps had roughly 900 short-range ballistic missiles in its inventory. Acquisition of Su-30 strike aircraft and the F-10 fighter aircraft - both of which are equipped with a variety of precision guided munitions - has improved China's offensive air power. The PLA is also building capabilities for information warfare, computer network operations, and electronic warfare, all of which could be used in preemptive attacks.
  • PLA authors describe preemption as necessary and logical when confronting a more powerful enemy. Chinese doctrinal materials stress that static defenses are insufficient to defend territory based on the speed and destructive power of modern forces. As a result, PLA operational concepts seek to prevent enemy forces from massing and to keep the enemy off balance by seizing the initiative with offensive strikes. According to PLA theorists, an effective defense includes destroying enemy capabilities on enemy territory before they can be employed.

China's acquisition of power projection assets, including long-distance military communication systems, airborne command, control, and communications aircraft, long-endurance submarines, unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), and additional precision-guided air-to-ground missiles indicate that the PLA is generating a greater capacity for military preemption. PLA training that focuses on "no-notice," longrange strike training or coordinated air/naval strikes against groups of enemy naval vessels could also indicate planning for preemptive military options in advance of regional crises.

Once hostilities have begun, according to the PLA text, Science of Campaigns (Zhanyixue) (2000), "the essence 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" (emphasis added).

In addition to developing the capacity to annihilate opposing forces, the PLA is exploring options for limited uses of force. Chinese campaign theory defines these options as "non-war" uses of force - an extension of political coercion and not fullscale acts of war. The 1995 and 1996 amphibious exercises and missile firings in the Taiwan Strait are examples of "non-war" uses of force. However, the concept also includes air and missile strikes, assassinations, and sabotage. Such writings highlight the potential for China to miscalculate, given the likelihood that the target of any such actions, if not the broader international community, would view them as acts of war.

A Comprehensive View of Warfare

Over the past two decades, Chinese civilian and military strategists have debated the nature of modern warfare. These debates draw on sources within the Chinese strategic tradition and its historical experiences to provide perspective on the "revolution in military affairs," "asymmetric warfare," and "informatized" war. Such debates highlight China's interest in non-kinetic means of warfare and the increased role of economic, financial, information, legal, and psychological instruments in Chinese war planning. Underscoring the PRC military's comprehensive, multi-dimensional view of warfare, the PLA Academy of Military Science text, the Science of Military Strategy (2000), notes that "war is not only a military struggle, but also a comprehensive contest on fronts of politics, economy, diplomacy, and law."

Recently, PRC military strategists have taken an increasing interest in international law as an instrument to deter adversaries prior to combat. In a Taiwan Strait context, China could deploy an information campaign to portray third-party intervention as illegitimate under international law. China is also attempting to shape international opinion in favor of a distorted interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea by moving scholarly opinion and national perspectives away from long-accepted norms of freedom of navigation and toward interpretations of increased sovereign authority over the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone, the airspace above it, and possibly outer space.

Asymmetric Warfare

Identifying and exploiting asymmetries is a fundamental aspect of Chinese strategic and military thinking, particularly as a means for a weaker force to defeat one that is stronger. Since the 1991 Persian Gulf War and Operation ALLIED FORCE, Chinese military strategists have emphasized using asymmetric approaches to exploit vulnerabilities of technologically superior opponents. A 1999 Liberation Army Daily editorial suggested this explicitly: "a strong enemy with absolute superiority is certainly not without weakness that can be exploited by a weaker side. .[O]ur military preparations need to be more directly aimed at finding tactics to exploit the weaknesses of a strong enemy." Elements of China's exploration of asymmetric warfare options can be seen in its heavy investment in ballistic and cruise missile systems, including advanced anti-ship cruise missiles; undersea warfare systems, including submarines and advanced naval mines; counterspace systems; computer network operations; and, special operations forces.

The Role of Secrecy and Deception in Chinese Military Strategy

The stress on seizing the initiative in conflicts and keeping the adversary off balance in Chinese military strategy gives rise to a strong emphasis on deception at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Chinese doctrinal materials define strategic deception as "[luring] the other side into developing misperceptions . . . and [establishing 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."

In addition to information operations and conventional camouflage, concealment, and deception, the PLA draws from China's historical experience and the traditional roles that stratagem and deception have played in Chinese statecraft. Recent decades have witnessed within the PLA a resurgence of the study of classic Chinese military figures Sun-tzu, Sun Pin, Wu Ch'i, and Shang Yang and their writings, all of which contain precepts on the use of deception.

The Chinese Communist Party's heavy reliance on secrecy acts in tandem with military deception to limit transparency in national security decisionmaking, military capabilities, and strategic intentions. However, over-confidence may result from military leaders enamored with the uncertain benefits of stratagem and deception. In addition, the same skills commanders use against adversaries can be used to cover up or slow the transmission of bad news internal to the PLA system, a chronic problem in the PRC. Secrecy and deception may therefore be a double-edged sword, confusing China's leaders as much as China's adversaries.

Join the mailing list

Unconventional Threat podcast - Threats Foreign and Domestic: 'In Episode One of Unconventional Threat, we identify and examine a range of threats, both foreign and domestic, that are endangering the integrity of our democracy'