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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 . . ."
- President Hu Jintao


PLA 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 to enable the PLA to conduct military operations with precision at greater distances from China's borders. Drawing upon foreign military experiences, 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 combat history, China is transforming across the whole of its armed forces.

Although the pace and scale of these reforms are high, the PLA remains untested, and this lack of operational experience complicates outside assessment of its 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 potential miscalculation that could spark or exacerbate crises. Such miscalculation could also arise if crisis decisions are 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 equivalents to the U.S. National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, or National Military Strategy. Outside observers therefore have few direct insights into the leadership’s thinking about the use of force or into the contingency planning that shapes 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 the “National Military Strategic Guidelines for the New Period” (xin shiqi guojia junshi zhanlue fangzhen - 新时期国家军事战略方針) to plan and manage the development and use of the armed forces. However, 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 of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union on PRC militarystrategic thinking, and form the basis for much of the PLA's transformation over the past decade. Based upon on-going assessment of the rapid pace of change in global military affairs - perhaps including lessons learned from U.S. and Coalition military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan - elements of the 1993 "Guidelines" appear to have been revised recently to update China's perceptions of its security environment and the character of modern war, integrate lessons learned from China's military modernization, and shift from "building" forces for modern, information-age warfare to training to "win" such wars.

The operational, or "active defense," (jiji fangyu -积极防御) component of the "Guidelines," 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. Once hostilities have begun, according to the PLA text, Science of Campaigns (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. PLA campaign theory defines these options as "non-war" uses of force or "no contact" warfare - an extension of political coercion. 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 limited kinetic options such as air and missile strikes, targeted attacks against adversary leaders, and sabotage. Such writings highlight the potential for China to miscalculate given the likelihood that the target of any such actions, and the broader international community, would view them as acts of war.

Offense as Defense

Beijing's definition of an attack against its sovereignty or territory is vague. The history of modern Chinese warfare provides numerous case studies 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, prevention, or coercion if the use of force protects or advances core interests, including territorial claims (e.g., Taiwan and unresolved border or maritime claims).

Chinese strategic-level military theory establishes seemingly contradictory guidance: "strike only after the enemy has struck," and "seize the initiative." Yet, the authoritative work The Science of Military Strategy makes it clear that the definition of an enemy strike is not limited to conventional, kinetic military operations. Rather, an enemy "strike" may also be defined in political terms. Thus:

striking only after the enemy has struck does not mean waiting for the enemy's strike passively.It doesn't mean to give up the "advantageous chances" in campaign or tactical operations, for the "first shot" on the plane of politics must be differentiated from the "first shot" on that of tactics.

[This section continues] if any country or organization violates the other country's sovereignty and territorial integrity, the other side will have the right to "fire the first shot" on the plane of tactics. (emphasis added).

These passages illustrate the duality of Chinese strategic thinking as well as the justification for offensive - or preemptive - military action at the operational and tactical level under the guise of a defensive posture at the strategic level.

The PLA is developing and implementing supporting doctrine for "active defense" warfare and new operational methods across the various services.

Naval Warfare. The naval component of "active defense" is termed "Offshore Defense Strategy." The PLA Navy has three main missions: resist seaborne aggression, protect national sovereignty, and safeguard maritime rights. PLA Navy doctrine for maritime operations focuses on six offensive and defensive campaigns: blockade, anti-sea lines of communication, maritime-land attack, anti-ship, maritime transportation protection, and naval base defense.

Ground Warfare. Under "active defense," ground forces are tasked to defend China's borders, ensure domestic stability, and exercise regional power projection. PLA ground forces are transitioning from a static defensive force allocated across seven internal MRs - oriented for positional, mobile, urban, and mountain offensive campaigns; coastal defense campaigns; and landing campaigns - to a more mobile force organized and equipped for operations along China's periphery. China's ground forces are placing emphasis on integrated operations (especially with aviation forces), long-distance mobility, "quick tempo" operations, and special operations, modeling their reforms on Russian doctrine and U.S. military tactics.

Air Warfare. The PLAAF currently is converting from an over-land, limited territorial defense force to a more flexible and agile force able to operate offshore in both offensive and defensive roles, using the U.S. and Russian air forces as models. Mission focus areas include air strike, air and missile defense, early warning and reconnaissance, and strategic mobility. The PLAAF also has a leading role in the "Joint Anti-Air Raid" campaign. Underscoring the duality of offense and defense in PLA theory, this campaign is strategically defensive in nature, but at the operational and tactical levels, it calls for attacks against adversary bases and naval forces.

The People's Armed Police (PAP)

The PAP consists of approximately 660,000 personnel organized for internal defense and police enforcement missions. Internal defense units are responsible for border security, fire fighting, and domestic security including counterterrorism. Police enforcement units include troops charged with gold, forestry, hydroelectric, and communication security. In recent years, the PAP has also supported disaster relief operations and infrastructure construction (e.g., power projects, highways, tunnels, and bridges).

During wartime, the PAP is charged with supporting PLA operations, primarily domestic security, enabling the PLA to focus on combat missions. The PAP may also be responsible for protecting logistics and transportation, and military, economic, and political installations.

The PAP has participated in exercises with PLA and other units on a variety of missions including medical support, reconnaissance and air patrol, air defense, and counterterrorism. The PAP has also participated in exchanges with other countries, including Russia, and has been deployed to provide embassy security in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Space Warfare. Currently, China does not have a discrete space campaign; rather, space operations form an integral component of all campaigns. The PLA’s military theoretical journal China Military Science, argues that “it is in space that information age warfare will come into its more intensive points.” Specifically, space-based command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) are key to enabling and coordinating joint operations and winning modern wars. Accordingly, the PLA is acquiring technologies to improve China’s spacebased C4ISR, and is developing the ability to attack an adversary’s space assets. PLA writings emphasize the necessity of “destroying, damaging, and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance/ observation and communications satellites,” suggesting that such systems, as well as navigation and early warning satellites, could be among initial targets of attack to “blind and deafen the enemy….”

The January 2007 test of a direct-ascent ASAT weapon demonstrates that the PLA’s interest in counterspace systems is more than theoretical. In addition to the “kinetic kill” capability demonstrated by the ASAT test, the PLA is developing the ability to jam, blind, or otherwise disable satellites and their terrestrial support infrastructure.

Toward a Comprehensive View of Warfare

Over the past two decades, PRC civilian and military strategists have debated the nature of modern warfare. These debates draw on sources within the PLA 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 PLA theory and war planning. Underscoring a comprehensive, multidimensional view of warfare, the PLA Academy of Military Science text, the Science of Military Strategy, notes that “war is not only a military struggle, but also a comprehensive contest on fronts of politics, economy, diplomacy, and law.”

In 2003 the CCP Central Committee and the CMC approved the concept of “Three Warfares” (san zhong zhanfa - 三种战法), highlighting the relevance of non-kinetic options in modern war:

    Psychological Warfare: the use of propaganda, deception, threats, and coercion to affect the enemy’s ability to understand and make decisions.

    Media Warfare: the dissemination of information to influence public opinion and gain support from domestic and international audiences for China’s military actions.

    Legal Warfare: the use of international and domestic laws to gain international support and manage possible political repercussions of China’s military actions.

These “Warfares” are being developed for use in conjunction with other military and non-military operations. For example, China has incorporated its Legal Warfare concept into its attempts to shape international opinion and interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, moving away from long-accepted norms of freedom of navigation and territorial limits toward increased sovereign authority out to the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone, the airspace above it, and possibly outer space.

Secrecy and Deception in PLA Military Strategy

PLA doctrinal writings point to a working definition of 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 denial, the PLA draws from China’s historical experience and the traditional role that stratagem and deception have played in Chinese doctrine. Recent decades have witnessed within the PLA a resurgence of the study of classic Chinese military figures Sun Zi, Sun Pin, Wu Qi, and Shang Yang and their writings, all of which highlight the centrality of deception.

There is uncertainty regarding how the tendencies of China’s military and security establishment toward secrecy will conflict with the demands of the integrated global economy, which depends upon transparency and the free flow of information for success. This contradiction notwithstanding, the CCP’s institutional emphasis on secrecy, acting in tandem with the PLA’s use of denial and deception to cover force modernization and disposition, supports opacity in national security affairs, which could lead to miscalculation or misunderstanding by outsiders of China’s strategic intentions. Conversely, overconfidence among China’s leaders in the uncertain benefits of stratagem and deception might lead to their own miscalculation in crises. In addition, the same skills commanders use against adversaries often are used to slow – or cover up – the revelation of bad news internal to the PLA. Secrecy and deception, therefore, may serve to confuse China’s leaders as much as its adversaries.

Assassin's Mace Programs

As part of China’s asymmetric warfighting strategy, the PLA has developed capabilities, referred to as “assassin’s mace” (sha shou jian - 杀手锏) programs, designed to give a technologically inferior military advantages over technologically superior adversaries, and thus change the direction of a war. Since 1999, the term has appeared more frequently in PLA journals, particularly in the context of fighting the United States in a Taiwan conflict.

It is unclear what platforms are specifically designated as “assassin’s mace.” However, descriptions of their intended use and effects are consistent with PLA asymmetric warfighting strategy. In this context, systems designated as “assassin’s mace,” are most likely a mixture of new technologies and older technologies applied in innovative ways.

Asymmetric Warfighting

Classic military strategists like Sun Zi and Sun Pin have found new currency as China looks for ways to defeat an adversary by avoiding his strong points and attacking his weak points. PLA strategic and military writings focus on identifying military technologies and doctrines by which a weaker force could defeat one that is stronger. Since the 1991 Persian Gulf War and Operation ALLIED FORCE (1999), PLA military strategists have emphasized using asymmetric approaches to level the playing field against technologically superior opponents.

    • “[A] strong enemy with absolute superiority is certainly not without weakness… [O]ur military preparations need to be more directly aimed at finding tactics to exploit the weaknesses of a strong enemy.” Liberation Army Daily (1999).

    • “[The] application of non-nuclear high technologies can bring about strategic effects similar to that of nuclear weapons, and at the same time, it can avoid the great political risk possibly to be caused by transgressing the nuclear threshold.… Among other things, following the advent of cyber information age, information warfare and information warfare strategy are widely drawing attention.” Science of Military Strategy (2001).

Elements of China’s approach to asymmetric warfare can be seen in its heavy investment in ballistic and cruise missile systems; undersea warfare systems, including submarines and advanced naval mines; counterspace systems; computer network operations (CNO); special operations forces; and the nonkinetic elements of the “Three Warfares” concept.

Through analysis of U.S. and coalition warfighting practices since 1991, Beijing hopes to develop approaches to waging future conflict by adapting and emulating lessons learned in some areas while seeking perceived vulnerabilities that could be exploited through asymmetric means in others. Examples of some current thinking in China on asymmetric warfare include:

    Counterspace: The PLA has developed a variety of kinetic and non-kinetic weapons and jammers to degrade or deny an adversary’s ability to use space-based platforms. China also is researching and deploying capabilities intended to disrupt satellite operations or functionality without inflicting physical damage. The PLA is also exploring satellite jammers, kinetic energy weapons, high-powered lasers, high-powered microwave weapons, particle beam weapons, and electromagnetic pulse weapons for counterspace application.

    Missiles/C4ISR: By fusing advanced ballistic and cruise missiles with a modern C4ISR architecture, the PLA is seeking to build the capability to degrade a potential adversary’s force generation and sustainment by holding at risk or striking aircraft carriers, logistics nodes, and regional bases.

    “Non-Contact” Warfare: An example of China’s current thinking on asymmetric warfare is encapsulated by a military theory termed ”non-contact” which seeks to attain a political goal by looking for auxiliary means beyond military boundaries or limits. Examples include: cyberwarfare against civilian and military networks – especially against communications and logistics nodes; fifth column attacks, including sabotage and subversion, attacks on financial infrastructure; and, information operations.

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