Asia Defense

How China Fights: The PLA’s Strategic Doctrine

The PLA is (quite likely) coming to your neighborhood. Read on to find out what they’ll be doing there.

How China Fights: The PLA’s Strategic Doctrine
Credit: U.S. Department of Defense

As a wave of reform sweeps through China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), you might expect the PLA’s fighting doctrine to change as well. But you might be wrong. It appears that doctrine has predicted important reforms, namely the division of labor between the services and theater commands. But what else is the PLA working on? Its most authoritative doctrinal work is The Science of Military Strategy, last published in 2013 by the Academy of Military Science. The key elements of doctrine according to Strategy are described below.

China’s national goal is to build a moderately prosperous society and achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people by 2050. The PLA must ensure that neither internal nor external forces sabotage China’s economic engine or embarrass its national honor.

The military’s key organizing principles to achieve these goals are active defense and local wars under “informationized” conditions. These describe the PLA’s expected manner of conflict and are watchwords for its training. “Active defense” means that China is willing to counter threats preemptively, even outside China’s sovereign territory. “Local wars” means that China will avoid becoming entangled in major conflicts, particularly those far away from China. Following the U.S. lead in the First Gulf War, the PLA has given pride of place to comprehensive digitization and networking, which it calls “informatization.” It hopes informatization will allow the PLA to operate seamlessly as a joint force and gain the initiative in conflict.

Military deterrence operations use the threat of force to prevent potential opponents from engaging in hostilities. China defines deterrence in terms of the nuclear domain and conventional forces, with conventional deterrence being the normal means to achieve goals while nuclear deterrence is a “backstop,” a pillar of national power and final proof against outside dismantling of the Party-led state.

China is investing heavily in military operations other than war (MOOTW), appearing more frequently abroad in counter-piracy, peacekeeping, civilian evacuation, humanitarian assistance, and other roles. MOOTW is not only good for China’s reputation but is also the best way for a peacetime military to gain practical experience while demonstrating its capability to mobilize military and civilian assets in support of national interests.

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China is also developing military applications within the space and cyber domains. Although conflict in these areas carries the potential for economic disaster, they receive significantly less international attention than the nuclear arena.

The service and theater command strategies mentioned in Strategy came to fruition in the recent reforms as the services took on the role of fielding forces while leaving the theater commands to employ those forces.

China’s military planning is encapsulated in the terms strategic space and disposition. Strategic space refers to an estimation of the overall situation, which China sees as increasing multi-polarity and expanding Chinese interests, specifically in space, cyberspace, and the Indian Ocean. Disposition is the best possible deployment China’s forces to achieve these aims.

Finally, building a modern system of military forces with Chinese characteristics refers to China’s military modernization effort.

Ironically, as China follows other great powers into the “moderately prosperous” phase of more difficult economic growth, its goal of great power rejuvenation becomes more difficult. The PLA will continue to leverage professionalization and technological progress to reduce its size while improving effectiveness. If the current economic trend becomes a new normal, however, the military will be forced to scale back its modernization, putting China in a less advantageous position internationally. That would be a propitious time to find face-saving settlements for the disputes now churning across every domain.