As the China’s next national defense white paper should be forthcoming this summer, the Central Military Commission’s Strategic Planning Office, an organization that may play a critical role in its development, merits closer consideration. Through the Strategic Planning Office and its predecessor organizations, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has intensified its focus on strategic planning in order to support its historic reform agenda and other high-level priorities, while attempting to improve and centralize high-level coordination and planning across existing bureaucratic boundaries. Looking forward, the Strategic Planning Office will remain an integral aspect of the PLA’s efforts to advance a long-term strategic agenda that includes the implementation of complex organizational reforms, military-civil integration, and defense innovation.
The Evolution of Strategic Planning in the PLA
The organizational elevation of the PLA’s capabilities for strategic planning has demonstrated the increased prioritization of its function and mission. Initially, the Strategic Planning Bureau was established as a third-level department under the aegis of the former General Staff Department second-level Operations Department, as of the mid to late 2000s. While there is limited information available about its activities during this timeframe, the bureau may have contributed to or consulted on the drafting of the national defense white papers starting within this timeframe.
As of 2011, the Strategic Planning Bureau was reconstituted as a second-level Strategic Planning Department, which remained subordinate to the General Staff Department. At the time, its primary functions were described as:
researching major strategic issues; organizing and replicating military construction and development programming, planning, and reform measures; providing suggestions on the overall configuration and macro-regulation of military strategic resources; coordinating and resolving relevant cross-department, cross-domain problems; and inspecting and evaluating the implementation situation of military construction planning projects.
In this regard, the Strategic Planning Department appears to have taken responsibility for high-level strategic challenges related to the PLA’s modernization and force construction that required long-term planning and coordination across existing bureaucratic boundaries. In his available remarks, Major General Zhang Ming, director of the Strategic Planning Department between 2011 and the end of 2014, also emphasized the importance of advancing military-civil fusion, including through the law, prioritization of key areas, and market-driven incentives.
Potentially, the Strategic Planning Department acted as a critical intellectual force behind the PLA’s historic reforms. In his remarks at the time of its establishment, then chief of the General Staff, General Chen Bingde, alluded to the role of the Strategic Planning Department in “vigorously carrying forward the spirit of reform and innovation.” Subsequent statements from a Ministry of National Defense spokesperson highlighted that the Strategic Planning Department reflected the PLA’s commitment to “implement some necessary reform measures in military, political, logistics, and equipment, etc. aspects.” Similarly, then-CMC vice chairman, General Guo Boxiong, emphasized the importance of military strategic management work as a priority for then-president and CMC chairman Hu Jintao, such that its establishment was intended to strengthen this function of the CMC.
In this regard, the Strategic Planning Department seems to have been closely linked to the CMC, even when it was officially subordinated to the General Staff Department. Notably, in 2015, the Strategic Planning Department’s Senior Colonel Wang Jin took part in the official press conference presenting that year’s defense white paper, “China’s Military Strategy.” Although there was limited reporting about the Strategic Planning Department’s activities, this relative scarcity of information may have reflected the sensitivity of certain aspects of its mandate.
Current Configuration of the Strategic Planning Office
During the PLA’s organizational reforms, the Strategic Planning Department was transferred to the CMC as a first-level organization, becoming the Strategic Planning Office, a corps leader grade organization, under the leadership of Major General Wang Huiqing. Based on the available information, it includes at least the following subordinate bureaus at present: the Comprehensive Bureau; the Military-Civil Integration (or Military-Civil “Fusion”) Bureau; and the Cyber/Network Information Coordination Bureau. While limited information is available about their respective activities at this point, the Military-Civil Integration Bureau may take responsibility for the coordination and design of China’s long-term national strategy for civil-military integration, and the Cyber Information Coordination Bureau could coordinate the PLA’s attempts to address issues of information systems and security across the force. As the PLA continues to advance its agenda for informatization, the Strategic Planning Office’s Informatization Construction Policies and Regulations Research Center, formerly subordinate to the General Staff Department Informatization Department, seemingly supports the implementation of such efforts as the National Informatization Development Strategy, as China seeks to become a “powerful cyber nation.” The Strategic Planning Office likely contains additional bureaus and research institutes, but these have not yet been referenced in open sources.
The placement of the Strategic Planning Office directly under the CMC could indicate its increased importance to the PLA’s top leadership in the process of coordinating and implementing an ambitious reform agenda and other high-level strategic priorities. Reportedly, this “adjustment” was intended to “perfect the institutional mechanisms for all-military strategic planning, advantageously strengthen the CMC’s strategic management function, augment the centralization and unified management of military strategic planning, and improve the quality and efficiency of national defense and army building,” according to a Ministry of National Defense spokesperson.
According to deputy director Li Guang, the implementation of military strategic planning work will require a focus on issues that include strengthening innovation-driven development, enhancing coordination in planning, creating a new national security threat assessment mechanism, establishing an audit mechanism for the military budget, and promoting military-civil integration, in order to serve as a “driving force and institutional mechanisms for deepening reforms and innovation.” Presumably, there is a division of labor between the Strategic Planning Office and the CMC Reform and Organization Office under the leadership of Lieutenant General Qin Shengxiang, who is concurrently director of the CMC General Office. Within the past year, the Strategic Planning Office also seems to have been particularly engaged in the advancement of China’s national strategy of civil-military integration, based on the reported activities of its leadership. For instance, Li Qiang, director of the Military-Civil Integration Bureau, has been involved in the establishment of military-civil integration test areas.
The PLA’s Advisory Committee for Strategic Planning
Beyond the Strategic Planning Office itself, the affiliated Military Strategic Planning Advisory Committee may also impact the CMC’s high-level thinking on military reform and innovation. This committee was probably established after the initial creation of the Strategic Planning Department in late 2011. At the time, Guo Boxiong alluded to “giving full play” to the role of the Military Strategic Planning Advisory Committee and to value science and talent in order to provide “advisory services” for the CMC’s implementation of ‘scientific and democratic’ decision-making.
This Advisory Committee appears to constitute a mechanism through which the CMC may convene and consult with experts who have relevant specialties, including joint operations, information warfare, and artificial intelligence, as the PLA pursues military reforms and innovation. The expertise of those chosen for this committee also provides an indication of the PLA’s strategic priorities, and their work may merit further examination, given their potential influence upon strategic thinking at the CMC level. These experts include Lieutenant General Liu Jixian, who also serves as a deputy director of the CMC Reform Leading Small Group Expert Advisory Committee; Major General Ye Zheng, former director of the AMS Informatized Operations Research Office; Major General Hao Yeli, former deputy director of the former General Staff Department’s Electronic Countermeasures and Radar Department (4PLA); Major General Li Deyi, a researcher with the CMC Equipment Development Department’s 61st Research Institute, one of China’s leading experts on artificial intelligence; and Rear Admiral Wang Yu, formerly affiliated with the Naval Equipment Research Institute and involved in China’s aircraft carrier platform project.
As the PLA confronts historic reforms and revolutionary technological changes, the Strategic Planning Office will likely remain at the center of its efforts to plan, coordinate, and implement its intended agenda for complex long-term strategic issues. In his recent remarks, President and CMC Chairman Xi Jinping himself has highlighted the importance of “top-level design” and strategic preparations and planning, particularly on issues of military-civil integration and scientific and technological innovation. The function of strategic planning is seen as necessary to create a “roadmap” for the PLA’s future development, including to ensure unity of effort and appropriate resource allocation, while adjusting its strategy and force posture in anticipation a complex, uncertain future. The Strategic Planning Office will thus remain a critical institutional support to the PLA in its quest to actualize its ambitious agenda and overcome considerable organizational challenges.
Elsa Kania is an analyst focused on the PLA’s strategic thinking on and advances in emerging technologies, including unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and quantum technologies. She is fluent in Mandarin Chinese.