M. Taylor Fravel on How the People's Liberation Army Does Military Strategy
Image Credit: AP Photo/Kin Cheung

M. Taylor Fravel on How the People's Liberation Army Does Military Strategy


How does China’s People’s Liberation Army think about military strategy? How and when has it made changes to its strategy through the past? To better understand these questions and more, The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda spoke to M. Taylor Fravel, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Fravel is the author of a forthcoming book on Chinese military strategy.

The Diplomat: You have a new book on China’s military strategy slated for release later this year. In the course of your research, what factors have you found played the most important role in shaping and changing China’s military strategy?

Fravel: Thanks. To plug the book, the title is Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949 and it will be released on April 23.

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In writing this book, I had two goals. One is to provide, for the first time, a complete account of the military strategies that China has adopted since 1949. The book identifies nine military strategies (which the PLA calls the “military strategic guideline”) that have been formulated since the founding of the People’s Republic. These guidelines influence the PLA’s operational doctrine, force structure, and training. So, the book reviews China’s national-level military strategy over seventy years and how these strategies have shaped the PLA. A second goal of the book is to explain when and why China has pursued major changes in its military strategy, or efforts to transform the PLA’s approach to warfighting. These major changes occurred in 1956, 1980, and 1993.

The book advances two central claims to explain changes in China’s military strategy. One claim is that the PLA, historically and as an organization, has closely monitored its external security environment and especially prevailing trends in warfighting or the operational conduct of warfare. As a late modernizer of its military forces relative to other great powers, shifts in these trends have been critical in motivating the PLA to pursue major changes in its military strategy, as it considers how it may have to fight in the future.

A second claim in the book is that the PLA has only pursued changes in military strategy when there is unity within the CCP itself. By unity, I mean agreement among the top party leadership over the basic policies the party should pursue (“the party line”) and over the structure of power and authority within the party. When the party is united, it delegates substantial autonomy for managing military affairs to the PLA high command. When the leadership of the party is split, however, the PLA is either unlikely or unable to pursue a change in strategy. Some of the most extreme splits occurred during the Cultural Revolution or in the aftermath of the demonstrations and massacre in Tiananmen Square. In this way, party unity (or disunity) trumps external factors in China’s military strategy. Because the PLA is a party-army, strategy cannot be changed if the party leadership is not united.

How seriously do strategic concerns (as opposed to bureaucratic interests and other nonstrategic factors) drive China’s pursuit of advanced technologies in the defense space?

In the decisions to develop new military technologies in the past, strategic concerns have been more important than either bureaucratic factors or nonstrategic factors.

Case in point would be the development of nuclear weapons, which Chinese leaders determined in the early 1950s would be essential for deterring nuclear attacks or nuclear coercion. Of course, bureaucratic and especially political factors did play a crucial role in the development of these weapons. In the early 1960s, for example, Chinese leaders debated whether these weapons were worth the high cost. The main actors were the weapons development community within the PLA on one side and the economic planners on the other. Later, the Cultural Revolution significantly slowed the development of China’s ballistic missiles.

More recently, one could also point to the development of cyber capabilities. As Fiona Cunningham shows in her 2018 doctoral thesis from MIT, the initial decision to develop a cyber capability in the late 1990s appears to have been driven by strategic factors. The PLA concluded that the United States’ reliance on communications and other digital networks created vulnerabilities that China could exploit if a conflict erupted over Taiwan.

Of course, bureaucratic fights over technology take place within the PLA. Moreover, in these fights, strategic rationales may be invoked in order to garner more resources for one’s service or branch. In the mid-1980s, the advent of the PLA Navy’s service strategy of “near-seas defense” used China’s nascent maritime interests to call for developing the PLA Navy, which to that point had not received as much attention as the PLA Air Force, much less the ground forces.

I recall you followed the 2017 Doklam standoff between India and China quite closely. Nearly 18 months after the conclusion of the crisis, what observations can be made about how the People’s Liberation Army behaved during and after the standoff?

My take at the time was that China’s response to the events in June and July 2017 would be to significantly build up its military forces in the area (see pieces in the Indian Express and for War on the Rocks). To start, at the tactical level, the local geography favored India, which has had a post at Doka La. China’s main military facilities in the area were tens of kilometers away. Moreover, they were located in the Yadong valley, which meant that the PLA would need to transport forces up hill and at high altitude to reach what China views as the border with India. In addition, India has several divisions in Sikkim, while the PLA appears to have fewer troops in this area in comparison, at least on a permanent basis.

Thus, the Indian decision dispatch its military forces to halt the Chinese activities in Doklam highlighted India’s local superiority and China’s local vulnerability. Since late 2017 or early 2018, China reduced this vulnerability by building extensive military facilities adjacent to the Indian post. This allows the PLA to station troops permanently in the area. From a Chinese perspective, this build-up will prevent India from challenging China like it did in 2017. India has also built up its side of the border, so incidents in Doklam are perhaps now less likely than in other areas of the disputed China-India border where there are fewer permanent installations and greater disagreements over the location of the line of actual control.

If you had to identify a single primary or secondary work on Chinese military strategy produced since 2000 in China that Americans should read—or at least be aware of—what would you pick and why?

Tough question!

If one reads Chinese, there are many excellent sources that can be used to understand the past, present, and future of China’s military strategy. If I had to pick only one, it would probably be the Chinese edition of the Liberation Army Daily (解放军报), a newspaper published by the PLA and for the PLA.

In the research for my book, I tapped a full range of materials that are now available. These included official histories of the PLA and various elements within the PLA, the biographies and memoirs of key generals, the selections of speeches and writings of key general generals, and chronologies of the daily activities of senior leaders.

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, released in early 2018, acknowledges that China’s nuclear strategy and posture has largely remained static, but leaves open the possibility that Beijing might change course. Do you see credible indicators that China may adopt significant changes to its nuclear posture and strategy in the coming years? What factors might determine whether or not it does?

China has consistently pursued a nuclear strategy of assured retaliation or developing a nuclear force that could survive a first-strike and be able to launch a retaliatory counterstrike. China has never pursued nuclear strategies of limited or unlimited nuclear warfighting. In many ways, China nuclear strategy reflects the constraints of the Chinese government’s nuclear policy issued in 1964, which included its pledge not to use nuclear weapons first.

Looking forward, China could consider two alternatives. The first would be a shift to some variant of a limited warfighting strategy, in which China might consider using only a few nuclear weapons first to signal resolve to end a conventional conflict. This is unlikely, however: with a relatively small force, China may not be able to deter an opponent from retaliating (as opposed to standing down), especially one with a much larger and more sophisticated arsenal like the United States.

The other option might be to modify how it carries out assured retaliation, perhaps by shifting to a launch on warning or launch under attack posture. This would be less of a change in strategy and more of a change in how to implement the existing strategy. Chinese strategists have discussed doing so a few times since the 1980s, but China has not yet prioritized investing in the kind of detection satellites and radars that would be necessary to shift to such a posture. Such a move would also undermine confidence in China’s no-first-use pledge, which China does not appear ready to abandon.

Regardless, China will continue to modernize and modestly expand the size and sophistication of its nuclear arsenal. A key reason is that China wants to ensure that it will be able to maintain a second-strike capability, especially against the United States. Given the wide disparity in the size of the U.S. and Chinese nuclear forces and the U.S. commitment to expanding missile defenses as contained in the latest missile defense review, China will remain concerned about its ability to deter the United States and modernize its forces accordingly. Examples of such modernization include the DF-41 (a new road-mobile missile that can carry multiple warheads) and the JL-3 (a new submarine-launched ballistic missile), among others.

What aspect of Chinese military strategy appears to be the most misunderstood in the West?

Several. The first would be that the PLA is a national army. It is not. It is the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party. The PLA high command constitutes roughly twenty percent of the Central Committee of the CCP, which is selected every five years. The institution that formulates strategy and other policies for the PLA, the Central Military Commission, is not part of the PLA. Instead, it is a party commission (委员会) under the Central Committee. The general officers who serve on the CMC do so as party members with military expertise. Likewise, the CMC’s two vice-chairmen serve on the Politburo, as the party’s military representatives to this decision-making body.

A second and closely related misunderstanding would be that because the PLA has become increasingly professionalized over the past few decades, its approach to strategic decision-making increasingly mirrors Western approaches. It does not, at least at the strategic level. Unlike the National Defense Strategy in the U.S., for example, the PLA’s military strategic guidelines are not contained in openly published documents that can be downloaded off the web and read by anyone. Instead, they are usually introduced in the form of a speech or a report at an enlarged meeting of the CMC—an internal gathering that includes the leadership of CMC, services, theater commands, and other organizations under the CMC. The speech contains a vision of how the PLA should defend China’s interests, as defined by the CCP, but it does not include a detailed roadmap of how to achieve that vision. Instead, the details are fleshed out over the coming months and sometimes even years, as specific decisions are made about operational doctrine, training, and force structure. This is much more like how the CCP formulates policy in other areas, such as economic or social policy, than Western military approaches to formulating strategy.

A third misunderstanding would be that China’s military strategy is all about the United States. Of course, the United States looms large for Chinese strategists. A stronger military will allow China to better resist U.S. pressure and to increase its overall influence in the region. But China’s military strategies have focused on specific conflicts or contingencies that China will face in the future, especially concerning Taiwan but also other potential conflicts such as the China-India border and increasingly maritime disputes. In most cases, these reflect long-standing disputes with its neighbors. They are not driven primarily by concerns about the U.S. role in the region, though Chinese strategists must (and do) consider the potential for U.S. military involvement and how to address it.

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