The announcement from Beijing recently about signing an order with trial outlines on military operations other than war (MOOTW) has triggered foreboding in some quarters that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) may be taking a leaf out of the Russian military playbook, inspired by Moscow’s so-called “special military operations” in reference to its invasion of Ukraine. More ominously, some see the new order as a precursor to an impending Taiwan crisis.
Coming so soon after the Chinese defense minister, General Wei Fenghe, had vowed at the Shangri-La Dialogue that Beijing would “definitely not hesitate to start a war no matter the cost” if Taiwan were to declare de jure independence, some pundits have therefore postulated that an imminent attack is in the works.
However, the theorization and practice of MOOTW in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is not new, with the term (非战争军事行动 in Chinese) having appeared in Chinese military literature since 2006. While these latest MOOTW outlines will indeed determine how the PLA’s activities are operationalized in missions designated to safeguard China’s claims to sovereignty and territorial integrity along its disputed land borders and in the maritime domain, the order is more likely merely an attempt by the PLA leadership to consolidate its MOOTW guidelines to standardize their implementation on the ground. The objective facts on the ground do not suggest that the bloodshed and destruction now devastating Europe will befall East Asia in the immediate future.
Background of MOOTW in China
It has been asserted that the PLA has been conducting MOOTW activities since its inception in 1927. Especially during the War of Resistance Against Japan (1937–1945), the then Red Army under Mao Zedong would engage in both combat and non-combat operations – with the latter including such activities as propaganda work and subsistence farming. However, China’s modern armed forces would really begin to delve into the concept during Hu Jintao’s tenure.
In 2006, PLA theoreticians and practitioners, including those from the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS), National Defense University (NDU), and the Army Command College began to formulate their own ideas about MOOTW. In doing so, they were influenced by their American counterparts – even though the United States military had discontinued the use of the term after having expounded on the concept 11 years prior in JP 3-07 “Joint Doctrine for Military Operations Other Than War.”
MOOTW as specified by China’s military establishment covers operations below the threshold of war carried out to safeguard the PRC’s national security and its developmental interests. In addition to activities to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China’s land borders and enforce its maritime claims in the East and South China Seas, MOOTW also includes counterterrorism and stability maintenance, safety and security operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), as well as international rescue and relief and international peacekeeping operations.
Complementing this newfound understanding of what potential non-combat activities at home and abroad might entail, legal documents undergirding MOOTW were also drafted alongside PLA manuals dealing with anti-riot, HADR, and joint peacekeeping operations. Before long, theoretical works would similarly be produced to systematically explore various issues such as newly emerging non-traditional security threats. In 2010, an Emergency Office was also set up under the now-defunct General Staff Department to oversee the organization and operationalization of MOOTW.
Is War on China’s Periphery Imminent?
In view of President Vladimir Putin’s use of the term “special military operations” in describing his invasion of Ukraine, some analysts have thus made the claim that this latest order signed off by his Chinese counterpart was influenced by Moscow – and meant to lay the ground for an imminent PLA offensive. Such an assertion could not be further from reality.
While PLA MOOTW does extend to its exercise of Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity over the Line of Actual Control on the Sino-Indian border as well as Beijing’s maritime claims in the East and South China Seas, the signs so far do not point to an impending conflict in China’s periphery anytime soon. Instead, given the immediate priorities of the regime to keep COVID-19 at bay and to arrest the economic decline wrought by intermittent lockdowns of entire Chinese cities under the zero-COVID policy, maintaining domestic stability and striving for economic recovery are more pressing matters for now.
In addition to those who claim that Xi’s authorization of the MOOTW outlines – in his capacity as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) – is intended as a “warning” to internal and external forces “who might threaten China’s security and internal stability,” there are other pundits who speculate that the announcement serves as a means to demonstrate Xi is firmly in control of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) armed wing to subjugate his domestic political rivals in the lead-up to the 20th Party Congress.
With the quinquennial event looming in the background, averting instability by all means necessary will be the order of the day for Beijing – at least, until the conclusion of the conference later this autumn. Therefore, rather than wage war against supposedly inferior neighbors and risk coming up short – either due to underperforming just as the Russian military has done in Ukraine, or having to contend with the incumbent world-class military should the U.S. military intervene – martial options would likely be the least-favored for the CMC chairman.
With the party’s army firmly under Xi’s control, as evinced by a series of editorials in the PLA Daily last month pledging support for his controversial zero-COVID strategy, maintaining the status quo over the Taiwan Strait clearly makes more sense at the moment. In any event, the Taiwanese political leadership would be careful not to provoke Beijing either.
A Likelier, Mundane Reason
As already alluded to, similar yet different viewpoints regarding what MOOTW entails within the Chinese military may be the real reason behind the announcement of this outline. With the AMS, NDU, and other PLA units holding similar yet different understandings of MOOTW – ranging from a 6-type category among active-duty personnel to a 12-type classification system according to the NDU – both the organizational principles and implementation of China’s MOOTW are in need of consolidation.
As China’s strategic depth continues to catch up with its economic heft, some of those guidelines and legal framework on MOOTW have to be augmented as the PLA adapts to new situations on the ground. Bearing in mind that the source of a country’s maritime power boils down to having access to overseas ports, recent reports of a China-friendly naval facility in Cambodia, and the not improbable prospect of a future deployment by the PLA to Solomon Islands, all point to a larger overseas role for the Chinese military. As Beijing’s national interests become more global, the PLA’s MOOTW will have to keep up.