China Power

What’s Behind China’s ‘Action Guidelines on Military Operations Other Than War’?

Recent Features

China Power | Security | East Asia

What’s Behind China’s ‘Action Guidelines on Military Operations Other Than War’?

The focus of the new guidelines is likely domestic: laying down rules for deploying the military to conduct disaster relief and pandemic management operations.

What’s Behind China’s ‘Action Guidelines on Military Operations Other Than War’?

A man wearing a mask looks at a display showing the Chinese military in the city’s fight against the coronavirus in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

On June 13, China announced in a press release that its paramount leader Xi Jinping, in his capacity as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), had signed an order for the implementation on an experimental basis of the “Action Guidelines on Military Operations Other Than War,” which took effect from June 15. While the full text of the mandate has yet to be publicly released, China’s state-run media have summed it up as comprising 59 articles in six chapters, setting up norms specifically for main subjects such as fundamental principles, organization and command, various forms of operations, logistics support for operations, and political work so as to provide the legal basis for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to undertake military operations other than war (MOOTW).

The promulgation of the trial action guidelines on MOOTW (hereafter referred to as Action Guidelines) aroused considerable speculation from the outside world. It is assumed that the Action Guidelines are comparable to the Anti-Secession Law passed in 2003, giving the PLA legal justification for intervening in affairs in the Taiwan Strait or conducting military operations against Taiwan. Are the new Action Guidelines China’s equivalent to Russia’s ongoing “special military operation” in Ukraine? These are the issues that grabbed the attention of the whole world.

As there is no full text available for a closer look, the many critical analysis papers on the subject that have been presented so far more or less base their discussion on prior corresponding experiences and actual instances that seem to fit the category of MOOTW.

Possible Motives for the Formation of the Action Guidelines

To begin with, MOOTW is not a term unique to China. It originated from a concept that emerged amid the efforts of the U.S. military to adapt to its changing role and mission following the Cold War, which led to a rethinking of the functions of armed forces in general. Ideas such as low-intensity conflict, long-standing small war, and even the war on terror were brought forward in the process in an attempt to concretize the concept of MOOTW, which kept evolving without taking a final shape.

An army, if sufficiently trained, can operate normally even if cut off from the civil communication network, even with the additional loss of water and electrical power supply. It is capable of traversing rough terrain and overcoming geographical barriers; its transportation and delivery capability, developed for wartime operations, serves to make it readily available for search and rescue missions during peacetime. Against this backdrop, the concept of MOOTW gradually took shape.

What should be noted is that mechanisms for deploying of armed forces for MOOTW varies from country to country, depending on each nation’s political system. In the case of the United States, the governor of a state has the authority to deploy the state’s National Guard. It is part of the autonomous power of the state granted by the federal government. Whether other countries can have a reserve force comparable to the U.S. National Guard either in structure or in training remains in doubt.

That is especially the case with the People’s Republic of China, where all armed forces do not belong to the country but to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Under the principle of the party leading the army, provincial and lower-level local governments definitely do not have power and authority comparable to those of a U.S. state government. They surely have to gain approval from the central government-level CMC, specifically its chairman, before they can deploy local troops to undertake MOOTW missions. Will such an arrangement result in delays in the deployment of troops during an emergency? It is a question inviting further exploration.

This has become more of a problem since 2018, after the armed police force was put under the sole command of the CMC, rather than also being subordinate to the State Council. In other words, the prior mechanism for deploying troops for search and rescue missions in natural disasters is now defunct. Therefore, China needs to specify the timing and associated administrative procedures for deployment of armed forces in MOOTW, particularly to clarify the roles of the central and local governments in this process.

Lessons Learned From COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic that broke out at the beginning of 2020 has had a great impact on Chinese economy and society. Shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic, local public health systems sustained so great a pressure and workload that they were near collapse. The pandemic wreaked havoc again in 2022 as Shanghai was hit hard by record high infections, with Beijing also on high alert. In the end, the PLA was obliged to play a part in helping Shanghai return to normal.

China’s experience with the pandemic so far indicates that the timing of PLA assistance is pivotal to the success of the central and local governments in containing outbreaks. Yet, as noted above, deployed PLA troops to an outbreak area is beyond the means and power of local governments or even the State Council.

However, communication between local governments and the CMC over deployment of troops for post-disaster search and rescue missions or a fight against infectious diseases is a cumbersome process. Will the current arrangement cause delays that miss the best timing window? China’s recent experiences prove it is more necessary than ever to bring deployment of the PLA under a legal framework.

As a matter of fact, deploying armed forces for MOOTW missions does not require combat equipment to be fielded at the same time. For example, tank ammunition and rifle cartridges are indispensable on the battlefield, but they are likely unnecessary in MOOTW undertakings. MOOTW need adequate provision of manpower, specialized medical teams, medical materials, and field communications systems. Rather than tanks, military transport vehicles or equipment of the engineering corps are called for. They are not the types of combat equipment that people normally think of.

In managing its armed forces, China’s top leadership is most wary of a scenario where troops are assembled for deployment without receiving orders from direct superiors authorizing them to do so – worse still if they are armed with live ammunition and in possession of combat equipment.

Each country has its own complicated and strict procedures to follow in deploying troops. But such precautionary measures also lead to situations where no prompt response can be made to emergencies. To deal with such situations, the PLA had previously brought up the principle of “emergency response and handling of emergencies” to establish rules for such actions and norms for interaction or joint action. It had also probed deeper into the interaction between the military and local governments.

As early as 2009, China had already announced a similar directive, entitled “A Construction Plan for the Development of Military Operations Other Than War Capabilities for the Armed Force.” It was meant to deal with six main tasks, including counterterrorism, disaster relief, international peace-keeping, preservation of rights, international aid, and maintenance of security and vigilance. With the establishment of specific rules, it legalized procedures for the armed forces, specifically certain designated units, to participate in the afore-mentioned tasks.

However, in the wake of the most recent round of military reform initiated in 2016, quite a few military units and agencies had been disbanded or merged into other units and agencies. Many of the rules and norms that the PLA had established for the purpose had to be redefined. The restructuring of the CMC in particular made it imperative to determine whether existing rules and regulations as well as models of interaction between the military and local governments were still applicable.

All these reasons might have led China to come up with the Action Guidelines in 2022.

A Review of MOOTW Missions Abroad

The PLA has conducted similar operations for many years, encompassing mainly post-disaster search and rescue missions and handling of domestic emergency situations, which, as defined by China, refer to mass incidents where armed forces are called in to maintain social order. With the increase of China’s overseas interests in recent years, there have been more cases of the PLA conducting disaster relief missions abroad, including anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, and evacuation of citizens from crisis-hit nations (with speed as the measure of success in such cases). All these missions fall into the category of MOOTW. China’s evacuation operations include one in Libya in 2011 and one in Yemen in 2015. However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, China, in the face of the daunting task of evacuating large numbers of citizens from Ukraine, failed to dispatch sufficient transport aircraft to get the job done.

The evacuation mission in Libya was relatively easy because there were not many Chinese citizens to be moved to safety. And the mission in Yemen went as planned because the country is surrounded by the ocean, making it possible to evacuate citizens by sea. However, in the evacuation of Chinese nationals from Ukraine, the PLA was blamed for failing to get the job done as soon as possible.

The main reason for the botched mission might have a lot to do with the top leadership’s readiness to approve overseas military actions and problems with the interaction between the military and local governments in deploying troops. Considering the necessity to maintain command and control over the military, will the dispatch of large numbers of long-range transport aircraft at once tip the balance of power in the PLA, which acts on the principle of theater commands being responsible for operations and the services devoted to arms build-up? Will other structural problems emerge in the process of directing troops to accomplish future MOOTW missions? All these problems might have been encountered by the PLA in the evacuation of citizens from Ukraine.

The release of the Action Guidelines a few months later is not a coincidence. The guidelines promulgated in June serve to provide a more definite explanation and a legal definition regarding the PLA’s overseas actions in a bid to take the initiative in this regard.

Implications for Taiwan?

From the discussion above, we can postulate that China’s Action Guidelines carry motives similar to those of the “Joint Doctrine for Military Operations Other Than War” previously issued by the U.S. military. These guidelines do not have much to do with military operations as generally understood. Their significance lies in their provision of a legal basis for the deployment of armed forces, which is especially necessary nowadays, because situations falling into the category of “emergency response and handling of emergencies” are spiraling. Xi may well still prefer the PLA over other public sector entities in his choice of means for the handling emergencies.

The implementation of the Action Guidelines at this juncture, though on an experimental basis, is understandably aimed at providing the central government with a more legalized framework on the one hand, and subjecting armed forces to better control by the top leadership on the other. As compared with other nations, China’s deployment of the PLA for the purposes mentioned above is orientated more toward the “maintenance of stability” as emphasized by Beijing. In other words, should mass incidents or events potentially detrimental to the authority of the central government occur, the central government may issue orders for armed forces to move to designated places immediately. Besides setting up rules for deployment of post-reform armed forces of all kinds, encompassing the PLA, the armed police force, and the militia, the Action Guidelines also formally defines the inter-relationship between the military and local governments.

The Action Guidelines comes at a time when the CMC presumably wishes to strengthen its grip on the armed forces. More often than not, this is a most possible scenario under current circumstances.