Keeping up with China’s Evolving Military Strategy
Editor’s Note: Tickets to the 6th annual China Defense and Security Conference can be purchased here.
For over two decades, the People’s Republic of China has been engaged in a grand project to transform its military into a modernized fighting force capable of defeating major foreign powers. After the first Gulf War saw the United States use precision-guided munitions and networked technologies to decisively defeat Iraq’s aging, mechanized forces, Chinese military thinkers concluded that a similar fate awaited the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in combat unless drastic changes were made. From that point onward, readying the PLA to fight in modern warfare has been firmly enshrined as one of China’s highest policy priorities.
Each of China’s successive leaders has left their own imprint not only on the PLA’s force structure, but also on its strategic guidance. Jiang Zemin’s initial focus on developing the PLA’s ability to win a “local war under high-tech conditions” gradually morphed into Hu Jintao’s emphasis on building an “informatized” force capable of surviving and winning at modern information warfare, as well as enabling the PLA to carry out what Hu termed the “New Historic Missions,” which emphasized military operations other than warfare (MOOTW) for the first time. Under Xi Jinping, China focuses on developing the capabilities necessary to win the “informatized local wars” that China may one day fight over its expanding list of “core interests” in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
Despite close economic ties, sharp differences over foreign policy and China’s military modernization have forced the U.S. military and policy communities to prepare for the possibility of a serious confrontation with China. It is vital to understand not only the capabilities of China’s modernizing military but also the military thinking of China’s leadership when formulating policy or responding to China’s actions.
For their part, Chinese academics, analysts and scholars clearly understand the importance of such strategic thought, and devote tremendous energy to translating, debating and understanding U.S. military-strategic debates and predicting U.S. strategic developments.
However, in the United States, despite the great attention that has been devoted to cataloging the PLA’s advances in its military platforms and technology, there is little comprehensive information available to the U.S. policy community regarding recent developments in Chinese strategic thought. China’s military-strategic bodies publish a variety of influential and authoritative works explaining recent trends and debates, but few Western China analysts possess both the subject-matter expertise and Chinese language ability to absorb and contextualize this output and convey its central insights to a Western policy audience. When information does reach Western policymakers, it does so after an extreme delay. Authoritative Chinese publications on strategy often take years to prepare, and then additional time elapses before Western analysts begin to integrate the new materials into their assessments. This time lag complicates efforts at mutual strategic understanding in what is arguably the world’s most important bilateral national security relationship.
As a result, foreign discussions of Chinese military behavior generally center on observing new military hardware as it is introduced into service and parsing the public declarations and actions of the Chinese leadership, neither of which are sufficient for predicting Chinese military and civilian decision-making in the event of a crisis. A forthcoming volume from the Jamestown Foundation, China’s Evolving Military Strategy, aims to address these challenges by offering sector-by-sector expert assessments of important recent developments in Chinese strategic thought to the Western foreign policy community. The Jamestown Foundation is also hosting a conference on May 12th that will include many of the authors of China’s Evolving Military Strategy, and include discussion of many of the themes mentioned above. With a serious investment of time and attention, we believe this gap in strategic understanding can eventually be rectified.
Joe McReynolds is a Research Analyst at Defense Group Inc.’s Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis and the China Security Studies Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. He is an expert on China’s information warfare capabilities and defense industrial development.
Peter Wood is the Editor of the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief publication.
Image: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen