“Peace Through Strength”: Deterrence in Chinese Military Doctrine


 “To pursue peace through strength, it shall be the policy of the United States to rebuild the U.S. Armed Forces.” President Donald J. Trump, January 27, 2017.

“[Gen. Martin Dempsey] told American troops based in Japan on Thursday that ‘the best way to avoid war is to prepare for it.’” Associated Press, April 25, 2013.

The idea of “peace through strength” can be traced back to at least Roman times and almost certainly goes back even further, but in U.S. history, it is associated with Ronald Reagan. In his essay, “The Ancient Foreign Policy,” historian Victor Davis Hanson salutes its origins and links this “common wisdom” to the concept of deterrence.

From Vegetius’s Si vis pacem, para bellum [If you want peace, prepare for war] to Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength,” the common wisdom was to be ready for war and thereby, and only by that way, avoid war, not to talk bellicosely and to act pacifistically … Deterrence (and with it peace) often was not defined only in material terms; it rested also on a psychological readiness to use overwhelming power to confront an aggressor … Again, deterrence (“the act of frightening away”) rested not just on quantifiable power but also on a likelihood to use it.

Though Hanson’s article was not intended as a theoretical exposition on deterrence, he describes a psychological battle based on the threat of force with the goal of preventing war. For most Americans, there is no contradiction in pursuing peace through the threat or use of a strong military when vital national interests are at stake.

As China has grown stronger economically and militarily over the past two decades, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has developed a parallel understanding of the need for a strong military. Through long-term military modernization, Beijing aims to create a capable and credible military force to protect China’s core interests. As stated in its white paper on China’s Military Strategy published in 2015, “[w]ithout a strong military, a country can be neither safe nor strong.” Although focused primarily on developing warfighting capabilities, the PLA is also used for deterrence and other non-combat missions.

Though the United States and China may share the objectives of possessing powerful militaries and maintaining regional stability, American vital interests and Chinese core interests are vastly different. And because their political systems are different, there will always be a degree of distrust, confrontation, and competition between the two states. Official Chinese sources have outlined Chinese national objectives, its military strategy, and its concept of deterrence. The role of deterrence in PLA doctrine is key to understanding China’s actions and the intentions its government may be trying to communicate.

In reviewing what China says and thinks about deterrence, it is possible that many in the United States and elsewhere overlook or misperceive the intentions behind some Chinese actions. When China acts to deter, the media and other governments may misinterpret what they see as aggression or preparation for war. For example, even with the great commonality in their respective theories of deterrence, the United States views its own actions in the South and East China Seas as deterrent in nature, yet does not attribute similar aims to China’s activities. This, of course, is emblematic of a security dilemma.

If the United States and others misinterpret Chinese signals in relatively quiet times, it increases the chance that they will misconstrue similar signals in times of crisis. A lack of understanding among the general public and media about how the PLA trains and tests weapons compounds the situation. Accordingly, an accurate understanding of “normal” activities, such as military deployments, training, and weapons tests, is necessary to assess when the Chinese are shifting from their routine to signal that someone is approaching or crossing a line that could lead to conflict.

Basic Principles of PLA Doctrine

Insights into Chinese military strategy and operations are widely available. Official government documents, such as the series of defense white papers, provide statements of China’s defense policy and doctrine. Writings by and about senior Communist Party and PLA officials are carried in the Chinese media, especially in websites run by the PLA or Ministry of National Defense. PLA professional military education institutions publish textbooks, many of which are available to foreign readers. However, the Chinese government does not release to the public all aspects of its defense policy, keeping secret details that other countries routinely make available.

Statements and articles in the Chinese media vary in authoritativeness depending on who or what organization is speaking. Not all speakers, writers, media sources, and articles/commentary carry equal weight or credibility. The Chinese media can further confuse the issue by quoting foreign sources about military developments without confirming the accuracy of their information. In addition to explicating defense policy, as Paul Godwin and Alice Miller explain, Beijing uses public statements and the media for deterrence purposes through a “carefully calibrated hierarchy of official protests, authoritative press comment, and leadership statements.”

As a party-army, the Chinese armed forces – that is the PLA, the People’s Armed Police, and the militia – are required to obey the party’s absolute leadership. A corollary to party loyalty is the subordination of military development to national construction. One of the most important ramifications of this principle was the flat-lining of defense budgets in the single-digit billions of U.S. dollars in the 1980s and early 1990s when China’s economy was expanding quickly. Even with the increases in announced defense spending since the mid-1990s, the World Bank assesses China’s military expenditure (including estimated extra-budgetary sources of spending) to be in the vicinity of two percent of GDP and about six percent of total government expenditure. Having learned from the negative example of profligate Soviet defense spending, Beijing has prioritized building the civilian economy over the military and has not sacrificed civilian development in the pursuit of military modernization. War of any type is not good for China’s economic development.

The most basic tenet of China’s national defense policy is that it is strategically defensive in nature. Yet, like other militaries, the PLA recognizes the decisive nature of the offensive once the threshold of warfighting has been crossed. The PLA will undertake offensive actions at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war, according to the principle, “We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked.” This posture is framed as the “strategic concept of active defense” and is considered the essence of China’s strategic thought. Active defense results in an action-reaction cycle, which quickly devolves, however, into a spiraling dispute over who is justified in their response to another’s earlier move.

Nonetheless, reflecting the continuing influence of Sun Tzu on PLA doctrine, China prefers to “win without fighting” whenever possible. In part, this is due to the PLA’s lack of modern combat experience and its stark publicly stated assessment that its modernization lags behind advanced global peers and its officers lack the skills required for modern war. While the PLA has made progress in certain operational areas, especially if fighting relatively close to its shores, it still lags behind what China calls “advanced global peers,” such as the U.S. military. Accordingly, PLA doctrine frequently refers to the “weak overcoming the strong.” However, left unsaid officially, but often implied, the sheer size of the PLA could overwhelm forces of many smaller regional neighbors unless they are supported by the United States or another advanced power.

In order to achieve its objectives, compensate for perceived military weaknesses, and save money, the Chinese government seeks to use all elements of national power, including civilian economic, diplomatic, geographic, demographic, and scientific strength to augment its armed forces. Multiple components of national power are fused together under the rubric of “military-civilian integration” in a modern permutation of Mao Zedong’s concept of people’s war. The principles of “winning without fighting,” the “weak overcoming the strong,” and integrating military and civilian capabilities have been widely demonstrated in recent years by the employment of civilian law enforcement agencies, commercial entities, and maritime militia forces, with the backing of active duty forces, in the South and East China Seas.

Within the framework of these strategic principles, the PLA regards preparing its forces for combat and warfighting as its “core function” and the primary responsibility of all officers and soldiers. The better the PLA is prepared to perform its main mission of fighting, the better it is prepared to conduct deterrence and military operations other than war (MOOTW) missions. This triad – warfighting, deterrence, and MOOTW – are defined as the three basic ways of using military force.

Chinese Doctrine on Deterrence

Despite the Chinese propensity for summarizing many ideas in an idiom or slogan, there appears to be no pithy phrase capturing the idea of “peace through strength.” Nonetheless, the concept is a basic component of the PLA’s doctrinal approach to deterrence. The 2005 English translation of The Science of Military Strategy contains text that expresses the same meaning: “Thus the preparation of strength is the essential and most reliable preparation in all war control preparations.” A few pages earlier it states the “objective of war control is to prevent the occurrence of war.” In other words, military strength is necessary to avoid war – for peace. A full chapter on “Strategic Deterrence” follows immediately thereafter. This chapter is the most extensive explanation of China’s concept of deterrence available to foreign readers and is extensively quoted below.

The Chinese concept of deterrence is based on using the threat of military force to achieve either compellence/coercive or prevention objectives: “deterrence is the military conduct of a state or political group in displaying force or showing the determination to use force to compel the enemy to submit to one’s volition and to refrain from taking hostile actions or escalating the hostility.” Deterrence can have both military and political objectives: “Strategic deterrence is a major means for attaining the objective of military strategy, and its risks and costs are less than strategic operations…. Strategic deterrence is also a means for attaining the political objective.” However, deterrence “may fail and even war or war escalation may be triggered if one mishandles the complex situation.” Therefore, “[w]arfighting is generally used only when deterrence fails and there is no alternative,” and the “more powerful the warfighting capability, the more effective the deterrence.”

Three conditions are necessary for deterrence: 1) an “adequate deterrent force”; 2) the “determination and volition [to employ] the strategic deterrent force”; and 3) interaction (signaling) “between the deterrer and the deterred.” These elements conform exactly to the formula proposed by Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command: Capability x Resolve x Signaling = Deterrence. (While there may be debate about the validity of this formula or China’s three conditions, some decision-makers on both sides appear to have similar views of deterrence, yet they may not admit this is the case.)

Deterrence seeks to change “the pattern of the opponent’s psychology” leaving “some leeway” for compromise and concession. The deterring side seeks to achieve “momentum,” taking action that the opposing side can see, such as “large-scale military review, joint military exercise, and military visit,” and, left unsaid, military deployments and weapons tests. (The Chinese definition of joint exercises includes those employing multiple services of the PLA, as well as exercises with foreign militaries.) Deterrence seeks to display one’s superiority over the enemy’s weaknesses while “concealing one’s weakness.”

Strategic deterrence includes nuclear deterrence, but also has multiple conventional components including information, space, and cyber operations. It further includes the “deterrence of people’s war,” and involves other government agencies and civilian capabilities. In peace, the objective of deterrence is “to delay or curb outbreak of war,” while in war deterrence seeks “to control its vertical and horizontal escalation.”

Fighting a “small war” to avoid a larger one may be necessary. Likewise, active defense requires that “‘the first shot’ on the plane of politics and strategy must be differentiated from ‘the first shot’ on the plane of tactics” and “if any country or organization violates the other country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the other side will have the right to ‘fire the first shot’ on the plane of tactics.” Thus, the PLA may conduct preemptive actions in a period of tension if the Chinese government concludes the enemy has already decided to “violate” China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

However, because China considers its deterrence to be “self-defensive in essence,” it distinguishes itself from other states that pursue offensive strategies to compel opponents to submit. Rather, China’s deterrence is portrayed as preventative, “to deter foreign invasion, defend sovereignty, rights and interests” and to deter internal and external conspiracies to separate and subvert China. The PLA further differentiates itself from other militaries as it sees its own use of stratagem as “the main idea of traditional Chinese strategic thinking … the use of limited force to achieve victory … Western strategic thinking pays more attention to the contest of strength, emphasizing direct confrontation.” This assertion inexplicably ignores many examples of deception, misdirection, and stratagem performed by conventional and special operations forces of the U.S. and its allies over the past three decades of conflict.

In the 2005 edition of The Science of Military Strategy, the chapter on deterrence concludes by admitting “strategic deterrence is not omnipotent … in carrying out strategic deterrence, one should examine the worst and the toughest scenarios and be well prepared in advance, so as to steadily and effectively cope with the opponent in case of failure of deterrence.” This cautious approach to both deterrence and warfighting is repeated in book’s final chapter:

Therefore, imprudent decision to use force is never permitted … The reason for the existence of the army is to prevent and win a war … We may not launch a war in a hundred years but we can never be unprepared for war for even one day … Only when an army is fully prepared for war, can it be prudent to start a war and react quickly in war … So long as we can solve the problem with military deterrence, we will not resort to war.

The 2013 edition of The Science of Military Strategy also has a chapter on deterrence, which underscores the basic principles from a decade earlier updated according to changes in the international security environment and technological advances, particularly in the PLA’s level of information technologies, space, and cyber capabilities. No official English translation of the 2013 edition is available, but several books and essays discuss it in detail. In particular, this volume mentions the peacetime enhancement of island and reef defenses as part of China’s deterrence system to protect its maritime sovereignty and rights.

The Impact of Chinese Deterrence

Though the theory behind China’s deterrence posture can be found in PLA textbooks, the Chinese government has not done a very good job at explaining this aspect of its military doctrine to the outside world (and would likely not be believed by many even if it tried harder). As a result, some Chinese actions and signals were probably intended to send warnings, but deterrent messages can be interpreted as having hostile, aggressive intent.

Misperceiving actions and signals is complicated by the differences in the U.S. and China’s deterrence objectives due to the differences between Chinese core interests and American vital interests. Official U.S. deterrence objectives in Asia have been defined mostly in general. For example, the Department of Defense’s 2015 Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy aims to strengthen American “military capacity to ensure the United States can successfully deter conflict and coercion and respond decisively when needed.” More recently the Asia Society Task Force on U.S.-China Policy (unofficially) reiterated the goal to “deter a potentially aggressive and overreaching China.” Deterring “conflict and coercion” and an “aggressive and overreaching China” provide policy-makers great latitude in their actions. A specific example was raised last year in this publication with an article titled, “The United States may have just quietly deterred China.”

China has been a bit more forthcoming in its deterrence objectives beyond the generalities mentioned earlier. For example, its 2005 Anti-Secession Law begins with a list of five objectives in Article 1, the first of which is “opposing and checking Taiwan’s secession from China by secessionists in the name of ‘Taiwan independence.’” In other words, Beijing’s first objective is to deter further movement of Taiwan towards independence. (This law may be in the process of being amended.) Similarly, for many years, the Chinese government has identified “US vessel and aircraft reconnaissance along China’s coastline” as one of “three obstacles” hindering bilateral relations. It is safe to assume that deterring close-in reconnaissance missions and challenging U.S. freedom of navigation operations is a PLA mission. Pursuit of this objective has led to multiple incidents in the air and at sea between U.S. military and Chinese civilian and government aircraft and vessels. While China has been successful to date in deterring Taiwan’s independence, its military modernization continues to be perceived as threatening to Taiwan and the region. On the other hand, China has not been successful in deterring or limiting U.S. military operations in the region, with increases in the intensity of operations expected. Additionally, a proposed change to China’s maritime traffic safety law to “empower maritime authorities to prevent foreign ships from entering Chinese waters if it is decided that the ships may harm traffic safety and order” also is unlikely to stop U.S. operations near China. In short, Chinese deterrent actions in the South China Sea, to include the expansion of facilities on Chinese-occupied reefs, have led to escalation and increased tensions, not only with the U.S. but with China’s neighbors.

Actions such as routine PLA training and weapons tests are subject to misinterpretation and being portrayed as causally linked to some recent political event. PLA training is planned a year or more in advance with training objectives announced annually. In general, units follow a pattern progressing from basic training, to small unit and functional training, to larger exercises, culminating in joint and/or evaluation exercises. Because of the size of the PLA, the Chinese media usually reports on some sort of training nearly every week of the year, and, because of new equipment entering the force, much training now occurs in locations farther from China where the PLA has not operated frequently. Often, training takes place shortly before, during, or after a newsworthy item of international interest, such as a U.S. military event in the region. Consequently, PLA training and external events are frequently assessed by observers as related to one another, generally resulting in a Chinese spokesperson describing the training as routine and in accordance with the annual training schedule. Conversely, the Chinese government will not hesitate to publicize PLA training when it serves a deterrent objective, such as it did for a series of exercises opposite Taiwan in the early 2000s. Similarly, weapons tests usually occur according to parameters defined by the research and development process, not in direct response to outside events.

Returning to Reagan’s vision of “peace through strength,” earlier this year Hal Brands warned on these pages that “both of the nouns in that phrase [are] essential, and the latter [enables] the former.” As both the United States and China pursue their deterrence objectives in the region, all elements of Adm. Harris’ equation (and Chinese doctrine) need to be balanced and mutually understood in order not to undermine the shared goal of regional stability.


Dennis J. Blasko, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired), was an army attaché in Beijing and in Hong Kong from 1992-1996 and is the author of The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, second edition (Routledge, 2012).