Jaw-Jaw: A Look at the PLA’s History of Planning for War with Taylor Fravel
How does China think about the nature of war? How has China’s conception of war changed over time? What are “military guidelines” in Chinese statecraft and what leads the Chinese leadership to develop new ones? These and other questions are discussed in the latest episode of Jaw-Jaw, where Professor Taylor Fravel discusses his recent book Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949.
Taylor Fravel is the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Taylor is a graduate of Middlebury College and Stanford University, where he received his PhD. He currently serves on the editorial boards of the International Studies Quarterly, Security Studies, Journal of Strategic Studies, and the China Quarterly, and is a member of the board of directors for the National Committee on U.S. – China Relations. He is also the Principal Investigator of the Maritime Awareness Project.
Brad Carson is a professor at the University of Virginia, where he teaches in the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001-2005 and was Undersecretary of the Army and acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel & Readiness in the Obama administration. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- National Defense University, “Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms,” (2019)
- David Edelstein, “Over the Horizon: Time, Uncertainty, and the Rise of Great Powers,” (Cornell University Press, 2017)
- Carl Minzner, “End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise,” (Oxford University Press, 2018)
Brad: Professor Taylor Fravel, in your work that explores how the Chinese have thought about war and trained for war, you talk about the importance of strategic guidelines of which they’ve issued nine since 1956. Can you talk about what the strategic guideline means for the Chinese military and for the Chinese political system?
Taylor: Great. Thank you so much for having me today. The strategic guideline is basically the embodiment of China’s national military strategy. It’s also sometimes referred to as the “military strategic guideline.” That terminology changed a little bit in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it’s basically the overarching concept and set of principles that the PLA uses to plan and prepare and fight wars. It outlines how wars should be fought, it outlines who in many cases the enemy or the primary adversary is, and thus, what preparations China needs to undertake to be able to fight these wars.
Brad: What would be the analog to the Chinese military strategic guidelines in the United States? Would it be something like the National Security Strategy or the National Military Strategy?
Taylor: The closest analog would probably be the National Military Strategy, although I resist drawing any clear parallel because I think the Chinese system is so very different due to the fact that the PLA is a party army and the way in which strategy is formulated in China mirrors the way in which the Communist party itself formulates policies in other areas.
Brad: Well, in your work, you talk about how really the roots of the Chinese conceptions of how to fight wars was first broached really before the Revolution itself, when Mao fought with many of his colleagues in the Chinese Communist Party about the appropriate way to take on the Nationalists. Can you talk about the debates there and how Mao approached these issues and then how that led up to the first of these military strategic guidelines, which was in 1956?
Taylor: Sure, that’s a great question. The concept of the strategic guideline actually has a long history in the PLA. It goes all the way back to the mid-1930s when the Chinese Communist Party was fighting for its survival in a bitter conflict with the Nationalists. At the time, the armed forces of the Communist Party of China were called the Red Army, not the PLA, so I’ll talk a little bit about the Red Army here. In the early 1930s, after a failed series of uprisings through sort of the southern and central parts of the country such as places Nanchong, the PLA, sorry, the Red Army, excuse me, established base areas kind of in the borders between provinces.
One of the most well known base areas was established by Mao along with Zhu De, who was a very senior Chinese general. What they really wanted to do was find sanctuary so that they could have some time to build up military forces that could then defend the party against the Nationalists, who at that point had turned against them and was trying to eradicate them. This led to a series of what was known as five encirclement campaigns from roughly 1930 to 1934 when the Nationalists tried to wholly eliminate and destroy the Communist Party, including the Red Army. These were a series of Nationalist-led offenses into these base areas where the Red Army had been regrouping and expanding.
So the real question was, how would the Red Army, being much weaker than the Nationalists, defend itself against the much stronger Nationalist force? They came up with this idea of mobile warfare where they would fight on fluid fronts, sort of hit-and-run operations. It’s sort of guerrilla style but not guerrilla warfare, and this was seen as preferred to trying to engage in positional warfare or defending fixed positions or to defend the base areas themselves.
In a couple of the early counter encirclement campaigns, as they’re known in the PLA today, the Red Army would allow Nationalist forces to come quite deep into these base areas and then would try to identify weakness and attack them. There are a lot of variations on how this warfare took place, but basically the concept of the strategic guideline was used even back then to describe kind of the concept of operations for the response that the Red Army would undertake in the face of these Nationalist offenses.
Brad: The first military strategic guideline was issued in 1956 and was called “Defending The Motherland.” You write that it was primarily concerned with defending against an invasion by the United States. Can you talk a bit about what led up to this strategic guideline in 1956 and actually what it called for?
Taylor: The strategic guideline in 1956 was the first national military strategy that China adopted after victory in the Revolution in 1949, and at the time, the main security threat to China was identified as an invasion by the United States and this sort of drew on China’s experience in the Korean War, the landing at Inchon by U.S. forces and then concerns after China itself had entered the Korean War that the U.S. might try another … amphibious landing. China believed that this would be the way in which the U.S. might attack China in the future and so it needed to come up with a military strategy to be able to defeat that U.S. plan.
In contrast to the way of fighting in the 1930s, in which as I described a few moments ago, the Red Army would kind of allow enemy forces to penetrate quite deeply into their territory, and this was described as “luring the enemy in deep.” In this case in the 1956 strategy, they wanted to adopt a forward dense and try to not necessarily stop the U.S. from landing, they believed that was probably too difficult, but not to allow the U.S. to penetrate deeply because after all, now, the PLA had a sovereign country to defend and the idea of allowing an adversary into your sovereign territory was not nearly as appealing as it might have been during the period of the counter encirclement campaigns when the Red Army was quite literally fighting for its survival.
Brad: What did it call for? You said they had studied the Korean War, also World War II, and the nuclear revolution, of course, was in its infancy there, too. How did that affect their training, their fore-structure, and how they wanted to organize themselves?
Taylor: What it called for overall was developing a modernized, standardized, and regularized military, and what that means is that they wanted to unify the tables of equipment and organization, unify doctrine, unify training, and create a much larger and more effective military force. The reason why there was this focus on standardization and regularization was that during the Civil War period, especially from 1945 to 1949, the PLA itself was a collection of field armies that had responsibility for operations at different parts of the country and even within those field armies, there were units that had pretty significant responsibilities of their own. They had each kind of adapted their own approach to training.
They had different equipment because most of their equipment was captured from forces they had defeated in their area, so they had a combination of Japanese equipment, Soviet equipment, American equipment. This idea was if that China was going to be able to defeat the U.S. invasion, it was going to need to have a much more capable military force. It was going to need a much more modern military force and it was going to need to engage in what was then being described as combined arms operations, in which you would combine your infantry forces with armor and artillery in particular to maximize your fighting power. Excuse me.
Brad: Well, the 1956 military guideline was developed at a time when cooperation between the Chinese and the Soviets was at an all-time high, and you write in your book about the thousands of Soviet advisors who were helping the Chinese, but nonetheless, the Chinese seemed to have a different view of war than did the Soviets and did not seek to emulate the Soviets and their organization. Why did they have a different view than did their benefactors in the Soviet Union?
Taylor: That’s a great question. I think they probably viewed war as different from the Soviets for a few reasons. I think one just simply had to do with their actual capabilities, and so the Soviet Union had emerged from the Second World War as quite a powerful and modernized military force. It may have been a force that China might have aspired to be as capable as in the future, but it was not a force that China had at the time, so China had to think a little bit about a military strategy for that reason.
The Soviet approach to military thinking also had a very strong preference for the offensive, which has its own roots in Russian history and China believed that going on the offensive, especially against the United States, was not only impossible but even if it was possible, it would have been suicidal. They just had very different starting points with respect to their capabilities and what they thought the overall orientation of a country’s military strategy should be.
Brad: Well, it didn’t seem to last very long because by 1960, you write, they have a new military guideline where it’s no longer going to be forward defense, it’s going to be about resisting in the North while being open in the South. Can you talk about what that idea was kind of as a strategy?
Taylor: Yeah, so actually it was still pretty similar to forward defense and let me explain why. In 1959, as the Great Leap Forward is taking off, there’s a conference in Lichuan of senior Communist Party leaders and there’s a lot of debate over whether or not the Great Leap is in fact a good thing for China to be doing. Peng Dehuai, who was sort of the architect of the 1956 strategic guideline and then the most senior member of the Communist Party in charge of military affairs and himself a very decorated and important military figure from the Revolutionary period, wrote a private letter to Mao criticizing aspects of the Great Leap, and because Mao knew he was facing resistance regarding the Great Leap, he sort of turned on Peng and made discussion of Peng’s letter be the focus of this conference. That result of this meeting, which is known as the Lichuan Conference, is that Peng was purged and removed from all his positions, including his position as the member of the central military commission in charge of day-to-day affairs at the PLA.
He had to be replaced by Lin Biao. When Lin Biao comes into office in late 1959, he has to basically come up with the new strategic guideline that is not associated with Peng Dehuai because the 1956 guideline was associated with Peng Dehuai had to be rejected. Lin comes up with this new name, which is Resisting the North and Opening the South, but when you look at the content of the strategy, it was basically the same as the one that Peng had adopted.
The idea was that China would focus on pursuing a forward offense in the northeast where they thought a U.S. attack was most likely, and in the south where they thought a U.S. attack would be much less likely, they would focus on allowing the U.S. to come in if it chose to invade there because that would be a better way to be able to defeat the United States, in part because of the nature of the terrain in the south and the tropical climate makes it much harder to conduct combined arms operations. Excuse me.
Lin adopts this new slogan for the strategic guideline or this new phrase for the strategic guideline in 1960, but the content is actually very similar to the guideline adopted in 1956. It’s only in 1964 that a truly radical change to the strategic guideline occurs.
Brad: Let’s talk about that 1964 strategy, which the Chinese termed “luring the enemy in deep.” You write that it is unique in a couple of ways, but most notably that while the other nine military guidelines were largely driven by military officers and by the People’s Liberation Army, this was where Mao himself intervened very directly to change the strategy and you talk a little bit about why he did that, the domestic imperatives. This strikes me as maybe as a controversy among historians of this moment. Can you talk about why Mao intervened and what the strategy that he advocated was?
Taylor: Great. Let me talk about the strategy first, then I’ll talk about why he intervened. The turning point here is the summer of 1964, and in particular, June 1964. June 1964 at a meeting of party leaders, Mao questions Lin Biao’s strategic guideline, says that he’s not certain if it’s the right guideline, and then starts to advocate for a military strategy of luring the enemy in deep. This was sort of the complete opposite of both what Peng Dehuai and Lin Biao had been advocating for.
Taylor: Instead of a forward offense against the area of a likely U.S. attack, Mao called for allowing the U.S. to penetrate and perhaps penetrate quite deeply into the territory of The People’s Republic of China and then wearing down the U.S. in a protracted war. In this way, Mao is in essence advocating for the strategies that he pursued in the 1930s in the first three encirclement campaigns. Mao himself is advocating a strategy that has its origins in the very early phase of the Chinese Revolution when the Red Army was fighting for its survival in the base areas. A really dramatic change from the strategy that had been in place since 1956 and what basically the PLA high command had itself preferred.
Taylor: The question is, why did Mao decide to do this? The conventional view among Chinese historians and most Western scholars of this period is that Mao thought China was facing increasing threats, that it was unclear where these threats would come from, and therefore, the best strategy for defending China was not to focus efforts in any one particular area or to focus in particular on deterring the U.S. invasion in the northeast, but in fact, conserve forces and allow the adversary to attack first and then conduct a counter-attack.
Taylor: The threats that these scholars focus on would be tensions that emerged across the Taiwan Strait in 1962 when for a period of time it appeared that the Nationalists might try some sort of amphibious assault against Fujian and Shizhong. Later in 1962, there was a border war between China and India. There was some issues with the Soviets in Shizhong also in 1962, and then finally, overall the relationship with the Soviet Union kind of begins to deteriorate at the political level by this time. My argument is that Mao is not focused on these external factors as sort of prevailing scholarship would lead you to believe.
Taylor: Firstly, most of these external threats that I just mentioned that are cited in the literature had all dissipated by 1964. China defeated India in 1962, the nationalist invasion never materialized, the situation in Xinjiang had stabilized, and the situation on the border with the Soviet Union had not yet become militarized. And so one can’t find an external threat against which China might have been mobilizing. The other threat that is often mentioned in this context has to do with the U.S. And Vietnam, and I forgot to mention that earlier. But again, the two turning points regarding the U.S. involvement in Vietnam are the Gulf of Tonkin in August of 1964, several months after Mao changed his strategy, and then the escalation in March of 1965. And so that can’t explain this change either because this change happens before anyone thought that the situation in Vietnam was going to deteriorate in the way that it did.
So the argument that I put forward in the book is that Mao was manipulating military strategy for his own domestic political goals. And the basic argument here is that from the end of the Great Leap until 1964, Mao was on the defensive. His stature on the party had been weakened, and this also created concerns for Mao about whether or not the communist party would continue to be a truly revolutionary socialist party. And so he became increasingly concerned with what he described as a revisionism or deviation from the core principles of the Chinese revolution and he was trying to find ways to become more relevant and to get back into politics.
And the way in which he settled on doing this was to firstly become more active in economic policy and then to become more active in military policy. But they both had one similar thread was that the military strategies that Mao advocated in terms of luring the enemy in deep and the economic policies that he pursued through something known as the “third line.” Both focused on decentralizing decision-making from the party bureaucrats in Beijing that Mao viewed as revisionist, and allowing local leaders, whether they’re military leaders or local party leaders, to have more control and more influence. And so because Mao was pushing for these economic policies of decentralization through the third line, he also had to push for a military strategy that would be similar. And one reason why he had to do this in particular was that the only way he could advocate for decentralizing economic policy and building out the third line was to highlight very vague external threats that China faced.
Brad: Can you define that phrase, “building out the third line?”
Taylor: Yeah. I’m sorry, I should have mentioned that earlier. So, sort of the main change in economic policy in the spring of 1964 is that Mao calls for developing China’s hinterland, which is known as the third line. The third line basically only makes sense in the context of there being a first line or the front line and then a second line and then a third interior line. And so it was seen as China’s rear areas. And Mao called for developing the third line, but the way in which he was doing it was to call for restarting massive large-scale industrial projects like steel mills and railways that he had pursued in the late 1950s as well. So these were sort of long-standing economic objectives and he was now finding a new way to pursue them. But he had to rationalize this by saying that China needed to have a rear area in the event of a war. And his concern was that most of China’s industrial production was concentrated in coastal areas that would be more vulnerable to attack in the event of a war.
But again, because external threats were not terribly salient or sharp in 1964, even though Mao makes this very vague reference to China needing a rear area, it’s hard to see his decision actually being driven by external concerns, and it matches very perfectly his increasing concern with revisionism within the party that had been growing since 1962. And one core element of his concerns about revisionism in the party had to do with the return to central economic planning as a way to help the Chinese economy recover from the devastation and famine of the Great Leap. And that in turn empowered party bureaucrats, especially those under the state planning commission in Beijing. And this was a group that Mao in particular wanted to attack. And so by calling for the third line, he was leveling a direct critique against the central planning process. And he made several remarks over the summer of 1964 where he talked about how flawed it was and that they were just copying the Soviets in a bad way here, and so on and so forth.
And so that’s the origins of the third line. But because the third line itself was framed in terms of this generic need for a rear area in this ambiguous sense of threat, he also needed a military strategy that would support the rationale for developing the third line in the first place. But what makes this most interesting, his push to develop the third line comes before his efforts to change the military strategy. And that in turn tells me that he was really being driven by his domestic political considerations and concerns about revisionism, and not what he thought would actually best secure China.
Brad: So heretofore when we’ve talked about the enemy in Chinese military guidelines, it’s been the United States, but by the late 1970s and especially in 1980, which you say is one of the notable changes in military guidelines, a new enemy is in China’s thinking, and that’s the Soviet Union. And of course these military guidelines are being developed in the context of a power struggle with the death of Mao, and Deng and Hua kind of fighting it out to be the leader. Can you talk about what’s happening and what changed in the late seventies and 1980 as they moved to what you call active defense?
Taylor: So one piece of context here would be that the threat with the Soviet Union really begins to intensify in the mid-1960s, roughly 1965, 1966. And it more or less coincides with the launch of the Cultural Revolution in China. In 1969, Chinese and Soviet forces clash at Zhenbao Island, which is in the Ussuri River in the northeastern part of China, the Russian Far East. And then after that clash happens, the border becomes much more militarized. And so from really the late 1960s, China faced a real and serious threat from the Soviet Union, which at one point had fifty divisions on the Chinese border or in a Mongolia in areas adjacent to China. But China was not able to adopt a strategy to deal with that threat until 1980. And the argument that I advance in the book is that there’s an important condition that has to be in place for China to pursue, especially major changes in military strategy, and that’s unity among the party leadership.
And I define unity as agreement on the structure of power. Who the leaders are going to be and what the responsibilities and authorities are, and then also agreement on what policies the parties should be pursuing. And so the Cultural Revolution itself was a period of great disunity among the leadership that devolved into different factions. And then after Mao dies in 1976, it takes quite a significant period of time for there to be the restoration of political unity. And without going into all the details, what happens is a power struggle between Hua Guofeng, who was anointed just before Mao died as Mao’s last successor, and Deng Xiaoping, who had been criticized and sent down during the Cultural Revolution who really was probably the most competent leader. And so Deng doesn’t really reestablish his authority until this period between late 1978 and early 1980, but once he’s able to do so, then the PLA itself can adopt a new military strategy.
And what we see with the 1980 strategy is that the Chinese generals think that Mao’s idea of luring the enemy in deep is suicidal because if you allow the enemy, in this case, the Soviet Union, to take the capital Beijing or to take other major cities, it would be very hard to amount a robust offense. And so many of the generals at this point are pushing for a turn to a forward defense, which they believe would be the best way to secure China. But they’re also quite influenced by their observations of the fighting in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War because that war in particular showed them how they thought the Soviet would attack China, and in particular the role of armored columns as well as anti-tank weapons, along with air defense weapons.
And so they believed that the Soviets might be able to strike quickly and deeply into China and that they need needed to be in a position to be able to prevent that from happening. And so that led them to argue for this strategy which became known as “active defense.” And the idea was to not necessarily stop the Soviets at the Chinese-Soviet border, but to definitely prevent them from penetrating deeply into China and in particular to prevent them from seizing important civilian targets like the capital Beijing or to be in a position to engage in any kind of decisive battle with Chinese forces.
Brad: What does the history show as the real threat from the Soviet Union? Do historians now think that the Soviets actively contemplated an invasion of China?
Taylor: That’s a really good question. So I think the Soviets themselves were really worried about the instability of China during the period of the Cultural Revolution. And so they saw China as unpredictable and they weren’t sure what China would do, especially after Chinese forces ambushed Soviet forces in 1969 at Zhenbao Island. And so I think from a Soviet perspective, their deployments along the border with China were more defensively oriented than they were offensively oriented. At the same time, because of the split between China and the Soviet Union and how that weakened the socialist block against the West, I think China did … Sorry, excuse me, Moscow still didn’t want to bring China around and deploy significant military power as part of that policy. But I think now we know that there was never a serious effort or serious consideration in the Soviet Union given to trying to invade and conquer China.
Brad: One of the things you talk about in your book is that like all militaries, the Chinese studied what was going on in the world and how wars were being fought. And you already referenced the 1973 Arab-Israeli War as influencing the development of the very important 1980 military guideline. By the late 1980s though it seemed like they’d come to some new conclusions about war, which is that major war was unlikely to happen. And they introduced this phrase about local wars into their thinking. Can you talk about what that is and what motivated them to conclude that the major war was unlikely to happen?
Taylor: Yeah. So the idea of a major war really focused on this concern that we’ve just been talking about, that a foreign power, either the United States or the Soviet Union would try to invade and conquer China. And so that was described in Chinese sources as a total war because it was a war for a survival of the country and it was a war for the survival of the party. By the mid 1980s, Deng Xiaoping in particular, but also other Chinese leaders, had concluded that such wars of conquest were going to be much less likely in the future than they had been in the past. And so that led them to shift their thinking in terms of what scenarios or what conflicts China would be likely to face in the future, from preparing to defend against invasion of the Chinese homeland territory to prevailing in conflicts over a disputed territory that would be on China’s periphery.
And they described these conflicts on China’s periphery as local wars. And the term in Chinese is jubu zhanzheng. It can also be translated as “limited wars,” but the idea is that it’s not a total war, that there’s a limited military objective. It could still be a very important military objective if it’s disputed territory, but it is not the kind of conflict that would escalate into a total war in which the survival of the nation and the party would be at stake.
Brad: So by 1993 they have added a phrase called, you’re right, it’s not local wars only, but it’s “local wars under high technology conditions.” And the 1993 strategy, along with 1980 and 1956, you argue are the three most important strategic guidelines. And indeed, the way the Chinese think of war even today is largely derived or found in that 1993 strategy. So what motivated them to add this idea of “under high technology conditions,” and what did they mean by that?
Taylor: So, when they shifted to local wars in the late 1980s, they had no idea really how these wars ought to be fought. And in fact they spent the next few years until Tiananmen exploring how they thought these different local wars would be fought. And then you have the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991. And I think like most militaries around the world, the Gulf War had a dramatic impact on how people view the conduct of warfare and how warfare would be evolving in the future. And it certainly had a real and profound impact on senior Chinese military officers. And so they came to the conclusion quite quickly in a series of seminars and conferences to study the Gulf War in 1991 or 1992, they came quite quickly to the conclusion that for China, future wars would on the one hand be local wars over limited aims I just talked about, but they would also be fought under high technology conditions. And here the Chinese were acknowledging the role that high technology was playing in war fighting and this shift from sort of mechanized warfare in the second World War to something that was quite different.
And so the Chinese watched the same videos on CNN that you and I probably watched at that time of precision-guided munitions going down the chimneys of buildings and destroying the buildings in a very clean and precise way. And even if that didn’t reflect how the Gulf War was actually fought overall, nevertheless, it demonstrated the role of high technology and how it was being applied to war fighting and what that would mean for the future. And this is the full gamut, from command and control to precision-guided munitions to stealth platforms and everything in between.
Brad: And you talk in the book about how this did change kind of the organization of the PLA, how they had in the 80s, for example, transitioned from the army corps to combined arms group armies, and then in the 1990s and even to this day, they’ve made a further shift to the brigade units. Can you talk about how they reorganize themselves, they downsize, how they change what they are buying, things like that? How has this affected the organization of the PLA?
Taylor: Yeah, so I think the main impact of the 1993 strategic guideline was to shift-
very clearly the focus of the PLA from ground-force-based combined arms operations to actually the ability to conduct joint operations among the services. And it’s been a long transition, and it’s a transition that’s still undergoing today. But this really does have its roots in the 1993 strategic guideline.
So in contrast to the earlier periods when they would talk about mobile warfare and positional warfare, and even in the 1980 strategic guideline, although there’s a shift to combined arms, they still sort of phrase that often in terms of the balance between positional warfare and mobile warfare. And so the 1993 strategy in this regard is really different. So that means a couple of things.
First it means we have to downsize the PLA because your armed forces, sorry sorry the ground force component of your armed forces is simply too big. Then you’re going to need to bolster your Air Force, you need to bolster the Navy, and then also China decides at this time to bolster its rocket forces by giving them a conventional strike mission.
And so, that’s sort of the overall theme, and the way in which they think about downsizing is to shift from a division-based structure, under the combined arms group armies to a brigade structure. In that instance they are I think looking quite closely at what the U.S. and other armed forces are doing, and if you want to have joint operations, you want to have units that you can combine more easily, and so it’s easier in general to combine a slightly smaller unit like a brigade than a much larger unit like a division.
So you see this emphasis in the shift towards brigades happening in the mid to late 1990s, and now the PLA today has fully shifted back to brigades. At the same time you see efforts to build up the Navy and the Air Force, and during this period from 1993 to 2003, the PLA cuts 700,000 troops from the force. So it’s a dramatic force reduction. A really large number, so that today in the most sort of recent reforms, the PLA is cutting 300,000 which is significant. But … through the downsizing in the late 1990s and again in 2003, they cut 700,000, and you see the majority of those cuts coming out of the ground forces.
The Air Force and the Navy are still being trimmed a bit, but they’re not being trimmed nearly as much.
Brad: The last two of their nine military strategic guidelines, and the most recent of these in 2004 and 2014, both talk about “informatized local wars.”
Brad: What do the Chinese mean by this strange term: “informatized?”
Taylor: It’s a terrible word, as it makes perfect sense in Chinese and is impossible to translate into English. But the essence is that they judged in the 2004 guideline that the essence of high technology in warfare was going to be information, and informationized warfare, and thus they shifted the label of the strategy from winning local wars under high technology conditions to winning local wars under informationized conditions.
Here they were learning the lessons of several conflicts: the war in Kosovo, as well as the invasion of Iraq. But the war in Kosovo I think had a pretty profound impact on the PLA at the time in terms of understanding that really what was enabling the operations that the U.S. was able to conduct was the way in which information was collected, processed, and then used to guide military operations.
What we see in the most recent strategy in 2014 is simply a judgment, not that wars are going to be fought under informationized conditions, but that wars now are thoroughly and entirely informationized.
Brad: When you hear this phrase “informationalized,” or “informatized,” on one hand it’s easy to think of it as being some kind of ominous insight into the nature of war. Is it that, or is it something that’s kind of almost banal as IT is going to play a major role in how wars are going to be fought, and sensors, computer analysis, et cetera, like that. Is it simply that hey, IT is going to be really important?
Taylor: Yes, it’s absolutely the latter. It’s definitely the latter that simply IT is going to be part of every aspect of war fighting from start to finish.
Brad: How does that differ the American idea of a revolution in military affairs? Or the Soviets, I mean the Russians have thought about that idea.
Taylor: At the most general level it’s probably not too different from net-centered warfare. I mean, I think the RMA has some slightly different implications, but certainly the way in which the U.S. was talking about net-centered warfare is quite similar to what the Chinese mean by informationized warfare.
The other implication is that China didn’t have a lot of the capabilities to do any of this. So it was going to require very significant and sustained modernization effort.
Brad: We saw in the last couple of years that Xi Jinping has reorganized the military. How does that play into their concept of what future war will look like?
Taylor: These reforms are fascinating, and my take on them, and this may not be the conventional wisdom, but my take on them is what Xi Jinping is trying to do with these reforms is to enable what previous strategic guidelines had identified as what China should be able to do, i.e. to conduct joint operations, and to truly be able to conduct joint operations.
The PLA changed a little bit how they talked about joint operations, in the early 2000s they began to talk about integrated joint operations, and this I think is much more similar to the U.S. conception of joint operations, so previous Chinese views of joint operations I think were more about coordinating the elements from the different services to join together in some particular operation, and now with integrated joint operations, it’s much more about how you fuse them together, and use IT to do that.
The problem was the PLA was never really able to conduct the reforms necessary to put itself in a position to truly be able to conduct joint operations. The general organization of the PLA with four general departments had been in place since the late 1950s. It had really been three general departments, and then they added a fourth to the 1990s. This heavily skewed towards favoring the ground forces in a variety of different ways. The PLA also organized itself into what were known as military regions, and these were initially identified as zones of responsibility for defending different parts of the country. But they also had developed their own logistic systems, and in many cases their own local forces.
If China really does want to be able to conduct joint operations, it would have to basically engage in the dramatic reforms that we now see occurring under Xi Jinping. And so Xi is not acting on a new vision of warfare. I think he’s acting on the earlier visions of warfare that the PLA have developed in the earlier strategic guidelines. But he’s actually enabling those reforms to occur by breaking, or by going after many, many different kinds of vested interests within the PLA.
Brad: How’s the PLA responding to this, after these sacred cows, is the resistance in your mind? Or do you see resistance from the PLA? What Xi’s trying to do?
Taylor: There absolutely has to be resistance. I think it is hard to observe, right? Because, given the way the Chinese Communist Party works, a lot of internal disagreements are never fully aired. But you could certainly think of the anti-corruption campaigns in the PLA, not just in the party, but in the PLA as partly designed to go after resistance to reform. I can’t prove that. That’s more of a hypothesis than a empirically verified conclusion. But to the degree that the anti-corruption campaign has been used to both root out corruption and to achieve other objectives, I think that would certainly hold within the PLA itself.
I think the way in which Xi Jinping is consolidated power has also made it quite difficult for military leaders necessarily to be more vocal about what they think the challenges of the reforms are, because it could possibly be seen as criticizing Xi Jinping. So, I think what the reforms have done is to induce a lot of caution. People in the PLA don’t want to be seen as doing the wrong thing, or not implementing the forms, or getting on the wrong side of the reforms. But that also means they might not actually paradoxically be implementing the reforms as thoroughly as they should be.
Brad: How do you assess the ability of the Chinese to conduct joint operations under informatized conditions? Is this what they want to do?
Brad: How capable are they of doing this?
Taylor: I think at the moment, they would not be viewed as that capable, but they are certainly trying to improve their capability. One element of the reforms, it’s quite interesting, is that there have actually been a decrease in the tempo of military exercises in the last few years, as the reforms are being carried out, because a lot of China was being broken, and a lot of units were being reorganized, and a lot of command relationships were being changed.
In addition, if you look at, say, even in the last year, there have not been I believe, and I’ll have to double check this, but I believe there has not been a single large scale joint exercise involving the three services. So what you see are exercises involving individual services of a fair number of Navy exercises, a decent number of Air Force exercises, some ground force exercises. But what you don’t see are joint operations, or exercises, excuse me, that are exercising joint operations among the three services.
What this means is I think that China is still trying to, or the PLA is still trying to focus on strengthening the basic capabilities of the individual services that would then feed into joint operations. So I wouldn’t read this as saying that the PLA will never be able to conduct joint operations at scale, but simply that it’s still putting the pieces in place to be able to do so.
I often tell people that when you look at Chinese military modernization, on the one hand, it’s really kind of impressive and awe-inspiring in the amount of progress they have made in the last 20 years, is really significant. But on the other hand I think they’re on a 50 year timetable, and so they’re not trying to necessarily achieve any of these new capabilities in a compressed period of time, and I think you see them pursuing their efforts to improve their capabilities in a very methodical way. And so in some ways even though the pace of modernization appears to be quite rapid, I think China in some ways is still more of a tortoise than a hare, in terms of how it’s going about improving its military capabilities.
Brad: Well, Taylor, we end every episode of Jaw-Jaw by asking our guests to recommend two or three books that they might find … that people who are interested in the subject might also go to. What would you recommend in that score?
Taylor: That’s great. The first book I would recommend regarding the PLA is an edited volume from the National Defense University. It’s edited by Phil Saunders and Joel Wuthnow, and it’s called Xi Remakes the PLA. If you want to read any one book about the PLA reforms, I would encourage you to read this book. It’s absolutely terrific, and it includes I think probably 20 chapters or so by the leading analyst of the PLA in this country.
I’m sorry, I got the name wrong. It’s Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA. But absolutely cutting edge research on where the PLA is today. The other book I wanted to recommend has to do with thinking about China more broadly, and the U.S.-China relationship more broadly. This is a book by a professor at Georgetown, David Edelstein, entitled Over The Horizon, and it’s about the role of time horizons in great power politics and how leaders in different countries think about the role of time. But I think it really bares directly on how in this country we often think about the U.S.-China relationship, and how the U.S.-China relationship has evolved to the place that it is today.
Then finally, in terms of the broader context of what’s going on in China, I know that many of your previous guests have recommended the book by Liz Economy, which is absolutely terrific, but I also wanted to suggest a different book in this vain, which is by Carl Minzner, and it’s entitled End of an Era, and it’s another take on how politics has really changed in China under Xi Jinping that I think bares a close reading.
Brad: We will put links to all of those works in the show notes of the podcast. Professor Taylor Fravel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thank you for being a guest and Jaw-Jaw.
Taylor: Thank you for having me.