PLA Strategy & Doctrine:

 Recommendations for a Future Research Agenda


 David Shambaugh
Professor of Political Science & International Affairs  
Director, China Policy Program  
Elliott School of International Affairs  
George Washington University  
Non-Resident Senior Fellow  
Foreign Policy Studies Program  

The Brookings Institution

Washington, D.C.

Discussion paper prepared for “Chinese Military Studies: a Conference on the State of the Field,” U.S. National Defense University Institute for National Strategic Studies’ Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, Fort McNair, October 26-27, 2000.

One Recommendation Above All 

The single most concrete and important suggestion I can offer to the new NDU Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs is simple: sponsor a large project to systematically translate into English, and make publicly available, a wide variety of Chinese language books and journals about the PLA.  There are many other important and worthy missions for the new Center—including stimulating and helping to coordinate the field of contemporary Chinese military studies; building an unparalleled library and documentation center of primary language and translated materials; holding conferences, seminars, and policy dialogues; sponsoring exchanges with specialists of the PLA, and in the PLA; and creating an in-house permanent research staff whose research skills and scholarly objectivity are of the highest caliber possible—but perhaps none is more important than what the Center can do to drastically expand the data base upon which the entire field of PLA studies crucially depends. 

Data is the lifeblood of all research.  Without an adequate empirical data base, analysts—be they scholars, journalists, or intelligence analysts—have no alternative but to fall back on inference, subjectivity, hunches, and even ideologically-driven and politically-motivated approaches.  Without hard data, the field of Chinese military studies would quickly be prone to these less-than-empirical methods. 

Of what data do I speak?  Unfortunately, there persists an enduring yet inaccurate shibboleth in the study of the PLA, which is also widely held in policy circles and perpetuated by some media—namely that the PLA is not transparent.  This is simply not the case.  While I readily acknowledge that the PLA does intentionally try to hide  considerable information from foreigners (as well as the Chinese population), and is somewhat successful in doing so (particularly with regards to weapons development programs, budget and expenditure, strategic intentions and perhaps deployments), the vast majority of information a specialist/analyst would want to know about the PLA is readily available.……………in Chinese.   

In my view, the problem with PLA transparency lies not necessarily with the Chinese Government and the PLA, but precisely with PLA analysts in the United States and other countries who do not possess the necessary linguistic capabilities to read Chinese and exploit the available material.  The professional scholarly community of PLA-watchers (in which I exclude DIA and other intelligence analysts, as their work and analysis never sees the light of day) is fairly small to begin with (25-30), but regrettably woefully few (less than 10) possess sufficient Chinese language capabilities to digest even a small portion of the massive amount of relevant publications. 

My purpose here is not to denigrate those who do not possess sufficient Chinese language skills, as nobody is truly fluent and it takes years and years of formal training and use in situ to develop sufficient competance.  It would be nice if the U.S. federal government would pour millions of dollars into a sustained language training program, perhaps under the National Security Education Act (the “Boren Bill”), to train a new generation of 100-200 linguistically proficient researchers on Chinese military affairs.  It would be nice if those trained under the U.S. Army’s Foreign Area Officer (FAO) program and the new counterpart program in the Navy/Marines, who are supposed to possess such skills, would engage in scholarly research and publish publicly.  But I doubt that either is going to happen. 

Yet we have a fairly large and growing community of PLA researchers in and out of government who do not possess Chinese language skills (or at least anywhere near the necessary degree of fluency), but could exploit the large reservoir of data available if it were translated into English.  Sure enough, those in government have access to sources of technical intelligence that probably reveal quite a lot about PLA deployments, weapons, exercises, etc.  Interactions with PLA personnel, and occasional visits to bases, also provide fragmentary insights to strategic thinking, doctrine, the force structure, and troop conditions.  These sources of information should not be underestimated—and collection of such human intelligence (HUMINT) on the PLA is one of the most notable benefits of bilateral military exchanges with the PLA.   

But the sources I have in mind are all published….and they are not (necessarily) in the Liberation Army Daily (Jiefangjun Bao).  For many years, the LAD has offered insights into a variety of contemporary issues in the PLA, but much of this relates to current intelligence with a short shelf-life and it lacks the empirical “depth” that serious analysts ought to, and would like to, know about.  At any rate, translations of the LAD are no longer available through the public-subscriber version of FBIS (taken off in the spring of 2000 for inexplicable reasons).   

These published sources exist only in the form of books and periodicals (including Military Region newspapers), and they are only available in China (although a some can be procured in Hong Kong).  Together they contain a veritable treasure trove of information on many aspects of the PLA—budget and finance; doctrine and strategy; defense industries and weapons production; threat perception and preparation for contingencies; command and control; force structure; information warfare; and many other aspects.  The best of these materials are published for restricted distribution—either neibu faxing (not for sale to foreigners) or junnei faxing (not for sale to civilian Chinese or foreigners), as many offer the most thorough, empirical, and insightful studies of various PLA subjects.  While foreigners cannot buy these materials, it is not to say that they are not available to foreigners via other means—and many now exist in private collections and university libraries in the United States.  The vast majority of these books, however, are not so classified and are readily available for purchase at certain bookstores in China.  All one has to do is know where to find them, buy them, and read them.  It is that simple (periodicals are slightly more complicated, as most are for restricted circulation and cannot be subscribed to abroad). 

It should be, in my view, a principal priority of the new Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs to establish a Library and Documentation Center that becomes the principal repository for such materials outside of China.  Moreover, and relatedly, it should be of the highest priority to establish a systematic translation service of these materials that makes available these materials in “hard” and perhaps electronic form.  This will require three things:  

1.      Reaching out to private individuals in the U.S. to donate their collections (I am willing, in principle, to donate my collection of 300+ books and runs of several periodicals if a bona fide translation service is also established). 

2.      Establishing mechanisms for on-going collection of such books and periodicals in China. 

3.      Hiring a team of qualified translators (perhaps 30-40) who will work full-time on such translations (I would estimate that it would take a team of this size 2-3 years to clear the backlog of necessary translations before they could turn their attention to recent publications on an on-going basis).  Even a team half this size would have a major impact. 

Unless and until such an effort is made, the field of Chinese military studies will forever lag empirically and analytically behind—and will be forced to rely on fragmentary shreds of data, from which “conclusions” will be drawn (often erroneously).  This is not to infer that the field languishes today, as it has achieved a “maturity” and level of qualitative excellence absent even a decade ago,[1] but it will be forever handicapped without ready access to these materials.  It makes little sense to create and fund a major Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at our premier institution of professional military education (PME) unless those who work there, and are affiliated with it, have an adequate empirical data base to work with. 

How much will this cost?  I do not know, but a skilled U.S. Government budgeter familiar with professional translator’s salaries should (ideally these should be full-time salaried staff and not part-time freelance translators).  A ballpark estimate might be: 40 translators @ $40,000 p.a. = $1.6 million + benefits; a procurement budget of $30,000 p.a. (to include $20K for airfares for collectors and shipping costs—purchase prices would amount to less than $5000 p.a.).  I would estimate it could all be done, easily, for $2 million per annum.  Even half this amount and number of translators will provide benefit.  We are talking, at present, about translating on the order of 500 books (or parts thereof), and runs of available PLA journals and Military Region (MR) newspapers over the last 5-8 years.  This is the approximate existing “backlog.”  Of course, efforts must be made to collect and translate materials in these categories that are appearing at present and indefinitely into the future.  It would also be highly useful for the translation staff to set up and continually compile a biographical data base on PLA officers and their career paths.  

In my view, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) is simply not up to this task, for reasons of manpower, policy priorities, and funding.  A new dedicated, stand-alone translations service—which is nimble and responsive—is needed.  

A final point:  ensuring the availability of relevant materials ensures neither that the analyst can gain bibliographic control over the materials nor necessarily has the requisite analytical skills to exploit them.  This requires training that the Center’s mandate does not necessarily  include (although workshops, short courses, and seminars on “research sources and methods” would be a good idea)—but I would estimate that there already exists a cohort of retired FAOs and DIA analysts, as well as young Ph.D’s. who could constitute a small and highly-competent research staff of 25 or so.   More experienced researchers, from in and out of government, could undertake training courses (noted above). 

Researching PLA Strategy and Doctrine  
Turning now to the assigned subject, allow me to offer some observations on research priorities, sources, and methods pertaining to the future study of Chinese military strategy and doctrine.[2] 

Military doctrine is fundamental to all other facets of China’s military modernization.  Therefore, over the last two decades, reforming doctrine has been fundamental for a vast range of PLA reforms, professionalization and modernization.  In all militaries doctrine is the principal “driver” for force structure, personnel recruitment, military education, training regimens, hardware needs, research and development, weapons procurement, and operational strategy.      

Generally speaking, military doctrine consists of the fundamental principles that guide military commanders and their staffs in planning and executing the application of military force to achieve military objectives—and is to be distinguished from strategy, which is concerned with linking those military objectives to a set of desired political-strategic goals.[3]  Thus, general warfare doctrine is a set of usually broad precepts that become operationalized as a that guide strategy and tactics in military campaigns—a series of related military operations aimed at achieving specific objectives on the battlefield.[4]  As succinctly described in the U.S. Army’s principal field training manual (FM-100-5): “Doctrine captures the lessons of past wars, reflects on the nature of war and conflict in its own time, and anticipates intellectual and technological developments in future times.”[5] 

In Western militaries basic doctrine is distinguished from operational doctrine.  In the PLA the latter are often described as “operational principles” (zuozhan tiaoli) or, more commonly, “campaign” theory (zhanyi)—which are more specific than basic doctrine, but not as precise as specific tactics (zhanshu). These operational principles include such concepts as mobility (jidong), attrition (xiaohaozhan), annihilation (jianmeizhan), close or deep-depth defense (qian zongshen or quan zongshen), layered defense (tidui guofang), preemptive strikes (xianji zhidi), asymmetrical warfare (buduideng zhanzheng), transregional operations (kuaqu zuozhan), offensive operations (jinggong zuozhan), and other general concepts.[6]  As is also discussed further below, “active defense” (jiji fangyu) has also long been a core feature of PLA operational doctrine.    

For the PLA there appears to be five separate levels of doctrinal thinking and planning.  These are presented in the table below.[7]  The parallels with Western doctrine are also given.  Interestingly, each tier has a parallel in Chinese Communist Party and state policy formulation.

  Doctrinal Levels of Analysis in the PLA  

                               PLA                                  Western Military           

Level 1                   Military Thought                 No equivalent
                              (junshi sixiang)                       

Level 2                   Defense Theory                  Basic Doctrine
                              (guofang lilun)   

                               Defense Doctrine 
                               (guofang junzi)  

Level 3                    Strategic Principles            Operational Doctrine
            (zhanlue tiaoli)                                 

                               Operational Principles 
            (zuozhan tiaoli)  

Level 4                    Campaign                          War Theater

Level 5                    Combat Tactics                  Combat Tactics  

                    Regulations                        Regulations and Orders  


Thus, in the PLA, basic and operational doctrine must be distinguished, but also operational principles from battlefield tactics.  Ever since the 1970s, the PLA has encountered difficulties operationalizing a succession of basic doctrines and converting abstract battlefield principles into practical campaign tactics—although there is evidence that this is now being specified.[8]  

Threat perception and the national security environment are also major determinants of a nation’s defense posture, while technological innovation also serves as a supply-side stimulant to the types of weapons and communications systems fielded.[9]  For the PLA, all three elements—doctrine, technology, and threat—have interacted to shape the PLA’s posture over time, but the causal linkages have changed.  For many years the PLA had no choice but to practice the law of technological disadvantage, first enunciated by Red Army Marshal Zhu De: “The kind of war to fight depends on what kind of arms we have,” but this has now been replaced by “build weapons necessary to fight whatever kind of war.”[10]  To be sure, the PLA continues to face an environment of technological inferiority against most potential adversaries, therefore requiring continued reliance on asymmetrical warfare strategies, but the Chinese military’s overall posture today is largely doctrine driven.   

Through the approximately 75 year history of the PLA, doctrine has evolved through roughly four phases: “People’s War” (1935-79); “People’s War Under Modern Conditions” (1979-1985); “Limited War” (1985-91); and “Limited War Under High Technology Conditions” (1991--).  My colleague Paul Godwin will assess further the actual content of PLA strategy and doctrine during these phases and today.  Suffice it for me close with a brief discussion of potential research questions and research sources that may answer these questions. 

The Research Agenda Ahead 

Since I have been asked to identify a “top ten” list of important research questions relating to PLA doctrine and strategy for the future, please consider the following suggestions.   

1.      At the broadest level, how do threat perception, national security assessments, defense strategy, and military doctrine interrelate? What mix of ingredients comprise China’s national security calculus?  How are threat perceptions formed (including the role of non-military factors)?  Is politico-military strategy driven by entirely by these threat perceptions, or do a wider set of variables affect the calculus?  How, in turn, do these threat perceptions and strategic calculations influence military doctrine?   

2.      What is the interrelationship of strategy and doctrine to research and development of military technology and weapons procurement?  To what extent does doctrine drive procurement decisions or vice versa?  To what extent do threat perceptions and planning for specific contingencies (e.g. with Taiwan and the United States) influence procurement decisions?  

3.      Is there a truly distinct Chinese strategic culture that informs doctrine and influences the use of force?[11]  If so, what is it, how has it evolved over time, and what are the distinct cultural underpinnings of such a strategic culture?  How important is ancient Chinese military thought and art (bingfa) in influencing contemporary PLA doctrine and tactics?  Particularly, what influence do ancient strategies of asymmetrical warfare hold today?  

4.      What is the PLA’s “calculus of deterrence” (to borrow Allen Whiting’s term)?[12]  That is, how does the PLA use the threat of using force to deter adversaries and achieve politico-strategic goals?  Is there a debate about frontier defense vs. forward defense vs. defense-in-depth?  What role does forward naval strategy play here (the three island-chain concept)?  Is there a predictable “ladder of escalation” that the Chinese military follows in an adversarial situation or crisis?  Is it true that Chinese have difficulty stabilizing or drawing back from escalating crises, and that there is an “inner dynamic” that pushes a crisis inexorably to conflict?  If so, what are the sources of this dynamic?  

5.      If deterrence fails, what is the PLA’s actual warfighting doctrine?  What role, if any, do tactical or strategic nuclear weapons, or other forms of WMD, play in such a strategy?  

6.      How has, and how will, doctrine affect force restructuring in recent and future years (and vice versa)?  How will the doctrine of “limited war under high-technology conditions” be implemented at and below the Group Army level?  Will there be a continuing effort to build smaller (brigade), more flexible (rapid reaction), more mobile (heliborne), and more non-conventional (special operations) units?  How will, and how has, doctrinal change affect training and exercises?   

7.      Is PLA research into the Revolution in Military Affairs and Information Warfare actually having any practical effect, or is it merely a theoretical infatuation?  Is there, in fact, an identifiable “school” advocating the RMA, as opposed to Schools of thought advocating “local war” and “people’s war” (as Michael Pillsbury’s research indicates)?[13]  More broadly, is there an inner-PLA doctrinal debate about the relative utility of man vs. technology in modern warfare?  

8.      How is military doctrine formulated in the PLA?  Obviously, the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) plays a critical role, but what do we know specifically about the sub-units and individuals in the AMS formulating doctrine at all levels?  Where do they get their ideas?  What other central-level PLA units are important and to what extent do services and institutions below the Military Region level have influence on the formulation and refinement of doctrine?  What, if any, influence does the National Defense University and other PME institutions have on doctrinal development?  How do the AMS and the Central Military Commission (CMC) interact over the formulation of doctrine and general national security strategy?  Is there evidence of bureaucratic politics in this process?  

9.      How does doctrinal change affect the internal organization of the General Staff Department and General Logistics Department (at all levels)?  

10.  To what extent is the active study of foreign military doctrines influencing, and being incorporated into, the formulation of PLA doctrine?  What problems are being encountered in the process of grafting exogenous doctrines—formulated for different geographical contingencies, based on different force structures, and drawing upon different strategic cultures—on to indigenous roots?  

Finally, one must ask how these important questions are to be researched and answered?  I would estimate that the “answers” to at least 75% of these questions can be attained from published Chinese sources.  In particular, the two principal journals of the AMS (Junshi Xueshu and Zhongguo Junshi Kexue) and the innumerable books published by the AMS Press contain extended discussions and definitions of many of these issues.  Many of these already exist in private collections and some university libraries in the United States.  All that is needed are analysts with the requisite linguistic skills and/or the allocation of resources by the new Center for Study of Chinese Military Affairs for a sustained translation project.  This would seem to truly be in the national security interests of the United States, and a relatively modest investment paying exponentially positive benefits.  After all, “national technical means” the order-of-battle (OB) of the PLA—the operative and more important questions relate to intention and how the PLA would make use of its capabilities in given situations.  These are ultimately questions of strategy, doctrine, and threat perception—and they can be researched and answered with access to the aforementioned published materials, either in their original or translation.  Discussions with PLA theoreticians can also prove very illuminating—precisely why the United States should have contact with institutions like the Academy of Military Sciences and other PME institutions in the PLA.  

[1] See me “PLA Studies Today: A Maturing Field,” in James C. Mulvenon and Richard H. Yang (eds.), The People’s Liberation Army in the Information Age (Santa Monica: The Rand Corporation, 1999), pp. 7-21; and June Teufel Dreyer, “State of the Field Report: Research on the Chinese Military,” AccessAsia Review. Vol. 1, No. 1 (Summer 1997), pp. 5-30.

[2] Much of the following discussion in this section is drawn from chapter 3 in my forthcoming book Reforming China’s Military (University of California Press, forthcoming 2001).  No use of this material can be made without the expressed permission of the author and the press.

[3] I am indebted to David Finkelstein for this definition and discussions on the subject of doctrine in the U.S and Chinese militaries.

[4] For further discussion see Paul H.B. Godwin, “Compensating for Deficiencies: Doctrinal Evolution in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, 1978-1999,” paper presented at the RAND/CAPS Conference “State of the PLA on the Eve of the Millennia: A Retrospective of the Past Twenty Years,” July 1999.  Also see Dennis J. Blasko, Philip T. Klapakis, John F. Corbett, “Training Tomorrow’s PLA: A Mixed Bag of Tricks,” in David Shambaugh and Richard H. Yang (eds.), China’s Military in Transition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), footnote 3.

[5] United States Army Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations, June 1993.

[6] For a good discussion of both operational principles and battlefield tactics, see Nan Li, “The PLA’s Evolving Campaign Doctrine and Strategies,” in James Mulvenon and Richard Yang (eds.), The People’s Liberation Army in the Information Age (Santa Monica: Rand, 1999); and Nan Li, “The PLA’s Warfighting Doctrine, Strategy, and tactics, 1985-95: A Chinese Perspective,” in Shambaugh and Yang (eds.), China’s Military in Transition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).

[7] Some PLA commentators only distinguish three levels: strategic (zhanlue), campaign (zhanyi), and tactics (zhanshu).

[8] Wang Houyin and Zhang Xingye (eds.), Zhanyixue (Beijing: Guofang Daxue chubanshe, 2000, junnei faxing).

[9] It is often presumed that a military’s doctrine guides its technological investments and weapons procurements, but it is often the other way around.

[10] You shenmo wuqi, da shenmo zhan; Da shenmo zhan, zao shenmo wuqi.

[11] See the classic work by Alastair I. Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).  For a more recent and current assessment see Micahel D. Swaine and Ashley J. Tellis, Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future (Santa Monica: The Rand Corporation, 2000).  Also see Chen-Ya Tien, Chinese Military Theory: Ancient and Modern (Stevenage, Herts, UK: Spa Books, 1992).

[12] Allen S. Whiting, The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975).

[13] Michael Pillsbury (ed.), Chinese Views of Future Warfare (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1997).