PLA Strategy & Doctrine:
for a Future Research Agenda
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
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.
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:
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).
Establishing mechanisms for on-going collection of such books and
periodicals in China.
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,
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
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
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).
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
Research Agenda Ahead
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.
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?
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
Is there a truly distinct Chinese strategic culture that informs doctrine
and influences the use of force?
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?
What is the PLA’s “calculus of deterrence” (to borrow Allen
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?
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?
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?
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)?
More broadly, is there an inner-PLA doctrinal debate about the relative
utility of man vs. technology in modern warfare?
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?
How does doctrinal change affect the internal organization of the General
Staff Department and General Logistics Department (at all levels)?
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.
 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.
 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.
 I am indebted to David Finkelstein for this definition and discussions on the subject of doctrine in the U.S and Chinese militaries.
 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.
 United States Army Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations, June 1993.
 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).
 Some PLA commentators only distinguish three levels: strategic (zhanlue), campaign (zhanyi), and tactics (zhanshu).
 Wang Houyin and Zhang Xingye (eds.), Zhanyixue (Beijing: Guofang Daxue chubanshe, 2000, junnei faxing).
 It is often presumed that a military’s doctrine guides its technological investments and weapons procurements, but it is often the other way around.
 You shenmo wuqi, da shenmo zhan; Da shenmo zhan, zao shenmo wuqi.
 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).
 Allen S. Whiting, The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975).
 Michael Pillsbury (ed.), Chinese Views of Future Warfare (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1997).