The Evolution of Chinese Military Doctrine

February 1, 2013
Event: 
Fellows' Seminar

Chairperson: Lt Gen Satish Nambiar, PVSM, AVSM, VrC (Retd)
External Discussants: Maj Gen (Retd) B K Sharma, Cdr Kamlesh Kumar Agnihotri
Internal Discussants: Brig Mandeep Singh, Dr. Jagannath P Panda

This paper discusses the factors responsible for the evolution of the Chinese military doctrine and attempts to chalk out its nuances. Its core premise is that a military doctrine is a component of a nation’s grand strategy for security and, at times, it may not be stating actual military conditions but is simply a declaration of its strategic intent. The paper finds that Chinese have learned from their and others’ experience. China’s threat perception and relations with the nations of the world has changed with time influencing their military doctrine. Over the years, the Chinese have evolved four broad military doctrines:

  • The Maoist ‘People’s War Doctrine: It prevailed during the “Lean one side phase” of the Chinese foreign policy. Maturing during the CCP’s revolutionary struggle and the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, this predominant military doctrine lingered up to the late 1970s and its vestiges remained till the 1980s. This essentially guerrilla doctrine is still alive in academic debates. In 1960s, Mao and Lin Piao interpreted it as Flexible National Defence applicable to conventional war based on the premise of “trading territory for time”. The doctrine envisaged when the enemy launches the first offensive, the revolutionary forces, mindful of the enemy’s technological and material superiority, would quietly follow a subsequent strategic retreat, strategic stalemate and strategic counter-offensive. The fight would essentially be in the rural areas from where the revolutionary army would draw its strength out of the masses indoctrinated by the communist party. This infantry-centric doctrine relied on the use of staggering man-power aimed at overcoming technological superiority through inferiority. Air-power had just a supporting role and the navy was almost non-existent.

    The doctrine addressed the worst case scenario of an all-out attack including a nuclear strike. The US was the enemy for this doctrine, purely on ideological basis, for about two decades. There is nothing to suggest that any counter-offensive against the US was also planned. However, according to the author, terming it defensive would also be inappropriate. The doctrine hugely underappreciated the role of international diplomacy. It was often debated whether the strategy of “luring the enemy in the deep” was a strategy worth pursuing as the ‘modernisers’ in China argued that the enemy should not be allowed to crash the gates.

  • People’s War under Modern Conditions: The US was the doctrinal imperial enemy from the beginning; later the Soviet Union too was declared an enemy. The doctrine emerged in the light of the receding Cultural Revolution and the party’s resentment against politicisation of the PLA entailed the dilution of army’s political role. Industrial and real estate development along the Manchurian border had made “luring enemy” into depth an imponderable tactic. The pragmatic leadership assumed a greater role and a rapprochement started with the US in 1971 with an imperiled relationship with the USSR. Deng Xiaoping felt that a major military conflict was unlikely and there would be no war over the next five to seven years. This doctrine had a limited focus concerned with the conduct of war. The Core issue addressed was how to deal with a major and large-scale Russian invasion with minimum human cost without vacating the territory. It envisaged that the enemy would be taken head on in the initial phase of the conflict, denying him an entry into the Chinese territory. Regulars and guerrillas would even cross the border to interdict the enemy by hindering the enemy’s mobility or striking at its rear. The professional military would lead the war. The protracted war was no longer a feature of the Chinese military doctrine and a National mobilisation would be in case of a completely illogical possibility of an all-out invasion by USSR. The compulsive filibustering about enemy nuclear strikes, essential characteristic of the People’s War, was absent in this doctrine. China reiterated its commitment to no first-use of nuclear weapons and accorded equal attention to various components of military power.
  • Local and Limited War Doctrine: The doctrine was officially promulgated in 1985. The focus shifted from large scale conventional military conflict to local, small, and limited wars. It was prompted by a new understanding of the international situation that the world was moving towards multipolarity in which the US would retain its prominence. The premise for the doctrine was the prevailing nuclear stalemate in the world which would not allow large-scale wars, but the unequal levels of technology would prompt the Great Powers into adventures to test these technologies in battle conditions. It focused on small-scale wars caused by civil-conflicts, territorial claims and ethnic tensions in a multi-polar world. It seems that the Chinese view these wars as politically-motivated freak incidents which needed fighting accompanied by talking. Border conflicts, maritime territorial conflicts, “surprise air attacks”, fighting off an enemy’s sudden limited thrust into Chinese border and retaliatory punitive attacks by China were the major war exigencies mentioned in the doctrine. Taiwan emerged as a new security scenario and the proliferation of high tech weapons in the neighbourhood were also visualised as security concerns.
  • Limited War under High Tech Conditions: Though the disintegration of the USSR in 1991 ended any possibility of large-scale invasion of China, the American show of military technology in the Gulf War of 1992, stunned it. Now limited war became the only focus, and high technology provided a new and complete framework. The doctrine, for the first time, accepted the normative superiority of technology over men. It explicitly included the elements of offence and, for the first time, took the war beyond Chinese territory. The war would be local; borders are “strategic frontiers” and “victory” would be achieved “through elite troops”. China would not start any war; however, if it senses any hostile enemy movement, it will seize the “initiative”, by “striking first”. The new doctrine would ensure “victory over inferiority through superiority’. Instead of long-drawn wars, local wars would be “quick battles to force quick resolution”. Instead of luring enemy into the Chinese depth, an “in-depth strike” would be carried out in enemy territory. The doctrine visualises a battle field scenario; known as war zone campaign (WZC). Preparations should be undertaken by keeping the diversities of military regions in view.

The paper also refers to two other doctrines which are disputed to be independent military doctrines:

Infomatised War (RMA): The discourse on revolution in military affairs (RMA) adds another dimension of “infomatised war” to the “limited war under high tech conditions”. Ideally, RMA is a holistic concept comprising social, economic, political and technological components. The Chinese discourse on infomatised warfare is based on the Chinese belief that information determines international relations and the outcome of wars. Chinese believe that digitized governance is the Achilles’ heel of the militarily advanced countries and this is where China can score in their depth. The Chinese assume that gathering precise and complete information in a literal sense is possible; and once there is correct information, one can bring the enemy to its knees even without fighting. In fact, information deterrence can prove more effective than nuclear deterrence. Information relating to cyberspace has the highest prominence in the Chinese discourse on infomatised war as well as RMA. The doctrine is quite offensive and the preferred tactics in this warfare are “surgical removal”, “selective attacks” and “precision raids” by missiles or other superior electronic weapons or computer science.

Anti-Access-Area Denial (A2/AD): This is essentially an American term. The perceived Chinese A2/AD has a limited objective of holding back American forces in Taiwan contingency till the PLA troops land in Taiwan and build defences. The battle objectives are mainly to harass American troops to delay their access to the centre of action. However, as of now, these capabilities have defensive purpose and are still in nascent stage with questionable quality.

The author concludes that over the last two decades, Chinese military doctrine has changed from being inward looking to looking-beyond-its-borders and more importantly seaward doctrine. Chinese military capabilities have persistently moved towards matching doctrinal expositions. However, the possession of asymmetric warfare capabilities as visualised under infomatised war doctrine by China and its ability to deploy them in conflict is a subject of speculation.

Major points of discussion and suggestions to the author:

  • There is hardly any literature available on the Chinese military doctrine. Whatever available is mostly western and we are left to our imaginations to chalk out any Chinese military doctrine.
  • China has never fought war the way it was articulated.
  • The Chinese are still grappling with the idea of a war doctrine.
  • Nowadays, Navy is used not for territorial gains but political ones. It has an important role in the “strategic guidelines” of China.
  • Some western scholars argue that the Chinese military is overstretched.

  • Chinese are looking for an exosphere umbrella which has not yet come.
  • National army versus political army is an outdated debate and the civil-military relations in China went up to a new level during the Hu Jintao period.
  • China’s economic rise has substantiated its military doctrinal practice.
  • PLA’s international exposure has helped develop its doctrine.
  • India should draw some lessons from the evolution of the Chinese military doctrine.
  • The overall role of a nuclear doctrine in a military doctrine should be examined in detail.
  • Escalation dominance control is very important in the Chinese doctrines.

(report prepared by Saurabh Mishra, Research Assistant IDSA)