Economic Growth, Regime Insecurity, and Military Strategy

In this article from the latest issue of Asian Security, I examine the sources of the PLA’s new emphasis on nonwar military operations (not to be confused with “military operations than war” or MOOTW in U.S. doctrine).  In particular, I explore why China’s armed forces have sought to strengthen their ability to conduct noncombat operations, especially domestic ones, even though China’s military modernization for traditional combat operations is far from complete.

I argue that the rise of noncombat operations in China’s military strategy is principally a response to internal threats to regime security that are a byproduct of rapid economic growth.  Although growth is key to the legitimacy of leaders in developing countries, it also creates new sources of domestic unrest and increases the vulnerability of the economy to external shocks, both of which, if unchecked, can harm future growth. As a result, developing countries such as China may use their armed forces to maintain political stability and provide services that the state lacks, such as emergency disaster relief.

This growing role of noncombat operations in China’s military strategy and operations is important for several reasons:

  • It demonstrates the continued domestic role for China’s armed forces, which includes the PLA, whose principal mission is external defense, and the paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP) charged with maintaining internal stability.
  • It indicates that the principal effect of economic growth has not been to identify expansive interests overseas that require new capabilities for offensive operations and long-range combat power projection for their protection. Instead, it has reinforced China’s interest in maintaining a stable external environment abroad and, more importantly, in ensuring domestic stability at home.
  • It suggests that the PLA may be devoting fewer resources to long-range power projection than it otherwise might and that such capabilities will grow at a slower rate than they otherwise would.

In addition, the relationship between regime insecurity and military strategy has implications for the study of international relations:

  • It identifies a new causal pathway through which domestic politics can influence the goals and content of a state’s military strategy, especially in the developing world.
  • It offers an alternative perspective on the relationship between rising powers and the likelihood of armed conflict, focusing on how rapid growth creates new rationales for bolstering internal security and other domestic operations such as disaster relief.