Category: military

China’s New Military Strategy

In a new article in the China Brief, I show that terminology in the 2015 defense white paper indicates that China has officially changed its national military strategy.  The goal of the new strategy is “winning informationized local wars,” with an emphasis on the maritime domain.

This marks only the ninth military strategy that China has adopted since the founding of the PRC in 1949 and will guide the PLA’s approach to modernization in the coming decade.

To read the article, point your browsers here



The Myth of China’s Counter-intervention Strategy

Chris Twomey and I have just published an article in The Washington Quarterly on Chinese military strategy.

Increasingly, journalists, policy analysts and scholars as well as selected U.S. government documents describe China as pursuing a ”counter-intervention” strategy to forestall the U.S. ability to operate in a regional conflict.  Moreover, the concept of counter-intervention (fan ganyu) is attributed to the writings of Chinese strategits, as a China’s own version of an anti-access / area denial strategy

Nevertheless, as we show in the article, China does not actually use the term counter-intervention to describe its own military strategy, much less a broader grand strategic goal to oppose the role of the United States in regional affairs.  When Chinese sources do refer to related concepts such as “resisting” or “guarding against” intervention, they are describing as one of the many subsidiary components of campaigns and contingencies that have more narrow and specific goals, especially a conflict over Taiwan.

This misunderstanding or misreading of China’s military strategy is consequential for several reasons: it overstates the U.S. role in Chinese military planning, it can divert analysis from other aspects of China’s military modernization and it exacerbates the growing security dilemma between the United States and China.

The article can be downloaded here

China, Japan, and the U.S.—Will Cooler Heads Prevail?

I joined the conversation over the Asia Society’s ChinaFile on tensions between the China, the United States and Japan.

Specifically, I addressed a question “will China attempt to take the Senkakus by force?”

Let me pick up on Isaac’s first question, “will China attempt to take the Senkakus by force?”

Iain Johnston and I recently analyzed data on the frequency of Chinese Coast Guard patrols within the twelve nautical mile territorial waters of the islands. Since September 2012, China has used these patrols to challenge Japan’s sovereignty and administration of these disputed rocks.

For the past six months, however, China has reduced significantly the frequency of patrols it conducts within the island’s territorial waters. Before October 2013, it conducted a patrol roughly once per week, on average. Since then, it has conducted a patrol once every two weeks. In sum, the rate of patrols has dropped by half—and is statistically significant.

The reduced frequency of these patrols is noteworthy for several reasons. First, as Iain and I suggested, China may be signaling limits on its willingness to escalate, at least for now. Second, by reducing the number of patrols, China is also reducing the opportunities for an accident or incident to occur between Chinese and Japanese ships. Such an event, especially if it involved fatalities, could spark a much more intense crisis and greater incentives to use force on both sides.

Turning to Isaac’s question, the reduction in the frequency of these patrols is inconsistent with an escalation of pressure that might culminate in a decision by China to use force. Instead, China appears to have adopted a long-term view of dispute that does not involve taking them by force. Last summer, for example, a meeting of prominent Chinese government analysts concluded that China should “avoid an incident that sparks a war” over the islands. They also assessed that the dispute would persist for a long time to come and that it was therefore urgent to reduce the possibility and risk of a collision at sea.

Finally, a broader point. If China seized islands by force, they would be nearly impossible to defend from a counter-attack, as Gen. John Wissler noted; Moreover, a counter-attack to retake the islands would risk a much wider war, which China as well as the United States and Japan want to avoid.China’s leaders have quite likely anticipated such a scenario, which explains the emphasis on a long-term effort to challenge Japan’s control of the islands and surrounding waters with its coast guard and not its naval forces.

China Has Not (Yet) Changed Its Position on Nuclear Weapons

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, nuclear expert James Actonsuggests that China may be changing its nuclear doctrine.  The principal basis for his argument is the absence of a specific repetition of China’s “no first-use” policy in the latest edition of Beijing’s bi-annual white paper on defense.  Acton, however, misreads the recent white paper and draws the wrong conclusion about China’s approach to nuclear weapons.

First, no first use has been a core feature of Chinese defense policy for decades, having been decided by Mao himself in 1964.  If China abandoned or altered this policy position, it would reflect a major change in China’s approach to nuclear weapons – and a major change in China’s international image. This would not be a casual decision by China’s top leaders but rather a radical change precipitated by a major shift in China’s security environment. Although China’s concerns about U.S. missile defense policies that Acton notes are real, these concerns have existed since the mid-1990s and shape China’s current efforts to reduce the vulnerability of its nuclear forces.

To date, China has focused on building a small but potent nuclear force with the ability to launch a secure second strike if attacked with nuclear weapons – what I call “assured retaliation.”  The relatively small size of China’s nuclear arsenal and the doctrinal emphasis on survivability and reliability are consistent with a pledge to not use nuclear weapons first.  Moreover, if China were to abandon or alter the no first-use policy, it would surely want to reap a clear deterrent effect from such an action and likely do so clearly and publicly, not indirectly and quietly through an omission in a report.

Second, the absence of the no first-use policy in the 2012 white paper does not support Acton’s contention that China is changing its nuclear doctrine. Here, Acton overlooks that this edition of China’s bi-annual defense white papers is different from past volumes in one important respect.

According to Major General Chen Zhou, one of the white paper’s drafters and a researcher at the PLA’s Academy of Military Science, the 2012 white paper uses a thematic model (zhuanti xing) and not a comprehensive one. In the past, the comprehensively-oriented white papers all had the same title, suchChina’s National Defense in 2010.  The title of the 2012 edition, however, reflects the new thematic focus:Diversified Employment of China Armed Forces.  By discussing in more detail the structure and missions of China’s armed forces, the 2012 white paper dropped a chapter found in all previous ones entitled “National Defense Policy.”  In the past editions, this chapter contained the references to China’s no first-use policy (as well as many other defense policies).  Applying Occam’s razor, the lack of a chapter on China’s national defense policies can account for the absence of a reference to the no first-use policy.

In addition, the white paper’s discussion of the use of nuclear weapons is consistent with the no first-use policy.  The white paper refers to “the principle of building a lean and effective force,” repeating language from the 2006 white paper that officially detailed China’s nuclear strategy for the first time.  Second, it states that China’s nuclear weapons will only be used under one condition: “If China comes under a nuclear attack, the nuclear missile force of the [Second Artillery] will use nuclear missiles to launch a resolute counterattack (jianjue fanji).”  Here, the 2012 white paper uses the exact same sentence as the2008 white paper, which did contain a reference to the no first-use policy.  More generally, a nuclear counterattack is the only campaign for China’s nuclear forces that has been described in authoritative Chinese doctrinal texts, starting with the 1987 edition of the Science of Strategy (Zhanlue Xue).

Acton also cites a speech that Xi Jinping gave to party delegates from the Second Artillery in December 2012.  In public reporting of his speech, Xi stated that the Second Artillery provides “strategic support for our great power status.”  Xi also did not mention the no first-use policy.  But Xi did not mention any other elements of China’s nuclear policy, either, or anything related to when and how China’s nuclear forces would be used.  Instead, the absence of the no-first use policy in this speech was likely another “false negative” regarding a change in China’s nuclear doctrine.

Furthermore, Xi in his remarks praised the Second Artillery for “resolutely carrying out the policies and instructions of the party center and Central Military Commission.”  Given that Hu Jintao re-affirmed no first use at the April 2012 nuclear summit in Seoul, these “policies and instructions” would have included the no first-use policy.

To be clear, Chinese strategists have debated the merits of dropping or altering its no first-use policy.  The debate was especially intense during the mid to late 2000s.  Some participants in the debate suggested that no first use might not apply in certain situations that would be seen as equivalent of a “first use,” including conventional strikes on China’s nuclear forces or facilities as well as strikes on strategic targets like the Three Gorges Dam or the top Chinese leadership.  In the end, however, a high-level decision was made to maintain the no first-use policy and the internal debate concluded without any change to China’s position.

Nevertheless, although no first use remains a central part of China’s approach to nuclear weapons, a certain and perhaps growing ambiguity surrounds the policy.  As the Chinese debate indicates, under some set of extreme but nevertheless not implausible conditions, the policy might not serve as a constraint on first use even if China overall postures its forces primarily to deter a nuclear attack.  Likewise, in the heat of a crisis, actions taken to deter a nuclear strike against China, such has placing forces on high alert levels, might be seen as indicating a preparations to launch first and invite a pre-emptive strike.

Thus, I agree with Acton’s policy recommendation about the need for a U.S.-China dialogue on nuclear weapons even though I disagree with his argument about China’s nuclear doctrine.  More dialogue on strategic issues is needed at the highest levels between the United States and China, an area is prone to misperception and miscalculation.  The ambiguity and uncertainty about the no first-use policy should be discussed.  Indeed, General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should the issue of nuclear dialogue when he visits China this week.

[This first appeared in The Diplomat.]

Xi Jinping and the PLA

In recent weeks, Western media has characterized Xi Jinping as a more assertive and forceful leader of China’s armed forces, including the People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police.  The Wall Street Journal, for example, described Xi as “as a strong military leader at home and embracing a more hawkish worldview.” Similarly, the New York Times described Xi “as a champion of the military, using the armed forces to cement his political authority and present a tough stance in growing territorial disputes with American allies in the Pacific region.”

Such characterizations, however, may be misplaced – or at least incomplete.  Since becoming Chairman of the CCP’s Central Military Commission at the 18th Party Congress four months ago, the policies adopted under Xi reflect far more continuity with those of past leaders than is commonly perceived.

One general indicator of the relative priority of the military for China’s leaders is spending on defense.  Although China’s official defense budget does not include all defense-related spending, there’s no evidence yet that Xi has been more inclined to favor the military.  At the most recent National People’s Congress, China’s official defense budget was slated to increase by 10.7 percent in 2013.  Although budget preparations likely started before Xi became CMC chair, the figure nevertheless helps to assess whether Xi has been exerting any special influence.  Under Hu Jintao’s chairmanship of the CMC (2004-2012), China’s defense budget, on average, increased 15 percent per year.  When Jiang Zemin was CMC chair (1989-2004), it increased more than 16 percent per year on average.  Under both leaders, China’s defense budget as a share of the government budget has been declining steadily, indicating that the military was not being favored over other government spending areas.

Instead, if anything, the 2013 defense budget reflects continuity in China’s defense policies.  The percentage increase for the 2013 defense budget roughly equals the rate of GDP growth plus inflation for 2012, and is slightly lower than the rates of growth in 2011 and 2012 (reflecting the slight downturn in China’s GDP).  The growth of the defense budget is consistent with Beijing’s official policy “that defense development should be both subordinated to and in the service of the country’s overall economic development, and that the former should be coordinated with the latter.”  Thus, the military budget, roughly in line with the growth of China’s GDP and inflation, has not diverted massive funding away from important civilian projects necessary for maintaining economic development.

Xi’s statements on military affairs have attracted a great deal of attention. In the post-Deng era, all new leaders have moved early to distinguish their command over China’s armed forces from their predecessors.  The easiest way to do so is by articulating new formulations (tifa) for what are often the same or very similar general policies.  Previously, for example, in December 1990, Jiang Zemin announced his “Five Sentences” that the PLA should be “politically qualified, militarily competent, have a good work style, strict discipline and adequate logistics support.”  Likewise, shortly after becoming CMC chair in 2004, Hu Jintao called on the PLA to fulfill its “historic missions in the new phase of the new century.”  Although the historic missions called on the PLA to develop the capability to carry out non-combat operations such as peacekeeping and disaster relief, they were premised on “strengthening the ability to win local wars under modern conditions as the core.” Now after becoming CMC chair, Xi has used a new formulation of building a “strong army” (and PAP) that “obeys the party’s commands, is capable of winning wars, and has a good work style.”

Despite the different formulations each leader has used, the content and general policies have remained the same.  Both Jiang and Xi have stressed “having a good work style,” basically a call for the PLA to be a model for society, particularly in the fight against graft and corruption.  Unsurprisingly, Jiang, Hu and Xi all emphasized the leading role of the party over the armed forces.   And although the specific words are different, Xi’s requirement that the PLA be able “to fight and win” reflects a long-standing policy to enhance China’s military preparedness, especially in the context of changes in the conduct of warfighting since the Gulf War.  In the past, this goal has usually been described as strengthening “preparations for military struggle” (junshi douzheng junbei).  The PLA itself underscored the continuity with the past in a February 2013 article published by the General Staff Department in the authoritative party journalQiushi.  According to the article, “To be able to fight and win battles is also the fundamental starting and ending point of preparations for military struggle.” As a result, this directive basically is a call to improve the PLA’s operational readiness – it is not an indication of impending operations that will be executed.

Xi Jinping’s leadership has also been linked with a more assertive posture in China’s disputes with other states, especially the maritime sphere.  China’s maritime assertiveness, however, started long before Xi took office.  In the South China Sea, it can be traced back to 2007 and 2008, when China began to oppose the investments of foreign oil companies in Vietnamese blocks.  In 2011, China Marine Surveillance vessels harassed Vietnamese and Philippine seismic survey vessels while in early April 2012, China responded forcefully to a stand-off with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal.

In the East China Sea, China’s assertiveness started at around the same time.  In 2008, a China Marine Surveillance vessel for the first time entered the 12 nautical mile territorial waters around the islands.  In September 2010, China reacted harshly to the arrest of a Chinese fishing captain who had entered the territorial waters around the islands and then collided with a Japanese Coast Guard vessel.  Between September 2010 and the purchase of three of the islands by the Japanese government in 2012, Chinese government ships entered the territorial waters around the islands almost once a month.  Although Xi is rumored to have played a role in China’s response to the purchase of the islands in September 2012, China’s response reflected a continuation of policies adopted under Hu Jintao.

What does this all mean?

On the one hand, like past top leaders in the post-Deng era, Xi is seeking to build a strong relationship with China’s armed forces, which is key to cementing his status as both CMC chair and CCP general secretary.  He’s moved more quickly than either Jiang or Hu because he has been able to assume the CMC chairmanship without a senior party figure looking over his shoulder.  Jiang became CMC chair while Deng was still very active in Chinese politics, while Hu had to two wait two years before Jiang relinquished that post.  Ironically, the relatively smooth transition has enabled Xi to move more quickly in consolidating his position as commander-in-chief.

On the other hand, China’s basic approach to military modernization remains unchanged.  It is premised on ensuring the loyalty of the military to the party and not the state.  The long-term goal is to recapitalize China’s armed forces to achieve mechanization and partial informatization by 2020 – a goal set by Jiang Zemin in the late 1990s – and to complete its military modernization by mid-century, 2049.  It is perhaps not a coincidence that Xi has set 2049 for the fulfillment of the “China dream.”  Xi is the new leader of China’s armed forces, but he is not yet pursuing new policies.

[This piece originally appeared in The Diplomat and was co-authored with Dennis Blasko.]


The PLA in the South China Sea

In early June, an article in the New York Times quoted a TV interview with Gen.Ma Xiaotian, a Deputy Chief of the General Staff in the People’s Liberation Army.  The Times, however, did not discuss the most interesting part of what he said.  The rest of the interview illuminated China’s strategy in the South China Sea, especially an emphasis on avoiding the militarization of the dispute.

As seen in the video, the interview was impromptu.  A Phoenix TV reporter was following General Ma down a hallway at a conference on cyber security in Beijing.  General Ma was speaking off the cuff, without prepared remarks.  The reporter’s question was cut from the web clip, but here’s Ma’s full response (my rough translation):

“The question you ask is very sensitive.  We have the ability to defend our waters, but at the moment we have still not prepared to use military force to go defend [our waters].  If we were to do so, it would be as a last resort.  Now we are still conducting bilateral talks, using diplomatic means and some civilian [ie, law enforcement] means to resolve the conflict.  This way is the best.”

This statement by one of China’s top generals is noteworthy for several reasons.  To start, contrary torumors that swirled in mid May, the interview suggests that Chinese forces in the Guangzhou Military Region and South Sea Fleet had not been placed on alert during the standoff over Scarborough Shoal.  An alert by definition would include preparations to use force.

In addition, Ma’s statement indicates that a broad consensus exists among top party and military leaders to emphasize diplomacy and avoid militarizing the disputes in the South China Sea.  Such a consensus was displayed when Defense Minister Liang Guanglie also underscored the importance of a diplomatic solution to the standoff in a meeting in late May with his Philippine counterpart Voltaire Gazmin.  Although PLA-affiliated media commentators such as Major General Luo Yuan have called for China to adopt a more forceful response, uniformed officers such as Ma Xiaotian and Liang Guanglie have not.

Finally, Ma’s statement highlights a central feature of China’s strategy in the South China Sea.  During the latest round of tensions, which began in around 2007 and accelerated between 2009 and 2011, China hasn’t used its naval forces to actively press its claims against other states.  Instead, China has relied on diplomacy and vessels from various civilian maritime law enforcement agencies, especially the State Oceanic Administration’s China Marine Surveillance force and the Ministry of Agriculture’s Fisheries Law Enforcement Command.  The emphasis on using maritime law enforcement agencies to maintain a presence in disputed areas suggests a deliberate effort to cap the potential for escalation while asserting China’s claims.

Of course, China will continue to assert its claims.  But the PLA’s support for a diplomatic approach and limiting the potential for escalation should be noted.

[This post originally appeared on The Diplomat]