Active Defense: China's Military Strategy Since 1949

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  • Spring 2019
Active Defense: China's Military Strategy Since 1949

Active Defense was published by Princeton University Press. Featured below is an excerpt from the book's introduction.

SPRING 2019 : précis Faculty Feature
Taylor Fravel and his new book
May 14, 2019

This is the first book to provide a comprehensive history of China's military doctrine as it has evolved since the founding of the People's Republic. Fravel shows that this doctrine has changed a remarkable nine times—a reflection of how difficult China's military situation was when, as a developing country, it sought to defend a large and exposed territory from fearsome rivals, including India, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Fravel highlights the most consequential changes of strategy and explains how they came about in response to shifts in other countries' fighting capabilities, and at moments when China's turbulent domestic politics were calm enough to let military leaders rethink the country's defense challenges. The most recent strategic guidelines, however, reflect a new situation: rising Chinese power. Issued in 2014, they call for "winning local informatized wars"—in other words, being prepared to beat the United States in a high-tech military conflict in the South China Sea or over Taiwan.

-Andrew J Nathan, Foreign Affairs


This study makes four contributions to understanding the process of change in China’s military strategy. The first is to provide the first complete account of all the strategic guidelines issued since 1949. This is a crucial first step in any effort to explain changes in Chinese strategy and, more broadly, to understand the evolution of China’s defense policies. Previously, neither Western nor Chinese studies of China’s defense policies have offered a complete examination of the PRC’s military strategies. Although Chinese scholarship on military strategy in the past decade does refer to the strategic guidelines, at most only a few of the guidelines that were adopted are discussed and they do not necessarily identify the same set of strategies. Due to the constraints imposed by limited access to relevant Chinese sources, most Western scholarship has inferred China’s strategies not from the content of the strategic guidelines themselves, but from Chinese statements, press reports, and weapons development. China’s strategy before the 1980s was often viewed simply as “people’s war,” then “people’s war under modern conditions” in the 1980s, and, finally, variants of “local wars” since the 1990s. The one-million-man downsizing in 1985 was interpreted as a change in China’s strategy when, in fact, it was not.

Second, this study demonstrates that three of the strategies that China has adopted since 1949 represent major changes in its military strategy. Major change consists of a new vision of warfare, which then prompts reforms in the areas of operational doctrine, force structure, and training in order to execute this vision. In 1956, China’s first major change in military strategy emphasized positional warfare and fixed defenses to stop or blunt an American invasion. This was a clear departure from the dominance of mobile warfare that prevailed during much of the civil war and the Chinese offensives in the Korean War. In 1980, the PLA again emphasized positional warfare to counter a Soviet  invasion.  This strategy was a major departure from that of “luring the enemy in deep,” adopted in 1964 and used throughout the Cultural Revolution, which emphasized ceding land to an invader, mobile warfare, and decentralized operations. In 1993, the third major change in China’s military strategy shifted from how to defend China against an invasion to how to prevail in local wars over limited aims on its periphery, especially in territorial and sovereignty disputes.

Third, China has pursued major changes in its military strategy when a significant shift in the conduct of warfare has occurred in the international system—but only when the party leadership is united. A shift in the conduct of warfare creates a strong incentive for a state to adopt a new military strategy if the shift demonstrates that a gap exists between a state’s current capabilities and the requirements of future wars. The effect of these shifts should be particularly salient for developing countries or late military modernizers such as China who are trying to improve their military capabilities. These states are already at a comparative disadvantage and need to monitor their capabilities closely relative to stronger states. In socialist states with party-armies and not national ones, the party is likely to grant substantial autonomy for the management of military affairs to senior military officers, who will adjust strategy in response to changes in their state’s security environment. Because senior military officers are also party members, the party can delegate responsibility for military affairs without the fear of a coup or concerns that the military wil pursue a strategy inconsistent with the party’s political goals. Such delegation, however, is only possible when the party’s political leadership is united over questions of the party’s basic policies and the structure of authority within the party.

Shifts in the conduct of warfare and party unity feature prominently in the three major changes in China’s military strategy since 1949. The 1956 strategy was adopted during a period of unprecedented unity within the CCP. Senior PLA officers, especially Su Yu and Peng Dehuai, initiated the change in strategy as the PLA absorbed the lessons of World War II and the Korean War, along with the nuclear revolution. The 1980 strategy was adopted after Deng Xiaoping consolidated his position as China’s paramount leader and reestablished party unity following the leadership splits and general upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. Senior PLA officers, especially Su Yu, Song Shilun, Yang Dezhi, and Zhang Zhen, initiated and led the change in strategy in response to their assessment of the Soviet threat based on the tank and air operations in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The 1993 strategy was adopted after Deng restored party unity following the leadership split during and after the violent suppression of the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Senior PLA officers, especially Liu Huaqing, Chi Haotian, Zhang Zhen, and Zhang Wannian, initiated the change in strategy following the demonstration of new kinds of military operations in the 1990–91 Gulf War.

However, one change in China’s military strategy, in 1964, cannot be explained by this argument. It represents the only instance where the top party leader—in this case, Mao Zedong—intervened in military affairs to change strategy. Otherwise, senior military officers have initiated all other changes in China’s military strategy. The 1964 strategy did not contain a new vision of warfare, but called upon the PLA to return to an approach it had honed in the 1930s during the civil war—mobile warfare and luring the enemy in deep. Nevertheless, the case demonstrates how a split within the leadership and growing party disunity can distort or disrupt the process of strategic decision-making. Mao intervened not to enhance China’s security, but as part of his attack on revisionists within the party leadership that would culminate in 1966 with the launch of the Cultural Revolution.

The book’s final contribution is to explain why, in contrast to its conventional military strategy, China’s nuclear strategy has remained constant over the same period of time. The reason is simple: China’s top party leaders have never delegated responsibility for nuclear strategy to senior military officers. China’s nuclear strategy is constrained by China’s national nuclear policy, which remains the purview of top party leaders. Because nuclear strategy is subordinate to China’s nuclear policy, it is an issue that can only be decided by the highest levels of the party. Unlike the strategy for conventional operations, senior military officers have never been empowered to initiate change in nuclear strategy.