Changes in Chinese Military Doctrine and Their Implications

M.V. Rappai, Research Fellow, IDSA


A well-articulated security doctrine can be advantageous to both the political and military leadership of a nation as well as others who interact with it. In China's case, since its inception as a modern state, after its liberation in October 1949, this aspect was very clear. In the current post-Cold War world scenario, the role played by the military in determining and sustaining the broad parameters of a nation state may have changed to some extent. Today, no civilised nation thinks in terms of settling differences among nations through a war alone, as militant tribes in ancient times had done,hence, the way military power is applied has also changed vastly. But this so-called "peace dividend" is neither universal nor is it freely available to all states in equal proportion. The way the military component of a state exerted power has undergone many changes, and become more complicated and nuanced. In short, the militiary posture of a nation remains a vital attribute in the conduct of its statecraft, especially in the diplomatic sphere. Therefore, the study of the military, which forms the bedrock of the national security of a nation, has become an essential tool in understanding the behavioural pattern of a state in the broad spectrum of its activities.

As per the officially stated line, the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) current doctrine is a defensive one: "Under the new historical conditions, the army must steadfastly uphold the Party's absolute leadership, be in agreement with the Party Central Committee ideologically and politically, obey the Party Central Committee's orders in all actions, and uphold its nature and purposes as a people's army. It should implement a military strategy of active defence, improve its quality, and take the road of building fewer but better troops with Chinese characteristics."1


The above quoted statement of Jiang Zemin, Party general secretary as well as the chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) poses three or four different sets of issues. Before getting into those details, let us take a look at some of the broader definitions of military doctrine itself.

As per common usage, the term "doctrine" means, "something taught; teaching,"often expanded to the more specific, "something taught as principles or creed; a rule, theory or principle or law; or an official statement of a nation's policy." Further, there is no internationally accepted formal definition of the concept of doctrine. In the military, doctrine is viewed in terms of strategy and tactics, therefore, "doctrine" is defined in the Dictionary of Military Terms as: "Fundamental principles by which the military forces or elements thereof guide their action in support of national objectives. It is authoritative but requires judgement in application".2

If one accepts the above definition of the term "doctrine" in the military context, it has to be seen more from the viewpoint of "strategy and tactics." Even though the Chinese language has a word for doctrine (jiao tiao),Jiang Zemin, in his speech, uses the word zhan lue, which means "strategy". Under these circumstances, this paper is going to treat the term doctrine in its larger military sense and use it freely in tandem with strategy.

Evolution of Chinese Strategy

The evolution of Chinese strategy can be traced back to its written history itself. The military strategy of China is identified with its pre-eminent military strategists like Sun Zi (Sun Tzu), Sun Bin and others. However, the Chinese writings do not restrict this to a narrow military dimension only. They trace their strategic heritage to a very broad spectrum of ancient Chinese thinkers and scholars, starting from Confucius and others, "China is a country with 5,000 years of civilization, and a peace loving tradition." Ancient Chinese thinkers advocated "associating with benevolent gentlemen and befriending good neighbours," which shows that throughout history, the Chinese people "have longed for peace in the world and for relations of friendship with people of other countries."3

This statement sounds very reassuring as a clearly orchestrated public relations exercise, yet one is not sure whether many Indians as well others in the neighbouring countries of China would agree with. It needs a lot more evidence to accept this pious intention of the Chinese position. The wars fought by China, especially its adventures against India in 1962, and Vietnam in 1979, under the pretext to "teach lessons" to erring neighbours, do not substantiate the above stated "pious intention" based on ancient Confucion ethics. However, one may admit that Chinese society has always upheld a a clearly enunciated security strategy in conformity with the Chinese penchant for manufacturing well-compiled and codified edicts of history and other events ever since ancient times. Yet this should not confuse China's neighbours about its long-term intentions, as China normally behaves from a "Middle Kingdom" psychosis where all its neighbours paid tribute to the "heaven born king." Therefore, it will be better to approach the Chinese policies from a pragmatic view-point, keeping in mind that they still follow the traditional strategic approach set by Sun Zi and others, in other words, a strategy tempered with pragmatic wisdom and the willingness to use power as well as "deception" (as codified by Sun Zi in his Art of War) and the present day realpolitik, in order to achieve the desired goals.

It may be a gross overstatement to claim that China's entire military thinking is homegrown nationalist stuff. Rather, China, in the early part of this century, interacted a lot with Bolshevik Russia and adopted a number of practices and theories in military building. In the strategic field also this influence is very visible: in spite of the Chinese interaction with some other powers in a big way, some of the early influence exerted by the Russian military thinking, by and large moulded by Clausewitzian concepts, has played a key role in forming China's own strategic thinking. The interplay of these ideas together with China's own traditional homegrown thinking, has given it a certain dimension; for an outsider, it poses all the more complex a scenario. Just consider the thinking of Sokolowski and then take a look at his influence on China's overall strategic thinking:

Military strategy is a system of scientific knowledge dealing with the laws of war as an armed conflict in the name of definite class interests. Strategy--on the basis of military experience, military and political conditions, economic and moral potential of the country, new means of combat, and the views and potential of the probable enemy--studies the conditions and the nature of future war, the methods for its preparation and conduct, the services of the armed forces and the foundations for their strategic utilization, as well as foundations for material and technical support and leadership of the war and the armed forces. At the same time, this is the area of the practical activity of the higher military and political leadership, of the supreme command and of the higher headquarters that pertains to the art of preparing a country and the armed forces for war and conducting the war.4

Mao's Role in Shaping China's Security Strategy

If we look back, even though Mao was not a prominent leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in its early stages, he took over its reins formally in the Zunyi conference in January 1935, during the Long March period; he played a vital role in shaping not only the PLA's military strategy but also China's world outlook and overall security strategy. This is relevant even today because the Chinese have made various assessments about their late Chairman Mao Zedong's role in the internal politics of China as well as within the CCP. Yet their world outlook as well as broader security and international policy frameworks remain as they were. Even the concept of "active defence" was originally mooted by Mao in the Thirties.

Immediately after the liberation, in the mid-Fifties, the strategic posture of the PLA based on "People's War", became an issue of internal debate and ultimately led to a bitter internal struggle between the Party and military. Ultimately, Mao could prevail and he successfully threw out his one-time confidante and defence minister, Peng Dehuai, on this very issue.

Yet the transition from the concept of People's War to active defence was not sudden. It was closely linked to the international and domestic changes that took place in the world as well as in China. If we take a look at Mao's earlier writings about "active and passive defence", this becomes clearer, but, in a way, it further complicates the study of this issue. After briefly explaining the broad parameters of strategic defence, he writes, "Why do we begin by discussing defence? .....The process of breaking an 'encirclement and suppression' campaign is usually circuitous and not as direct as one would wish. The basic problem, and a serious one too, is how to conserve our strength and await an opportunity to defeat the enemy. Therefore, the strategic defence is the most complicated and most important problem facing the Red Army in its operations."5

This concept of Mao may help us in understanding the current "active defence" posture of China. Further, one may have to look little deeper into the influence exerted on Mao by some of the Chinese classics. Take, for example, a dialogue between two of his favourite characters in the classic Shui Hu Chuan (Heroes of the Marshes), "After the victory, the Duke asked Tsao why he had given such advice. Tsao replied, 'A battle depends upon courage. At the first drum, courage (of the enemy troops) was aroused, at the second, it ran out, ours was still high and so we won. It is difficult to fathom the moves of a great state, and I feared an ambush. But when I examined the enemy's wheels-tracks and found them criss-crossing and looked afar and saw his banners drooping, I advised pursuit'."6

This particular incident was set in ancient China where the states were much smaller and their strategic concept was moulded by the then available technology and weaponry. However, this concept has great relevance to present day China as its leaders think, and deal with their neighbours in this same traditional process. They generally take a long-term view of issues and formulate their responses accordingly. Further, they have no difficulty in applying different tactics and postures in order to achieve their long-term goals. The Indian strategic community must realise this aspect and more closely study the strategic and conceptual challenges thrown up by China at different levels.

Deng's Pragmatic Approach

A glance at modern day China reveals that the role played by Mao's "that short man," Deng Xiaoping, is very vital. A born pragmatist, Deng did not repudiate the basic concepts promulgated and nurtured by Mao throughout the historical revolutionary war. Rather, he tried to superimpose his own pragmatic wisdom, conditioned by the fast changing realities of the world, on the vast edifice put up by Mao and other veteran leaders.

From the early Eighties, Deng started realising that a numerically strong military with a lot of largely ceremonial extra flab cannot deliver the desired goals. This understanding was also aided by the lessons the PLA had learned from China's misconceived idea of teaching a lesson to the battle toughened Viet Cong. All these issues, together with the economic realities of China, compelled him to take a fresh look at the way the military was run in China. The 12th Party Congress held in September 1982, in a way, started the process of change in the military field also, albeit only at an embryonic stage. "In these circumstances, we must never relax our vigilance, but must strengthen our national defence on the basis of vigorous economic development. We must work hard to turn the People's Liberation Army into a regular, modern and powerful revolutionary armed force and enhance its defence capabilities in modern warfare."7

However, these intentions took concrete shape only later. "The single most important event marking that change was the enlarged Conference of the Party Central Military Commission (CMC) held from May 23 to June 6, 1985, in Beijing at which Deng Xiaoping's reassessment of the international situation led to the conclusion that China would enjoy a relatively lasting peaceful environment in which it could concentrate on economic development."8 This basic assessment and the subsequent decision based on it gave birth to the now well-known "strategic transformation" (zhanlude zhuanbian) in the PLA. China called off its position of a longstanding state of alterness, and started thinking in terms of shifting the focus to building the military in peace-time. Then it changed its position of waging an "early war, major war and nuclear war" to that of fighting a "local war" (jubu zhanzheng).9 Later on, especially after assessing the developments in the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) as well as the post-Cold War developments the world over, it further reformulated this as "local war under hi-tech conditions."

How Has This Transition Affected China?

If we take a broad look at the changes that occurred since 1985, a distinct influence of these is apparent in the Chinese strategic perception also. But before coming to this conclusion, one must admit the fact that this was possible mainly due to the drastic changes that occurred in the global scenario itself during this period. On the other hand, due to this "strategic transformation," China was also placed better to utilise such opportunities.

Firstly, as a result of this policy, the People's Republic of China (PRC) could drastically cut down its military strength. As per the decision taken, China reduced its military strength by one million. This could smoothen its transition to a modern military force. However, this does not mean the sophistication levels of the military of a well-advanced nation. Looking from an Asian perspective, and observing the armed forces surrounding China, this will become clearer.

Impact on Future Planning

If we look at the overall developments, the one basic advantage provided by this strategic shift is that it has generated tremendous opportunities to both the PRC as well as to its armed forces to think afresh and plan for the future in a drastically different way. Even a casual glance at the writings in the PLA's official mouthpiece, the Jiefang Junbao (Liberation Army Daily) reveals that the range of thinking in its strategic community is tremendous. They are thinking way ahead of their counterparts in other developing nations. This is in no way to exaggerate or demonise the capabilites of the PLA.

We need to consider some of the basic differences between the old concept of "people's war and "active defence" where the major goal is to fight a "local war under hi-tech conditions." The "people's war" concept was rooted in the traditions of China's ancient strategic thinking and Mao's own experience gained during the liberation struggle. One of the main strategic planks of this type of war was to lure the enemy into the interiors of one's own territory and wage an all-out attack to eliminate him. This strategy was well suited to China as long as the conventional mode of fighting was dominated by infantry columns and later on with the use of tanks, and other armoured vehicles. Under this concept, air power was still a component of strategic support.

However, with the rapid developments that came into technology and thinking in warfighting during the last two decades, this scenario changed totally. The humiliating defeat suffered by the mighty US at the hands of the "swarthy yellow devils" of Vietnam prompted the US strategic community to think in terms of new concepts of war. The "bodybag" syndrome that developed as a result of this war also compelled the political leadership, especially of the Western bloc nations, to think afresh about the human element in warfare. This, together with the rapid changes in the fields of avionics, missiles, information technology, etc rapidly changed the concept of war itself in a big way.

The developments that occurred since the Gulf War, compelled the Chinese to rethink about tactical concepts, and recently resulted in the issuing of a "new operation decree"10 by Jiang Zemin, in his capacity as chairman of the CMC. These changes came about after a long-term discussion in various fora, including the Liberation Army Daily. For example, an article on possible changes in cross-century campaign training, states, "Undoubtedly, the basic tasks of future warfare are to safeguard the national sovereignty and territorial integrity and realise the reunification of the motherland. Offensive warfare should be the main pattern of military actions and mobile warfare can play a key role in realising strategic objectives. In waging local warfare under high-tech conditions, due to the features of high weapon efficiency, unfixed frontline, and fast changing of operational patterns, it is imperative to maintain high warfare mobility, so as to master the battlefield initiative."11

Such thinking has definitely brought forward some possible attributes of a future campaign by the PLA: it will be mainly an offensive action, with swift and prompt use of all available means to gain the upper hand in areas like air superiority, availability and use of advanced information and intelligence, etc; above all, it will be a localised operation. Therefore, the potential adversaries of China cannot ignore these developments.

One important aspect of the new "operation decree" is that it clearly places stress on winning a "local war". General Fu Quanyou further clarifies this, "Operation decrees give a basis for the operation and training of our army. The existing operation decrees of our army were promulgated in the mid-eighties. Since then, great changes have taken place in many aspects of our work. Firstly, the establishment of the military strategic principle for the new period has required our army to make sound preparation for winning local wars which use modern technologies, especially local wars under high-tech conditions."12 This element of winning a local war at short notice needs further study in view of China's possible strategic engagements in its periphery.

With this shift in China's strategic concept, there is a definite movement in its nuclear strategy also. As this is a vast area, it has to be dealt with, in a separate paper.

Defence Expenditure

One area which has benefited China the maximum is the management of its defence expenditure. As a result of this strategic shift, China could reduce drastically the strength of a large standing army. As per the latest decision, China will be reducing over 1.5 million personnel within a span of 10-15 years. And it has plans to further reduce the number of its standing forces. This certainly gives it enough leeway to manage its defence expenditures. Another aspect of this reduction is that it provides China with a tool for projecting itself as the least per capita spender on account of defence, among the big nations.

Even at the best of times, assessing the real defence expenditure of China is a Herculean task. "Since the Chinese concept of a defence budget is quite different from that recognised in the West, the sum allocated to defence in the Ministry of Finance's annual budget report to the NPC will be termed 'military expenditure', to indicate that these funds are limited to expenditure on the armed forces only."13 For example while justifying the 1999 budget, a PLA official pointed out, "China's per capita defence spending is quite low. Defence spending in 1999 is equivalent to some $ 12.6 billion, or $ 4,200 in per capita terms. Take 1997, as an example again, per capita military spending was some $178,000 in the United States, $144,000 in Japan $12,000 in Russia, and $8,600 in India."14

Information Warfare

Just like nuclear weapons, information warfare (IW) is also emerging in many ways as a separate discipline, but its linkage and significance with conventional warfare cannot be overlooked. The role of IW and its application in any future scenario needs our close attention and planning. A keen observer of Chinese IW efforts observes, "The Chinese have proven themselves remarkable in indigenising Marxism to suit their cultural requirements and they are likely to develop information based warfare techniques to suit their special needs before too long. The USA must remain especially sensitive to this profound historical reality about the PRC....China's neighbours must not only watch the Chinese military preparedness closely, especially in the realm of information-based warfare, but also try not to remain too far behind in this field."15

As India has already gone open and declared itself as a nuclear power, this aspect of IW becomes all the more important. Another interesting facet about China's thinking on IW is that just as in the case of nuclear weapons, it has already started making efforts to use this capability as a tool for establishing its leadership over other developing nations. "Just as the purpose of China's possession of nuclear weapons is twofold, to end the nuclear monopoly and stop nuclear wars, so also is the purpose of China's research on information warfare, to prevent this new war monster from wreaking havoc on mankind and to create an international safety environment favourable to peace and development. Only when we possess the capability to win and make preparations to win, can we possibly realize the aim of checking the warfare. Only by exerting mutual constraints can power reach an equilibrium, and equilibrium of power can be the only foundation for stability of an international safe environment."16

India's Options

This development poses some real challenges to Indian policy makers and strategists. If one goes by the above statement, China still believes that "equilibrium of power" is an essential pre-requisite "for stability of an international safe environment." Unless the Indian leadership rises above its partisan goals and looks at the security requirements of our nation, the future seems to be bleak. Even without getting into the recent controversies surrounding the Indian forces and their implications for morale levels, one can understand that India has not started using its new-found status as a nuclear weapon power to its full advantage.

As noted earlier, the Chinese understand the use of power as a bargaining chip very well. Therefore, unless India is ready to operate in this competitive market of "hardsell" and "usp", nobody is going to pay any attention, irrespective of our solemn declarations. One basic and immediate requirement to meet this challenge is to get the Indian elite out of the narrow and artificial confines of "South Asian" rhetoric and take, at the minimum, Asia as a whole as our first circle of priority, and start preparations to meet the challenges on our security front with this holistic approach.

Another point which needs our attention is that the statement of Jiang Zemin on "strategy of active defence" calls for more understanding about the PLA itself. India needs to understand deeply the symbiotic relations between the Party and the PLA and their impact on the policy making process in China.

When the term "potential adversary" is used here, it is not meant to foster misconceptions or advocacy of a possible war between these two large Asian nations. However peace-loving a nation may be, if it does not take into consideration the long-term game plans of its immediate neighbours, it risks its very survival. Therefore, in view of these realities of today's realpolitik, the Indian strategic community and decision-makers have to pay more attention to their largest neighbour across the Great Himalayas.

Before concluding this paper, it is necessry to take a broad look at the worldview of the PLA as well as China, as this directly impinges on our security interests. The Chinese leadership still draws inspiration from the "three world theory" put forward by Mao, Zhou Enlai and others which formed the basis of China's global outlook. If we look at the Chinese arguments regarding hegemonism and power politics, comprehensive strength and multi-polar world, this will be more clear. While speaking on the unfavourable factors in the current international security situation, Chi Haotian pointed out: "Hegemonism and power politics remain the main source of threats to world peace and stability. The Cold War mentality and its influence still have a certain market."17

Then he succinctly put the "basic contents of China's defence policy as consolidating national defence, resisting aggression, defending territorial land, sea, air, and maritime rights and safeguarding national unity and security; the build-up of national defence must be subordinated to, and in the service of, the nation's overall economic construction; streamlining the army in the Chinese way in the process of army building; and devotion to safeguarding world peace and promoting mankind's progress."18


In keeping with the tradition of the "Great Wall" mentality, the Chinese leadership used to call the PLA its "impregnable steel wall." However, the modern approaches to security and rapid developments in science and technology have almost changed the impregnability factor of such walls and the security quotient provided by them. Taking into account these realities, the Chinese leadership has changed its mindsets to a large extent. But if one looks from the southern foothills of the Shivaliks, one gets the feeling that the Indian leadership has not fully awakened to the reality that the Great Himalayas can no longer provide the luxury of security. The world of "forced intervention" and the challenges posed by cruise missiles and precision guided munitions is a totally new ball game and unless we prepare ourselves quickly and adequately, we may be left far behind.



1. The Political Report delivered by Chinese Communist Party General Secretary, Jiang Zemin," Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB), September 13, 1997.

2. International Military & Defence Encyclopedia, vol. no. 2 (US: Brassey's 1993).

3. China's Defence White Paper, July 1998.

4. n. 2

5. Mao Tse Tung, Selected Works Vol. 1 (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1977).

6. Ibid.

7. The Twelfth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Chinese Documents Series (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1982).

8. Yao Yunzhu, "The Evolution of Military Doctrine of the Chinese PLA from 1985 to 1995", The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, no. 2 Winter 1995.

9. For details, see Nan Li, "The PLA's Evolving Warfighting Doctrine, Strategy and Tactics, 1985-95: A Chinese Perspective", The China Quarterly, June 1996.

10. Jiefangjun Bao (Liberation Army Daily) February 25, 1999.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Arthur S. Ding, "China's Defence Finance: Content, Process and Administration", The China Quarterly, June 1996. Also see Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, "Trends in Defence Expenditure", in Asian Strategic Review 1997-98 (New Delhi: IDSA, 1998).

14. "PLA General Defends 1999 Military Budget, "Xinhua Hong Kong News Service, March 1999 (FBIS Chi- 1999-0310).

15. M. Eshan Ahrari, "Chinese Prove to be Attentive Students of Information Warfare", Janes's Intelligence Review, October 1997.

16. Jiefangjun Bao, February 24, 1999.

17. Chi Haotin, "Lectures in Singapore on PRC Defence", Beijing, Xinhua Domestic Service November 27, 1998 (FBIS translated text).

18. Ibid.