The People’s Liberation Army has launched a rapid modernisation drive to prepare for 21st century warfare and to enable China to project military power well away from its land borders and territorial waters. The new type of war that is now being envisaged by the PLA represents a revolutionary change from the traditional Chinese concept of People’s War against an invading enemy seeking to occupy and destroy the PRC. People’s War was expected to be an all-out or total war fought primarily by ground forces supported by a motivated population that was fully mobilised for a long-drawn struggle. The concept that was evolved by Mao was characterised by protracted, large-scale land warfare where the aim was to exploit China’s strategic depth by luring the enemy deep inside, extending his lines of communications and logistics and eventually destroying him through prolonged attrition.
Underpinning the new professionalism of the PLA is the basic doctrine of “active defence” (jiji fangyu) that seeks to conduct “people’s war under modern conditions” (better understood as “local wars under hi-tech conditions” – gaojishu tiaojian xia de jubu zhanzheng). The ‘active defence’ doctrine calls for integrated, deep strikes – a concentration of superior firepower that is to be utilised to destroy the opponent’s retaliatory capabilities through pre-emptive strikes employing long-range artillery, short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and precision guided munitions. David Shambaugh, a well known China scholar has written: “Rather than conducting a ‘people’s war’ (a strategy to ‘lure the enemy in deep’ into one’s own territory), the PLA doctrine of ‘active defence’ calls for forward positioning, frontier defence, engagement of the enemy at or over the border and potential engagement in conflict beyond China’s immediate periphery… this doctrine is essentially pro-active and seeks to take the battle into enemy territory.” Beijing has defined the following five likely limited war scenarios: military conflict with neighbouring countries in a limited region; military conflict on territorial waters; undeclared air attack by enemy countries; territorial defence in a limited military operation; and, punitive offensive with a minor incursion into a neighbouring country.
The new doctrine and the strategy and tactics associated with it have been influenced by the lessons of Gulf War I in 1991 and the Iraq War of 2003, both of which have been extensively studied by Chinese scholars. The doctrine requires the creation of a capability to project force across China’s borders through rapid deployment, conventional SRBMs and cruise missiles, information warfare, electronic warfare, precision-guided munitions, night fighting capabilities and other advanced military technologies. The building of these capabilities, in turn, drives procurement and defence production policies, the command and control structures and training. According to a US DoD report to Congress, victory is to be achieved through ”strategic strikes” by gaining the initiative by striking first, achieving victory with one strike and concentrating China’s strength to attack the core of enemy defence.
Major General Shen Xuezai, former head of the Military Systems Department of the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS), has written: “Only by controlling the entire battlespace and striking at key points so as to paralyse the enemy’s entire operational system and immobilize its forces, will it be possible to win a war.” Commenting on the PLA’s evolving doctrine, Major Mark A. Stokes has stated: “This strategic attack doctrine, one aspect of the PLA’s ‘limited war under high-tech conditions’ (jubu zhanzheng zai gaojishu tiaojian xia)… continues to adhere to the traditional strategy of ‘pitting the inferior against the superior’ (yilie shengyou), which recognises technological inferiority for an indefinite period of time.” Much the same point was made in the Pentagon’s 2007 annual report on the Military Power of China: “Once hostilities have begun, according to the PLA text, Science of Campaigns (Zhanyixue) (2000), ‘the essence of (active defence) is to take the initiative and annihilate the enemy… While strategically the guideline is active defence, (in military campaigns) the emphasis is placed on taking the initiative in active offence. Only in this way can the strategic objective of active defence be realised” (emphasis added).
China also follows ‘anti-access’ strategies to deny access to the adversary to his planned launch pads in an endeavour to prevent build-up of forces for a war against China. Planning for anti-access strategies flows from the apprehension that if superior, well-equipped forces (read the US and its allies) are allowed to arrive in the war zone with the force levels and in the time frame planned by them, they are bound to prevail. According to a RAND paper of 2007, the Chinese calculate that “by mounting a credible threat to do so, they will be able to deter the United States from intervening in the first place, or at least limit the scale and scope of that intervention.” The PLA’s aim is clearly to deter a conflict or at least delay the opponent’s preparation till the PLA is better prepared to react. The PLA seeks to achieve this aim through attacks against air bases and ports and other elements of the logistics chain and against information systems so as to disrupt command and control during build-up. While anti-access strategies are unlikely to succeed in preventing conflict completely, these could impose considerable delay and caution during build-up.
The PLA’s new doctrine is also more assertive than previously thought and is not bound by any restrictions to confine and limit future conflict to within China’s national boundaries. China claims that it has only peaceful intentions and does not believe in launching aggression and that it fights wars only to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity. According to China’s White Papers on national defence, active defence is a defensive military strategy. However, it is clear from Chinese writings that the major characteristics of active defence are distinctly offensive in nature. The PLA publication The Study of Campaigns (Zhanyixue) (2000) highlights this offensive approach: “While strategically the guideline is active defence, in military campaigns, though, the emphasis is placed on taking the initiative in ‘active offense’. Only in this way the strategic objectives of “active defence” can be realised.”