Which is President Xi Jinping’s military doctrine and his “warfare rationale”?
With a view to well understanding the evolution of Chinese warfare studies to date, however, we need to study the tradition of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the vision that the Communist Party of China (CPC) had in the history of warfare doctrine.
Firstly, for China, the different terminologies used within NATO and, more generally, in Western military doctrines such as “global strategy”, “national security strategy” or “national defense strategy” are not separate concepts or ways of thinking, but are all subsumed in the Chinese general notion of “military strategy”.
Again in Chinese terminology, in simpler terms, the strategy “guidelines” are the political-military policy lines developed by the CPC leadership.
In these policy lines we can perceive the geopolitical threat that the CPC thinks to be closer and hence the likeliest type of future war that China must absolutely be ready to wage and fight.
The initial evaluations of the Chinese handbooks are the equivalent of the Western strategic assessment, while the analytical ones refer to the Chinese Armed Forces’ capabilities in relation to “present and future wars”.
According to China’s current strategic thinking, the science of military strategy is the study of warfare laws and of the laws on the conduct of war, as well as the analysis of war predictions and the study of the most probable type of war in the future – all analyzed on the basis of past, present and future scenarios.
Our analysis, however, needs to begin at least with the military philosophy of Deng Xiaoping, who was the first Chinese leader to break with the philosophy of Maoist “people’s war”, in which the missing technology was replaced by the large dimension of masses in arms.
It is worth noting that, in Mao’s mind, all this was the policy line for being prepared to resist a nuclear attack with a subsequent invasion – a nuclear attack carried out, in all likelihood, by the USSR or the United States.
Indeed, the Two Worlds of Mao’s doctrine on foreign policy – the Third World was the world of Poor Countries, which were bound to be globally directed and led by Communist China.
Conversely, in Deng’s opinion, there was a shift from the primary perception of a global threat to the theory of local and “limited war” around China’s borders.
Deng Xiaoping’s “policy line” on war and defense envisaged above all land conflicts on the Northern and Eastern borders (the “Northern enemy”, namely the Soviet Russia, as Deng called it), but also sea clashes and surprise air attacks, with the subsequent necessary countermoves of the People’s Liberation Army.
What was missing in Deng’s military thinking – and that was Mao’s legacy – was a specific doctrine of the nuclear weapon that – as Soviet Marshal Shaposhnikov also taught us – was “a weapon like the others”.
Jiang Zemin – after Deng – when the Four Modernizations (the last of which was exactly the military and technological one) redeveloped Deng Xiaoping’s model by envisaging “limited warfare under high-technology conditions”.
In that new context – the first real theoretical departure from “Mao’s policy line” on war – Jiang Zemin envisaged two primary intervention areas, the one near Taiwan and the one against all US networks in the Pacific, while the fall of the USSR made the traditional Chinese defense against the “Northern enemy” basically useless.
This was the first real maritime dimension of the Chinese doctrine, after Mao Zedong had thought about an almost entirely terrestrial defense, on the basis of his Long March.
As early as the 1950s, however, the internal documents of the Central Committee identified the Philippines, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and obviously Taiwan and even Japan, as future areas of Chinese invasion or hegemony.
Hence, in technological terms, Jiang Zemin’s new war meant a clash based on intercontinental missiles, fine electronics, multi-dimensional battlefields, sensors and intelligence.
The Central Military Commission, namely the highest Party’s body for defense matters, officially accepted Jiang Zemin’s policy line in 1992.
It is easy to imagine what the Chinese military decision-makers were observing and studying at the time: the war in the Balkans; the first Gulf War of 1990-1991; the war in Rwanda; the “ten-day war” between Slovenia and the Republic of Yugoslavia; the beginning of the Algerian jihadist insurgency; the outbreak of war in Somalia; the clashes in Georgia; the conflict on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan and some other minor conflicts.
The Chinese study of military doctrine always refers to concrete cases. In China’s traditional philosophy there is nothing resembling the Aristotle’s or Kant’s “categories”.
Hence, according to China and “Jiang’s policy line”, the war was bound to be won always by means of elite troops and preventive operations, although China has always refused to be the first to start a military clash – even a solely nuclear one.
The new local wars theorized and studied by Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin were supposed to be “quick battles to force quick resolutions”.
Instead of making the enemy enter deep into the Chinese territory – as Mao Zedong thought – and later holding and gripping it as in a vice of masses in arms, Deng’s and Jiang’s new doctrine envisaged operations deep into the enemy’s territory.
Therefore emphasis was laid on very advanced technological preparation and on the elite troops’ abilities, as against the great masses of Mao’s time, as well as on undercover operations, the tactical and strategic element of surprise and deep combined actions.
Beyond the myth of all-out nuclear war – in which also Mao believed and which, however, was a paper tiger – Jiang Zemin’s new military policy line focused on the maximum lethality of weapons, on tactical precision and on the encirclement and tacit overcoming of the enemy, as well as penetration beyond the lines.
Later the CPC’s military and strategic thinking focused on the Revolution in Military Affairs, which the United States had developed in the early 1990s.
It should be recalled, however, that the first theory of Revolution in Military Affairs had been developed by Marshal Ogarkov in the Soviet Union, by laying emphasis on the robotization of the battlefield and the increasingly important role played by space technology and satellites as weapons in themselves and for tactical and strategic intelligence.
Jiang Zemin revised those Western and Soviet concepts and added a series of considerations on the political and social dimension of the conflict, but always in a framework of “regional war under conditions of high-technology and computerization”.
After China had studied the war in Kosovo, the specific doctrinal concept was developed in 2004.
China had also well studied the theories of “non-violent warfare” developed by Gene Sharp in the United States and later implemented them thoroughly in the “color revolutions” of Georgia and Ukraine, as well as in the case of OTPOR! in Serbia.
Specific emphasis is laid – although not explicitly – on psychological warfare in the current Chinese military doctrines.
As clearly stated in the 2004 White Paper, China’s IT and cyber warfare consists mainly in “inflicting a heavy toll on the enemy, even the conventionally superior one, through a variety of tools ranging from the destruction of its satellites and missile systems to the use of electromagnetic pulse weapons to hit enemy ships or aircraft and even its civilian IT networks”.
At the time, the idea of Chinese political and military decision-makers was the shift from “mechanization to ICTs and computerization” leading to multiple asymmetric, non-contiguous and non-linear wars in the strategic clash region.
If we consider the provincialism characterising many “White Books” of the European Armed Forces at the time, what stands out is the vitality of the Chinese strategic thinking, certainly devoid of semantic ambiguities or pacifist concerns.
Conversely mechanization was the specific aim of the 2008 White Paper, when the CPC’s central power still supported the idea of training the best military elites on the field and also acquiring the Command, Control and Intelligence (CCI) IT networks, in addition to acquiring the weapon systems most suitable for the 2008 new doctrine, which followed the doctrine of the official documents of 2004 and subsequent years.
According to the Chinese decision-makers, ICTs and computerization were the Achilles’ heel of the weapon and command systems of Westerners or anyway of China’s possible enemies.
The “web” was supposed to be the PLA’s first attack front in a situation of limited warfare or global confrontation.
Therefore, the Chinese decision-makers did not only seek an efficient network for the Chinese CCI, but also a specific doctrine for the “electronic warfare” and the signs that it would be greatly developed in the following years.
Many of you may remember that, in those years, the Western interest in the Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW) emerged.
In the Chinese official doctrines from 2007 to 2010, we could note that specific attention was paid to the role that the Chinese Armed Forces could play in assisting the Chinese economy and society and in supporting the population during natural disasters.
In this regard, we cannot certainly forget the role played by the PLA against sabotage, internal subversion and factionalism with respect to the Party and the Chinese nation.
Hence we can envisage an internal military role of the Armed Forces which is far subtler and more careful than the usual one prevailing in Western countries – a role which is also predictive and proactive, not just ex post.
As you may have realized, all these considerations show that there is very clear submission of the PLA to the Party, but also the creation of a specific political role for the Chinese Armed Forces.
A role that is played through the Central Military Commission which, since 1990, has increased its importance within the CPC hierarchy.
It is in this political and strategic context that the global threats to the Chinese status quo really change: the USSR collapsed in 1991 – hence there is no longer the danger of a great invasion from the North, as the CPC’s leadership had feared during the clashes on the Ussuri River in 1968.
The Ussuri River war broke out when, a year before, the “Red Guards” had besieged the USSR Embassy in Beijing and hence the USSR attacked the Chinese border guards right on the Ussuri River.
The USSR threatened the use of nuclear weapons against China, but the United States threatened heavy repercussions against the Soviet Union if this happened.
This currently well-known data coming from the US archives make us imagine how natural was for China at the time to accept the US proposal for a new opening towards the United States to clearly oppose the Soviet Union.
It should also be noted that Mao’s famous theory “on the correct handling of contradictions among the people” was, in fact, an appeal to compromise with the Soviets, who supported the “Parliamentary way” – as also the Parties depending on the USSR did – while China wanted a greater “anti-imperialist” and anti-colonialist struggle.
Other military results were also achieved between China and the Soviet Union in that political and ideological juncture: Khrushchev refused to actively respond to the US Marines’ operations in the Lebanon, besides refusing to support China when it began bombing the island of Quemoy still occupied by Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang, and later making it clear to everyone that the Soviet Union would never grant a nuclear bomb prototype to China.
This is the real military plot of a now very famous discussion – apparently scholastic and obscure – between the two Marxist powers of the world.
Therefore in 1991, the “Northern enemy”, namely the USSR, no longer existed and the fear of the great invasion had waned.
However, as the Chinese decision-makers rightly thought, the no longer bipolar world increased – and certainly not diminished – the likelihood of regional conflicts.
Nothing to do with the pacifist dreams or delusions not only of the unaware public, but also of Western decision-makers.
The sanctions imposed on China by the United States after the Tiananmen Square events; the ongoing Anglo-American controversy on human rights in China; the US support to Taiwan during the 1996 crisis, when the United States sent two aircraft carriers to the Formosa Strait, and the Tibet issue – as well as the Xinjiang issue, which is currently mounting between the US and European media influencers – and finally the commercial tensions between the United States and China, are all factors which made us think – in those years, but also at a later stage – that China’s “far enemy”, namely the United States, would remain – in fact – the only real enemy.
It was the US technology show in the two Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003 which definitely convinced the Chinese decision-makers of the new IT turn and direction the CPC’s National Armed Forces had to take.
Nevertheless the moment of truth came for China when the United States created the casus belli in Kosovo. For the Party’s and PLA’s decision-makers that proved how the United States was capable of creating difficult situations by manipulating both diplomacy and the military equilibria of a whole region.
But what is President Xi Jinping’s current political-military vision?
In the official documents, Xi Jinping’s “policy line” regards not so much the analysis of new threats or the most abstract doctrinal issues, but rather the list of things that the PLA must absolutely accomplish in a short lapse of time:
- a) to improve the ability of simultaneously coping with a wide range of internal emergencies and tactical or non-tactical military threats, which could endanger China’s sovereignty at terrestrial, sea and air levels;
- b) to support the harsh and specific protection of the unification of the Motherland – an essential factor for achieving the great Belt and Road Initiative;
- c) to ensure China’s security “in new contexts” – and here reference is obviously made to the protection of the financial and industrial system, besides the political one;
- d) to ensure the protection of China’s interest overseas – the truly new strategic asset of China as global economic power;
- e) to improve the efficiency of strategic nuclear and cyber deterrence, as well as the PLA’s possibility of successfully launching a quick and highly dissuasive nuclear counterattack;
- f) to increase the PLA’s participation in international peace-keeping operations – a full recognition of China’s role also at military level;
- g) to strengthen the protection of the Chinese homeland against separatism and terrorism;
- h) to improve the PLA’s ability to fully carry out its tasks during environmental and health crises – as was the case with the bird flu crisis in 2003 and in the following years.
Hence, with a view to winning a cyber regional war – the PLA’s first political and strategic goal – the utmost protection of strategic surprise is needed, also on the part of the CPC itself – in addition to the protection of China’s interest overseas, another primary goal of the Chinese leadership.
Moreover, the defense of interests “in other fields” refers to China’s expansion at the maritime, space and cyber levels.
An expansion going well beyond the territorial limits of China and of the areas such as Hong Kong and Macao.
In fact, China is currently looking for new military bases abroad, namely Chongjin in North Korea; Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea; Sihanoukville in Cambodia; Koh Lanta in Thailand; Sittwe in Myanmar; Dhaka in Bangladesh; Gwadar in Pakistan; Hambantotaport in Sri Lanka; the Maldives and the Seychelles islands; Djibouti; Lagos in Nigeria; Mombasa in Kenya; Dar es Salaam in Tanzania; Luanda in Angola and Walvis Bay in Namibia.
Certainly this program of military expansion and strategic repositioning under President Xi Jinping implies a series of anti-corruption actions that have also heavily affected the PLA, especially its highest ranks.
Therefore President Xi Jinping thinks that highly technically and operationally advanced Chinese Armed Forces are needed. They must above all be strongly and exclusively subjected to the Party, which has also been undergoing an anti-corruption probe for many years.
Mao Zedong’s Chinese dilemma “Reds versus Experts” is back again, but this time in the new global horizon imposed by Xi Jinping’s Presidency.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France