China’s Military Strategy: Defensive or Offensive?

In May 2015, the Information Office of China’s State Council released a document entitled China’s Military Strategy. It is the ninth Defense White Paper and the first thematic one focusing on the military strategy of the Chinese Armed Forces.

Part III of the White Paper is devoted to China’s Active Defense Strategy.

The Active Defense Strategic Guideline: A Brief Overview

The concept of active defense was developed during the long years of revolutionary wars that preceded the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. However, it was in March 1956 that the Central Military Commission (CMC) – the leading body of the Chinese Armed Forces – adopted Active Defense as an official Strategic Guideline. The guideline aims to defend China against a US-led military invasion of China’s eastern coastal area. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the widening rift between China and the Soviet Union, China saw a rapid deterioration in its security environment and the need to shift its strategic center of gravity to guard against a possible Soviet land invasion from the north. The Strategic Guideline was reoriented to prepare for “an early war, a major war and a nuclear war” with one or even two superpowers. In 1985, then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping reassessed the strategic situation and concluded that a major world war was not imminent or inevitable, that China could focus on economic development, and that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could shift from war preparation to peacetime force building.

In 1988, China’s CMC readjusted the Strategic Guideline of Active Defense to deal with possible local wars and military conflicts. The PLA was directed to subordinate itself to the needs of national economic development and to reduce its ranks by one million.

The end of the cold war and the Gulf War provided new impetus for strategic readjustment. In 1993, the CMC updated the Strategic Guideline of Active Defense and the military was asked to prepare to fight and win “a local war under high technology conditions.” Among the prioritized missions were modernizing the PLA through revolution in military affairs (RMA), developing and upgrading weapons and equipment, building capabilities for deterring Taiwan from independence, and developing rapid response capacity in emergencies. The PLA underwent two more major reductions in the 1990’s, one by half a million, another by 200,000.

The 21st century has witnessed the maturing of the information age and the informationization of warfare. In 2004, the Chinese military was directed to prepare to fight “a local war under informationized conditions.” The PLA’s doctrine gives emphasis to information dominance in joint military operations, and its modernization drive makes informationization a clear priority.

The Defensive Nature of the Strategy

For more than sixty years, China’s military strategy has undergone several updates and reorientations. However, there is one thing that has remained constant: its defensive nature. Some basic principles in the strategy can speak for it, namely: defense, self-defense and post-emptive strike.

By “defense” China means it will not wage aggressive wars against other countries. It will not provoke a strategic military offense. However, China must maintain the unity of strategic defense and operational and tactical offense. Strategically, China will not be the one to “fire the first shot.” Once China has already been attacked and provoked at the strategic level, it is in China’s full right to gain the operational and tactical initiative by taking offensive actions.

By “self-defense” China means maintaining independent means of national defense. China has repeatedly stated its non-alliance policy, and taken a stance of non-interference. A good example is China’s self-defense nuclear strategy, which explicitly states that China will only use its nuclear weapons for the purpose of defending China, not to provide nuclear umbrella to any other country.

By “post-emptive strike” China means making sure that even after sustaining an attack by an opponent, it must retain the capacity to strike back and win. The Chinese military has adhered to a 16-character tenet which in English goes something like: "We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked." China’s self-defense nuclear strategy makes it very clear that once China is attacked with nuclear weapons, its nuclear counter-attack must be able to inflict unacceptable damage on the aggressor.

Factors Leading to China’s Defensive Orientation

The defensive nature of China’s military strategy is rooted in its traditional military thinking. China has been a very successful agricultural nation for thousands of years. In Chinese thinking homeland is “a home on a piece of farm land”. And the best way to defend one’s homeland is to build strong and thick walls, such as the Great Wall, to keep out invaders. China, as a continental country, did not pursue maritime expansion and overseas colonization even at the height of its power. China’s 5,000-year history has produced a peace loving culture, and defensive thinking is an integral part of it.

The defensive nature of China’s military strategy is defined by China’s national interests. Since the reforms and the decision to open up in 1979, China has, within three decades, lifted itself from the ranks of the world’s poorest countries to the second largest economy in the world. The living conditions of the Chinese people have been completely transformed. China’s international prestige has never been higher and its citizens have never been prouder. Only in a peaceful environment can China achieve so much and so soon. A defensive military posture has served China’s national interests of maintaining a peaceful and favorable environment in which China could focus on economic development.

The defensive nature of China’s military strategy is a reflection of global trends. The current era is seen by China as one of peace and development, presenting China with a period of strategic opportunity to rise peacefully and realize its national dream of rejuvenation. In an increasingly interdependent and interconnected world, military aggressiveness goes against the global tide. The defensive nature of China’s military strategy contributes to regional and international trust-building, security and military cooperation and the safeguarding of world peace.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.