Dynamics of China’s Future Warfighting Potential
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Issue Book Excerpt: China: Threat or Challenge? | Date : 20 Jan , 2017


The impact of history, geographic position, culture, political system and myriad other factors on strategic and military decision makers is essential to draw comprehensive and complete conclusions. Nations often take actions that have very little to do with a rational calculation of their strategic interests; instead they are sometimes the outcome of limited political calculations. To therefore draw any prognosis, as Eliot Cohen says, “requires thorough understanding of an opponent’s style of warfare and an effort to see how it interacts with one’s own. Also in order to get beyond mere ‘bean-counting’, it is necessary to understand how each side characteristically operates its forces, and then speculate as intelligently as possible about the significance of these facts.”1 To analyse China’s future warfighting it would be apt to understand a wide array of the war-making spectrum that goes into a nation’s decision to employ its military power.

China’s Historical Strands in the Contemporary Context

China’s leaders characterise the first two decades of the Twenty-first Century as a “strategic window of opportunity”. They assess that during this period both domestic and international conditions will be conducive to expanding China’s “Comprehensive National Power” (CNP).2 China’s leaders anticipate that a successful expansion of CNP will serve China’s strategic interests which include: perpetuating Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule, sustaining economy growth and development, maintaining internal stability, defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity and securing China’s status as a global power. China’s leaders routinely emphasise the goal of reaching critical economic and military benchmarks by 2020. These benchmarks are to successfully restructure the economy to maintain growth and uniformly increase the quality of living of China’s citizens so as to maintain stability; making major progress in military modernisation and attaining the capability to fight and win potential regional conflicts, the protection of Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC), defence of territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea and the defence of western borders.3

The statements of Chinese leaders indicate that in their view, the development of a modern military is necessary to achieve great power status. The leadership view a modern military as a critical deterrent to prevent action by outside powers that could in any way impede the pursuit of its interest. If deterrence fails the military should be capable of taking armed action to defend the interests of the nation. Often there is talk of ‘China’s Strategic Culture’. As explained by Rashed Zaman in studying Kautilya, that it is the context that surrounds and gives meaning to strategic behaviour and this behaviour is affected by culturally shaped or encultured people, organisations, procedures and weapons4. Colin Grey (1984) argues that understanding strategic culture may provide an improved capacity for understanding enduring policy motivation, make prediction, as well as understand the meaning of events in the assessment of others.5 The meaning of culture is central to understanding China’s military and security affairs. Chinese strategic culture is a critical influence not only on why China uses force, but where and against whom. The idea that contemporary China’s international relation has been heavily influenced by an ancient and enduring civilization is especially prevalent. Confucianism provides many of the essential elements in Chinese thought and Chinese conduct of international relations. Historical events during the 19th and 20th Centuries left lasting impression on the Chinese people and continue to define China’s modern strategic culture. The crucial national narrative of the “Century of Humiliation” at the hands of imperialist and hegemonic powers is central to China’s nationalism (security paranoia) today.6

The manifestation of ancient and more recent history are the discernible strands which defines Chinese strategic culture and behaviour. The first is the linked concept of surprise and deception. It is gives modern form to China’s inclusion of trump weapons – including psychological warfare – which seeks to undermine an enemy’s ability to conduct combat operations through operations aimed at deterring, shocking and demoralizing enemy military personnel and supporting civil population.7 The second strand has been a shift to minimum force, if violence becomes necessary. Linked to the concept of Limited War, it has a historical antecedent in Sun Zi, where, protracted wars are described as harmful to the state. The third strand is the centrality of the armed forces in society and national security planning. Finally, the perception that threats to China’s National security are very real and that domestic threat are as dangerous as foreign threats. National unification is a strong traditional Chinese core strategic culture value. These have resulted in a Chinese strategic culture that blends Confucian/ Sun Zi thought and realpolitik.

China’s Rise

To understand the Chinese perspective of the global security situation, its military whitepaper released in April 2013, gives a reasonable insight. China herein, reiterates that its “National defence policy is defensive in nature and that it opposes any form of hegemonies or power politics”8 and will “never engage in military expansion”. China has been conscious of the fact that its rise is being seen as a threat in the region. As a consequence, it has repeatedly stated its stance to assuage the feelings of neighbours. The term proved controversial because the word ‘rise’ could fuel perceptions that China is a threat to the established order, so since 2004 the term China’s peaceful development (Zhōngguó hépíng fāzhǎn) has been used by the Chinese leadership. On the other hand China has projected that it too is faced by “multiple and complicated security threats and challenges”.9 National unification, territorial integrity and development interest are the paramount concerns. “We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counter attack if attacked”. Following this principle, PLA is taking all measures to resolutely safeguard its “national sovereignty and territorial integrity”. What constitutes an attack or a threat is interpreted to suit the Chinese political ambitions.

China plans to face its own internal challenges with three grand strategies or “Three Transcendences”. The First strategy is to transcend the old model of industrialisation and to advance to a new one. The object being to build a “society of thrift”. The Second strategy is to transcend the traditional ways for great powers to emerge, as well as the cold war mentality that defined international relations along ideological lines. Instead, China will transcend ideological differences to strive for peace, development and cooperation with all countries of the world. The Third strategy is to transcend outdated modes of social control and to construct a harmonious socialist society. The functions of the Chinese government being gradually transformed, with self-governance supplementing state administration.10

China today is a very self confident nation and this confidence is translating into growing assertiveness. A mix of assertiveness combined with a strong dose of nationalism is now part of China’s strategic calculus and is visible in its foreign policy initiatives with the US, Europe and in the region as also, it is translating into growing assertiveness. A mix of assertiveness combined with a dose of nationalism is evident in its uncompromising stance in foreign policy initiatives with the US, Europe on issues affecting its Core Nation interests and sovereignty.11

The PLA is focussed on aiming to win local wars under the condition of “informationization” and expanding and intensifying of military preparation. To achieve such capability, the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) is intensifying joint employment of different arms and services and enhancing war fighting capability based on information systems. Defensive mobilisation of reserve force and the building of an integrated civilian-military functioning mechanism, figure prominently in the scheme of preparedness. The 2008 global financial crises and a school of thought advocating the downfall of the “Washington Consensus” and the rise of the concept of economic model shaped around the “Beijing Consensus” has greatly emboldened China. This resulted in assertiveness in its behaviour during the period 2009-2010. If that is any indication of the true nature of China rising to the status of great power, then its assertiveness is only likely to increase in direct proportion to its power. It probably, will be less patient to the sensitivities of others and more ready to back rhetoric with armed posturing and use force as it fabricates a threat to its interests.

Deng Xiaoping first enunciated the ideology for development of armed forces stressing on a small highly trained standing army with a large but strong reserve. He directed that the armed forces “give full play” to its strong points while striking the enemy at its weak points. Simultaneously adopt “flexible tactics to win future wars against aggressors”. As emerging from Chinese analysis, the West has changed its military strategy “in accordance with the relaxed international situation and to improve its economy”. China accuses the US of having changed its strategy of containing the ‘expansion of communism’ into ‘expanding global democratisation’ and changed its military structure and strategy accordingly. It sees this as a key change from ‘preventing the Soviet Union from launching a wide scale war’ to ‘dealing with regional conflicts in the Third World’ and preventing the rise of ‘new global opponents’.12 China sees US high technology concentrating on building “digital troops”, in a “digital battlefield” and a “digital war” as the key note in the US force development. This in turn will dictate the trends in the modernisation of the PLA.

For the part sixty years, the PLA attached importance to military training while seeking to strengthen its modern modernisation. Each transformation in training has its link with the new doctrine. The first was “regularised training”, the next was characterised by “enhancing combined arms war fighting capabilities”, and the third transformation took “fighting and winning local wars under high tech conditions” as its theme.13 Since 2006, the PLA has embarked on the fourth transformation with its unequivocal theme being the “promotion of the transformation from military training under mechanisation to military training under condition of informationisation”.14 This constitutes an all round, fundamental and profound directional change. Regional wars in “informatized” conditions are the current theme being evolved for the future battlefield. The CPC (or CCP) through the CMC approves the operational concepts for military operations. This in turn, becomes the basis of induction of technology and focus of Research and Development (R&D) for suitable weapon systems and equipment. Operational concept have roots in classical Chinese military thinking from strategists such as Sun Zi and Sun Bin and they also draw on description of ancient battles and tactics in historical novels. Layered over the ancient traditional thought are lessons the PLA learned from its own history, its own major wars and from observing other armies at war.15

Among the key principles taken from ancient Chinese thought are the use of deception, the importance of surprise in war, and the use of a combination of military economic, and political means to achieve victory. Certain principles of war may be immutable, but the PLA places special emphasis on discipline, deception, surprise, man (of fires and forces), flexibility, offensive and manoeuvre.16

Operational Concepts

Today the PLA Army’s (PLAA) doctrine and strategies, operational art and tactics are captured in a series of volumes published by the main academics of higher military education in China, the Academy of Military Science and the PLA National Defence University. Chinese military thinkers have set out their operational principles from the highest levels of warfare down to the way that small units should operate on the battle field.17 In a way, the system of tight control would make the tactical battle zone frozen with a series of set piece type of operations. Also it ostensibly, makes manoeuvre and operational art rigid and sans the required flexibility to exploit fleeting windows of opportunity. For the twenty-first century, PLAA has updated its operational concept to incorporate joint operations the application of air power and missiles along with ground forces.

The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) unlike the PLAA and PLA Navy (PLAN) was formally established in November 1949; as a result it got off to a late start. Today PLAFF is the third largest air force in the world, only those of the US and Russia are larger. Although there are a lot of aircraft in the force but it remains a force that is in “conversion from a force for limited territorial defence to a more flexible and agile force able to operate off-shore in both offensive and defensive roles”.18 PLAAF modernisation aims at accomplishing six core tasks; deterrence ability to carry out effective air strikes as part of a larger campaign protect key military and strategic installations; air lift component for logistical operations and move forces and equipment to project power; capacity to establish no-fly zones; assist PLAN in its Anti Access/ Area Denial (A1/AD) missions; and conduct forced insertions with its airborne forces inside or outside of China.

Transforming itself from a force focused on territorial defence to one that can project aerospace power around the world and support other military operations means that the PLAAF has had to make some serious changes. In the process it has built capacities in mid-air refuelling thus acquiring ‘Longer Legs’, and use of digital data links for network integration for airborne control, China’s strategists are convinced that the air and space domains of war will merge so that war in aerospace, supported by cyber and information attack will be integral parts of other military operations. Moreover, whether attacks come from space or from the air, so long as they are directed against surface targets, the PLAAF would be involved in offensive or defensive role. Presently, however, PLAAF is not a uniformly high-technology force. Consequently, neither the PLAAF, nor the rest of PLAA can field and operate a fully digitalised force that can take advantage of an integrated picture of the battle field and apply weapons in a fully coordinated manner and this is likely to persist “for some time to come”.19

The employment of missiles emphasises the value of missiles as a form of offset (non-contact) attack, particularly in the context of its strategy of active defence. This concept holds that warfare is a “holistic entity that includes offensive as well as defensive actions”.20 The doctrine in “A Guide to the Study of Campaign Theory” gives specific guidance for the conduct of conventional guided missile campaigns. According to this the guided missile force must be “continuously prepared for a rapid response” and it calls for the use of a “small amount of force as a deterrent against attack”. The targets suggested for such attacks are directed to disrupt the adversary’s economy and reconstitution and resupply capabilities. These are likely to include, major enemy military bases and depots, command centres, communication and transportation networks, troop concentrations. While conventional missile forces are assigned to Military Theatre Commands or theatres of war the level freedom of action gives to a theatre commander is not clear. It is conceived in the War Zone Campaign Concept, that the offensive/aggressive content of the military action can be ceased anytime when the larger Political aim or objective is met. As a consequence the CPC is likely to dictate, more intimately, the quantum of missile fires that can be employed.

Defence experts in China regularly refer to the “mass fires” using these missiles against critical targets. This is consistent with twenty first century PLA operational principles. General Zhang Waunian reiterates “from the stand point of firepower, air bombardment, artillery, and guided missiles must be massed for the greatest long range destructive and killing effect”. He also emphasises that “to ensure a decisive attack against a target, guided missiles must be massed against their objective”. Further, asserting that conventional ballistic missiles can “win a war without employing one’s own troops in direct combat if their offensive fires are asserting that concentrated effectively”.21 Xin Qin in his book ‘Information Age Warfare’ argues that Iraqi missile forces failed by not gathering the necessary intelligence of US and allied assembly areas and then compounded that failure by not taking the initiative to attack them. He believes that if Iraq had massed its “guided missile strength against the weaker coalition forces before they left training and assembly areas they could have destroyed them before they moved into combat formations and attack positions”.22

The US Department of Defence, in 2011, commented that “China’s Space activities and capabilities including ASAT programmes, have significant implications for (A2/AD) efforts in Taiwan Strait contingencies and beyond”. Further, the Defence Department characterises space as “congested contested and competitive”.23 The US government believes that in future conflict, adversaries may attempt to “deny degrade, deceive, disrupt, or destroy space assets”.24 In China, military thinkers recognize that space warfare must be an integral part of battle planning by the PLA in any future conflict. In China, one of the major proponents of space power for the PLA, Maj Gen Cai Fengzhen, believes that – “control of portions of outer space is a natural extension of their forces of territorial control” such as sea or air control”.25

Once Chinese Leaders made the decision to move into the realm of military space, they moved quickly. By 2010 China had demonstrated the capabilities to kill satellites with kinetic attack by rockets launched from the ground, to “dazzle” observation satellites with laser beams, to jam satellites and to launch small constellations of microsatellites that could disrupt or degrade enemy satellites.26

In developing its space warfare doctrine, PLA carefully absorbed and reacted to what the US armed forces had published on space warfare and counter-space operations. The PLA had also studied Soviet-era and contemporary Russian thinking on space operations. Military operations in space are now critical components of PLA information age warfare. Chinese military thinkers realise that “future enemy military forces will depend heavily on information systems in military operations”. Two specialists writing in ‘China Military Science’ opine that – “[It] is in space that information age warfare will come to its more intensive points. Future war must combine information, firepower and mobility”.27 China’s strategists suggest that in future wars, space will be used to “carry out war between space platforms and to attack strategic surface and air targets.28 For this reason China is showing interest in the development of the US Boeing X-37B space plane which they believe has “combat applications”.

The Chinese PLA is focussing on passive measures to avoid detection from space with better camouflage and concealment with multi-spectrum stealth camouflage systems, space-based alarms to warn of imaging, and deploying decoys on ground to confuse imaging satellites. A May 2014 report mentioned of aggressive action by China in the disabling of a Japanese spy satellite that was suspected of tracking the flight of a Chinese J-31 Stealth aircraft on apparently a test flight deep in the hinterland over the Taklakman Desert. The Chinese, it is assessed, disabled the main electronic chip in the satellite by a directed energy beam fired at it.


The key word around which the PLA doctrine revolves is “informatization” (Xinxihua). Therefore, it is imperative that the idea around this unique word is full comprehended and the subtle nuances identified with it. “Informatization” incorporates the ability to receive data from a variety of intelligence; Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) systems, including satellites, aircraft, ships and radars and to ensure that data can be transmitted through a combination of satellites and other links in the electromagnetic spectrum.29 As a result, in modern military operations, it is becoming impossible to find forms of military activity that are not in some way dependent on information technology. Physical reconnaissance is complemented by electronic means and a range of sensors employed on land or in the air, sea and space. Information systems support logistics activities such as supply and refuelling and the systems facilitate personnel and casualty management. Information technology and data exchange today are the basis for a shared awareness of the battle area. Collection of signal intelligence and conduct of electronic warfare have now expanded to cyber warfare and cyber penetration. In fighting local wars “under conditions of informatization” the PLA is seeking to enhance the joint interoperability of its forces and improve their C4ISR capabilities particularly through methods such as “integrated network electronic warfare”.

For the PLA, information warfare is directed at “the enemies’ information detection sources, information channels, and information processing and decision making systems”. The goals are information superiority disruption of the enemy information control capabilities and maintaining one’s own information systems and capabilities.30 The PLA’s national command and control system has built in redundancy. It is a networked system linking CMC with General Staff Department (GSD) Headquarter and the PLAs theatre command HQs and the subordinate major organisations. This Qi Dian system is described as using fibre-optic cable, high frequency and very-high frequency communication, microwave system and multiple satellites to enable to CMC, the GSD and commanders to communicate with forces in their theatre of war on a real-time or near real-time basis. The system also permits data transfer among the headquarters and all the units under its joint command. One objective of the effort is designed to develop a networked command-and-control system inside the PLA at the tactical, operational and strategic levels, ultimately from the national command level to the soldier. While theoretically this is “utopian” vision of war, practically it has serious weakness that can be targeted in order to disrupt the flow of information.

Peng Guanggian and Yao Yunzhu in their book “The Science of Military Strategy” highlight the effectiveness of precision-guided weapons and information age technologies. They note that in a war that depended a great deal on information systems, the Gulf War, the “Precision-Guided Weapons (PGM’s) made up only 7 percent of all weapons used by the US military but they destroyed 80 percent of important targets.”31 They further argue that “under high technology conditions, the outcome of war not only depends on the amount of resources, manpower and technology devoted to the battlefield, but also depends on the control of information on the battlefield.”32 Battlefield effectiveness, they maintain, “is a function of acquisition, transmission and management of information”.33

Space-based information networks are described as the “backbone” of any informatization effort for the PLA; surface-based systems are the key elements of the effort, supported by air and sea, platforms, and the “integrated ground air and space element must be compatible with the various services and their surrounding regions”.34 The PLA is also concerned about such matters as band width, which is the basis for the ability to support a high volume of transmissions, system survivability and the capacity to confront enemy information systems.35 Based on an article by the GSD Communication Department, it emerges that PLA would establish five major networked system.

1) Theatre-level joint operational command communications and liaison subsystems.

2) Integrated processing subsystem for the operational command services.

3) Fixed and mobile or portable theatre reconnaissance and detection system to improve intelligence, reconnaissance, detection, information processing and rapid relay of such information.

4). Electronic countermeasures and intelligence database systems that can integrate and share electromagnetic intelligence among headquarters etc.

5). Theatre sub-systems for political work operations, logistics equipment monitoring, managing information systems and managing theatre-level intelligence-integrated processing systems.36

The PLA has divided responsibility for the conduct of electronic warfare, electronic defence the collection of signals intelligence and cyber operations. Notwithstanding the divided responsibilities, the Chinese military is well equipped and staffed to conduct such activities. The Third Department (Technical Reconnaissance) of the GSD (now under the Strategic Support force) is responsible for technology reconnaissance, or signals collections, exploitation and analysis as well as communication security for the PLA. The personnel are trained for various forms of electronic warfare and electronic espionage, but they apparently are also trained for similar activities in the realm of cyber operations. The Fourth Department (Electronic Warfare and Electronic Countermeasures) of the GSD (also now under the Strategic Support force) is responsible for offensive electronic warfare and electronic countermeasure such as jamming and counter jamming of various types of signals or communications. Its personnel are skilled in electronic warfare and also probably charged with cyber penetrations.37

Each of the PLAs Theatre Command as well as PLAAF, PLAN and PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) has assigned to its headquarters department at least one technical reconnaissance bureau subordinate to Third Department that monitors foreign communications and cyber activity. The Third Department can monitor – phone, radio, satellite or computer communications. PLA consistently identifies C4ISR systems as the most important centres of gravity in a conflict. PLA would likely initiate cyber and electronic warfare first in a build up to a conflict situation.

Strategic Construct

China sees itself as the rightful pre-eminent power in Asia and India as its major medium to long-term competitor for this position. In the view of many Chinese strategists, India possesses an ambitious, belligerent and expansionist strategic culture. While there are less extreme views of India in China, but only few Chinese strategic thinkers seem to hold warm or positive views of India for Chinese future.38 The research scholar further suggests that Chinese analysts tend to hold real politik views of the world and view China’s neighbours with wariness if not outright suspicion.39 Mick Ryan’s assessment with regard to Chinese strategy towards India is that:

1) A feigned indifference towards India coupled with denial that India is a potential competitor.

2) Minimize direct conventional military competition with India while treating India as a nuclear threat.

3) Maintain a enduring relationship with Pakistan while avoiding encouragement of Pakistan revisionist policies towards India.

4) Bolster engagement with South-east Asian States while remaining engaged with smaller nations in South Asia.

5) Remain focused on maintaining high economic growth rates for sustaining military modernisation.40

Evidently, China sees India as a major challenger in the future. India’s emerging economic strength and geophysical location make it relevant in China’s security calculations. China’s smaller neighbours expect India to balance the power equation existing. Even while India does not intend to do any such balancing, China assertiveness in the region is exhibited to deter against any measure of band-wagoning, thus raising serious doubts of its claims of “peaceful rise”. Hypothetically, India dominates the sea lines through which most of China’s oil requirements must pass, something China cannot do to India’s energy supplies to a similar degree. India does not seek a confrontational relationship with China. However, simultaneously India is hedging against any such contingency by modernising its forces and revitalising its diplomatic relations with its immediate neighbours, Southeast and East Asian countries. Debates apparently exist amongst PLA military and political strategists over how a rising China can best achieve its intended goals and avoid conflict in the face of regional developments and these have drawn global attention. A recent Pentagon report points out that “China’s thinking appears to be gradually moving towards a strategic concept that considers defence of maritime interests, in addition to homeland defence, as drivers of force modernisation.”41

“Active Defence” is a major principle that has been reaffirmed in the recent years as China’s basic “military strategy”. Active defence involves both deterrence and war fighting with war being viewed as a last resort only if deterrence has failed. The Academy of Military Science (AMS) in its seminal publication ‘The Science of Military Strategy’ explains that “the war-fighting means [for attaining military objective] is generally used only when deterrence fails and there is no alternative…. So long as we can solve the problem with military deterrence, we will not resort to war”.42 However, Chinese and foreign observers of China’s crisis behaviour have observed that there is no clear cut threshold separating deterrence and war-fighting. Beijing has in the past, employed low levels of military force as a form of low-level deterrence, to shape, blunt, diffuse, or reverse a crisis situation, probe or test intentions and prevent escalation. Consequently, presenting dangers as a form of crisis management, Chinese military analysts might believe that such a use of force can at times be employed to avoid a much greater clash.43

The AMS authors view deterrence as a means of accomplishing not only military but also political and diplomatic-economic objectives. They classify China’s approach as ‘defensive strategic deterrence’, oriented towards preventing violations of Chinese territory, rather than ‘offensive strategic deterrence’ which is intended to compel other states. The PLA views successful strategic deterrence as dependent on:

1) possession of adequate force,

2) determination [WILL] to use that force and

3) communication with the opponent regarding one’s capabilities and resolve.44

The increased frequency of PLA exercises are pointed indicators to send the message across. Active defence supports the PLA employing the pre-emptive option as ‘defensive counterattacks for self defence’. It appears in PLA writings as “a greater stress on gaining the initiative by striking first”, stressing on the need to act quickly and decisively to pre-empt an attack, restore lost [more likely claimed] territories, protect economic resources, or resolve a conflict before it escalates. Elements of the PLA doctrine also suggest that even non-kinetic or political violations of Chinese sovereignty would be sufficient justification for a pre-emptive strike by PLA forces. This raises a serious issue on the opponent posturing in a response to reports of Chinese build-up or the opponent undertaking strategic/operational deception. Any such defensive measure could draw a Chinese pre-emptive. Also war termination is being taken for granted by the Chinese as their prerogative. The opponent may not cease operations with an end-state not favourable to it. What would be the Chinese response then? Would it raise the level of operations by a few notches? A contingency is not favourable to the Chinese, particularly in the extreme high altitude areas of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

In the science of Military Strategy, active defence is described as “active strategic counter attack against exterior lines (ASCEL)”. ASCEL is portrayed as an integral component of the broader strategy of active defence and as such is defined as “strategic defensive and a form of active self-defence counter attack” rather than as “a component of the expansive and extroverted offensive strategy”. Once sovereignty has been violated, ASCEL is meant to be an active pre-emptive response conducted at the beginning of the war, which does not merely rely on positive defence or the border and coastal regions, but instead involves fighting “against the enemy as far away as possible, to lead the war to the enemy operational base, ever to the source of war, and to actively strike all the effective strength forming the enemy’s war system”.45

Although some analysts describe this ASCEL concept as analogous to an A2/AD and doctrine, in the larger context is fits into the active-defence, and determines the evolution of people’s war. The analysts reiterate that such tactics would only be employed once conflict has already been initiated: “Once the enemy invades our territory and offends our national interests… we get the freedom to conduct self-defence operations”. The focus on exterior lines is proposed as an alternative to the historical emphasis places on luring the enemy deep into Chinese territory and fighting “in depth”. It is related to the concepts of “strategic frontier” and “active peripheral defence” that have emerged as modifications of traditional Mao’s People’s War, rather than as complete departures from PLA strategy which remains principally focused on defence of the interior lines and deterrence against attack.46 The concept of “Three Warfare” which stresses the need for the political apparatus of the PLA to become more adept at conducting media, psychological and legal forms of struggle are a vital adjunct to the whole scheme of things.

The “Three Warfare’s” though not a formal part of military doctrines or national security strategy will play out substantively in handling of a crises. The maxim “just grounds to our advantage with restraint” (jus en belle!) would be employed to justify China’s actions like employing coercion or force, accommodation or persuasion in a crisis. This maxim, which originally conceptualised to guide the use of force in warfare, is routinely cited to describe China’s approach to the management of political military crisis. It consists of three principles:

1) Do not attack unless attacked. Never attack others without provocation, but once attacked do not fail to return the blow. Conveying the need for a “just” and “legitimate” basis for employing force or escalating a crisis.

2) Do not fight decisive action unless sure of victory. Never fight without certainty of success, unless failing to fight may likely present a worse outcome.

3) Be pragmatic and aware of the limited nature of objectives and strength. Know when to stop, when to counter, and when to bring the crisis to a close. Stop once the goals are attained; rethink if you cannot obtain your objectives. Do not be carried away with success.47

The concepts enunciated in the preceding paragraphs more than adequately indicates the likely form and shape an adverse situation arising on the India-China border area is likely to take. By proclaiming Tibet as a ‘core interest’ any pro-Tibet posture can be magnified into a ‘Legitimate’ cacus belli for use of force. Similarly, having declared Arunachal Pradesh as part of China, it can justify military action on the slightest provocation. Deliberate and planned incursions and transgressions can be employed to provoke India into an aggressive response which China can escalate to suit its political objective. China has not yet declared South China Sea as another “Core Interest” but its disapproval of India Naval activity or energy exploratory activity with Vietnam could manifest in provocative action along the India-China Line of Actual Control/International Boundary (LAC/IB). India would, therefore need to factor in these contingencies in pursuing its legitimate interests in the region and suitability badge against any such contingency. It would need to employ its diplomatic, economic and military strengths to protect its interests. Therefore, just as China, through its military, political and diplomatic assertions and confabulations seeking to convey resolve and to shock a stronger adversary into more “cautions” behaviour, India will also need to convey its resolve and compel China to exercise similar “cautions” behaviour towards India. Having firmly conveyed India’s sensitivities with regard to Arunachal Pradesh, and the need for China to exercise caution in its freewheeling military actions along the LAC/IB particularly in Eastern Ladakh, the Government has indicated that it can dig in its heels and stand firm.

Military Capabilities

Since middle to late 1990’s China has undertaken a systematic, well funded, and focused programme of military modernisation to support its national strategy, force doctrine and foreign policy. Among these efforts, perhaps the most notable overall systemic improvements include:-48

  • Downsizing and reorganisation of China’s overall force structure.
  • Professionalisation of the officer corps.
  • Modifying its doctrine to exploit technology.
  • Large scale realistic integrated joint training.
  • Emphasis on matching responsive logistic support.
  • Thrust on indigenous R&D and manufacture in the upgraded defence industrial complex.
  • Deployment of increasingly advanced short and medium-range missiles with ground, air and ship launched versions. There include, IRBMs with smaller CEP and sophisticated defence counter-measures. The anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs).

Command and Control

The PLA has made some progress in implementing its stated doctrinal requirement for integrated joint operations in an effort to develop “systems of systems combat capabilities under informationized conditions”. As China’s 2010 defence white paper states – “The PLA takes the building of joint operation systems as the local point of its modernisation and preparations for military struggle”. This doctrine has been manifested to some degree on an organisational level, as the CMC now includes representatives from all services, and the PLA has established a Joint Logistics Department in each military region headquarter.

In November 2013, the Third Plenum of 18th Party Central Committee announced the decision to “optimize the size and structure of the army, adjust and improve the balance between the services and branches, and reduce non-combat institutions and personnel.” This rebalance was meant to correct the domination of the PLA Army, which with the Second Artillery, currently has 73 percent of the PLA’s total troops, followed by 10 percent for the Navy (PLAN) and 17 percent for the Air Force (PLAAF). The Central Committee also announced creation of a “joint operation command authority under the Central Military Commission (CMC), and theatre joint operation command system” and to “accelerate the building of new combat powers, and deepen the reform of military colleges.”

This involved changes in four main categories:

  • PLA personnel size and force structure.
  • Command organization and structure from the CMC down to the unit level.
  • Modern military capabilities as found in “new type combat forces”.
  • The PLA professional military education system of universities, academies, colleges, and schools.

In November 2015, Xi Jinping declared that the – “current regional military area commands will be adjusted and regrouped into new battle zone commands supervised by the CMC.” A three-tier combat command system from the CMC to theatre commands to units would be created. This system will be separate from the administrative chain of command running from the CMC to the four service headquarters to units. The service headquarters would remain responsible for “construction” functions, such as organizing, manning, and equipping units. These changes are to take place over the next five years through the year 2020.

Consequently, the PLA began its eleventh major reorganization since 1952. Most of the previous reorganizations focused on reducing the size of the infantry and the bloated higher-echelon headquarters. It also included turning over entire organizations, such as the railway corps, to civilian control, and transferring units to the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and the People’s Armed Police (PAP).

On 31 Dec 2015, Xi presided over the establishment ceremonies for the PLA Army’s leading organ (national-level headquarters – PLAA), the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), and the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) and named their respective commanders and political commissars. The Army headquarters was charged with the task to transform from “the regional defensive type to the full-spectrum combat type”. The Rocket Force, identified as China’s “core strategic deterrence power,” was upgraded to a full service from its former status of “an independent branch treated as a service”. It was indicated that Rocket Force units would be the same as the former Second Artillery Force (PLASAF). As a service, the Rocket Force eventually could be expected to have its own distinctive uniform.

On January 11, 2016, a new CMC organization with 15 functional departments, commissions, and offices was announced. The functional sections comprise seven departments (including the important General Office), three commissions, and five directly affiliated offices. The new CMC structure expanded its former subordinated elements though the incorporation of many functions from the former four General Departments, [the General Staff Department (GSD), General Political Department (GPD), General Logistics Department (GLD), and General Armament Department (GAD)].

In the new CMC structure, the biggest loser, organizationally, is the former GSD and its leader, the Chief of the General Staff (CGS). The new Joint Staff Department has lost the GSD’s oversight of military training and education, mobilization, strategic planning, and likely cyber-war and electronic warfare units. The new Political Work Department is responsible for “human resources management,” which implies that it has taken over the GSD’s oversight of enlisted personnel in the former Military Affairs Department. The new Political Work Department will be responsible for all personnel matters concerning both cadre and enlisted personnel.

On February 1, 2016 five new “theatre commands” were established and their commanders and political commissars (PC) announced. The new headquarters are the Eastern, Southern, Western, Northern, and Central Theatre Commands. The new headquarters have been tasked to assist in “safeguarding the overall situations concerning the national security strategy and the military strategy” and in addition.

  • Respond to security threats from their strategic directions.
  • Maintain peace.
  • Deter wars.
  • Win battles.

The theatre commands will have Army, Navy, and Air Force components based, respectively, on the “relevant naval fleets” and air forces of the former Military Regions (MR)—Rocket Forces are not mentioned. Since an objective of the reforms is to improve the “joint operation command authority” of the force, it will be necessary to restructure PLA officer corps appointments to create new opportunities for non-Army personnel to serve in senior joint command and staff assignments.

Space Capabilities

During the past decade, the PLA has been building the space-based infrastructure for what may eventually serve as an integrated communications and command system. China has made significant advances that could potentially facilitate a precision-strike capability. In the realm of command, control and communications the Qu Dian satellites provided the necessary network linking the SSF and service Headquarters with military theatres. China is also in the process of developing a network of navigation satellites known as ‘Beidou’ system. Presently it has 10 satellites deployed, with a goal to create a constellation of 35 satellites with global coverage by 2020. Such an indigenous capability will be crucial for successfully targeting and navigation of a range of commercial military technologies, including its missile assets. China has also deployed a network of date link satellites including three in the Tian Lian-1 series, intended to facilitate the transfer of information (such as targeting imagery) to surface-based assets up to 2000 km off shore, which will be vital in supporting on ASBM.49

In the reconnaissance realm, China has also deployed a network of satellites in the Yaogan series that have substantially improved target imaging. China possesses more that 15 Yaogan and other imaging satellites that operate at 400 miles in space in Low Earth Orbit. The average coverage provided by these satellites increased to four and a half hours per day. Some of the Yaogan satellites have limited capability of electronic and signal intelligence which is essential to conducting sustained scanning of wide areas.

Cyberspace Capabilities

There is very little information available in the unclassified domain with regard to China’s cyberspace capabilities. There is some evidence to suggest that China may already possess the ability to infiltrate essential unclassified networks at the onset of a conflict. Cyber attacks could be launched to cripple enemies C4ISR systems. It would most likely target unshielded, unclassified military networks that are nevertheless crucial for C4ISR. Cyber operations alone would not turn the tide of a conflict as they would not be able to completely cripple tactical operations on the ground.

Nuclear Capability

From a broader stand point, China continues to maintain a minimal deterrence posture that largely precludes the use of its small nuclear force as an instrument of war fighting or coercion. A long-standing “No First Use” policy continues to impose doctrinal and operational constraints on the SAF strategic components, as Chinese nuclear war heads – with the possible exception of the future JL-2 – are not mated with missiles except in times of elevated readiness or in preparation for launch.50 Faced with new advances in convertabilities capabilities, particularly the US, it will need to be seen whether it makes any changes in its declared policy and simultaneous increase the number of warheads held.

Laws of Future High-Tech Wars

The last war China fought was in 1979. Its military transformation and modernisation started more than a decade later. To make radical changes in doctrine and warfighting techniques requires more than mere enunciation of theories. To transpose strategy and doctrine onto the battlefield requires deep visualisation of the likely future battle areas and identification of the criticalities which would need to be addressed so as to “positively design” the battlefield to fight a successful battle. Some of these criticalities are51:-

  • Informatization, the core combat is the fight for control of information and the dominant weapon of combat is the ‘informatized’ weapon. Wars need the inputs of huge amount of knowledge (intelligence), it is the invisible force that plays a decisive role.
  • Non-linearity, the concept of “all in-depth strike” of the PLA, spatially non-linear, simultaneous, non-sequential, loosely controlled and asymmetrical, thus activating the entire battle zone in entirety.
  • No Contact/Minimum Contact, calling for shorter ground engagements and using air power and conventional elements of the Second Artillery for tactical and strategic goals.
  • Technological blind-spots, new high technologies can be turned into combat capabilities at a greatly accelerated pace, generating new means of combat.
  • Unrestricted Warfare pertains to the ‘destruction of rules’ by which the domains delineated by visible and invisible boundaries that are acknowledged by the international community lose significance. Cyber Network Operations (CNO) is the tool for this.
  • Anti Access/Area Denial, the PLA uses the term ‘Shanshoujian’ which in literally means ‘anti-intervention’ strategy. ‘Shanshoujian’ weapons are essentially those, potentially capable of deterring a superior adversary or of being employed to surprise and cripple superior forces at the outset of a conflict.


China has bench-marked its modernisation to counter a US threat. In the process it has sought asymmetrical options to neutralise superior technology possessed by the US. At the same time it has focussed its R&D on developing those technologies indigenously towards which no effort is spared including cyber stealing. For a leadership orchestrating operational art and strategy there is need to understand the nuanced integration and harnessing of all elements of national power by the Chinese to stage-manage the geopolitical environment. The kinetic phase of war is characterised by the tactical battles and campaigns. For India, identifying a clear cut military objective to secure a favourable end state which in turn will lead securing the political aim is imperative. The inherent strategic restrain practiced by India, as an unwritten philosophy imposes the defensive mind set in the armed forces.
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Therefore in a reactive mode, to maximize the chances to seize the initiative can be made possible by having uncommitted reserves pre-positioned at every tactical level. The reality of the long tenuous and venerable lines of communications in all sectors contagious with India’s northern boundary is not conducive for “just-in-time” induction and employment of unwieldy strategic reserves. The mountain strike Corps as strategic reserve is potent only if it can be inducted in time and as a concentrated force that can carry the strategic effort to its logical culmination.

This in reality in the mountains is fraught with gross vulnerabilities. Chinese effort is to bring a war to a quick conclusion. Therefore, two basic strategies (Indian and Chinese) are divergent. The higher direction of war is not about ‘bean-count’ only. Understanding the enemy and creating asymmetries and targeting his vulnerabilities become imperative. China’s development in its ballistic missiles and space based capabilities need to be looked at for suitable counters.

China’s weakness lies in its inability to instutionalise the orchestration of joint operations, its logistic support for the type of operations it is planning, and the higher direction and command and control of forces that are likely to be committed in a contingency in TAR. As a consequence PLA may be forced to address only one or two operationally contiguous areas in a conflict in TAR. India can respond adequately by a strategy of “Deterrence by Denial”. Thereby each sector is, ab initio, strengthened in its requirement of Special Forces, tactical and operational level reserves and firepower. Thus building in an ability to launch a limited offensive in each sector with local level forces available and carry the offensive forward with additional forces on these being inducted which could exploit the initial success and achieve a favourable end-state.


1. www.net_assessment_full.pdf. p. 16.

2. p. 23.

3. Ibid.

4. 01_India_ChinaNA–Full Paper v 15-16 Dec 11-final.pdf. p. 8.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Chines-Mil-White-Paper-April-2013.pdf. p.1.

9. Ibid.


11. Jayadeva Ranade, China Unveiled: Insights into Chinese Strategic Thinking, KW Publishers Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2002, p. 148.

12. Maj Gen Yu Qifen, The International Military Situation in the 1990’s, p. 3.

13. Leng Feng, Towards The Transformation of PLA Military Training Under Conditions of Informationization, www. p. 8.

14. Ibid.

15. Larry M. Wortzel, The Dragon Extends its Reach: Chinese Military Power Goes Global, Potomac Books, Washington DC, 2013, p. 93.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Op cit. p. 104.

19. Ibid, p. 72.

20. Ibid, p. 104.

21. Ibid p. 105

22. Ibid p. 106

23. Ibid p. 117

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid, p. 118.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid, p. 120.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid, p. 52.

30. Ibid, p. 134.

31. Ibid, p. 135.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid, pp. 136-137

35. Ibid, p. 137.

36. Ibid. p. 138.

37. Ibid, p. 146.

38. Mike Ryan India-China in 2013: A Net Assessment of the Competition Between Two Rising Powers October 2012 www. 01_India-ChinaNA-FullPaperV15-16 Dec 11-final.pdf, p. 21.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.

41. Op cit, net_assessment_full.pdf. p. 33.

42. Ibid, p. 40.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid, p. 38.

46. Ibid, p. 38.

47. Ibid, pp. 40-41.

48. Ibid, p. 48.

49. Ibid, p. 57.

50. Ibid, p. 59.

51. Lt Gen JS Bajwa, Modernisation of the Chinese PLA: From Massed Militia to Force Projection, Lancer Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 110-111.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen (Dr) JS Bajwa

is Editor Indian Defence Review and former Chief of Staff, Eastern Command and Director General Infantry.  He has authored two books Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army and  Modernisation of the Chinese PLA

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One thought on “Dynamics of China’s Future Warfighting Potential

  1. Among the key principles taken from ancient Chinese thought are the use of deception, the importance of surprise in war, and the use of a combination of military economic, and political means to achieve victory.

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