The People’s Liberation Army—Overview

Chinese Tactics > PART ONE: People’s Liberation Army Forces > Chapter 1: People’s Liberation Army Fundamentals > The People’s Liberation Army—Overview

1-28. The PLA’s basic warfighting philosophy is that of active defense: a fundamentally defensive political and strategic stance, enabled—when required—by operational and tactical offense. For over two thousand years, China has been surrounded by enemies, adversaries, and other competitors. Invasion, occupation, raids, and other incursions into Chinese territory were commonplace. The PLA views protecting Chinese sovereignty and security as a sacred duty. China traditionally viewed military resistance as an affair for the entire population: mass resistance, guerrilla warfare, and winning a war of attrition. This understanding has evolved in the modern age to where a PLA enabled by technology, well-trained personnel, and a whole-ofgovernment, defense-in-depth approach deters conflict before it ever happens and protects China and the CPC from foreign aggression and internal tumult. The basic concept of active defense informs every level of PLA operations and acquisitions. Figure 1-1 provides a graphic depiction of the policy and theoretical underpinnings of the active defense philosophy.

Figure 1-1. Active defense

1-29. Presently, the PLA is in the midst of a period of comprehensive reform. Central to this is the evolution of the “big army”—the dominance of the PLAA at the expense of other services—not only throughout the PLA, but also throughout Chinese politics and society. Reducing manpower and equipment levels and employing a quality-over-quantity approach is central to this effort, as is the expansion of joint integration and an expanded emphasis on domains other than just the ground. In addition, PLAA units are now nationally deployable—able to operate anywhere within Chinese borders—rather than being strongly tied to a specific region. This is intended to reduce manpower requirements and the influence of the PLA in local politics, but it requires a top-to-bottom reorganization of PLA training, doctrine, and acquisition. 

1-30. Two historical figures feature prominently in the philosophy and strategy of the PLA: Sun Tzu and Mao Zedong. The PLA views these two strategists as equally important, with People’s War being viewed as a modern addendum to The Art of War. Sun Tzu and Mao together created the framework from which the PLA’s modern-day strategy and tactics are derived. 

1-31. Influenced largely by The Art of War, the PLA—and China as a whole—look to create advantages along a vast competition continuum, ranging from diplomacy and covert operations in peacetime to major combat operations. The PLA views all available government means as a kind of defense in depth. Defense of China begins with skilled diplomacy and prudent political measures at home and abroad. State actors and agencies set conditions for military success if and when military action becomes necessary. The PLA decisively defeats opponents militarily if peaceful measures fail. The ideal outcome in every scenario is to “win without fighting”—as a philosophy taken directly from Sun Tzu. Military-Civil Fusion is an important method of incorporating civilian support to achieve military objectives in both peacetime and war. 

1-32. PLA doctrine describes three basic ways to use military power: warfighting, military deterrence, and military operations other than war. Developing warfighting capabilities is the PLA’s core task; prevention of conflict is the PLA’s most important mission. The PLA’s deterrence mission creates numerous subordinate objectives designed to demonstrate Chinese capabilities and will, all viewed as critical to preventing conflict both domestically and abroad. Though China states unequivocally that it will not initiate conflict, practices only self-defense, and will respond militarily only if attacked, its basic concept of deterrence has been broadened significantly in recent years. Active defense now includes far more politically and strategically offensive activities. Examples include, but are not limited to— z Expanded participation in global peacekeeping operations.

  • Expanded air and naval presence in the Western Pacific in an offshore defensive strategy.
  • More rapid and thorough responses to non-war crises.
  • Expanded operations in the cyber and space domains.
  • Defense of the primacy and stability of the CPC. 

1-33. PLA views on modern war allow for limited preemptive actions. People’s War initially mandated few to no pre-emptive military activities, but PLA views on modern war concede that an unmitigated modern military operation may win a war before a proper response can be organized. As such, certain allowances for offensive activity under the umbrella of active defense have been made. According to PLA doctrine, the “first shot” in the area of politics and strategy must be differentiated from the first shot on the plane of tactics. If any country or organization violates the other country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the other side will have the right to “fire the first shot” on the plane of tactics. 

1-34. People’s War encompasses all three levels of warfare. At the strategic level, People’s Armies use their superior manpower, lesser logistic requirements, and greater political will to defeat opponents in defensive wars of attrition. At the operational level, a combination of mobility, deception, and willpower allow formations to rapidly maneuver and close with the enemy in order to engage it in close combat, offsetting limitations in firepower, technology, and training. At the tactical level, units aggressively maneuver in order to create massive advantages in combat power at key times and locations, while simultaneously preventing enemy response through effective deception operations. Infiltration techniques allow small units to close with and defeat the enemy in detail. At all levels, People’s Army units rely on superior willpower, cohesion, deception, and manpower to overcome technologically advanced opponents. 

1-35. People’s War was initially developed as Mao’s interpretation of Marxism in military conflict: a class struggle between an oppressed people and a bourgeois or imperialist professional military. The Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War (1945-49) strengthened this understanding: both conflicts involved a People’s Army conducting mobile or guerrilla operations, on its own soil, against better-equipped and trained opponents. Both conflicts resulted in Chinese victories, but they were enormously costly, both economically and in lives lost. 

1-36. People’s War concept and doctrine were significantly altered beginning in the 1980s. At the end of the Mao era in the late 1970s, PLA strategists began to reassess the nature of People’s War. Mao had taken Marxist-Leninist ideals to extremes in the military, adopting a military without hierarchy or rank. This approach proved ineffective, and reforms were needed to make the PLA into a modern force capable of deterring conflict and defending Chinese strategic and political interests. This evolved into People’s War under Modern Conditions, a modification that accounted for the increasing lethality and complexity of the modern battlefield. Joint operations—along with mechanization and artillery—were emphasized. The concept of deterrence expanded to include not only fighting defensive wars within Chinese territory, but also the idea that a strong regional and maritime security environment might prevent fighting in Chinese territory in the first place. 

1-37. The modern iteration of People’s War is People’s War in Conditions of Informationization. This theory incorporates thinking and strategy informed by numerous geopolitical and technological developments over the past 25 years. First and foremost is the emerging information environment: the PLA recognizes the importance of the digital battlefield, and it has emerged as a world leader in integrating cyber warfare into its operational construct. Figure 1-2 on page 1-10 displays the timeline of the evolution of People’s War concepts.

Figure 1-2. People’s War

1-38. Second, the PLA further expanded its understanding of active defense. After watching nearly six months of force buildup on the Iraqi border during OPERATIONS DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM, the PLA concluded that the most efficient way to defend Chinese territory was to prevent potential opponents from building combat power in close proximity to Chinese borders. This in turn spurred the development and redevelopment of capabilities intended to defeat or interdict the buildup of combat power at extended ranges and across wide geographic areas. It also compelled development of capabilities designed to deny use of wide geographic areas to potential foes. Years later, in analyzing this approach, U.S. strategists denoted it antiaccess/area denial. This phrase was—and still is—an accurate depiction of the PLA approach to active defense in the Western Pacific. 

1-39. Third, People’s War in Conditions of Informationization encompasses the tacit admission that China may have to become involved in local or regional conflicts in order to maintain the regional or international economic order, protect the CPC, or otherwise support Chinese economic or political interests. This ostensibly contradicted Mao’s initial philosophy of People’s War, which is for the most part strictly a domestic defense-oriented military approach. This appreciation may represent fundamental change for the PLA, and it requires a vast increase in expeditionary and overseas sustainment capabilities. These requirements, in turn, demand significant increases in the PLA’s military professionalization, equipment quality, and air and naval capabilities. 

1-40. Local War is the PLA expression for a regional conventional conflict, likely close to Chinese territory. The PLA views this as the most likely situation calling for military force, and it has developed capabilities designed to excel in this environment. This conclusion makes sense, as every conflict the PLA has fought in its history was local, and all but the Chinese Civil War were limited. People’s War in Conditions of Informationization, when applied to the Local War concept, is frequently referred to as Winning Informationized Local Wars

1-41. Chinese military theory may be moving away from traditional Marxist-Leninist and Maoist theory as PLA leaders acknowledge the importance of technology, professionalization, and military hierarchy. The PLA, however, still identifies as staunchly Communist and views its modern theories as an evolution of People’s War, not as a revision or repudiation. People’s War in Conditions of Informationization is said to be a modern adaptation of The Art of War and People’s War. It retains the concept of active defense as its centerpiece, and it considers deception and political willpower to be the most important—and most uniquely Chinese—elements of a successful military campaign. 

1-42. The PLA anticipates Informationized Warfare evolving into Intelligentized Warfare in the relatively near future. Intelligentized Warfare incorporates numerous emerging technologies—including decentralized computing, data analytics, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and unmanned or robotic systems—into the PLA’s conceptual framework. Intelligentized Warfare seeks to increase the pace of future combat by effectively fusing information and streamlining decision-making, even in ambiguous or highly dynamic operating environments. Intelligentized Warfare also amplifies the nascent concepts embodied by the Military-Civil Fusion effort: many of the subsystems that create the backbone of an Intelligentized PLA are researched and developed initially in the civilian realm. Careful alignment of military and civilian efforts enables the synchronization of efforts and streamlines the fielding process for the PLA. Despite its focus on technology, Intelligentized Warfare remains informed by the People’s War concepts: many Intelligentized Warfare initiatives are clearly shaped by the original People’s War principles.


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