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Doctrine Overview

"If China does not have atomic and hydrogen bombs and has not launched satellites since the 1960s, it is not worthy of being called a big and influential country and will not have its present international prestige."
Deng Xiaoping

The PLA's strategic considerations call for avoidance of wars, major ones in particular. The thinking also is that even if a war cannot be avoided, there should be efforts to keep it from becoming a major nuclear one or even a medium-scale non-nuclear one. The drive meanwhile is to build PLA as a force capable of winning localized small-scale warfare by means of high-tech facilities. More recently, certain military sources have come up with theories of "on limited operations" and "asymmetric warfare" whereby in case of hostilities against a superior enemy, various military or non-military means should be employed, irrespective of battlefield and non-battlefield limitations, so that ultimate victory may be clinched.

People's War

People's War denotes the most traditional vision and derives from Mao Tse-tung's doctrine. In this scenario, China would defend its own territory against a land invasion by exploiting its advantages in manpower and geography. Conventional strategy and weapons would eventually dominate in a long war of attrition. Though a mass ground assault on the mainland seems highly implausible, this construct still accounts for more military resources than the others.

The People's War doctrine, which was the result of lessons learned from the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-1945), emphasized the preparation of masses of foot soldiers and militia to engage in prolonged guerrilla warfare in China's vast interior. China postulated that a potential enemy could not rely exclusively on nuclear weapons in dealing with China because of China's vast territory, complicated terrain and huge numbers of people. Thus, their defense strategy provided for the possibility of a protracted war on Chinese soil, requiring large conventional forces.

China's decision to develop nuclear weapons stands in contrast to widely distributed public commentaries that such weapons were of far less significance than the United States declared them to be. Beijing's public attitude toward nuclear weaponry between 1945 and 1954 was generally disparaging, but in October 1951, when the Korean War was going badly for the Chinese, a Xinhua statement indicated that Beijing's view of nuclear weapons was not as derogatory as it often appeared to be:
Now we understand more clearly that only when we ourselves have the atomic weapon, and are fully prepared, is it possible for the frenzied warmongers to listen to our just and reasonable proposals.

The Chinese strategic debates of 1955-56 focused on the question of whether China should acquire her own weapons or should reliance be placed on a Soviet nuclear umbrella. In the first Taiwan Strait crisis of 1954-55 the USSR had been quite ambiguous in its support for China's campaign to "liberate" Taiwan, whereas the United States had indicated that it was willing to use tactical nuclear weaponsin defense of the island. During the crisis, it became evident that the USSR was not going to be drawn into a war with the United States that was not of its own choosing; and by March 1955, the PRC had called off its military operations against Quemoy. The Soviet refusal to back the Chinese in any risky situation was evident in the Quemoy crisis of August-September 1958. Events made it clear to Chinese leaders that while the US might be willing to use nuclear weapons if pressed too hard, the Soviets were unwilling to take similar risks in protecting China. Here was reason to question the validity of Chinese reliance on the Soviet nuclear shield.

Sino-Soviet relations began to deteriorate as early as 1956. Subsequent events caused further schism and in 1959 apparently contributed in large degree to a renewed policy debate among the Peking leadership and the dismissal of the Minister of National Defense and four vice ministers. During that same year, the Soviets abrogated the 1957 national defense technology agreement. The final breach in Sino-Soviet military cooperation occurred in 1960 when the Soviets withdrew their military advisors and a large portion of arrangements for economic-military cooperation were phased out. China was on her own.

To cope with the external nuclear threat, a campaign was initiated in 1959 to disperse and harden military installations. This was clearly a passive defensive strategy undertaken to reduce the effects of a nuclear attack. China's lack of a nuclear capability dictated the necessity for such a campaign. In the early 1960's, this campaign was expanded to include heavy industries. The attainment of a nuclear capability in 1964 did not lessen the pace of dispersal and hardening, and the "war preparations" campaign of 1969 broadened the scope of such activities to include civil defense measures to protect the population.

During the early 1960s the formulation of a comprehensive Chinese strategy was characterized by major gaps and unresolved problems. Chinese thinking about nuclear war continued to be concerned with defense, and survival. The Chinese had little to propose as a defense against a strategic nuclear attack except improvement of air defenses and the dispersal, hardening and camouflage of military targets.

In October 1964 China joined the nuclear club by conducting its initial atomic test at Lop Nor. In announcing this test, the Chinese promulgated a "no-first use" policy, reiterated Mao's atom bomb-paper tiger theme, repeated China's advocacy of complete prohibition and destruction of all nuclear weapons, condemned the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 as a "big fraud to fool the people of the world," and stated that "China's aim is to break the nuclear monopoly of the nuclear powers..."

On 07 August 1971, Peking rejected a Soviet proposal for the convening of a five-power conference, to include the US, the USSR, China, Great Britain, and France, to discuss the question of nuclear disarmament. In their statement, the Chinese said that they had consistently stood for the complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons and had declared on many occasions that under no circumstances will China be the first to use nuclear weapons. It urged Moscow and Washington to openly agree not to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances and called for the dismantling of all nuclear bases and stockpiled weapons on foreign soil.

People's War Under Modern Conditions

From the early 1950s until the mid-1970s, people's war remained China's military doctrine. The PLA's force structure, however, which came to include nuclear weapons as well as artillery, combat aircraft, and tanks, did not reflect the concept of people's war. In the late 1970s, Chinese military leaders began to modify PLA doctrine, strategy, and tactics under the rubric of "people's war under modern conditions." This updated version of people's war lacked a systematic definition, but it permitted Chinese military leaders to pay tribute to Mao's military and revolutionary legacy while adapting military strategy and tactics to the needs of modern conventional and nuclear warfare. Elaborating on Mao's concept of active defense--tactically offensive action with a defensive strategy--Chinese strategy was designed to defeat a Soviet invasion before it could penetrate deeply into China. Chinese strategists envisaged a forward defense, that is, near the border, to prevent attack on Chinese cities and industrial facilities, particularly in north and northeast China. Such a defense-in-depth would require more positional warfare, much closer to the border, in the initial stages of a conflict. This strategy downplayed the people's war strategy of "luring in deep" in a protracted war, and it took into account the adaptations in strategy and tactics necessitated by technological advances in weaponry. The PLA emphasized military operations using modernized, combined arms tactics for the dual purpose of making the most effective use of current force structure and of preparing the armed forces for more advanced weaponry in the future.

The doctrine of "people's war under modern conditions" also incorporated the use of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. China's own nuclear forces, which developed a second-strike capability in the early 1980s, provided Beijing with a credible, if minimum, deterrent against Soviet or United States nuclear attack. China repeatedly has vowed never to use nuclear weapons first, but it has promised retaliation against a nuclear attack. Chinese strategists also evinced an interest in tactical nuclear weapons, and the PLA has simulated battlefield use of such weapons in offensive and defensive exercises.

Local War

Chinese military planning has increasingly focused primary attention on the preparation for and conduct of local wars in which the launch of nonnuclear versions of strategic missiles would not only have a direct effect on the important political and military targets, but also serve as a warning of the possible escalation of the conflict to the nuclear level. Local War is shorthand for conflict on the mainland's periphery. Possible adversaries include Taiwan and India, with the PRC projecting force to respond to provocation or to force a foe into submission. Beijing's intervention in the Korean War is one precedent. In the 1980s Deng Xiao-ping promoted the view that -- with modern technology and refined strategies -- the PRC could win relatively short, intense wars in its own neighborhood. This approach commands a small but growing share of resources.

As the Chinese develop and deploy more reliable and accurate systems, they will probably develop a nuclear weapons doctrine that is closer to those developed by the United States and Russia. China has adopted a new nuclear doctrine during the past 5-10 years of limited nuclear deterrence. Until about 1987, China postured its nuclear capability to achieve a "minimum deterrence." This term contrasted China's nuclear posture with that of the United States and the Soviet Union, which maintained "maximum deterrent" postures based on counterforce warfighting doctrines and technologies that provided a distinct first-strike advantage in disarming one's opponent.

Beginning in 1987 the Chinese began to use the term "limited deterrence" defined with a limited counterforce, warfighting flavor. As it is now defined, "limited deterrence" falls between the extremes posited by minimum deterrence and maximum deterrence doctrine. This posture is intended to pose a significant nuclear deterrent to those global powers that might be tempted to intervene in a local war, such that China could deter the escalation of that conflict by ensuring that it has a credible nuclear warfighting capability that includes a survivable second-strike potential, even if nuclear weapons are used at the theater level.

This limited deterrence doctrine was in evidence during the March 1996 Taiwan straits confrontation, during which several Chinese M-9 missiles were fired at various open-ocean target areas near Taiwan, as part of a larger series of military exercises intended to intimidate the Taiwan government. In January 1996 meetings with top Chinese military officials, Chas. W. Freeman [a former Clinton administration assistant secretary of defense who had served as President Nixon's interpreter in Beijing in 1972] was told by Lt. Gen. Xiong Guangkai, deputy chief of China's general staff:

"In the 1950s, you three times threatened nuclear strikes on China, and you could do that because we couldn't hit back. Now we can. So you are not going to threaten us again because, in the end, you care a lot more about Los Angeles than Taipei."

Revolution in Military Affairs

The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) is the newest school, gaining adherents in the 1990s. RMA concentrates on futuristic systems and the belief that a dominant power -- the United States, when the scholars are specific -- can be neutralized or even defeated if a weaker contender knows how to exploit key vulnerabilities. For instance, the seemingly overwhelming advantage in naval power that the U.S. enjoys could be undermined if the fleet is "blinded" by corruption of its information systems. Though only a small part of the current force structure is organized along RMA lines today, this school is gaining adherents and is the subject of applied research.

The Gulf War of early 1991 was a big eye-opener to PRC military. The subsequent trend of thought concerning what became known as "revolution in military affairs" impacted even more sharply on PLA leaders' thinking, making them see distinctly that high technologies were already the foremost key to determine the outcome of any war.

At its expanded meeting in January 1993 the Central Military Commission readjusted the PLA strategic guideline and declared that the cardinal point of preparations for military struggle would be shifted to the winning of limited wars by means of modern know-how and, in particular, under conditions of high technologies. Also pointed out were following major directions of possible operations: 1) southeast coastal areas of the Chinese mainland, 2) South China Sea, and 3) Sino-Indian border areas. Development emphasis, would be on the PLA Navy and Air Force, but efforts would at the same time be made for the upgrading of the ground forces' overall combat capabilities, enhancement of the Second Artillery Corps' deterrence capability, and speedy formation of rapid-reaction forces.

China and Arms Control

China was the first state to pledge "no first use" of nuclear weapons. It joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1984 and pledged to abstain from further atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in 1986. China acceded to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1992 and supported its indefinite and unconditional extension in 1995. In 1996, it signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and agreed to seek an international ban on the production of fissile nuclear weapons material.

In 1996, China committed not to provide assistance to unsafeguarded nuclear facilities. China attended the May 1997 meeting of the NPT Exporters (Zangger) Committee as an observer and became a full member in October 1997. The Zangger Committee is a group which meets to list items that should be subject to IAEA inspections if exported by countries which have, as China has, signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In September 1997, China issued detailed nuclear export control regulations. China is implementing regulations establishing controls over nuclear-related dual-use items in 1998. China also has decided not to engage in new nuclear cooperation with Iran (even under safeguards), and will complete existing cooperation, which is not of proliferation concern, within a relatively short period.

Based on significant, tangible progress with China on nuclear nonproliferation, President Clinton in 1998 took steps to bring into force the 1985 U.S.-China Agreement on Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation. Implementation of this agreement, which establishes a mechanism that will enable the U.S. and China to continue discussing export controls and China's nuclear cooperation with other countries, will give the U.S. an effective basis for continuing to promote progress by China on nonproliferation.

China is not a member of the Australia Group, an informal and voluntary arrangement made in 1985 to monitor developments in the proliferation of dual-use chemicals and to coordinate export controls on key dual-use chemicals and equipment with weapons applications. In April 1997, however, China ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and, in September 1997, promulgated a new chemical weapons export control directive.

In March of 1992, China formally undertook to abide by the guidelines and parameters of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the multinational effort to restrict the proliferation of missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction. China reaffirmed this commitment in 1994.


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