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From Continent to Periphery: PLA Doctrine, Strategy and Capabilities Towards 2000*


In the late spring of 1985, shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the former USSR, the Central Military Commission of the Chinese Communist Party (CMC) directed a radical change in the armed forces′ training and preparation for war. The Chinese People′s Liberation Army (PLA-as all the military services and branches are collectively designated) was instructed that it was no longer necessary to prepare for an “early, major and nuclear war” with the Soviet Union. Henceforth, the PLA′s doctrine, strategy and operational concepts would be focused on preparing for the most probable form of future conflict: local, limited war (jubu zhanzheng) around China′s periphery.1 The decade following the CMC′s directive has seen the Chinese armed forces begin the transition towards a more modern, flexible military force as they′changed their organizational structure, command and control, and training to focus on possibly unexpected, potentially intensive military conflict along China′s borders and maritime territories. These changes paralleled the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which eliminated any significant military threat to China′s northern borders for at least another decade. Nevertheless, and even as Beijing′s security analysts were publicly acknowledging that China′s military security was more assured than it had been for the past 50 years, the defence expenditures of the People′s Republic entered a period of rapid growth that continues to this day.

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1. See Generals Zhang Zhen and Li Desheng′ s discussion of the May-June 1985 directive at a meeting with the editorial board of Jiefangjun bao, reported in Dagong bao (Hong Kong), 16 February 1986, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report: China (hereafter FBIS-CHI), 18 February 1986, pp. WU-W12.

2. Garrett Banning and Glasier Bonnie, “From Nixon to Reagan: China′s changing role in American strategy,” in Oye Kenneth A., Lieber Robert J. and Rothchild Donald (eds), Eagle Resurgent: The Reagan Era in American Foreign Policy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1986), p. 283.

3. Xing Shugang, Li Yunhua and Liu Yingna, “Soviet-American balance of power and its impact on the world situation in the 1980s,” Guoji wenti yanjiu, No. 1 (1983), in FBIS-CHI, 21 April 1983, pp. A1-A12.

4. Zong He, “Changes and developmental trends in the international situation,” Shijiejishi, No. 11 (1983), FBIS-CHI, 21 July 1983, pp. A1-A5.

5. Editorial, Jiefangjun boo, 4 March 1983, in FBIS-CHI, 7 March 1983, pp. K17-K18.

6. Yang Dezhi, “A strategic decision in strengthening the building of our army in the new period,” Hongqi, No. 15 (1 August 1985), in FBIS-CHI, 8 August 1985, pp. K1-K7.

7. Jiao Wu and Xiao Hui, “Modern limited war calls for reform of traditional military principles,” Guofang daxue xuebao. No. 11 (1 November 1987), in Joint Publications Research Service: China Report (hereafter JPRS-CHI), 12 July 1988, p. 49.

8. Jia Wenxian et ai, “Tentative discussion of the special principles of a future Chinese hmitedv/ar” Guofang daxue xuebao, No. 11(1 November 1987), in JPRS-CHI, 12 July 1988, p. 48, contains this particular categorization, but over the years 1986–87 a number of essays in different journals have focused on these types of potential conflicts.

10. Zhao Tensing, “Militia reform and the strategy of theater development,” Jiefangjun bao, 10 June 1988, in JPRS-CHI, 4 November 1988, pp. 29–30.

11. Xu Gang, “1988: a year of reform for the Chinese army,” Liaowang (overseas edition, Hong Kong), No. 3 (16 January 1989), in FBIS-CHI, 24 January 1989, p. 36.

12. Ibid., p 36.

13. Ibid. p. 37.

14. Beijing Domestic Service, 14 October 1988, in FBIS-CHI, 19 October 1988, p. 29.

15. Zhu Dacheng and He Delai, “Guangzhou Military Region organizes land, naval and air force commanders and organs to stage ajoint exercise,” Jiefangjun bao, 8 November 1988, in FBIS-CHI, 25 November 1988, p. 37.

16. For an excellent review and summary of the evolution of the PRC′s naval strategy, see Lewis John W. and Litai Xue, China′s Strategic Seapower: The Politics of Force Modernization in the Nuclear Age(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 219230. Much of this discussion is drawn from these pages. For a more detailed history of the PLA Navy, see Muller David G., Jr., China as a Maritime Power(Boulder: Westview Press, 1983).

17. Qianyun Li, “A cursory analysis of the characteristics of limited war of the future,” Jiefangjun bao,19 December 1986, in JPRS-CHI, 23 September 1987, p. 91.

18. Taihang Zhang, “Local conflicts and special forces,” Jiefangjun bao,14 March 1986 (sic), in JPRS-CHI, 3 November 1987, p. 37.

19. Chong He, “Let some units modernize first,” Jiefangjun bao,6 November 1987, in JPRS-CHI, 19 February 1988, pp. 8586.

20. Dongfang Tie, “What can we learn from other countries” practice of strengthening key troops,” Jiefangjun bao, 19 March 1988, in FBIS-CHI, 6 April 1988, p. 39.

21. Jian Wenxian et al., “Tentative discussion of the special principles,” p. 48.

22. Chengbin Wang, “Changes in strategy and deepening the reform in training,” Jiefangjun bao,6 February 1987, in FBIS-CHI, 2 March 1987, pp. K32–K35.

23. Jian Zhang, “It is still necessary to base our plans on fighting a major war,” Jiefangjun bao,24 April 1987, in FBIS-CHI, 2 March 1987, p. A2.

24. Ibid.

25. Jianzhi Zhang, “Views on medium-sized nuclear powers′ nuclear strategy,” Jiefangjun bao,20 March 1987, in FBIS-CHI, 1 April 1987, p. K29.

26. Ibid. p. K31.

27. Xu Gang, “A year of reform,” p. 36.

28. Zhigang Zhi and Yuqian Guo, “We should not overlook the threat of limited nuclear war,” Jiefangjun bao,11 September 1987, in FBIS-CHI, 25 September 1987, p. 22.

29. See Georges Tan Eng Bok, “Strategic doctrine,” in Gerald Segal and William T. Tow (eds.), Chinese Defense Policy (London: Macmillan Press, 1984), pp. 610.

30. Much of this discussion is taken from Tai Ming Cheung, “Ties of convenience: Sino-Russian military relations in the 1990s,” in Richard H. Yang (ed.), China′s Military: The VLA in 1992/93 (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993), pp. 6177.

31. As late as May 1994, Jiefangjun bao was using this phrase to characterize the PLA′s limitations. See PLA Activities Report (Hong Kong), May 1994, p. 17.

32. Huaqing Liu, “Unswervingly march along the road of building a modern army with Chinese characteristics,” Jiefangjun bao,6 August 1993, in FBIS-CHI, 18 August, 1993, p. 18.

33. Ibid. p. 21.

34. Harlan W. Jencks, “The PRC′s military and security policy in the post-Cold War era,” Issues and Studies (November 1994), p. 93.

35. David A. Fulgham, “New Chinese fighter nears prototyping,” Aviation Week –27

36. Chanda Nayan, “Aiming high,” Far Eastern Economic Review,20 October 1994, pp. 14–15.

37. Jun Tan and Heping Hong, “A ‘fist battalion’ of a certain PLA airborne unit,” Jiefangjun bao,14 June 1988, in JPRS-CHI, 9 August 1988, pp. 5960.

38. Huaxu Deng and Daoming Li, “A visit to the PLA Marine Corps,” Renmin ribao(overseas edition), 2 August 1988, in FBIS-CHI, 3 August 1988, pp. 30–31.

39. The following discussion is taken from John Wilson Lewis and Hua Di, “China′s ballistic missile programs: technologies, strategies, goals,” International Security, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Fall 1992), pp. 5410.

40. Ibid. p. 30.

41. For a useful discussion of the linkages between air, surface and subsurface ASW platforms, see Admiral Rear Hill J. R., RN (Ret), Anti-Submarine Warfare (London: Ian Allen Ltd., 1984), especially ch. 4, pp. 60–93.

* The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and are not to be construed as those of the Atlantic Council of the United States, the National War College, the National Defense University, or any other Agency of the United States Government.

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