94 Years of the People’s Liberation Army: Shifting Strategies

Image source: CGNT

This August 1 marks the 94th anniversary of China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (中国人民解放军),popularly known as the PLA. The PLA is a unified armed force consisting of five units: the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, the People’s Liberation Army Naval Force, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force and the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Group. The PLA is not just the world’s largest and fastest modernising  military but unlike conventional armed forces,its loyalty does not lie with the State but with the Communist Party of China. Its 94th anniversary must serve as a moment of reflection of the shifts in its strategic outlook.

Brief History

The PLA was founded on August 1,1927 when armed peasants and workers of the Jiangxi Soviet in Southwest China rose in rebellion under the leadership of Zhou Enlai, He Long, Zhu De and other Communist leaders against the onslaughts of the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party. This episode went down in history as the Nanchang Uprising (南昌起义) which marks the first major confrontation between the CCP and the KMT. At that time it was known as the Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army or simply the Red Army (中国工农红军). Under the United Front between the Communist Party and the Kuomintang, the Red Army was integrated into the National Revolutionary Army of the Republic of China under two units: The Eighth Route Army (八路军) and the New Fourth Army(新四军). Post Japan’s defeat in 1945, the two units were merged to form the “People’s Liberation Army”, which brought the Communists to power and led to the formation of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国) in 1949.

Not a conventional military

 Unlike conventional militaries,the PLA is not divorced from political and ideological influences.

The CCP under Mao based the PLA on the Soviet model. In his ‘Tasks for the Proletariat in Our Revolution'(1917),  Lenin put forth the need to establish a people’s militia with an ideological basis.  He wrote “There is only one way to prevent the restoration of the police, and that is to create a people’s militia and to fuse it with the army (the standing army to be replaced by the arming of the entire people).”

A member of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army stands guard in front of a portrait of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China/ Image source: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In a report dated November 28, 1928, Mao talked about the political nature of the Red Army. He stated that the soldiers were “generally class conscious” and possessed elementary political knowledge of land distribution, the establishment of Soviets and arming the workers and the peasants. While describing the poor military equipment and technology as a major stumbling block, Mao wrote that the Red Army could sustain itself because of two reasons: the control of the Communist Party which guided them at every step and the prevalence of democracy within the army. He further wrote that the officers did not mistreat their juniors and all soldiers irrespective of rank received equal treatment. He claimed that each soldier possessed the right of speech and expression. He also emphasised on the important role played by the Party commissars in re-educating the captured soldiers by “spiritually liberating” them which made them fight more courageously under the Red banner than they did before.

In the December 1929 Resolution for the Ninth Conference of the Communist Party Organisation of the Fourth Army of the Red Army, Mao countered what he called some “erroneous assumptions” prevalent among some comrades regarding the Red Army. He wrote that the Red Army was not a mere fighting corps like the White (Kuomintang) Army but was tasked with a political objective of class nature. He wrote “When the Red Army fights, it fights not merely for the sake of fighting but exclusively to agitate among the masses, to organize them, to arm them, and to help them establish political power”, highlighting the political role of the military.

In On Protracted War (1938), Mao described the close relationship between the civilians and the military as “The popular masses are like water, and the army is like a fish. How then can it be said that when there is water, a fish will have difficulty in preserving its existence ?”. However, he stated that an army that fails to maintain good discipline “dries up the water” and cannot exist without the support of the masses. For Mao, the military was crucial but as he stated it must remain subordinate to the wishes of the masses.

Mao was very well aware of the havoc an unrestrained military could wreck. Though the military was extremely important in achieving the revolutionary goals, it had to be kept under political control, for it could pose a fatal threat to the Communist Party and so in his concluding remarks to the Sixth Plenum of the Central Committee (1938), he stated: “Our principle is that the Party commands the gun; the gun shall never be allowed to command the Party” (“我们的原则是党指挥枪,决不容许枪指挥党”). The PLA falls under the control of the Central Military Commission of the National People’s Congress.

Shifting Strategies

Since its inception, there have been 9  military strategies that the PLA dubs as “strategic guidelines”. Of these 9, a few discussed below stand out. These shifts reflect the changing security environment both domestically and internationally.

Before Liberation (Pre-1949)

In the Pre Liberation period, military strategy mainly revolved around guerilla warfare and

Li Dazhao’s ideas of Encirclement strategy.

Mao argued that the peculiar conditions of a vastly rural, semi-colonial China made it possible for the countryside to defeat city-based enemies by following the  “People’s War” (人民战争)  strategy where the rural population would aid the troops in not only defending against enemy attacks who had encircled the Soviet but through mobile and guerrilla warfare would draw the enemy deeper into the countryside and attack them. The enemy was domestic- the Kuomintang and their supporters and the army was manned by light-armed infantry or Ground force.

1956 Guidelines

The international security situation had changed much post Liberation. China formulated the new guidelines by learning from not just World War II and the Korean War (1950-1953) but also from the advances in nuclear proliferation. Moreover, China’s participation in the Korean War had placed it directly against the United States of America. Though the war was not expected, the American threat loomed large specifically on the coastal areas and the Northeast. These challenges required a combined arms operation and coordinated actions of manoeuvre and garrison forces. Naval and Air forces had to be strengthened in order to avert a surprise attack from a much materially and strategically powerful enemy. Peng Dehui called for a ‘fusion of positional defensive and mobile offensive warfare’. In order to ease the burden on defence expenditure, the strength of the armed forces was reduced from 6 million to 3.5million. Though military cooperation with the Soviet Union was at its zenith during this period, the guidelines underscored an attempt to craft an independent military doctrine.

1964 Guidelines

The 1964 guidelines saw for the first time, the direct indulgence of a political leader, Mao Zedong, in military affairs. These guidelines saw the re-emphasis on guerilla tactics and the principle of “luring the enemy deeper” into the countryside and attacking them. The security situation, which deteriorated in 1962 when tensions with the US escalated and China fought a border war with India, had stabilised by the time the new guidelines came up. This time, the challenges were political in nature. Mao’s authority was directly challenged by CCP leaders like Liu Shaoqi whom he branded as ‘revisionists’. Not only was his image severely tainted after the failure of the Great Leap Forward (大跃进), but relations with the Soviet Union sharply deteriorated after Stalin’s death. An assertion of his ideological stance became necessary to tighten his grip over the état de chooses which were slipping from his hands.

Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Zedong review Chinese troops, 10th anniversary of PRC’s founding, 1959. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

1980 Guidelines

As relations with the Soviet Union worsened, China felt the need to bring yet another military policy. The threat of a Soviet invasion was exacerbated on the northern borders after the USSR signed a military defence treaty with Mongolia in 1966, followed by a clash between Chinese and the Soviet forces on Zhenbao Island in 1969. Tensions were further intensified after the USSR signed a defense treaty with Vietnam in November 1978 and in December 1979 after it invaded Afghanistan. Though the Soviet threat continued to grow, a major strategic shift only came up in 1980 which can be explained by two events: one internal and the other external.

Mao had turned increasingly radical after the failure of the Great Leap which resulted in the worst famine known to human history. A fallout with the Soviet Union further intensified his radical ideas. Mao believed that it was not enough to restructure the economic base to establish a classless society. Revolution must penetrate into the cultural superstructure as Mao believed that vestiges of a bourgeois society survived through culture. To achieve this objective, he launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). This decade-long period was marked by extreme violence and chaos which virtually paralysed the whole administration and hence a new policy could not be formulated. After Mao died and the Gang of Four were arrested, a policy of deradicalisation was initiated.

The PLA which had begun to play an excessive political role was divested from much of its ideological role. The policy shifted from the ideas of a “People’s War” to a more practical approach while superficial ideological links with the past were maintained.

The other event was the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. China keenly observed the high tech weapons used by the two sides and found its own military to be lagging behind. Thus, the 1980 policy focussed on “active defence” which embodied forward defence, rather than a retreat as in Mao’s strategy,  executed through positional warfare of fixed defence supplemented with mobile warfare. The focus was on the area most vulnerable to the Soviet threat- “the three norths” i.e. the area from Heilongjiang in the east to Xinjiang in the west. The 1980 doctrine focused on counterattacking rather than preemptive attacks as the PLA  lacked the means to wage a war to nip a Soviet threat in the bud.  Similarly, it was stated that China would not use nuclear weapons first which it had developed in 1964. The size of the military was further downsized.

1993 Guidelines

The 1993 Guidelines were formulated to fight “Local wars under high technology conditions”. The orientation was not just shifted from how to defend the Chinese territory but on waging wars using new ways of combat over limited aims. While the 1988 strategy discussed local wars, the rulebook on how to do so was ensconced in the 1993 strategy. The idea of “Integrated Operations, Keypoint strikes” was embraced.  The focus shifted from ground force to air and naval forces. events sparked this change: three external and one domestic. The Falkland War of 1982, the US airstrike in Libya as well as the Gulf War highlighted the urgent need to bring in modernisation and pressing reforms if the Chinese military had to catch up with military forces of other countries. The other reason was the Tiananmen Square Incident which posed a direct question to the very legitimacy of the Communist Party.

Image source: Getty

The then President and CMC head Jiang Zemin stated that the PLA must prepare to deal with sudden instances such as preventing Taiwan or Hong Kong from declaring independence. Security orientation shifted from the defence of the mainland to disputes on the periphery.  Reunification of autonomous regions became a major agenda, which is still squarely placed at the centre of China’s security strategy. However, the rhetoric of the “People’s War” continued. Quality building and emergency combat preparedness gained prominence. The limited goals enhanced the role of offensive capabilities as seen in the expanding definition of the “first strike”. The 2001 edition of the Science of Military Strategy stated in the context of Taiwan that once a country violates the sovereignty of another country, it grants the other party the “right to shoot first tactically”. Command was streamlined and the navy and air force were strengthened.

2004 and 2014 Guidelines

The 1993 Guidelines continue to serve as a blueprint for the latest set of major guidelines issued by the CMC in 2004 and 2014. These changes were exacerbated by the 1999 Kosovo War, the subsequent bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade led by the US as well as the 2003 Iraq War.  Both remain focussed on “informationization” to successfully win a war in the present age of information technology. Moreover, the focus has shifted from joint operations to “integrated joint operations”.

By “Integrated Joint Operations”, the idea is not only to contain crises, control war situations and win wars but to precisely target the enemy with enhanced accuracy through a well-networked unified command system. The”Informationization” of the weapons means the adaption of the latest high tech Command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems (C4ISR) to not only process large amounts of information but to also efficiently, precisely and quickly respond to the threat in a more lethal way.

In 2004, the then President and CMC chief Hu Jintao codified the four-pronged “New Historical Mission of the PLA” which included “Non war military operations” including disaster relief; A greater role in safeguarding national interests in the maritime security, outer space and electromagnetic domains; a more conventional role “to provide strategic support to safeguard national interests” as well as contributing to the maintenance of “world peace and security” which included a greater role in Peacekeeping operations overseas.

Image source: AP

The 2014 strategy named “Winning Informationized local wars’ ‘ focuses on safeguarding national territorial sovereignty, unification as well as security, reflective of the greater threat China faces from the United States and its allies specifically targeted to its autonomous regions such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. As China under Xi Jinping plays a greater regional and international role, the focus on maritime security has intensified, specifically against the United States’ opposition to what Washington claims to be Beijing’s “excessive claims” in the South China Sea. The 2014 guidelines as well as the 2015 defence white paper clearly signify the importance of information in waging and winning new types of wars which also highlights the broadening expanse of China’s national interests and connected with it, its threat perception.

The  People’s Liberation Army has played a crucial role in making China what it is today. A role that ranges from guarding the territory to participate in developmental activities and nation-building.

Today, it plays a greater role than ever before. It has dispatched over 40,000 peacekeepers serving in 25 UN operations. It is also actively involved in China’s space programmes and its activities in the South China Sea. As China inches closer to superpower status, the PLA  is bound to emerge as an even powerful force in the years to come.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Cherry Hitkari

Cherry Hitkari is a postgraduate student at Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi

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