China’s Emerging Doctrine and Military Modernisation
Brig Gurmeet Kanwal

Strategic Encirclement of India

When Asia’s leaders meet at the annual East Asia summit to discuss geo-strategic and economic issues of common interest, most of the discussions on the sidelines of the summit are centred on China’s aggressive posturing in its area of influence. China’s recent assertiveness in the South China Sea and its belligerence on the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands are indicators of its growing proclivity to settle territorial and boundary disputes by force rather than through diplomatic negotiations.

India’s unresolved territorial and boundary dispute with China and an un-demarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the Indo-Tibetan border do not augur well for long-term peace and stability between these two Asian giants. Territorial and boundary disputes that are carried over from history and left unresolved carry within them the seeds of future conflict. The next major transgression on the LAC could possibly lead to a localised border conflict as either Indian patience with Chinese intransigence wears thin or the Chinese view Indian attempts to build infrastructure and develop the border areas as the adoption of an aggressive forward posture.

Hence, the possibility of a limited border war between the two Asian giants cannot be entirely ruled out even though the probability is low. China’s continuing opposition to India’s nuclear weapons programme; its nuclear and missile collusion and intimate defence cooperation with Pakistan; its support to the military-backed regime in Myanmar; efforts at making inroads into Nepal; increasing activities in the Bay of Bengal; its relentless efforts to increase its influence in Bhutan and Bangladesh; and, its attempts to isolate India in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and keep India out of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation; are all pointers to a carefully orchestrated plan aimed at the strategic encirclement of India.

Military Doctrine: Active Defence and Local Wars under Conditions of Informationisation

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is rapidly modernising itself and is known to be preparing to fight a “limited border war under hi-tech conditions”. According to several White Papers on China’s National Defence, China is engaged in developing a “revolutionised, modernised and regularised people’s army with Chinese characteristics. (It is) endeavouring to transform its armed forces from a numerically superior to a qualitatively superior type and from a manpower-intensive to a technology-intensive type, as well as to train high-quality personnel and improve the modernisation of weaponry in order to comprehensively enhance the armed forces combat effectiveness.”

Since China’s ill-conceived incursion into Vietnam in 1979, PLA doctrine has evolved from Mao’s “people’s war” to “people’s war under modern conditions” through a “limited/local war” phase to the current doctrine introduced in 1993. The new doctrine is more assertive than ever before and is not bound by any restrictions to confine and limit future conflict to within China’s national boundaries. Underpinning the new professionalism of the PLA is the basic doctrine of “active defence” (jiji fangyu) that seeks to conduct “people’s war under modern conditions” (better understood as “local wars under hi-tech conditions” – gaojishu tiaojian xia de jubu zhanzheng).

The active defence doctrine calls for integrated deep strikes – a concentration of superior firepower that is to be utilised to destroy the opponent’s retaliatory capabilities through pre-emptive strikes employing long-range artillery, short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and precision guided munitions. David Shambaugh, a well-known China scholar in the US has written: “Rather than conducting a ‘people’s war’ (a strategy to ‘lure the enemy in deep’ into one’s own territory), the PLA doctrine of ‘active defence’ calls for forward positioning, frontier defence, engagement of the enemy at or over the border and potential engagement in conflict beyond China’s immediate periphery… this doctrine is essentially pro-active and seeks to take the battle into enemy territory.”

Beijing has identified the following five limited war scenarios as likely scenarios during future conflict: military conflict with neighbouring countries in a limited region; military conflict on territorial waters; undeclared air attack by enemy countries; territorial defence in a limited military operation; and, punitive offensive with a minor incursion into a neighbouring country.

The new doctrine and the strategy and tactics associated with it have been influenced by the lessons of Gulf War I in 1991 and the Iraq War of 2003, both of which have been extensively studied by Chinese scholars. The doctrine requires the creation of a capability to project force across China’s borders through rapid deployment, conventional SRBMs and cruise missiles, information warfare, electronic warfare, precision-guided munitions, enhanced night fighting capabilities and other advanced military technologies.

China also follows ‘anti-access and area denial’ (A2AD) strategies to deny the adversary access to his planned launch pads in an endeavour to prevent build-up of forces for a war against China. Planning for A2AD strategies flows from the apprehension that if superior, well-equipped forces (like the US and its allies) are allowed to arrive in the war zone with the force levels and in the time frame planned by them, they are bound to prevail. The Chinese calculate that “by mounting a credible threat to do so, they will be able to deter the United States from intervening in the first place, or at least limit the scale and scope of that intervention.” The Chinese aim to deter a conflict or at least delay the opponent’s preparation till the PLA is better prepared to react. The PLA seeks to achieve this aim through attacks against air bases and ports and other elements of the logistics chain and against information systems so as to disrupt command and control during build-up. While A2AD strategies are unlikely to succeed in preventing conflict completely, these could impose considerable delay and caution during build-up and cause attrition.

Modernisation of the PLA: RMA with Chinese Characteristics

The PLA expects to fight the next war under conditions of what it calls “informationisation” or “informationalisation”. In the 2004 White Paper on National Defence, informationisation was explained in the following terms: “To adapt itself to the changes both in the international strategic situation and the national security environment and rise to the challenges presented by the RMA worldwide, China adheres to the military strategy of active defence and works to speed up the RMA with Chinese characteristics:

  • To take the road of composite and leapfrog development.
  • To build a strong military by means of science and technology.
  • To deepen the reform of the armed forces.
  • To step up preparations for military struggle.

PLA analysts have called the ongoing RMA an “informationised military revolution”. It emerges that informationisation “clearly relates to the PLA’s ability to adopt information technologies to command, intelligence, training and weapon systems. This would include broad investment in new automated command systems linked by fibre-optic Internet, satellite and new high-frequency digital radio systems… The PLA can also contest the information battle space with its new space-based, airborne, naval and ground-based surveillance and intelligence gathering systems and its new anti-satellite, anti-radar, electronic warfare and information warfare systems… there is increasing ‘information content’ for new PLA weapons as it moves to link new space, airborne and ELINT sensors to missile, air, naval and ground-based ‘shooters’ to enable all its services to better use new precision-strike weapons.”

According to General Liu Huaqing, former Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, “Information warfare and electronic warfare are of key importance, while fighting on the ground can only exploit the victory. Hence, China is more convinced (than ever) that as far as the PLA is concerned, a military revolution with information warfare as the core has reached the stage where efforts must be made to catch up and overtake rivals.” According to the 2004 White Paper, “In its modernisation drive, the PLA takes informationalisation as its orientation and strategic focus.” The PLA has adopted what it calls a “double historical mission” and a “leapfrog development strategy” – accelerating military informationisation while still undergoing mechanisation.

Developing cyber warfare capabilities is seen as presenting a level playing field in an otherwise David versus Goliath scenario as Chinese hardware is no match for the weapons technology fielded today by the US and its allies. Recent cyber attacks directed against Taiwan and the US are indicative of the efforts to develop new techniques, viruses and logic bombs. Information warfare will be crucial in the opening phases of a war aimed at the re-unification of Taiwan or a border conflict with India as it will be important to knock out the adversary’s communications infrastructure by cyber as well as physical means. A private army of “laptop warriors” – young civilian hackers on whom the state can bank during crises – is being developed for this purpose besides the employment of regular PLA personnel.


Compared with China’s historically reactive stance of luring the enemy in deep and destroying him through strategic defence, the present doctrine is essentially pro-active and seeks to take the battle into enemy territory. It also strives to achieve surprise in a pro-active manner that is demonstrated by new “quick-strike” tactics. The aim is to catch the enemy unprepared in order to inflict substantial damage on strategic targets and disrupt logistics to gain psychological ascendancy. While the land frontier is expected to continue to generate some local tensions, the CMC has identified space and the oceans as the new areas where future conflict might take place.

China is modernising rapidly and steadily enhancing its military capabilities. The military gap between China and India is growing as India’s military modernisation is constrained by its low defence expenditure, which is now 1.78 per cent of the GDP, while China’s defence budget has kept up a steady double-digit growth rate for over a decade. At present there is a quantitative gap between the PLA and the Indian armed forces. If Indian military modernisation continues to stagnate, this will soon become a qualitative gap as well. With the rapid modernisation of the PLA, China will soon be in a position to dictate terms to India on the settlement of the territorial dispute. Hence, while China poses a long-term strategic challenge to India as a competing regional power in Asia, it will remain a major military threat till the territorial dispute is resolved.

India needs to take this reality into account and distinguish between what China professes, that is peaceful co-existence, and what it actually does and plan accordingly. In the near future, a situation of tenuous peace and tranquility is likely to continue to prevail along India’s Himalayan frontier. It will be punctuated increasingly by patrol face-offs, Chinese transgressions like those at Depsang in 2013 and Chumar in 2014 across the LAC, perhaps even incursions and intrusions, and new claims on Indian territory such as the Tawang Tract.

Published Date: 20th March 2015, Image source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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