*This is part research paper, part reflective essay, and it is entirely focused on the PLA and U.S.-China relations more broadly. I’m still not really sure what my core argument is, but I think this piece raises some interesting questions and ideas (which I’m still trying to work through)

Samuel Seitz

China’s military is being transformed as the PRC grows economically and becomes a world-leading power. It has come a long way from its origins as a guerilla force and is now nearly on par with the U.S. and its allies in several important capability areas. Despite the PLA’s rapid advances, it is worth noting that much of the doctrinal and organizational best practices of Western militaries are still being learned and adopted in China. Moreover, the PLA is not a Western army but a Party army. This complicates civil-military relations and muddies comparisons, but it is an important point of distinction because it means that in some regards the PLA has significant influence in the policymaking arena. One to one comparisons are, therefore, sometimes unhelpful. Ultimately, the PLA is simply one component of China’s national power, which is also undergirded by Chinese economic and cultural influence. But the PLA is an increasingly potent tool. Unfortunately, China seems ever more willing to aggressively employ its armed forces to advanced political objectives. But a negative, zero-sum U.S.-China relationship is far from guaranteed. By understanding the history and tactics of the PLA and placing them within China’s current grand strategy, it is possible for the U.S. and its allies to resist Chinese revisionism while also constructing a framework for furthering positive engagement with Beijing.

History of the PLA

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was founded in August of 1927 as the Red Army and largely operated as an insurgency, prioritizing guerilla tactics and emphasizing maneuver and misdirection. Early conflicts with the Kuomintang (KMT) left the Red Army battered and defeated, necessitating a tactical retreat into the Chinese interior to rebuild and recuperate. The Red Army’s recovery was aided by the Japanese invasion of China, which weakened KMT forces and led to the creation of the Second Chinese United Front, a temporary alliance between the KMT and Chinese Communists.[i] Fighting the Japanese allowed the Red Army to refine its tactics, which were ultimately codified by Mao Zedong and then implemented by the PLA to push the KMT off the mainland after the defeat of Japan.[ii]

By the end of the 1940s, the PLA had a clearly established doctrine of “People’s War,” which relied extensively on ideology, the incorporation of military forces within the larger Party strategy, and valuing individuals over equipment. The Korean War allowed the Chinese to test this approach against an established American foe, and the results were revealing. While the PLA was extremely successful in its early offensives, it quickly stalled due to logistical problems and superior American air and artillery power.[iii] This experience, along with the greater access to Soviet equipment and advisors afforded by China’s intervention in Korea, led to a shift toward a more conventional doctrine. This reorientation was pushed particularly zealously by the commander of Chinese forces in Korea, Peng Dehaui, who resented Mao’s cult of personality and disdained his “People’s War” concept. As a result of Peng’s post-Korea fame and promotion to Defense Minister, he was able to implement his “Four Great Systems,” which established ranks, conscription rules, and military medals. Peng also worked to decrease the power of political commissars relative to unit commanders.

These changes created tension between Peng and Mao. While Mao was forced to tolerate Peng, he worked to undermine the reforms by removing Peng’s allies within the military. After the failed attacks against KMT forces on the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, Peng suffered a loss of status, which eventually allowed Mao to purge him for his vocal criticism of the Great Leap Forward.[iv] The removal of Peng also presaged the Sino-Soviet split, which largely resulted from growing political differences and Chinese frustration with Moscow’s treatment of China as a client state.

The removal of Peng and the break with the Soviets reverted Chinese military doctrine to “People’s War.”[v] Ranks were abolished, political commissars were raised in stature, and soldiers were employed as part-time laborers. Furthermore, the ideological embrace of Mao Zedong Thought was emphasized over professional training. This led to the further atrophying of capabilities, as access to advanced Soviet platforms was restricted and resources were used in non-optimal ways. For example, to strengthen the PLA’s ability to conduct defense in depth, Mao ordered the construction of the Third Front, a network of inefficient factories deep in China’s interior.[vi] Mao’s reemphasis of ideology also had implications outside the military, most notably leading to the Cultural Revolution. The Revolution quickly spiraled into chaos as paramilitary Red Guards were unleashed into the country, creating a parallel security force and destabilizing the country. The Red Guards increasingly came into conflict with local PLA forces, which received mixed orders regarding the appropriate response to engagements with the Red Guards. Eventually, main force PLA units began to assume control of government bodies as Mao realized that the Revolution was spiraling out of control. At one point, in fact, the PLA comprised half of the State Council and Central Committee.[vii]

The PLA did not use this power to institute a junta, but it did play a deciding role in Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power and helped move the country away from the dangers of ideological excess. Deng rewarded the PLA by granting them access to a greater stake in commercial enterprises, but he refused to increase military budgets, instead choosing to prioritize industry.[viii] Deng’s ascension also heralded a shift in doctrine, in no small part due to the chaos of Mao’s later years and the failures of the PLA during the 1979 war with Vietnam.[ix] This shift in doctrine was also the result of growing border tensions with the U.S.S.R. and the fear engendered by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Specifically, Defense Minister Xu Xiangqian moved from a strategy of “People’s War” to “People’s War Under Modern Conditions.” The new doctrine emphasized active defense on the borders to protect cities and industrial areas. It also prioritized positional warfare and combined arms, relying on increased American technical assistance made possible by the normalization of relations in 1978.[x]

By the mid-1980s, the PLA had adopted the doctrine of “Limited, Local War,” which was premised on improving relations with the Soviets and continued access to American support and technology. This doctrine sought to increase funding for the PLAN and PLAAF in order to acquire platforms conducive to waging limited war on China’s periphery, and it envisioned rapid campaigns designed to limit escalation. This doctrinal evolution was accompanied by attempts at greater professionalization, including the establishment of the National Defense University, reductions in end strength, and the establishment of reserve units.[xi]

By 1992, China’s security environment had evolved significantly, with the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests leading to an American arms embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union massively reorienting power toward the United States. These negative trends were exacerbated by American success against Iraq, which demonstrated the necessity of developing high-tech, combined arms forces. As a result, the PLA embraced “Local, Limited War Under High-tech Conditions,” which sought to leverage China’s growing economic power to acquire advanced technology, particularly from Russia and Israel, and to develop asymmetric platforms to compensate for American military dominance.[xii] This doctrinal shift was accompanied by increased defense budgets and efforts to tackle corruption, largely through the elimination of PLA-owned companies.[xiii]

PLA doctrine was further tweaked in 2004, as the PLA moved to “Local, Limited War Under Conditions of Informatization” in an attempt to improve network warfare – particularly in C4ISR – expand capabilities beyond Taiwan and move toward becoming a modern and preeminent military power. This strategy saw the acquisition of advanced ballistic missiles designed to enable anti-access/area denial strategies (A2/AD) and further expansion of the PLAN and PLAAF. Attempts at eliminating corruption and moving the PLA toward a purely military force with no commercial holdings were continued and are a major focus of President Xi today.[xiv] President Xi has also reorganized the PLA into joint geographic combatant commands, drawing inspiration from the U.S.[xv]

Party-Military Relations

Despite the PLA’s movement toward professionalism, it is still a Party army: The military serves the Communist Party, not the Chinese state. Of course, the goals of the party largely overlap with those of the state, particularly now that Xi seems keen on an organizational reshuffling designed to produce hybrid Party-state institutions.[xvi] However, this dynamic does mean that the PLA has unique obligations and ideological imperatives that are not present in Western militaries. The intimate ties between the Party and PLA also complicate Party-military relations, as senior PLA officials have immense clout and their support “provides symbolic power and offsets the power of party factions.”[xvii] By incorporating the PLA into the Party apparatus, the CCP ensures PLA buy-in, but it also grants the PLA meaningful influence over military policy.

Interestingly, the PLA has become an increasingly independent player within the Party despite being deeply imbedded within its political institutions. During the Chinese Civil War and Maoist period, the PLA leadership and Party elite were inseparable, as virtually the entire Communist leadership played an active role in the conflicts against the KMT and Japanese.[xviii] But this changed as the military sought to improve professionalism and specialization within the ranks. Perhaps the earliest example of this shift occurred when the PLA moved to restore order during the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. As noted above, there was never any attempt by the PLA to overthrow the Party. However, the PLA was not averse to using its privileged position to move the country away from Mao’s ideological extremes and shape the next generation of leadership, ultimately aiding in Deng’s rise to power. The PLA was able to gain slightly more autonomy through the 1980s and early 1990s due largely to the independent income generated from PLA-owned enterprises. While this practice and the corruption it enabled have been heavily curtailed, the increasingly complex and specialized mission set undertaken by the PLA has created technical divisions that continue to grant the PLA a degree of functional autonomy. Of course, the PLA also has significant operational autonomy and frequently uses this to pressure leadership in Beijing. One such example was the PLA’s decision to test its J-20 stealth fighter during Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ visit to Beijing, sending a signal to the Americans that senior CCP officials may not have intended to send.[xix]

More generally, one can conceive of Party-military relations as a kind of “conditional compliance.” The PLA will never seek to undermine or overthrow the Party, but it has demonstrated a willingness to exert its institutional might to influence policy decisions. As noted already, the Cultural Revolution is a case in point. Similarly, the PLA used the credit it won for saving the Party in 1989 to demand the removal of the Yang brothers. In short, the PLA’s status as a Party army permits it a unique degree of influence over Party decisions, allowing it to shape military and, to a lesser extent, political decisions far more freely than would be possible for a Western national military.

Capabilities and Future Force

As China’s doctrinal evolution suggests, the PLA has developed an increasingly modern and capable set of platforms that have contributed to the rapid expansion of Chinese military capabilities. Three developments are particularly noteworthy. The first is China’s pursuit of a blue water navy capable of projecting power throughout the Indo-Pacific and, eventually, the world. This ambition has been underwritten by increased investments in modern warships such as the Type-055 destroyer and the rapid development of aircraft carriers, which promise to massively improve Chinese naval strike capabilities.[xx] The ability to deploy a large, modern, blue water force will require several more decades, as China must continue to bolster its fleet size, refine its tactics and organizational principles, and train crews in the complexities of carrier operations. Moreover, the PLAN currently lacks effective ASW and anti-air systems, creating several vulnerabilities in its naval forces.[xxi] But despite these shortcomings, Chinese economic might and shipbuilding capacity suggest that a blue water PLAN is all but inevitable.

Another area of note is China’s vigorous pursuit of A2/AD systems designed to push the U.S. Navy out from the first island chain. These include improved C4ISR capabilities, advanced stealth aircraft, cruise missiles, and anti-ship ballistic missiles like the DF-21D.[xxii] Currently, the PLA lacks sufficient airborne early warning aircraft, space-based sensors, and general maritime surveillance capability to guarantee its ability to locate and track enemy task forces, especially under combat conditions. However, complete sensor coverage is unnecessary, as even a moderate risk of losing a warship might dissuade the U.S. from risking combat over a minor dispute. This grants China some degree of escalation dominance and provides it with a major advantage in small-scale standoffs with the U.S., likely emboldening the PLAN to push the margins of safety.

Finally, the PLA is rapidly expanding its space and cyber capabilities. This acquisition effort seeks to capitalize on American forces’ dependence on precision targeting, communications, and intelligence, which the Chinese identified by observing American operation in the Middle East. By degrading or eliminating these capabilities via anti-satellite missiles, jammers, or malicious code, China could gain a competitive edge in a conflict.[xxiii]

The PLA today is still incapable of defeating the United States in a large-scale conflict. As a result, it is unlikely to provoke conflict or risk a tit-for-tat escalatory cycle with U.S. forces in the near future. Longer term projections are more foreboding. By the early to mid-2030s, China will likely have surpassed the U.S. as the largest economy in the world. At that point, it could afford to employ bolder tactics because it would no longer need to safeguard its rise and would have the economic and military might to confront U.S. forces. This transition will not create a hard break in Chinese behavior; simply taking a snapshot of the global economic balance reveals little, as it fails to recognize that defense is a cumulative process, with capabilities being built up over time. Bilateral economic comparisons also reveal little on their own, as they fail to account for the many capable U.S. allies that reside in the Asia-Pacific, the coming Chinese demographic crunch, and the long-term economic costs of Chinese environmental degradation.[xxiv] Nevertheless, it would be naïve to blithely assume that the U.S. can maintain its preeminent position in Asia. While Chinese hegemony is not guaranteed, the U.S. will not be able to assure victory in a conflict against China in the coming years.

Whether this erosion of U.S. power is concerning depends upon the nature of Chinese intentions. Unfortunately, they do not seem benign. Post-2008 China has revealed its true colors, as it prematurely presumed the demise of American hegemony following the shock of the financial crisis. Quickly, we witnessed China advance increasingly assertive territorial claims, display an unwillingness to respect other countries’ sovereignty, and undertake an extensive military modernization program. These are not the actions one would expect from a country willing to work within the established rules-based order, and they are quite different from and far more aggressive than those of expanding economies of the past. As a point of comparison, neither Japan nor Germany acted in this manner during their periods of rapid growth, and neither have more contemporary emerging economic powers like India and Brazil. While it is absolutely absurd to group China with countries like Russia and Iran, it must be noted that much of China’s behavior – particularly in the domain of the PLA – is worryingly similar to the kinds of tactics embraced by Moscow and Tehran.

Despite these worrying trends, it is important to emphasize that China has much to gain from working within the current system. However, the PRC has concomitantly begun to develop parallel institutions, such as the AIIB, as strategic hedges. Certainly, the PRC has no interest in destroying the system, but by ignoring certain norms and failing to adhere to established legal interpretations, such as ships’ right to free passage, China is attempting to slowly bend institutions to its preferences. As one analyst puts it, China is “a stakeholder in existing institutions and rules but a habitually reluctant, seldom satisfied, and frequently ambivalent one.”[xxv] Equally concerning is Xi Jinping’s increasingly ideological bent, concentrated power as president for life, and willingness to signal far less aversion to risk than his predecessors. The general unpleasantness of Chinese backsliding toward personalist dictatorship is magnified by the empirical fact that personalist regimes are far more likely to instigate conflict than more systematized and rules-based autocracies (Weeks 2014). It is not implausible, therefore, to assume that China will pursue salami-slicing tactics under the umbrella of growing PLA strength.

This presents a challenge to the U.S. and its allies, as it undermines the credibility of American security guarantees: If the PLA can strike U.S. bases throughout Asia and use A2/AD systems to hit forces transiting into theater, it becomes less believable that the U.S. will be willing to face off against China. If it does face off, it may not win. Improved Chinese capabilities and joint-force integration also increase the risk to Taiwan, as Taipei cannot keep pace with PLA modernization efforts. This deficiency is magnified by the PLA’s growing strength vis-à-vis the U.S., as Taiwan is even more vulnerable to American abandonment than other Asian countries because it is not a full U.S. treaty ally. This growing power imbalance may embolden the PRC to use force against Taiwan, particularly if Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen continues to pursue policies Beijing deems provocative. In short, the risk of a Taiwan conflict occurring seems to be inversely proportional to the ability of U.S. forces to respond.

Thoughts for the Future

The U.S. cannot ignore or contain China, as the PRC is too deeply ingrained within the international system. Moreover, by securitizing China, the U.S. would all but guarantee conflict even if one need not occur. It is also worth noting that for all the complexity created by the web of trade and financial ties between the U.S. and China, these economic linkages create interdependencies that lower the risk of conflict. They also prevent the formation of ossified and largely isolated blocs, such as those seen in the Cold War, ensuring that potential avenues of cooperation and collaboration are not prematurely foreclosed. However, the United States must continue to be vigilant, resisting Chinese revisionism, better coordinating economic strategy with allies, and working with those allies to develop and retain an effective suite of capabilities that allows them to maintain some degree of collective military parity even as China becomes the dominant economic power of the 21st century. More broadly, the United States must begin to move away from the pursuit of primacy. Americans are accustomed to being the preeminent power, and thus many in D.C. and the general public seemingly take the United States’ privileged position for granted. Of course, the U.S. will continue to be an immensely important and influential power for decades to come, but voters, analysts, and politicians must begin to seriously think about how to relinquish the mantle of hegemony, accommodate China’s rise, and yet, at the same time, uphold the values and systemic features of the current world order that have served to promote peace and stability so effectively.




[i] Dennis Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century (Oxford, UK: Routledge, 2012), 2-3.

[ii] Mao Tse-Tung, “Problems of Strategy in Guerilla War Against Japan,” Marxist.org, 2004.

[iii] Mark A Ryan et. al., Chinese Warfighting: The PLA Experience since 1949 (Oxford, UK: Routledge, 2003), 102-105.

[iv] Ibid., 5.

[v] Ibid., 33.

[vi] Barry Naughton, “The Third Front: Defence Industrialization in the Chinese Interior,” The China Quarterly 115 (1988): 351-386.

[vii] Stefan R. Landsberger, “PLA and Cultural Revolution,” International Institute of Social History, accessed April 28, 2018.

[viii] Ellis Joffe, The Chinese Army After Mao (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 53.

[ix] Joel Martinsen, “Three decades after the Sino-Soviet Split,” Danwei, April 7, 2009.

[x] Joffe, 77-81.

[xi] Ibid., 120-126; 134-137.

[xii] Blasko, 120-144.

[xiii] “China’s Jiang orders army out of business to stop smuggling,” BBC, July 22, 1998.

[xiv] James Mulvenon, “PLA Divestiture 2.0: We Mean it This Time,” China Leadership Monitor no. 50 (2016).

[xv] Yomiuri Shimbun, “China plans military reform to enhance its readiness,” The Japan News, January 2, 2014.

[xvi] Andrew Batson, “The new form of hybrid institutions,” Andrew Batson’s Blog, April 18, 2018.

[xvii] Alex Chopan, “A Table for Two: Jiang Zemin and the PLA,” Journal of Contemporary China 11, no. 31 (2002), 284.

[xviii] David Shambaugh, “Civil-Military Relations in China: Party Army or National Military?” Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies 16, no. 16 (2002), 17.

[xix] Elisabeth Bumiller and Michael Wines, “Test of Stealth Fighter Clouds Gates Visit to China,” New York Times, January 11, 2011.

[xx] Tom Waldwyn, “Type-055: a new chapter in China’s naval modernization,” IISS, July 24, 2017.

[xxi] Randall Schriver, “CHINA’S MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS AND THE U.S.-JAPAN ALLIANCE,” Project 2049 Institute, April 2015, 5.

[xxii] Anthony Cordesman and Joseph Kendall, “How China Plans to Utilize Space for A2/AD in the Pacific,” The National Interest, August 17, 2016.

[xxiii] Schriver, 7.

[xxiv] Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth, “The Once and Future Superpower: why China won’t overtake the United States,” Foreign Affairs, 2016, 92.

[xxv] Evan A. Feigenbaum, “Reluctant Stakeholder: Why China’s Highly Strategic Brand of Revisionism is More Challenging Than Washington Thinks,” Macro Polo, April 27, 2018.



Batson, Andrew. “The new form of hybrid institutions.” Andrew Batson’s Blog. April 18, 2018.

Blasko, Dennis. The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century (Oxford, UK: Routledge, 2012).

Brooks, Stephen and William Wohlforth. “The Once and Future Superpower: why China won’t overtake the United States.” Foreign Affairs. 2016.

Bumiller, Elisabeth and Michael Wines. “Test of Stealth Fighter Clouds Gates Visit to China.” New York Times. January 11, 2011.

“China’s Jiang orders army out of business to stop smuggling.” BBC. July 22, 1998.

Chopan, Alex. “A Table for Two: Jiang Zemin and the PLA.” Journal of Contemporary China 11, no. 31 (2002): 281-296.

Cordesman, Anthony and Joseph Kendall. “How China Plans to Utilize Space for A2/AD in the Pacific.” The National Interest. August 17, 2016.

Feigenbaum, Evan A. “Reluctant Stakeholder: Why China’s Highly Strategic Brand of Revisionism is More Challenging Than Washington Thinks.” Macro Polo. April 27, 2018.

Joffe, Ellis. The Chinese Army After Mao (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).

Landsberger, Stefan R.  “PLA and Cultural Revolution,” International Institute of Social History, accessed April 28, 2018.

Martinsen, Joel. “Three decades after the Sino-Soviet Split.” Danwei. April 7, 2009.

Mulvenon, James. “PLA Divestiture 2.0: We Mean it This Time.” China Leadership Monitor 50 (2016).

Naughton, Barry. “The Third Front: Defence Industrialization in the Chinese Interior.” The China Quarterly 115 (1988): 351-386.

Ryan, Mark A. et. al. Chinese Warfighting: The PLA Experience since 1949 (Oxford, UK: Routledge, 2003).

Schriver, Randall. “CHINA’S MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS AND THE U.S.-JAPAN ALLIANCE.” Project 2049 Institute. April 2015.

Shambaugh, David. “Civil-Military Relations in China: Party Army or National Military?” Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies 16, no. 16 (2002): 10-29.

Shimbun, Yomiuri. “China plans military reform to enhance its readiness.” The Japan News. January 2, 2014.

Tse-Tung, Mao. “Problems of Strategy in Guerilla War Against Japan.” Marxist.org. 2004.

Waldwyn, Tom. “Type-055: a new chapter in China’s naval modernization.” IISS. July 24, 2017.

Weeks, Jessica. Dictators at War and Peace (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).