In its 2020 report on Chinese military power, the U.S. Department of Defense indicated that China had changed its national military strategy.1 This assessment was based on Xi Jinping’s remarks during an expanded meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC), in which Xi called on the PLA to ‘thoroughly implement’ the ‘military strategic guideline for the new era.’2 Chinese sources on Chinese defense policy, including a senior official from the CMC’s Joint Staff Department and an article in the journal China Military Science, confirm that China changed its strategy in 2019.3
Amid its dramatic rise, substantial increases in defense spending and more than two decades of military modernization, any change in China’s military strategy is an important and significant development with regional and global implications. Moreover, any state’s military strategy can illuminate its broader intentions and the conditions under which it is more likely to use armed force to achieve political goals. As the rivalry between the United States and China deepens, changes China’s military strategy may shape the intensity of competition between the two states. Nevertheless, although the sources above note that a China adopted a new military strategy in 2019, they do not describe the content of the changes that were made, examine the reasons or rationale for the change, or assess its implications. This article seeks to fill this gap by answering the following questions: What is the content of new strategy? Why did the PLA adopt a new strategy in 2019? What are the implications for PLA modernization?
In answering these questions, we draw several conclusions. First, despite being described as the military strategic guideline of the CCP’s ‘new era,’ the new strategy largely represents a rebranding or relabeling of the one adopted in 2014. In this way, it reflects a minor adjustment in China’s strategy and not major change or departure that would require the PLA to transform how it plans to wage war. Unfortunately, historically and today, China has never openly published the content of its military strategic guidelines when they change. Thus, following best practices in the field of PLA studies, our conclusion is based on an in-depth review of authoritative and authoritative but not definitive sources on military affairs. Authoritative sources would include those that speak for the PLA or the CCP on military affairs, such as white papers, public statements by defense spokespersons or other party documents. Authoritative but not definitive sources (or ‘semi-authoritative’) would include those publications by PLA organizations or individuals from within the PLA likely to have knowledge of topics such as the PLA’s military strategic guidelines, including leading research institutes such as the Academy of Military Science and its experts on strategy, tactics, and doctrine.4 Using these sources, we identify whether the terminology associated with the six components of any strategic guideline changed after January 2019. Apart from the name or label of the strategy itself, our review did not reveal any changes in terminology that would be consistent with a major change in strategy. In this way, the 2019 strategy may be exceptional compared to the nine previous military strategies adopted from 1949 to 2014, all of which contained at least minor substantive changes.
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Dr. Joel Wuthnow is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at National Defense University. M. Taylor Fravel is a professor at MIT.
The views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.