Military Strategy of Xi Jinping's China

Bonji Ohara


The security environment that China seeks to realize has remained unchanged since the founding of the PRC. It is a situation in which external powers such as the United States and Russia cannot exert military force against China. What is needed to create this situation is deterrence. In the 1960s, the then target of China's deterrence was the Soviet Union, but now it is the United States. China has been increasing its conventional and nuclear forces to become on par with the United States regarding conventional forces and to achieve mutual assured destruction. While the United States hesitates to launch a military strike against China, the latter aims to achieve its national goals, including the unification of Taiwan, and to make them a fait accompli.

Given that a strategy is to fill the gap between national goals (ideals) and the current state, China's strategy has been changing with the vicissitudes of domestic and international circumstances surrounding it, even if its goals remain unchanged. At the time of its founding, Communist China lacked sufficient economic power, facing difficulties in increasing at the same time its conventional and nuclear forces. In February 1960, the Central Military Commission announced, "two types of bombs (missiles and nukes) shall be our main weapons, but missiles shall come first." Following this policy, China promoted research and development of a missile to carry a nuclear warhead. In 1966, it conducted a "two-bomb" test and succeeded in launching a missile mounted with a nuclear warhead. 1

As its economy developed, China built up not only its nuclear arsenal but also its conventional forces. However, China did not build them concurrently. Since the 1960s, when its economic power was not strong enough, China has been investing its domestic resources in developing missiles carrying nuclear warheads. Nonetheless, it feared that its nuclear deterrence against the United States might fail due to a wide gap between the United States and China regarding the number of nuclear warheads and ICBM launchers they possessed. As of January 2022, the United States has 5,428 nuclear warheads, whereas China has 350. 2 According to the "Military Balance 2021," China has 104 ICBM launchers compared to 400 of the United States. These gaps made China fear that its nuclear deterrence against the United States might fail.

Deterrence is a matter of perception. If the United States perceives that China's strategic nuclear forces have sufficient capabilities to inflict intolerable damage on it, China's deterrence is actually working. Not confident in its nuclear capabilities compared with those of the United States, China built what the United States calls A2/AD (Anti-Access/Area-Denial) capabilities to discourage the United States from using military force against it when its nuclear deterrence against the United States is not workable. This paper will discuss how China's strategy to achieve deterrence against the United States is changing under the Xi Jinping administration.

1. The "Active Defense" Strategy of China

The nucleus of the Xi Jinping administration's military strategy is "active defense," which refers to a defensive posture at the strategic level but does not exclude an offensive posture at the tactical level. The 2019 edition of the Chinese National Defense White Paper, "China's National Defense in the New Era," states that "the military strategic policy in the new era is to adhere to the principle of defense, self-defense, and post-attack (first let the opponent make a move and then counterattack at an advantageous moment to defeat him); implement active defense; stick to the policy that ‘if one does not attack me, I will not attack him, but if one attacks me, I will attack him,'; emphasize the unity of deterrence and victory in war; and emphasize the unity of strategic defense and combat (tactical: the present author's note) offensive.

China's defensive posture is decided upon based on its perception of the US-China military balance concerning conventional and nuclear forces. China has so far planned and advanced military buildup to acquire military strength equal to that of the United States. In his "Report" to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, General Secretary of the Central Committee Xi Jinping set forth a three-stage development strategy to modernize national defense and the military: "ensure the basic mechanization by 2020, make significant progress in informatization, and greatly improve strategic capabilities" (the first stage); "basically modernize the national defense and military by 2035" (the second stage); "transform the PLA into a world-class army by the middle of this century" (the third stage). 3

The "14th Five-Year Plan," approved at the 5th plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the CPC on October 29, 2020, set another "centennial" milestone regarding military buildup to "ensure the achievement of the centenary goal of the founding of the PLA in 2027," in addition to the "two centennials (the centennial of the founding of the CPC and the centennial of the founding of the PRC)." 4 With its increasing economic power, China appears to push forward its goal of "promoting the integrated development of mechanization and informatization, and accelerating the development of military intelligence" 5 as outlined in the 2019 edition of the Chinese National Defense White Paper.

The ROC National Defense Report 2021, released on November 9, 2021, states in response to these developments in China's military strategy and military buildup, "the development of PLA's military strategy has merged with its latest weapons in its inventory, and the PLA now has the strategy and capabilities to initiate ‘preemptive strikes.'" 6 China's "active defense" strategy suggests that China will not hesitate to launch a preemptive strike if its leader perceives that its security is threatened. Not only Taiwan but also Japan and the United States are becoming increasingly alarmed as China's buildup of conventional and nuclear forces proceeds.

However, China does not envisage an all-out war with the United States. The Xi Jinping administration's military strategic guidelines focus on "winning informatized local wars," which are not widely different from the preceding Hu Jintao administration's policy of "winning local wars under informatized conditions." China focuses on the policy of winning "local wars" because it believes that it is not on par with the United States regarding conventional forces.

On August 2-3, 2022, US Speaker of the House Pelosi visited Taiwan. China vehemently opposed the visit. On July 26, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman said, "If the US side is bent on going its own way, the Chinese military will not sit idly by." 7 A strong backlash from the Chinese side found its expression in military exercises threatening as if to encircle and blockade Taiwan. But the US and Chinese militaries kept their distance to avoid a direct military clash. The movements of the PLA units and the actual exercises suggest that China intended to punish Taiwan; that the PLA believes it must avoid fighting with the US forces.

2. China's Buildup of Conventional Forces

As mentioned earlier, China sought to become an equal of the United States in terms of conventional forces and to bring about a situation of mutual assured destruction. Chiefly for economic reasons, it first invested domestic resources in developing missiles mounted with nuclear warheads and accelerated the buildup of conventional forces as the country developed economically.

China's reinforcement of conventional forces aimed to discourage the United States from using military force against China, including US military intervention in the Taiwan contingency, if its nuclear deterrence fails. This led to changes in operations of the Chinese military; for example, the modernization and the increase in the size of Chinese naval vessels brought about operational changes in the PLA Navy. The 2015 edition of the Chinese National Defense White Paper, "Chinese Military Strategy," states, "The Navy, in accordance with the strategic requirements of near seas defense and far seas protection, gradually realizes the transformation from near seas defense to a combination of near seas defense and far seas protection, builds a synthetic, multi-functional, and efficient maritime combat force system, and improves strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime maneuver operations, maritime joint operations, integrated defense operations, and integrated security capabilities." This indicates that the PLA Navy, which had underscored near seas defense as its strategic requirement, began to conduct operations related to far seas protection. 8

The PLA Navy commissioned its first Type 052D destroyer in 2014; since then, many of this type have been built. As of July 2022, as many as 25 Type 052 destroyers, including improved models, are in service. Reportedly, the construction of the 10,000-ton class Type 055 destroyers began in December 2014. According to Chinese media, "The operational mission of Type 055 destroyer is different from the previous PLA Navy destroyers performing operational missions within the island chain or limited breakthrough of the island chain; it should be deployed to serve the distant sea and even global strategy beyond the second island chain... At the same time, it is also the main battle destroyer supporting China's aircraft carrier battle groups." 9 The PLA Navy adopted the "far seas protection" strategy when it began to possess many large-sized identical class vessels for operation in the open sea.

China is expediting the deployment of aircraft carriers. In September 2012, the PLA Navy commissioned China's first aircraft carrier, the "Liaoning," which was followed in December 2019 by the second aircraft carrier "Shandong." China refers to the "Shandong" as China's first home-made aircraft carrier. 10 Furthermore, on June 17, 2022, a Type 003 aircraft carrier was launched at the Shanghai Jiangnan Shipyard and named "Fujian." Equipped with electromagnetic catapults, the vessel is the first in the PLA Navy to employ the CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) system. China became the second country after the United States to adopt electromagnetic catapults.

The PLA Air Force, abiding by the principle of "integrating air and space and coordinating offense and defense," is enhancing its capabilities of strategic awareness, air strike, air and anti-missile defense, intelligence confrontation, airdrop operations, strategic projection, and comprehensive logistics. It is shifting from a "homeland air defense force" to an "integrated offensive and defensive force." 11

Following the principle of "possessing nuclear and conventional weapons and all dimensions of deterrence," the PLA Rocket Forces are pursuing missile R&D and arsenal renewal, strengthening the joint strike capabilities of all units, and attempting to achieve the goal of "all dimensions of denial for foreign forces." Hypersonic weapons are a new addition to the Rocket Forces arsenal. The DF-17 missile, equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle as a warhead, was unveiled at the military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC held on October 1, 2019.

Following the principle of "integrating existing systems and fusing civilian and military resources (military-civilian fusion)," the PLA Strategic Support Force is integrating its forces in the areas of aerospace, cyberspace, and electronic confrontation. It is also endeavoring to transform an under-development experimental unit into a full-fledged combat unit with new capabilities as an overriding force to win the information war.

Despite this rapid buildup of conventional forces, the PLA still believes it cannot win over the US military. For example, some say that China's reaction to US Speaker of the House Pelosi's visit to Taiwan has indicated that the US aircraft carriers are still an effective weapon against China. The PLA Navy is building and deploying aircraft carriers to compete with the US Navy, but it has problems to solve not only in terms of naval systems but also carrier-based aircraft and crew. China's newest armaments are a mixture of those that are workable and those that are not.

3. China's Buildup of Nuclear Forces

Alongside continuing to upgrade, develop, and deploy ICBMs as strategic nuclear weapons, China is also actively developing intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) as the mainstay of China's anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. These include anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) such as the DF-26 (IRBM) and the DF-21D (MRBM). Both of the ASBMs can carry nuclear and conventional warheads.

The DF-21D missiles, with an alleged range of 2,000 km, are deployed near the Shandong Peninsula and on Hainan Island. Those missiles alone can cover the East and South China Seas and target at any time US Navy surface vessels anchored in Yokosuka and Sasebo. The DF-26, which has an alleged range of 4,000 km, can also attack US reinforcements at sea as they attempt to cross the Second Island Chain to approach China. Moreover, China possesses CJ-10 cruise missiles with a range of 2,500 km that can be mounted aboard the Xian H-6 bombers.

These A2/AD capabilities have been built to discourage the United States from using military force against China on the assumption that China's nuclear deterrence might fail due to the disparity in ICBM capabilities between the United States and China. However, China is now growing increasingly confident in its strategic nuclear forces. Satellite images provided by private companies confirm that China is currently building ICBM silos in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Gansu Province. When China launched ICBMs, the missiles, if stored in an underground hangar tunneled from the mountain, were lifted onto the ground and launched from a launching pad; or they were mounted on a transporter erector launcher (TEL) and launched during a maneuver. This is minimal nuclear deterrence that minimizes nukes in possession and keeps them intact from the enemy's first strike to carry out retaliatory strikes.

However, those ICBM silos expose their location so distinctly that even civilian satellites can readily identify them; needless to say, the silos cannot be moved anywhere else. This means that if the enemy's first strike were not prevented, the ICBM silos and the missiles stored inside could hardly survive. Consequently, the introduction of silo-based ICBMs implies adopting a launch-on-warning (LOW) strategy that China should launch ICBMs at the first sign of the enemy's launch of ICBMs. The 2021 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission released in November 2012 mentions the possibility that China will deviate from minimum nuclear deterrence and pursue a new strategy of "limited preemptive use of nuclear weapons." 12

China adopted the operation of silo-based ICBMs on the recognition that they could enable China to achieve mutual assured destruction with the United States. China has increased the number of nuclear warheads in its possession and has developed and deployed ICBMs with multiple warheads. According to the "SIPRI Year Book 2022," as of January 2022, China has 350 nuclear warheads, whereas the "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2021" released by the US Department of Defense on November 3, 2021, estimates that China will possess more than 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030.

China continues to develop ICBMs as well. China's newest ICBM, the DF-41, was unveiled at a military parade on October 1, 2019. With a range of 14,000 to 15,000 km, it is a multiple-warhead missile capable of carrying up to 10 submunitions. US ICBM Minuteman III, on the other hand, is also a multiple-warhead missile but can carry only three submunitions; it is an old design missile whose development started in the 1950s.

The above developments seem to be behind China's growing confidence in its nuclear deterrence against the United States based on mutual assured destruction. If China recognizes that it is catching up with the United States regarding strategic nuclear forces, it may consider its A2/AD capabilities as a resulting advantage derived from its efforts out of concern over the failure of its nuclear deterrence against the United States. To deter China, the United States and its allies will now have to endeavor to offset that Chinese advantage.

4. China's Deterrence against the United States through Hybrid Means

China understands the importance of hybrid warfare through non-physical means. CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping explained the General National Security Concept at the First Meeting of the Central National Security Commission in April 2014. According to Xi's exposition at that time, the General National Security Concept is a national security system that integrates political security, homeland security, military security, economic security, cultural security, social security, scientific and technological security, information security, ecological security, resource security, and nuclear security. 13 Afterward, its scope expanded to include space security, deep-sea security, cyberspace security, etc.

Meanwhile, the United States traditionally adopts the concept of "political warfare," which US diplomat George Kennan defined in April 1948: "In broadest definition, political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation's command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives." 14 Like Russia, which weaponizes everything, including the economy and energy resources, for its invasion of Ukraine, the United States and China are confronting each other by using all means and engaging in strategic competition. This situation is effectively tantamount to their engaging in hybrid warfare.

Hybrid warfare involves not only economic measures such as economic sanctions and the disruption of distribution through maritime and air blockage but also the disruption or neutralization of network infrastructures like satellites and submarine cables, and cyber-attacks. Information warfare and cognitive warfare also fall under hybrid warfare; they aim to disconnect the enemy from the information or to prevent its proper decision-making by disturbing and hindering telecommunications through disinformation campaigns.

Cognitive warfare also includes intimidating or putting psychological pressure on the enemy using military means, such as military exercises or air and sea intercepts. The ROC National Defense Report 2021 states that China is already waging cognitive warfare against Taiwan. Hybrid warfare involves military and civilian elements hard to distinguish. Expanding influence over other countries and regions through economic and diplomatic means could also be used for military purposes.

The 2021 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission expressed concern about China's growing influence in Latin America and the Caribbean countries. China is increasingly involved in constructing civilian-military dual-use ports and airports in the regions. In Argentina, China constructed a satellite observation facility, which has been operated by the PLA Strategic Support Force since 2018. The availability of satellite observation facilities in Latin America means that China will be able to observe and control such satellites positioned as unable to be commanded from mainland China. In August 2021, China successfully tested a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) using hypersonic glide vehicles; this system may serve to realize "autonomous dormant assault warfare" using space as a hiding place.

5. Future Combat Envisioned by China

Putin's invasion of Ukraine, which may constitute a turning point for the international order, may help give rise to an order where a country possessing strategic nuclear weapons could, by threatening with the potential use of them, change the status quo by force like a war of aggression.

Such changes in international circumstances would be reflected in China's perception of the present situation and lead to changes in its strategy. China supports Russia's claims regarding the Ukraine war, and the Chinese media actively condemn the United States. For example, Xinhua published a series of six "Xinhua International Commentary" from March 31 to April 5. Those commentaries are critical of the United States, saying that it is the mastermind behind what China calls the "Ukraine crisis" and that it was the United States that launched it. Superficially, such reports suggest that China's military objective is as always to deter the United States; however, the situation is changing.

Generally speaking, the hurdle for a Chinese armed invasion of Taiwan has at present become higher. China has learned the following dissuasive lessons from the Ukrainian war.

The first is the effectiveness of nuclear intimidation. President Putin's invasion of Ukraine has made it clear that the West and the international community will be unable to stop a nuclear state from using force if it threatens to escalate to a nuclear war.

Second, the effects of hybrid warfare are unpredictable. The effects of operations, such as cyber-attacks, the destruction of network infrastructure and lifelines, and the destruction of transportation routes, are difficult to measure in advance.

The third is the difficulty of justifying cognitive warfare in the face of international public opinion. If the effects of hybrid warfare are insufficient and the war is protracted, the aggressor's excuses and lies will not pass as they are.

Fourth, if the war is prolonged, the international community will be provided with time to achieve solidarity. As a result, the aggressor country may be subjected to, among other things, severe economic sanctions.

The fifth is the importance of controlling domestic public opinion. The greatest threat to an authoritarian state lies at home. In particular, if many troops perish, the leader who started the war will be exposed to severe criticism.

With these lessons in mind, China will not only improve its hybrid warfare capabilities but will also accelerate the building of capabilities to occupy Taiwan by physical means within a short period; the effectiveness of hybrid warfare is hard to measure beforehand. China will never give up on unifying Taiwan. Taiwan's efforts, on the other hand, to build the capacity to counter China's hybrid warfare makes the effectiveness of China's hybrid warfare unclear.

China is likely to focus on building its ground forces' ability to cross the sea, which the PLA currently lacks. To date, the PLA Navy has launched three Type 075 landing helicopter dock amphibious assault ships --- the construction of the fourth and subsequent ships is not confirmed, though. In recent years, the PLA has frequently held joint landing exercises to, among other things, transport its ground forces by using civilian vessels. 15 Those exercises draw attention to the possibility that civilian RORO (Roll on/Roll off) vessels may serve in the PLA's landing operations aiming at Taiwan.

Incidentally, it is difficult for unarmed civilian vessels to transport the first batch of landing troops. Since the first batch is bound to be subject to the severest damage, the navy will have to be responsible for its transportation. Currently, the PLA Navy possesses eight Type 071 dock landing ships and will soon commission three Type 075 landing helicopter dock amphibious assault ships. It also boasts a number of tank landing ships; nonetheless, China estimates that these will not suffice for a successful landing on Taiwan.

Ordinarily, the landing operation is expected to cause a large number of casualties on the attacker's side, which may invite criticism at home. Therefore, China might form the main landing forces with unmanned aircraft. The PLA enunciated that it would aim for intelligentized warfare using AI-based LAWS (lethal autonomous weapons systems). It also predicts that combat in intelligentized warfare will be a "machine versus human" fight or a "machine versus machine" fight. China envisages autonomous swarm attrition warfare and autonomous dormant assault warfare, in which thousands or tens of thousands of AI-based unmanned aircraft attack the enemy in coordination with AI. There is a likelihood that, to minimize its casualties, China will use large numbers of drones to attack Taiwan's defending forces in the wake of air strikes with missiles. At the Zhuhai Air Show in November 2021, many types of drones were displayed at booths featuring unmanned aircraft.


On June 10-12, 2022, the Asian Security Conference (Shangri-La Dialogue) was held in Singapore, and a US-China defense ministers' meeting took place in conjunction with this event. However, China did not believe the meeting sought to ease tensions between the two countries. The Chinese government website, citing a report from state-run Xinhua, only briefly posted that Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, who attended the Shangri-La Dialogue, met with US Defense Secretary Austin; that the Chinese side conveyed its claims to the United States.

While Xinhua did not report the meeting in detail, a Chinese tabloid instead provided its details. Yet, its coverage is also one-sided, saying that China sent "three important signals" to the US side. 16 Those three signals are: (1) what the United States should do to set up "guardrails," (2) that the United States is not going to succeed in controlling China with Taiwan, and (3) that the Ukraine issue should not be used to harm China's interests. The "guardrails" are what President Biden called on President Xi Jinping to "set up" during the US-China summit teleconference in November 2021 to prevent the US-China competition from escalating into conflict due to military miscalculations and other factors

The above tabloid article provided a negative comment that the establishment of a hotline between the US and Chinese militaries could be utilized by the United States as an excuse to challenge the red line in US-China relations. According to the tabloid, Wei Fenghe reminded the US side that a correct view of China's development is necessary to set solid "guardrails" for the bilateral relationship.

China continued to denigrate the United States during the Asian Security Conference. For example, from June 9 to 12, Xinhua published a series of four "Commentaries on U.S. Policy Toward China" in the Xinhua International Times Review. The first of the series was entitled "The U.S. is the destroyer of Sino-U.S. relations," the second "The U.S. is the Destroyer of Peace in the Taiwan Strait," the third "The U.S. is the Trampler of Democracy and Human Rights," and the fourth "The U.S. is the Destroyer of the International Order."

Xinhua provided a summary of the Asian Security Conference in conjunction with Defense Minister Wei Fenghe's speech on the last day of the conference. Xinhua reported that many expressed concerns about the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy, while the "Global Security Initiative" presented by Defense Minister Wei Fenghe received a broad welcome. President Xi Jinping proposed it at the 2022 Boao Forum for Asia. Along with the "Global Development Initiative" also proposed by Xi at the UN General Assembly in 2021, the "Global Security Initiative" will likely be advocated as a China-led international order that China wishes to substitute for the Western-led order.

Xinhua's "Commentaries on U.S. Policy Toward China" highlight China's construction of international order and the unification of Taiwan as equally important issues. We must see with what logic China can justify the armed invasion of Taiwan in the international order that China insists should be applied to the entire world.

If China believes that there is no prospect of improving relations with the United States, the only option for it to choose to avoid US military intervention is to deter the United States by using military force. Except in the case of Taiwan declaring independence, China will be determined to invade Taiwan by force only when it assumes that it can avoid US military intervention. Therefore, the US-China competition to build deterrence will intensify, and the China-Taiwan relationship will continue to be affected by the military balance between the United States and China.

(Senior Fellow, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation)

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