The PLA and China's Rejuvenation

National Security and Military Strategies, Deterrence Concepts, and Combat Capabilities

by Timothy R. Heath, Kristen Gunness, Cortez A. Cooper III


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Research Questions

  1. What are China's national development and national security strategies; and what policy agendas do these strategies drive?
  2. How does China view the international environment; and what do Chinese leaders perceive as threats to national interests?
  3. How do Chinese leaders seek to achieve national objectives in peacetime, crisis, and military conflict?
  4. What is China's military strategy, and how does it determine missions and capabilities development? How does it link to national security strategy?
  5. What are trends in China's military capabilities and force structure?
  6. What concepts underpin China's approach to strategic deterrence; and what are China's nuclear policy and strategy?

Recent analysis of China's military modernization effort has focused heavily on the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) development of concepts and capabilities to deter or delay foreign forces responding to crises along China's periphery. However, China developed these capabilities within the context of broader strategic requirements. This study describes China's overarching national and security strategies and its approach to war and escalation control; summarizes its military capabilities developments; and reviews its concepts for deterrence in strategic and conventional domains. This report is intended as a general reference document for senior defense officials and other policymakers seeking an understanding of the links between China's national development strategy and its security and defense policies, strategies and concepts.

The information in this report assesses the perceptions of China's leaders on many critical issues — from their views of the international security environment and domestic and international threats, to their approaches to crisis management and escalation control, to the development of military capabilities and deterrence concepts. As this study indicates, these Chinese assessments are not static; they evolve as China's standing in the world increases and its national interests grow, and the conclusions Chinese planners draw from such assessments also change. The necessity of continuing to monitor and analyze emerging literature and assessments on concepts discussed in this report — particularly those with broader implications for current events, such as China's defense of territorial claims in the South China Sea and prospects for crisis management — will be crucial.

Key Findings

  • Chinese perceptions and assessments are not static, they change and evolve as China's standing in the world increases and its national interests grow, and the conclusions Chinese planners draw from such assessments also evolve.
  • It is necessary to continue monitoring and analyzing emerging literature and assessments on concepts discussed in this report — particularly those with broader implications for current events.
  • China might have a higher threshold for risk than the United States may expect, particularly when it comes to defending such "core interests" as territory and sovereignty claims. This could lead Chinese leaders to do something that they would not consider escalatory but which the United States might.
  • Although "active defense" and China's "no first use" policy state that China will not fire the first shot (or nuclear weapon), the definition of what the "first shot" entails is ambiguous.
  • The strength of our alliances, defense capacity of our allies and partners, and U.S. military presence in the region does impact the direction of Chinese research, development and acquisition and capabilities development, particularly in high-technology areas.
  • China's expanding interests increasingly require a capacity to provide security for investments and business ventures around the world.


  • Understanding and managing competition with China on a global scale will be of the highest priority for U.S. leaders in the coming decade and beyond.
  • U.S. policymakers should work to develop a broad range of regional and global scenarios to support crisis planning in the context of U.S.-China competition.
  • U.S. and allied planners should develop a broad menu of options to respond to various levels of Chinese coercion and aggression.
  • Understanding how China responds to U.S. and allied security initiatives, and how China itself seeks to shape the regional security environment, is key to maintaining US extended deterrence (strategic and conventional) in the coming years.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    National Strategy

  • Chapter Three

    China's Security Strategy

  • Chapter Four

    PRC Strategy Phasing: War Control, Escalation Control, and Crisis Management

  • Chapter Five

    PLA Missions, Military Strategy, and Capabilities

  • Chapter Six

    China's Strategic Deterrence Concept and Nuclear Strategy

  • Chapter Seven


This research was sponsored by the Air Force Intelligence Analysis Agency and conducted within the Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the Defense Intelligence Community.

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