Cover: Disrupting the Chinese Military in Competition and Low-Intensity Conflict

Disrupting the Chinese Military in Competition and Low-Intensity Conflict

An Analysis of People's Liberation Army Missions, Tasks, and Potential Vulnerabilities

Published Dec 5, 2023

by Timothy R. Heath, Eric Robinson, Christian Curriden, Derek Grossman, Sale Lilly, Daniel Egel, Gabrielle Tarini

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Research Questions

  1. What tasks will the PLA be expected to carry out in support of key missions in peacetime and in a low-intensity conflict?
  2. What are the vulnerabilities that could disrupt the PLA's path to successfully carrying out these tasks?
  3. How can the United States leverage those vulnerabilities to disrupt the PLA's tasks and Chinese strategic objectives?

The authors identify tasks that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) would likely be assigned by Chinese leaders to achieve strategic goals both in peacetime competition with the United States and in a hypothetical low-intensity conflict. The authors then analyze potential vulnerabilities in the PLA's execution of those tasks and how the United States could leverage those vulnerabilities to disrupt China's strategic goals, focusing on the potential for peacetime competition to erupt into a broader low-intensity conflict featuring smaller, indirect, or hybrid confrontations that span the world.

The authors expand on a comprehensive list of potential PLA missions developed in prior research and explore vulnerabilities in the PLA's execution of the specific tasks required to achieve Beijing's strategic objectives. Across these missions and tasks, they identify five sets of vulnerabilities that, if disrupted, could affect Beijing's ability to achieve its goals: fears of domestic instability after PLA actions, risk of escalating conflict, harm to China's reputation, the PLA's limited ability to support partner states, and the PLA's limited ability to project power.

These vulnerabilities provide a sense of the potential pressure points that the PLA could face in accomplishing its objectives. Options for the United States to leverage these pressure points include deterring harmful PLA actions by shaping perceptions of how those actions might affect China's interests, exploiting the consequences of PLA actions to deter Beijing from repeating similar actions, and exploiting PLA weaknesses in power projection and partner support to weaken confidence in the PLA and discourage similar operations.

Key Findings

  • China is vulnerable to domestic instability. This vulnerability arises from the potential for actions taken by the PLA to exacerbate internal tensions in China. These tensions could arise from excessive repression, politicization of the military, or domestic blowback from casualties or embarrassing military failures.
  • China is vulnerable to the risk of escalation that could arise from destabilizing actions taken by the PLA in conflict. The result could be an unwanted expansion of conflict, protraction, or damage to China's economic prospects.
  • China is vulnerable to the potential for PLA action or inaction to result in severe costs to China's reputation, influence, and appeal as a partner.
  • China faces limitations on the PLA's ability to operate with partners and motivate them to fight on China's behalf.
  • There are constraints on the PLA's ability to conduct military operations far from the Chinese mainland.
  • The United States could deter harmful PLA actions by shaping perceptions of the potential negative effects of those actions on China's own interests.
  • The United States could exploit the adverse consequences of PLA actions after they occur to deter Beijing from repeating similar actions.
  • The United States could exploit specific PLA weaknesses in power projection and partner support to weaken Beijing's confidence in the PLA and discourage similar operations and activities.

Research conducted by

This research was prepared for the United States Army and conducted within RAND Arroyo Center’s Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program.

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