“Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949” by M Taylor Fravel

Soldiers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army 2011 (via Wikimedia Commons) Soldiers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army 2011 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Political scientists who study international relations often seek to discern patterns of state behavior from history and to formulate theories or typologies to explain that behavior. Such an approach can contribute to our understanding of why states behave as they do, but human action never wholly conforms to neat formulas.

In his new and informative book Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949, Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist and China expert M Taylor Fravel, using Communist Party history sources that have only recently become available to outside scholars, reviews the evolution of China’s military strategy since the Communist Party seized power after defeating the Nationalists in the civil war, attempts to identify, explain and categorize the changes in military doctrine, and proposes a general theory of Chinese strategic change.

Fravel approaches his task as if writing a doctoral thesis. He begins with overviews of the book and his argument or theory. Next, he explains his methodology and identifies his sources. He devotes a chapter to each identified Chinese military strategy in chronological order, and explains how each change in strategy fits within his overall theory. Some changes he identifies as major, and some as minor.

Fravel identifies three major changes and four minor changes in China’s military strategy: 1956’s “strategic” or “forward” defense which emphasized the defense of coastal areas against a possible US invasion was a major change from the military strategy of the civil war and was followed in 1960 by a minor change; 1980’s “active defense” was a major change which sought to counter a possible Soviet invasion from the north and was followed by a minor change in 1988; and 1993’s “local wars under high technology conditions” was a major change which shifted the focus to the south and east along China’s littoral area and was followed by minor changes in 2004 and 2014. In textbook fashion, Fravel provides Figures and Tables to summarize his data and theory.

China officially refers to its military strategies as “strategic guidelines” (zhanlue fangzhen). “These guidelines,” the author explains,


provide authoritative guidance from the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for the operational doctrine, force structure, and training of the PLA [People’s Liberation Army].


Fravel’s argument or theory has two main components: the motivations for strategic changes and the mechanism for imposing strategic changes. The major changes in China’s strategic guidelines since 1949, he believes, were the product of “significant shift[s] in the conduct of warfare in the international system” and a united Communist party. When either of those two factors were absent, strategic change was minor or did not happen at all. For example, the 1956 strategy, Fravel claims, resulted from the lessons of modern warfare learned from the study of World War II and Korea, and was implemented by a party united by Mao Zedong’s leadership. The 1980 strategic change resulted from a study of the shift in the conduct of warfare exhibited in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and was implemented by a party only recently united by Deng Xiaoping after the divisions of the Cultural Revolution. The 1993 strategy, Fravel continues, resulted from the study of the 1991 Gulf War with its high technology precision strikes, air power dominance, and advanced weaponry, and was implemented by a party recently united after the divisions caused by the Tiananmen Square massacre.

In each instance, Fravel writes, the major strategic changes affected operational doctrine, force structure, and training.


Active Defense: China's Military Strategy since 1949 , M Taylor Fravel (Princeton University Press, April 2019)
Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy since 1949, M Taylor Fravel (Princeton University Press, April 2019)

Military strategy, however, is an art, not a science. China’s military strategy at any given time is the product of historical and cultural forces, domestic politics, the ruling elite’s identification of vital national interests, and perceived threats to those interests. None of these factors are static. As they change, strategy will change. Fravel understands and writes about these factors, but they tend to get overshadowed by his devotion to political science theory.

Fravel shows that China’s military strategy changed in response to domestic politics and external threats. In the early- to mid-1950s, the Soviet Union was China’s ally and the United States was China’s rival, whereas in the 1980s the roles were reversed, and China’s military strategy changed to reflect that fact. By 1993, the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union had collapsed. This enabled China to redirect its military strategy from defending against fifty Soviet divisions on its northern border to supporting its growing interests in its adjacent seas.

National interests as defined by China’s leaders (political and military) have the greatest impact on China’s military strategy: border disputes with India, conflicting claims over islands and reefs in the South China Sea, reunification with Taiwan, and economic and political interests associated with the Belt and Road Initiative.

To be sure, China’s operational doctrines, force structure, and training have changed as it learned important lessons from modern wars, but those are tactical, not strategic, matters. Fravel rightly points out China’s current emphasis on cyber and information warfare, but those are tactics to achieve strategic ends. War, as Clausewitz wrote, is the continuation of politics by violent means. Clausewitz and, more revealingly, Sun Tzu are missing from this book on Chinese military strategy. Mahan is missing, too, yet we know that Chinese naval strategists have invoked Mahan in promoting a “blue water” navy that can achieve “command of the sea” in certain potential theaters of war.

This is really a book about Chinese military thought at the tactical and operational level.

Fravel includes a chapter on Chinese nuclear doctrine, which he notes has consistently hewed to a “no first use” policy and endeavored to maintain a second-strike “assured destruction” capability. The Chinese nuclear force, however, is growing and modernizing, and in the future may seek to attain parity with American and Soviet forces. China’s nuclear doctrine must also account for Indian nuclear forces.

In the book’s concluding chapter, Fravel notes that “China’s interests have expanded beyond East Asia” and speculates that “new interests overseas, and the missions they may create for the PLA, may come to play a greater role in China’s military strategy going forward.” Precisely. It is China’s perception of its interests, not tactical matters, that will determine its military strategy.

Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.