China calls for new ‘strategic guidance’ at 20th Party Congress

Published 5 months ago

China analyst Dean Cheng breaks down the key military aspects of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s statements at the recent Party Congress.

Breaking Defence. Dean Cheng. 28 October, 2022

China’s military could be getting a new strategic focus following a major political gathering. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

The many words written about the landmark 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress largely focused on the increasingly unchecked scope of Xi Jinping’s powers, including his third term as China’s leader. Ignored by most were important national security and military commitments. But Dean Cheng, recently retired Heritage Foundation China military analyst, combed through the documents in their native language, and lays out the top issues that will drive America’s pacing threat over the next decade.

One of the most important changes in terms of national security from the Party Congress in Beijing isn’t Xi Jinping’s third term as CCP General Secretary. It’s the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) need to create a “new military strategic guidance.”

The new guidance is mentioned in Xi’s ‘work report’ to the Communist Chinese Party, where he laid out key points for Chinese national security and for China’s military in the next half-decade, with obvious implications for the region and the world.

In terms of national security, Xi made clear that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is confronted by a wide-ranging set of threats, not all of which are military, such as the need to maintain social stability. While the world usually focuses on how much China has increased its military spending, internal security spending has long been rising even faster than external security spending. With COVID lockdowns and various banking scandals it is likely that internal security challenges will remain the foremost threat to the regime.

A corollary of that is Xi’s emphasis on the need to maintain national sovereignty, long identified as a core interest of the PRC. To this end, he warned that the central government, while supporting the idea of “one country, two systems” for Hong Kong and Macau, and ideally Taiwan, would crack down on elements who might “create chaos” as they pursued “anti-China” policies.

Similarly, he emphasized the importance of securing key pillars of state power, including food, energy, supply chains, and the security of overseas Chinese citizens. Coupled with this, he specifically noted the importance of making China a stronger maritime power.

All this will require a holistic approach to national security incorporating legal approaches, new policies and an early warning system for preserving social stability. While China already boasts draconian social and physical monitoring of its citizenry this is likely to mean additional mechanisms for monitoring the Chinese population, including the Chinese social credit score system and even more intrusive surveillance of the broader population. In addition, this national security approach will require forging a stronger People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Xi addressed several aspects of this effort to build up the PLA. In particular, he mentioned the need to establish a new “military strategic guidance.” This will have enormous impact on the PLA.

The issuance of a new set of “military strategic guidelines” doesn’t occur very often, with fewer than a dozen issued since 1956, but when it does, it typically marks a major shift in the PLA. The latest version began taking shape around 2020, and is likely to be issued in a final, definitive form in the coming year (as reflected in Xi’s remarks).

These “military strategic guidelines (junshi zhanlue fangzhen; 军事战略方针)” are the capstone set of guidance to the military, and will define and guide subsequent developments of strategy, doctrine, acquisitions, professional military education, and training. In stating that there will be a “new military strategic guidance,” we should therefore expect in the near future, perhaps this year, a new set of guidelines, followed by new doctrine. This will likely guide PLA developments through 2027, when the PLA should be “fully mechanized, fully informationized, and fully intelligence-ized.”

The PLA, as a party-army, and the Chinese Communist Party, as a Marxist-Leninist party, believes in underlying scientific “laws” that govern behavior and societal activities, including war.

One important impact of the new guidelines will be on China’s nuclear deterrent. As has been widely reported, the PLA has been greatly expanding its nuclear capabilities in the past several years, with a major expansion in the number of ICBMs, as well as new ballistic missile submarines and a new strategic bomber.

In his speech, Xi said that “we will establish a strong system of strategic deterrence.” The new guidelines will provide justification for the doctrine governing these additional nuclear forces, consistent with maintaining the strong system of strategic deterrence. It is possible that the PLA Rocket Force will shift from a “minimal deterrence” doctrine centered on eventual retaliation against adversary cities to simply deterrence, with an option for limited nuclear options and even counter-force strikes against adversary nuclear forces.

The new guidelines will also, however, likely go beyond nuclear forces, in the context of “strategic deterrence.” The full context of Xi’s comment on “strategic deterrence” is:

“We will establish a strong system of strategic deterrence, increase the proportion of new-domain forces with new combat capabilities, speed up the development of unmanned, intelligent combat capabilities, and promote coordinated development and application of the network information system.”

This suggests that increasing China’s strategic deterrence capabilities will require “increasing the proportion of new domain forces (zengjia xinyu xinzhi zuozhan liliang bizhong; 增加新域新质作战力量比重).” “New domain forces” refers to space weapons, weapons operating in the electromagnetic spectrum (e.g., directed energy weapons), unmanned weapons, and network attack weapons (e.g., cyber weapons). It also includes at times reference to psychological and cognitive warfare capabilities.

Notably, Xi then notes the need to accelerate the employment of unmanned, intelligent combat systems, as well as “coordinated development and application of the network information system.” This suggests that “strategic deterrence” is linked to such capabilities.

These elements — network warfare, electronic warfare, cyber warfare, new domain warfare — all have to do with the information realm. Past Chinese analyses have repeatedly emphasized that the establishment of “information dominance” will have strategic effects. This would suggest that Xi’s comments regarding “strategic deterrence” are not solely or even primarily about nuclear forces (although they are important), but about the more holistic (a term repeatedly employed in the defense and national security sections) effort at effecting strategic deterrence through not only nuclear, but new domain (i.e., information) weapons and strategies.

To implement the new “military strategic guidelines,” the PLA emerges from the 20th Party Congress with a new leadership cohort. The Central Military Commission (CMC) will have, over the next five years, a mix of old hands held over from the previous CMC and new hands.

There are several striking characteristics regarding this new CMC. The PLA Air Force is no longer represented at the top of the CMC, and while Adm. Miao Hua wears a PLA Navy uniform, much of his career was actually spent in the army (a career path that was often typical for PLA Navy senior commanders through the 1990s and early 2000s).

First, Gen. He Weidong, the new vice chairman of the CMC, was elevated from commanding the Eastern War Zone, at least a two grade jump in position. His elevation to the CMC vice-chairmanship also means that he was given a seat on the Politburo. In the Chinese military, this is an extraordinary promotion. Perhaps equally important, He’s background is in the Eastern War Zone; his last posting was as commander of that War Zone so he is intimately familiar with the planning and challenges associated with a Taiwan contingency. As vice chairman of the CMC, he will be ideally placed to overcome any bureaucratic obstacles.

Second, Gen. Liu Zhenli is probably one of the last PLA officers to have combat experience, having fought in the 1979 Sino-Vietnam war, the last time the PLA fought in any large-scale conflict. Reports that he is likely to be made head of the Joint Staff Department would suggest that a combat experienced officer will head the main department responsible for war plans and intelligence gathering in the PLA.

Consistent with Xi’s comments regarding new-domain warfare and improving strategic deterrence, several of the new CMC members have significant background in advanced technology. Both Vice Chairman Zhang Youxia and Gen. Li Shangfu spent their careers in the Equipment Development Department or its predecessor, the General Armaments Department. This is the weapons development department of the PLA, with responsibility for space systems, directed energy weapons, nuclear weapons, and potentially some network and cyber weapons. Gen. Zhang Shenmin, meanwhile, spent much of his career in what is now the PLA Rocket Force.

The PLA appears to be making a final effort to achieve a set of modernized capabilities that will be able to meet any demands Xi Jinping might make of it. Unlike much of the past 95 years (if not longer, into the imperial era), this will be a Chinese military equipped with advanced weapons, has enjoyed extensive training time, and will have a doctrine indigenously developed, rather than borrowing from foreign cadres and instructors. With this team of leaders, and a new set of guidelines, the PLA that emerges in 2027 may be the most combat ready it has ever been in its history.

_Dean Cheng is a recently retired Heritage Foundation China military analyst and a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors. _