Book Review: The concept of active defense in China’s military strategy

By Lt Gen PS Rajeshwar (Rtd)

China’s rapid economic rise through the last four decades has made it a major economic power with increasing global influence. Since President Xi Jinping has taken over, he has added a muscular foreign policy and a growing military might to it. The Galwan incident and its aftermath are testimony to this. We know that the Chinese are quite opaque in their speeches and writings, so how does one decipher Chinese military strategy in the absence of a formal document?

This is what Dr Amrita Jash has attempted to discern in her book “The Concept of Active Defense in China’s Military Strategy”. She brings out the enduring role of the PLA in protecting the national and core interests of China and the CCP. Some of these efforts are key to China’s ‘great nationalrejuvenation’ by 2049, which encompasses major economic and territorial aspirations to make it a world leader . The author’s research describes the layering of Chinese strategies in a top-down order- National (grand) Strategy, National Security Strategy and Military Strategy, and how they are interwoven. It also brings to fore the key role played by China’s unique ‘three warfares’, ie, public opinion, psychological warfare and legal warfare in addressing their internal and external security challenges.

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‘Active defense’ describes the Chinese concept of ‘not to attack, but to surely counterattack when attacked’, thereby maintaining duality in its application of defense and offense at various levels of conflict. This term having been in vogue since 1949remains a constant part of their military strategy. But its context has continuously evolved based on the visualization of anticipated wars. The book draws attention to the 2019 Defense White Paper which mentions defense, self defense and post-strike response as key ingredients of Active defense. We have seen it manifest in Chinese belligerence on the LAC, since mid-2020, and regionally for about a decade.

As China has progressed, the application of Active Defense concept has begun to imply Forward Defense, which demands greater flexibility, agility and reach from the PLA, and is bound to lead to increasing pre-emption and regional instability. One of the key tenets of China’s Active defense ie, the dialectical unity of restraining war and winning war- resorting to the ‘opening move’ or ‘using war in any crisis or conflict to stop war’ will always keep its adversary on the edge.

The author places Military Strategic Guidelines next, which is vital to the current and future development, planning and orientation of PLA. This is distinct from the stratagems used to plan war-centric employment and organization of military forces. These guidelines highlight PLA’s wide-ranging missions and objectives from defending national territory and sovereignty, securing maritime rights and interests, maintaining China’s unity, ensuring internal stability and maintaining a secure and stable external environment.

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The PLA’s modernization has been key to China building up its Comprehensive National Power. The book brings out the trajectory of force modernization where PLAis completing mechanization now, targets becoming fully modernized by 2035, before moving on to becoming a world class force by 2049. Lots of reforms have been undertaken in terms of restructuring, accelerating integration, doctrine revision , optimization of force levels, building of indigenous capabilities and improvements in joint logistics and training. The focus on ‘integrated joint operations in multiple domains and attaining operational readiness has been aptly highlighted.So, PLA capabilities by mid-century, especially of PLAN and PLAAF, couldwell translate into power projection and application of expeditionary forces around the globe. draws our attention to both the rapid pace and the enhanced scale of activities involved in PLA’s modernization efforts.

Another aspect dwelt upon in detail is China’s defense budget, its defense industry and weapon systems. What emerges is that while Chinese defense expenditure estimate remains quite opaque, ithas been particularly substantial over the last decade. It’s focused on weapons and equipment that are based on advanced indigenous technologies. Military Civil Fusion strategy ie the development of niche technologies in collaboration with civilian agencies has become its striking endeavor. Thus, some Chinese defense companies have become world leaders in arms production. Of note are the significant Chinese defense exports to some of our neighbors since 2007.

What makes the book interesting is Dr Jash’s explanation of China’s paradoxical but increasing insecurities vis a vis India, that gives rise to its aggressive behavior and new claims. This could result in tension on the LAC over a long period of time and necessitate deft management at our end. Simultaneously, she feels that there is a need for both sides to work hard for a resolution of the border dispute. The book is a serious attempt by the author to interpret the concept of Active Defense and its place in Chinese military strategy. It contains certain policy recommendations for a change in India’s China policy that are worthy of consideration by strategic planners.

The book could do well to be refreshed with insights from the Science of Military Strategy 2020 that has brought the evolution of local wars from ‘informatization’ to ‘intelligentization’ conditions. The revised operational guidance includes the conduct of ‘multi-domain integrated joint operations’. Its accent on precision warfare and prominence of offensive operations are other features worthy of being incorporated.

The Active defense concept allows China to seize the initiative and calibrate escalation against its adversary. India’s resolute response in 2020 appears to have spoilt Chinese designs for now. Are they likely to stretch the envelope further? If this crisis aggravates, it is only likely to make the situation more complex and a resolution of the border dispute quite intractable. Meanwhile, India has to be particularly watchful and deter China from any further aggression.

(The book reviewer is an Indian Army Veteran and former Chief of the IDS to the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (CISC) and Commander-in-Chief of the Andaman & Nicobar Command (CINCAN).)

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.


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