US Military’s ‘Three Superiorities’ Hold China’s PLA At Bay; Shock On Himalayan Border Exposed Its Flaw

OPED by Lt Gen. PR Shankar (Retired)

The national interests of a country guide its military strategy. These interests are a derivative of the core interests enshrined in its constitution duly blended with its environmental realities.

The guidance is generally in the form of a national security document. In its absence, it could be based on tradition, practice, or derived values. The People’s Liberation Army is different on this score. It is politically driven.

It functions on military guidance provided by the  Chinese Communist Party. The Party line about warfare and national defense issues is based on the thoughts of Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and now Xi.

A fundamental fact, never to be forgotten, is that the PLA must reinforce the CCP’s political authority. Further, the military guidance is individualistic and changes with each leader in power. Every leader who has ruled China has fashioned and shaped the PLA as per his worldview.

The first and foremost fact is that the PLA is short on history. It is not an army that can trace its lineage to the Middle Kingdom for its martial traditions. Its origin is directly related to the birth of the communist party.

Second, between the teachings of the venerable Sun Tsu and Mao, there is a lack of military tradition altogether. The second fact is that it is a task-oriented force that has had to respond to the dictates of each leader in power.

The third fact is that the PLA has a significant role in keeping the CCP in power. Hence, the political authority always ensures that the party controls the gun. As a result, there is always an underlying tension between the party and the PLA, which erupts occasionally in the form of purges and unceremonious sackings.

Fourth, the societal conditions under which PLA came into being have significantly changed. They are almost unrecognizable today from the days of the yore. Combining all these factors makes the PLA a unique force to deal with.

Notwithstanding, the PLA has grown to be a formidable force as China has risen. Hence, one must understand how it has evolved strategically over time rather than merely look at the quantification of numbers or its organizational capabilities.


The Main Strategy – Active Defense

Active Defense is China’s main military strategy. It needs understanding. Active Defense has meant different things at different points of time. In Mao’s time, it connoted trading space for time, using guerrilla tactics, and wearing an invader down.

Deng Xiaoping’s concept of Active Defense meant keeping the enemy far away from  China’s coastline and centers of economic growth. It also meant protecting its offshore assets with stronger maritime and air forces.

Jiang, Hu, and Xi have expanded Active Defense to encompass space and cyber domains with an enhanced offensive intent and aggressive deterrent posture. As per one analysis, “it is defensive at the strategic level of war but often offensive at the operational and tactical levels.” In its latest manifestation, it appears to be an offensive at all levels as China tries to attain Xi’s China Dream.

Mao’s People’s War – The First Strategy

Mao’s ‘People’s War’ was the concept with which the PLA was born and nurtured. After founding the PRC in 1949, this fundamental concept stayed till about 1978. ‘People’s War’ propounded the use of military force to liberate people from the unfair social circumstances and imperialist control to which they were subject.

However, Mao used this concept for his ill-fated reforms and purges. When China acquired nuclear capability in 1964, things started changing. As a first of reforms, Mao directed the PLA to prepare to fight ‘imminent war, a major war, and nuclear war.’

The  Korean War experience and China’s nuclear capability ushered in the concept of  ‘People’s War Under Modern Conditions.’  This concept lasted till the late 1970s. In this period, ‘Active Defense’  focussed on winning early battles closer to China’s borders and facilitating the transition to offensive operations during the Korean War.

China’s newly acquired nuclear capability led to a concept of deterrence in which its more powerful adversaries (the USSR and the US) are prevented from crossing the nuclear threshold.

Deng’s Philosophy – Local War Under Modern Conditions

Deng Xiaoping ushered in ‘reform and opening’ after Mao died in 1978. ‘National Defense’ was among the ‘four modernizations’ espoused by Deng. China’s military modernization drive began in earnest.

The war with Vietnam in 1979 convinced Deng that the PLA needed deep-rooted transformation. Since then, the effort has transformed the infantry-heavy PLA from a low-technology force with a continental outlook into a high-technology, networked force with an increasing emphasis on joint operations and naval and air power projection.

As part of these reforms, the PLA was to become a modernized force that could prosecute combined arms operations with a unified command. It also had to develop enough deterrent capability so that the USA or the USSR would not start a nuclear conflict.

Lastly, China had to develop and procure high-tech weapons to fight on the battlefield of the future under modernized conditions. This gave way to Deng’s ‘Local War Under Modern Conditions’ concept in 1985.

As per this concept, the emphasis of PLA operations shifted to speed, mobility, and lethality rather than the protracted attrition of the People’s War. This was also when China grew, and the threat of invasion receded permanently.

However, the threat of significant damage to its economic centers grew. PLA modernization started in earnest during this period. However, as the PLA was being modernized to defend against external threats, its internal political role also grew throughout this period.

Jiang’s Guideline – Local War Under Modern Informatized Conditions

The US’s ‘networked precision strike’ capabilities in the 1991 Gulf War constituted a ‘revolution in military affairs.’ The Chinese realized they were not prepared to deal with the warfighting capabilities the US had displayed.

It pushed them into further capability enhancement to expand China’s air and maritime defensive perimeters. PLA thus initiated its third set of reforms so that it could fight local wars under modern high-tech conditions.

They began equipping their Second Artillery, Army, Air Force, and Navy with advanced weapons while downsizing troops. In 1993, Jiang issued strategic guidelines for ‘Local Wars Under Modern, High-Tech Conditions.’

The guidelines postulated the principle of ‘three attacks, three defenses.’ The three attacks were attacking enemy stealth aircraft, cruise missiles, and helicopters. The three defenses were against precision strikes, electronic warfare, and surveillance.

In 1999, Jiang modified ‘Local War Under Modern, High-Tech Conditions’ to ‘Local War Under Modern Informatized Conditions.’ This was the start of the ‘informatization of PLA. Jiang also promulgated ‘The New Generation Operations Regulations’. These regulations mandated the PLA to develop capabilities for joint campaigns in air, sea, space, land, and electromagnetic domains.

Hu’s Local Wars Under Informatized Conditions – System Destruction Warfare

Hu Jintao emphasized concepts and capabilities to respond to threats from the US, which was decidedly a technologically superior foe. In 2004, following this thinking, Hu promulgated the principles for ‘Local Wars Under Informatized Conditions.

In 2005, Hu made PLA think of a systems approach to warfare. As per this thought process, war is not a contest between units, arms, services, or even specific weapons platforms but a fight between adversaries’ operational systems.

The endgame was to destroy the operational system of the adversary. This was labeled as the systems destruction warfare. The ‘system-of-systems operations’ focus on joint units with integrated command networks that enable critical strikes against an advanced adversary’s combat networks and systems.

In this mode of conflict, confrontation between systems occurs beyond the traditional domains of land, sea, and air. The war space includes outer space, cyberspace, electromagnetic, and even psychological domains. This was the start of multidomain operations as we know it today.

Xi Jinping’s China Dream: Win Informatised Local Wars

Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ is of a modern, strong, and prosperous country. Implicit in the China Dream is the ability to capture Taiwan militarily and ‘Rejuvenate’ the Chinese nation.

In 2017, Xi laid down three goals for the PLA: to achieve mechanization and networking by 2027, complete military modernization by 2035, and have a “world-class” military by 2049.

Xi has also initiated the most ambitious reform and reorganization of the PLA since the 1950s. He introduced the theatre command system and established two additional forces, the PLARF and PLASSF, equivalent to the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

He has shifted focus to try to make China a great maritime nation. Simultaneously, he consolidated his and the party’s hold over the PLA.

In  2015, Xi gave directions for the PLA to develop the capability to win “Informatized Local Wars.”  In his thought process, information is the domain of war and the central means to fight battles.

As per PLA‘s new doctrine, war is now a confrontation between “information-based systems-of-systems.” Xi recognized the strength of the US in informational (electromagnetic, space, cyber, and cognitive) and maritime domains.

Hence, a central tenet of China’s approach is to deny the US access to operating in areas that hold Chinese interests at risk. A guiding principle that underpins the PLA strategy is ‘Three Superiorities.’

These are superior in three main domains – information, air, and maritime – with the information domain being the most important. The centrality of information as an instrument in prosecuting and winning wars is the issue to be noted.

The PLASSF (People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force) is the instrument that is expected to provide the PLA with information dominance. As per Xi, his “fully modernized” force in 2035 should be capable of joint operations through information and other superiority, enabling the CCP to achieve its political objectives while controlling the scope and scale of the conflict.

A notable aspect of PLA thinking is that combat space is shrinking in the era of multidomain operations, but war space has expanded.


The historical perspective of China’s military strategy explains and guides the PLA’s force structure, capability enhancements, and operational thought processes. The notable and apparent issue is that as China’s economy has risen, so have the leadership’s and the PLA’s ambitions and capabilities.

However, if this reverses in tune with China’s economic slowdown, it is to be seen. A continued upsurge in PLA capability in the face of its downturn should set alarm bells off at some time in India, if not elsewhere.

The PLA’s political guidance and military strategy in the first three decades of China’s existence was based on military experience during combat operations against the United States, the Soviet Union, India, and Vietnam.

The PLA has not fought a war in the four and a half decades since the Vietnam War. Its strategy is based on others’ experience and is untested. Many aspects of the PLA strategy are mainly theoretical.

For example, the centrality of information, utility of rockets, and reliance on hi-tech are limited in battle. This was proven in the Ukraine and Israel conflicts. The performance of the PLA in Eastern Ladakh, where they were unnerved by India’s maneuver on the Kailash Range, was also found severely wanting.

The PLA is a dual-tasked force. It is being heavily modernized to defend against external threats. However, in the process, it is becoming more powerful politically. Resultantly, it poses a threat to the leadership.

As a consequence, the party leadership controls the gun by repetitive purges. The leadership of the PLA  appears shaky after so many purges and sackings. Hence, their ability to execute the complicated strategy as per their political masters is suspect in the absence of continued professional military leadership.

The PLA has gone from a guerrilla force to a modern army with high-tech systems in seventy years. The pace of change is relatively fast. Further, this rapid change occurs when unforeseen societal and demographic changes occur in China.

Overall, there appears to be a mismatch between the ambitious political guidance, the high-flown military strategy, the lack of military leadership, corrupt practices, and the real ability to pull it off on the ground. These are weaknesses that any discerning enemy will exploit.