China’s New Military Strategy: “Winning Informationized Local Wars”

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 13

Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, who presided over the last major change in Chinese military strategy. (Image: Xinhua)

In November 2013, the report of the Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress hinted that China might adjust its national military strategy. The Plenum’s Decision outlined the need to “strengthen military strategic guidance, and enrich and improve the military strategic guideline for the new period.” [1] In May 2015, the new Defense White Paper, China’s Military Strategy (中国的军事战略), reveals that China has now officially adjusted its military strategy. [2] This follows previous practice, such as when the 2004 strategic guideline was publicly confirmed in China’s defense white paper published in December 2004.

In China’s approach to military affairs, the military strategic guideline represents China’s national military strategy. It provides authoritative guidance from the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for all aspects of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) combat-related activities. Since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, China has issued eight strategic guidelines (军事战略方针). The 2015 Defense White Paper reveals that a ninth change has occurred (Xinhua, May 26). The new guidelines shift the goal of China’s military strategy from “winning local wars under the conditions of informationization” to “winning informationized local wars.” The change in the strategic guidelines reflects an evolution of the existing strategy, not a dramatic departure.

Two key assessments serve as the basis for the change in strategy. First, what the Chinese military calls the “form of war” or conduct of warfare in a given period of time, has changed. The application of information technology in all aspects of military operations is even more prominent. Second, China faces increased threats and challenges in the maritime domain, including over disputed islands and maritime jurisdiction in waters close to China as well as through the growth of interests overseas in waters far from China.

This article reviews how the language of the white paper indicates that China has officially changed its military strategy. The first section introduces briefly China’s concept of the strategic guideline. The second section reviews the language in the 2015 white paper to demonstrate that a change in the strategic guideline has occurred. The third section considers the timing of the adoption of the new strategy. It speculates that the change occurred sometime during the summer of 2014, as the Plenum’s Decision was being implemented.

A Brief Primer on the Military Strategic Guidelines

In China, the military strategic guidelines serve as the basis for China’s national military strategy. As Marshall Peng Dehuai stated in 1957, “the strategic guidelines affect army building, troop training and war preparations.” [3] The PLA’s glossary of military terms defines the military strategic guideline as the “core and collected embodiment of military strategy.” [4] In particular, it contains “the program and principles for planning and guiding the overall situation of war in a given period.” The scope of the guidelines includes both general principles about the whole process of military operations and specific principles for certain types of operations. [5] In short, the guidelines outline how China plans to wage its next war. [6]

Generally speaking, a strategic guideline has several components. The first is the identification of the strategic opponent (战略对手), based on an assessment of China’s international environment and the perceived threats to China’s national interests. The specific military threat posed by the strategic opponent determines the operational target (作战对象). The second component is the identification of the main strategic direction (主要战略方向), which refers to the geographic focal point for a potential conflict and provides the basis for prioritizing the allocation of resources and effort. The third component is the basis of preparations for military struggle (军事斗争准备的基点), which describes the characteristics of wars that China will need to fight in the future. This usually is based on an assessment of the form of war (战争形态) or the conduct of warfare at any point in time and the “pattern of operations” (作战样式) that should be conducted. The fourth component is the basic guiding thought (基本指导思想) for campaigns and operations, which refers to general operational principles for the PLA to use in future wars it might fight. [7]

The CMC changes the strategic guideline when it concludes that one or more of these components have changed. When a strategic guideline changes, the change can be major, representing a dramatic departure from China’s past strategy, or minor, representing an adjustment (调整) to an existing strategy. Since 1949, China has had eight unique military strategies or strategic guidelines. Those adopted in 1956, 1980 and 1993 represent major changes in China’s military strategy, while the others have constituted minor changes. [8]

The two most likely sources of change are whether the CMC identifies new threats to China’s national security or when it concludes that the form of war, and thus the basis of preparations for military struggle, has undergone an important shift. The 1993 guideline, the last major change in China’s military strategy, was adopted based on the assessment that the Gulf War had demonstrated a fundamental change in the conduct of warfare. As former leader Jiang Zemin stated when introducing the guideline in January 1993, the PLA “must place the basis of preparations for military struggle on winning local wars that might occur under modern especially high-technology conditions.” [9] The premise of this change was the conclusion that “as soon as a war breaks out, it is likely to be a high-technology confrontation.” [10] In June 2004, China’s military strategic guideline was “enriched and improved” (充实完善) based on a similar assessment of change in the basis of preparations for military struggle. As Jiang stated once again, “We must clearly place the basis of preparations for military struggle on winning local wars under the conditions of informationization.” The key change was replacing “under modern especially high technology conditions” in the 1993 guideline with “under the conditions of informationization.” [11] This change reflected the assessment that “the basic characteristic of high-technology warfare is informationized warfare. Informationized warfare will become the basic form of warfare in the 21st century.” [12]

“Winning Informationized Local Wars”

A close analysis of the language in the 2015 Defense White Paper indicates that China’s strategic guideline has been changed. The adjustment was based on two assessments summarized in the white paper: that the form of war has shifted to give even greater prominence to the application of information technology in all aspects of military operations and that China’s national security environment presents new challenges, especially in the maritime domain. As the white paper states, the guideline is adjusted “according to the evolution of the form of war and the national security situation.”

The first assessment is that the evolution in the form of war requires a change in the basis of preparations for military struggle. As the white paper notes, “the basis of preparations for military struggle will be placed on winning informationized local wars.” This adjustment consisted of dropping only four characters from the 2004 guideline, changing from “winning local wars under the conditions of informatization” (打赢信息化条件下的局部战争) to “winning informationized local wars” (打赢信息化局部战争). As described by one researcher from the Academy of Military Science (AMS), the removal of the four characters indicates that “a qualitative change has occurred” (Global Times, May 26).

The white paper’s section on China’s national security situation summarizes the assessment that the form of war has changed. According to the white paper, “The development of the world revolution in military affairs is deepening” while “the form of war is accelerating its transformation to informationization.” These changes included “clear trends” toward the development and use of long-range, precision, smart and unmanned weapons and equipment. Space and cyber domains are described as becoming the “commanding heights of strategic competition.” From China’s perspective, these trends, which have been occurring over the past decade, require a shift in the basis of preparations for military struggle that forms the key part of any strategic guideline. As one researcher from AMS explained, “information is no longer an important condition [in warfare] but now plays a dominant role, presenting new changes in the mechanisms for winning wars” (Global Times, May 26).

The white paper suggests that the basic guiding thought for operations, which is based on the assessment of the form of war, has also changed. In particular, the 2015 white paper states that “to implement the strategic guideline of active defense under the new situation, China’s armed forces will create new basic operational thought” (创新基本作战思想). In the 2004 guideline, the basic guiding thought was “integrated operations, precision strikes to subdue the enemy” (整体作战,精打制敌). [13] The 2015 white paper appears to indicate that this has been changed to “information dominance, precision strikes on strategic points, joint operations to gain victory” (信息主导, 精打要害, 联合制胜).

The second assessment is that China faces more pressing national security threats, especially in the maritime domain. As part of winning informationized local wars, the white paper stresses the role of “maritime military struggle” and “preparations for maritime military struggle” in such conflicts. In previous strategic guidelines, no domain was highlighted for particular emphasis, though the implication usually was the primacy of China’s land-based conflicts and operations. In the new guideline, the emphasis on the maritime domain stems from two factors. The first is the intensification of disputes over territorial sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction in waters near China. The white paper concludes that the “maritime rights defense struggle will exist for a long time.” The second is “the continuous expansion of China’s national interests,” in which overseas interests from energy and sea lines of communication to personnel and assets abroad “have become prominent.” Although these are not new concerns for China, they have become more prominent in Chinese assessments when compared with the 2013 white paper.

Consistent with the increasing focus on the maritime domain, the white paper stated publicly for the first time that the Chinese navy’s strategic concept “will gradually shift from ‘near seas defense’ (近岸防御) to the combination of ‘near seas defense’ and ‘far seas protection’ (远海护卫)”. [14] Near seas defense emphasizes defending China’s immediate maritime interests, especially in territorial and jurisdictional disputes in the seas directly adjacent to the Chinese mainland. Open seas protection emphasizes safeguarding China’s expanding interests overseas, such as the protection of sea lines of communication and Chinese businesses abroad. [15]

One component of the guidelines that the white paper does not address explicitly is the primary strategic direction that defines the geographic focus of strategy. Typically, the primary strategic direction is not stated explicitly in openly published sources. In the 1993 and 2004 guidelines, the southeast or Taiwan was the primary strategic direction. In the latest guidelines, the primary strategic direction appears to be the same, but has been expanded to include the Western Pacific or what retired Lieutenant General Wang Hongguang has described as the “Taiwan Strait-Western Pacific” direction. [16] Whether the South China Sea has become part of primary strategic direction remains unclear. Although Wang notes such a link, he still writes that “Taiwan Strait is the primary strategic campaign direction” and the “nose of the ox.” [17]

The Decision to Adjust the Strategy

Although the white paper confirms that the strategic guideline has been adjusted, it does not state exactly when the decision was made. Historically, the establishment or adjustment of a strategic guideline usually occurs during an enlarged meeting of the CMC. Such meetings are attended by heads of all leading departments on the general staff and under the CMC as well as the services and military regions. The new guideline is presented in a speech, which serves as the primary reference document for the strategy. These meetings, however, are rarely publicized, which makes it difficult to determine exactly when the decision to change the strategy was made. In 2004, for example, the change in strategy was introduced during an enlarged meeting of the CMC that was held in June. [18] Yet the first public reference to the strategy did not occur until the publication of the 2004 Defense White Paper six months later. Likewise, the speech about a new strategic guideline is not openly published when the guideline is introduced and sometimes never openly published at all. Jiang Zemin’s speech introducing the 1993 guideline, for example, was not openly published until 2006.

Despite such uncertainty, it is likely that the CMC decided to adjust the strategic guideline in the summer of 2014. The phrase “winning informationized local wars” has appeared in the pages of the PLA’s newspaper, the Liberation Army Daily, only fifty times. But thirty eight, or 75 percent, of these references have occurred since mid-August 2014. The term first appeared on August 21, 2014 in an article announcing a new document published by the General Staff Department on improving the level of realistic training. [19] During the same period, the formula for the 2004 strategy was used only thirteen times and never in connection with any official announcements or decisions taken by the CMC or the General Staff Department.

It is plausible that the guideline was adjusted in September 2014 for several reasons. As noted in the introduction, the Third Plenum in November 2013 announced the need to “strengthen military guidance, and enrich and improve the military strategic guideline.” Shortly thereafter, a high-level leading group was likely established by the Central Military Commission to determine how to achieve this goal. In 1992, for example, a leading group to draft the 1993 strategic guideline was created and completed its work about two months before Jiang introduced the new guideline. [20]


In the past, the adoption or adjustment of a new strategic guideline represents the start, not the end, of strategic change for the PLA. Over the next few years, elements of the new strategy will be fleshed out. These will likely include the development of new operational doctrine, new criteria for training as well as new joint command structures at both the level of the CMC and in the military regions. Following earlier reforms, a further downsizing of the force will likely be used as the vehicle for the organizational change necessary to improve the ability to conduct joint operations. As Chinese Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping stated in December 2013, “we have already explored the command system for joint operations, but problems have not been fundamentally resolved” (People’s Daily Online, August 15, 2014.)


  1. Zhonggong zhongyang guanyu quanmian shenhua gaige ruogan zhongda wenti de jueding [Decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on Some Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening the Reform],” November 12, 2013.
  2. Zhongguo de junshi zhanlue [China’s Military Strategy] (Beijing: Zhonghua renmin gongheguo xinwen bangongshi, 2015), All citations in this article are from the Chinese version. For the official English translation, see
  3. Peng Dehuai, Peng Dehuai junshi wenxuan [Peng Dehuai’s Selected Work on Military Affairs] (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1988), p. 587.
  4. Junshi kexue yuan, ed., Zhongguo renmin jiefangjun junyu [Military Terminology of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army] (Beijing: Junshikexue chubanshe, 2011), p. 51.
  5. Junshi kexue yuan, ed., Zhongguo renmin jiefangjun junyu, p. 51.
  6. On the strategic guidelines, see David M. Finkelstein, "China’s National Military Strategy: An Overview of the “Military Strategic Guidelines”," in Andrew Scobell and Roy Kamphausen, eds., Right Sizing the People’s Liberation Army: Exploring the Contours of China’s Military, (Carlisle: Army War College, 2007), pp. 69-140; M. Taylor Fravel, "The Evolution of China’s Military Strategy: Comparing the 1987 and 1999 Editions of Zhanlue Xue," in David M. Finkelstein and James Mulvenon, eds., The Revolution in Doctrinal Affairs: Emerging Trends in the Operational Art of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, (Alexandria, Va.: Center for Naval Analyses, 2005), pp. 79-100.
  7. Wang Wenrong, ed., Zhanlue xue [The Science of Military Strategy] (Beijing: Guofang daxue chubanshe, 1999), pp. 136-139. For other authoritative descriptions of the concept of the strategic guideline, see Gao Rui, ed., Zhanlue xue [The Study of Military Strategy] (Beijing: Junshi kexue chubanshe, 1987), pp. 81-85; Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi, eds., Zhanlue xue [The Science of Military Strategy] (Beijing: Junshi kexue chubanshe, 2001), pp. 182-186; Fan Zhenjiang and Ma Baoan, eds., Junshi zhanlue lun [On Military Strategy] (Beijing: Guofang daxue chubanshe, 2007), pp. 149-150.
  8. M. Taylor Fravel, “China’s Military Strategies: An Overview of the 1956, 1980 and 1993 Military Strategic Guidelines,” paper prepared for the CAPS-RAND-NDU conference on the PLA, November 2013, Taipei, Taiwan. Updated April 2015.
  9. Jiang Zemin, Jiang Zemin wenxuan [Jiang Zemin’s Selected Works], Vol. 1, (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2006), p. 285.
  10. Jiang Zemin, Jiang Zemin wenxuan, Vol. 1, p. 286.
  11. Jiang Zemin, Jiang Zemin wenxuan [Jiang Zemin’s Selected Works], Vol. 3, (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2006), p. 608.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Zhang Yuliang, Zhanyi xue [The Science of Campaigns] (Beijing: Guofang daxue chubanshe, 2006), p. 81.
  14. The official English translation of the white paper uses “offshore waters defense” and “open seas protection,” respectively.
  15. Within the PLA, each service has its own strategic concept in addition to the strategic guideline for China’s armed forces.
  16. Wang Hongguang, “Cong lishi kan jinri Zhongguo de zhanlue fangxiang [Looking at China’s Strategic Direction Today From a Historical Perspective],” Tongzhou gongjin, March 2015, pp. 48. General Wang is the former deputy commander of the Nanjing Military Region and current member of the Tenth National People’s Congress.
  17. Wang Hongguang, “Cong lishi kan jinri Zhongguo de zhanlue fangxiang,” p. 50, 49.
  18. Jiang Zemin, Jiang Zemin wenxuan, Vol. 3, p. 608.
  19. Jiefangjun bao, August 21, 2014, p. 1.
  20. Fravel, “China’s Military Strategies.”