Military Parades Demonstrate Chinese Concept of Deterrence

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 8

Chinese warship in Qingdao

On April 23rd the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy will conduct a “naval parade” in the waters off of Qingdao. This naval review will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the PLA Navy and honor in advance the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, which itself will be feted in Beijing on October 1st by another military parade primarily composed of ground and air units. For those impressed by military hardware, April 23rd should be a memorable day.

Like the Beijing parade, the event in Qingdao aims to promote Chinese national pride in its armed forces. It is intended to display the progress made by the PLA Navy in its on-going modernization. Surely the most advanced ships and aircraft in the Chinese Navy will participate in front of an audience comprised of both Chinese and foreign observers. The two destroyers that took part in the PLA Navy’s first long-distance, extended operational deployment to combat piracy off the Somali coast may be part of the review. Naval units from other countries, as well as senior foreign officers, have been invited to attend and participate.

Unspoken by Beijing during the build up to this event, however, is the parade’s contribution to China’s military strategy. The role of military reviews and foreign visits is openly identified in PLA doctrine as an important component of China’s strategic deterrence posture. Contrary to the notion that China’s strategic intentions are not transparent, the PLA’s multi-level deterrence strategy has been enumerated in numerous military newspaper or journal articles, official publications such as White Papers, and, in particular, in the PLA Academy of Military Science’s textbook, The Science of Military Strategy, first published in Chinese in 2001 and then translated into English in 2005 [1].

What is China’s Concept of Deterrence? [2]

The most recent foreign analysis that mentions China’s deterrence posture focuses on its nuclear deterrence policy (China Brief, March 4). In fact, while nuclear deterrence is an important element of China’s deterrence strategy, the PLA’s concept of deterrence is much more expansive.

The Science of Military Strategy defines deterrence as “the military conduct of a state or political group in (1) displaying force or showing the determination to use force (2) to compel the enemy to submit to one’s volition and (3) to refrain from taking hostile actions or escalating the hostility” (p. 213). Strategic deterrence also “is a major means for attaining the objective of military strategy” (p. 224). By its nature, deterrence seeks to change “the pattern of the opponent’s psychology” (p. 227).

According to The Science of Military Strategy, “Warfighting and deterrence are two major functions of the armed forces” (p. 213). Therefore, the mission of the Chinese armed forces is not only to be prepared to fight wars, but also to deter or prevent their outbreak. Specifically, the role of China’s strategic deterrence is “to deter foreign invasion, defend the sovereignty, rights and interests, and to deter the conspiracies of internal and external rivals for separating and subverting China, so as to protect the stability of national political situation, defend territorial integrity and national unification” (p. 217).

In addition to the military component, non-military factors such as territory size, population, economic strength, political and diplomatic efforts, all of which make up “comprehensive national power,” contribute to strategic deterrence strength.

These concepts have also been explained in Beijing’s series of White Papers on National Defense. For example, the 2008 edition of the White Paper states:

“[China’s military strategic guideline of active defense] lays stress on deterring crises and wars. It works for close coordination between military struggle and political, diplomatic, economic, cultural and legal endeavors, strives to foster a favorable security environment, and takes the initiative to prevent and defuse crises, and deter conflicts and wars. It strictly adheres to a position of self-defense, exercises prudence in the use of force, seeks to effectively control war situations, and strives to reduce the risks and costs of war. It calls for the building of a lean and effective deterrent force and the flexible use of different means of deterrence” [3].

Deterrence can be adopted by those in a strategically offensive posture or those on the strategic defensive. The former pursue deterrence for the purpose of compelling the opponent to submit to their demands without going to war, while the latter seek to make the “opponent feel his attack may fail or lead to the loss outweighing the gain” (p. 216-217). China officially adopts a strategic defensive posture in the international arena; concurrently, it is arguable that the Chinese government pursues a strategically offensive form of deterrence toward perceived threats to domestic stability or national unification.

While China’s strategic posture is defensive in nature and seeks to deter conflict, The Science of Military Strategy acknowledges the objective of strategic deterrence “is attained by non-fighting means or fighting a small war” to prevent a larger one (p. 213). China’s military doctrine is not passive at the tactical and operational levels of war and the PLA fully understands the decisive nature of the offensive. Even in a strategically defensive posture,

“[t]he strategy to gain mastery by striking only after the enemy has struck does not mean waiting for enemy’s strike passively … [Striking only after the enemy has struck] doesn’t mean to give up the ‘advantageous chances’ in campaign [operational] or tactical operations, for ‘the first shot’ on the plane of politics and strategy must be differentiated from ‘the first shot’ on the plane of tactics … if any country or organization violates the other country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the other side will have the right to ‘fire the first shot’ on the plane of tactics” (p. 426).

These precepts, which are part of the PLA’s strategic guidelines, are consistent with the “active defense” principles described by Mao Zedong in 1936: “the only real defence is active defence, defence [sic] for the purpose of counter-attacking and taking the offensive. As far as I know, there is no military manual of value nor any sensible military expert, ancient or modern, Chinese or foreign, that does not oppose passive defence, whether in strategy or tactics" [4].

The Elements of Deterrence

The Science of Military Strategy describes three components necessary for deterrence:

•    Possession of “an adequate deterrent force,” a force that is both capable and credible;
•    The determination to use that force;
•    Communication “between the deterrer and the deterred” to assure that the opponent perceives and believes in the credibility of that force and the will to use it (p. 213-215).

A capable force is the foundation of deterrence. The PLA’s modernization program, particularly the developments over the past 10 years, has resulted in a much more capable force than its predecessor of previous decades. Today, the PLA sees its “core military capability” to be “winning local wars in conditions of informationization” with the secondary goal of conducting military operations other than war [5]. As stated in The Science of Military Strategy, “Strategic deterrence is based on warfighting … The more powerful the warfighting capability, the more effective the deterrence … those making purely bluffing threats and intimidations hardly can afford deterrence …” (p. 228).

New equipment is a major part of the PLA’s modernization, but even more important is the quality of its personnel, organization and force structure, training, and logistics. While many improvements in capabilities have been achieved, the PLA recognizes numerous challenges as it continues its modernization process (China Brief, July 3).

The willingness to use military capabilities must be communicated and the opponent must comprehend China’s capabilities and determination. The deterring side seeks to build “momentum” to convince others of its seriousness: “Demonstrating momentum by showing the disposition of the strength to the enemy is to display clearly one’s deterrent force for bringing about psychological pressure on and fear to the opponent and thus force him to submit. Such deterrent forms as large-scale military review, joint military exercise, and military visit, etc., are usually adopted” (p.223).

The naval review in Qingdao and the military parade in Beijing can be seen as demonstrations of momentum attained from military modernization and thus a contribution to China’s deterrence strategy. While potentially impressive from a hardware point of view, these activities reveal little about the degree of competence the force has attained to actually employ these weapons according to the PLA’s new warfighting doctrine or to sustain them in austere locations far from their home bases.

China’s “Integrated Strategic Deterrence” Posture

The conventional military weapons and strategic nuclear delivery systems on display off Qingdao and in Beijing in part are directed toward foreign audiences to assert China’s ability to defend its borders and protect its sovereignty (including territories in dispute with others). They also are aimed at China’s own population to illustrate the fruits of Beijing’s investment in the military and at the same time remind “terrorist, separatist and extremist forces” that the Chinese Communist Party and China’s armed forces seek to maintain stability and protect the population from chaos.

The Science of Military Strategy states, “China currently has a limited but effective nuclear deterrence and a relatively powerful capability of conventional deterrence and a massive capacity of deterrence of People’s War” (p. 222). While its nuclear force seeks to deter nuclear attacks (or blackmail) against China, conventional capabilities are designed to deter, and if necessary defeat, threats to China’s “national sovereignty, security, territorial integrity” and safeguard “the interests of national development” [6]. These missions include defense from aggression against the mainland and increasingly are concerned with missions beyond China’s borders to protect a wide range of China’s development interests.

Article 1 of China’s Anti-secession Law extends the deterrence strategy to “the question of Taiwan” by “opposing and checking [i.e. deterrence of] Taiwan’s secession from China by secessionists in the name of "Taiwan independence," promoting peaceful national reunification, maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits, preserving China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and safeguarding the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation.” Beijing consistently opposes any form of “outside interference” in regard to its objective of peaceful reunification and specifically disputes arms sales or military alliances with the island (p. 445). Numerous warfighting capabilities developed over the past decade are aimed at deterring foreign (i.e. United States) intervention by air or at sea in the vicinity of Taiwan—some of which may be on display in Qingdao and Beijing.

At the same time, the People’s Armed Police (a component of the Chinese armed forces, but not part of the PLA) is tasked “to deter and deal with emergencies which endanger public security” [8]. According to the National Defense Law of 1997, both the PLA and militia “may assist in maintaining public order in accordance with the law” [9]. The People’s Armed Police routinely works with the civilian Ministry of Public Security police force as the first line of defense in domestic stability.

Finally, The Science of Military Strategy predicts “the day of employing deterrence of space force is not far off …” (p. 217). Bao Shixiu, a senior fellow at the Academy of Military Science, wrote in 2007 after the Chinese anti-satellite test: “Currently, China does not have a clear space deterrence theory … China’s nuclear deterrence theory and its perspective on the use of nuclear weapons offer important and relevant guidelines …. The basic necessity to preserve stability through the development of deterrent forces as propounded by Mao and Deng remain valid in the context of space” [10]. Bao acknowledges the “technical gap, especially in the military area vis-à-vis the United States, is difficult if not impossible to fill” and concludes “if China owns space weapons, their number and quality will be limited in their capacity to act as an effective defense mechanism and will not be a threat to other countries” [11].

Chinese military writings present both a professional and realistic evaluation of their strategic intentions, strategy and general capabilities. A multi-level deterrence posture is an integral element of PLA doctrine. It is likely much of the PLA’s new equipment entering the force will be on display in the coming months for both Chinese and foreign eyes to see. What will be less visible is the degree to which the Chinese armed forces have been trained to operate and maintain its new weapons in accordance with a new joint doctrine that it has never executed against a hostile enemy.

Near the end of The Science of Military Strategy caution is recommended: “Therefore, imprudent decision to use force is never permitted…. The reason for the existence of the army is to prevent and win a war…. We may not launch a war in a hundred years but we can never be unprepared for war for even one day” (p. 468). The weapons featured in the parades in Beijing and off of Qingdao need to be assessed in the context of the PLA’s modernization process, its strategy and doctrine, and threat environment.


1. Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi (eds), The Science of Military Strategy, Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2005. All quotes and page numbers are from the English-language text.
2. Complicating the discussion of deterrence is the use of multiple terms in both English and Chinese to express the same idea. The 2008 White Paper uses three different word combinations for the noun “deterrence” or, as a verb, “to deter” (ezhi) , to contain, restrain (weishe), to intimidate militarily (or terrorize with military force), deter (shezhi), a relatively new term that suggests “to stop because of fear.” Other documents use the term zhizhi: to check, curb, prevent, stop. English translations may use any or all of these words and often, especially with the word “contain,” the concept of deterrence may confused or be lost altogether.
3. Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s National Defense in 2008,” January 2009, at
4. Mao Zedong, “Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War,” December 1936, found at
5.  “China’s National Defense in 2008.”
6.  “China’s National Defense in 2008.”
7.  “Full text of Anti-Secession Law,” March 14, 2005, found at
8.  “China’s National Defense in 2008.”
9.  “PRC Law on National Defense,” March 1997, found at
10.  Bao Shixiu, “Deterrence Revisited: Outer Space,” China Security, Winter 2007, p. 6.
11. Bao, p. 10.