The PLA’s Multiple Military Tasks: Prioritizing Combat Operations and Developing MOOTW Capabilities

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 2

China’s growing role as a regional and global leader has brought with it increasingly complex and far-reaching political, economic and security interests, as well as new traditional and non-traditional security challenges for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). As a result, in 2004 President and Commander-in-Chief Hu Jintao promulgated the “New Historic Missions” (xin de lishi shiming), which effectively ordered the PLA to develop the capabilities necessary to protect China’s interests at home and abroad [1].

The concept of “multiple military tasks” (duoyanghua junshi renwu), which appeared in China’s 2006 National Defense White Paper, further defines the “New Historic Missions.” It emphasizes the need for the PLA to enhance its capabilities to successfully conduct combat operations, particularly with regard to the “main strategic direction” (zhuyao zhanlüe fangxiang), Taiwan, and expand the PLA’s capabilities by participating in military operations other than war (MOOTW)” (feizhanzheng junshi xingdong) [2].

The PLA must thus balance the two mission areas: combat operations (zhanzheng xingdong) and MOOTW. China’s 2008 Defense White Paper explains the prioritization of these tasks, stating that the PLA places improving the capabilities required to win local wars under informatized conditions “at the core,” and “takes military operations other than war as an important form of applying national military forces” (State Council Information Office, China’s National Defense in 2008). In other words, enhancing the capability to deter and win local wars under informatized conditions remains the PLA’s top priority, and improving its ability to conduct MOOTW missions is secondary, but still important.  

Prioritizing Combat Capability

The first category in the “multiple military tasks” framework is deterring conflict and winning wars. According to a public statement made by Central Military Commission (CMC) Vice Chairman General Xu Caihou, “To deter and win wars remains the top priority of the armed forces” (Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 26, 2009).

As part of the concept of “multiple military tasks,” Chinese strategists envision several potential types of combat operations. According to the authors of one recent book produced by the PLA’s Xi’an Political Academy, there are at least three major types of operations: “large-scale island attack operations” (daxing daoyu jingong zuozhan), “strategic point joint air defense operations” (yaodi lianhe fangkong zuozhan), and “border area defense operations” (bianjing diqu fangwei zuozhan) [3].

Large-scale island attack operations involve conducting strikes against “separatist forces” and resisting military intervention by a “strong enemy.” It includes joint information attacks, joint firepower strikes, sea and air blockade, joint landing operations, joint island offensive operations, joint air defense, and “resisting interference by a strong enemy” [4]. This first type of wartime mission appears to refer to a Taiwan conflict scenario involving U.S. military intervention.

Strategic point joint air defense operations entail protecting Beijing and other strategic targets from enemy air strikes. Specific tasks that are part of this type of operation include joint early warning, joint air defense, medium- and long-range joint firepower strikes and attacks against enemy air and sea targets. The PLA would presumably need to carry out this mission if the United States decided to strike targets on the mainland during a conflict with China.

Border area defense operations include border area defense and counter-attack operations intended to protect sovereignty and territorial integrity, and maintain stability in border areas. Specific tasks of border defense operations include positional defense, mobile operations, cross-border pursuit and attack, rear area sabotage, and seizure of strategic areas. Chinese analysts write that threats to border security may arise as part of a “chain reaction” (liansuo fanying) associated with fighting in the “main operational direction” (zhuyao zuozhan fangxiang), apparently reflecting concern that a cross-Strait conflict could lead to a multi-front war involving other potential adversaries [5].

Embracing MOOTW

MOOTW is the second category in “multiple military tasks.” General Xu indicated in his recent speech at CSIS that such activities were emerging as “routine and constant missions for the military” (Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 26, 2009). Various Chinese sources indicate that China’s concept of MOOTW covers a wide variety of activities, including counter-terrorism operations, participation in U.N. Peacekeeping Operations, non-combatant evacuation operations, emergency disaster relief operations, international humanitarian assistance, and counter-piracy patrols (See "The Chinese Armed Forces and Non-Traditional Missions: A Growing Tool of Statecraft," China Brief, Volume IX, Issue 4).

Of these, perhaps the most well-publicized MOOTW activity—and a clear indication that the PLA truly is developing pockets of elite capability to deploy on missions outside of its littoral waters—is the PLA Navy’s participation in the multinational counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Since December 2008, the PLAN has dispatched four naval escort taskforces to that region. These missions present numerous logistical and coordination challenges. The deployments represent the first time that the PLAN has operated abroad for an extended period of time, leading to issues such as how to re-supply and refuel ships, and how to handle emergency situations far from home.

Emergency disaster relief (qiangxian jiuzai) is another MOOTW mission that the PLA has performed several times in the past few years—most recently with the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake and January 2008 snowstorms [6]. Chinese military publications note that the PLA may be required to respond in a variety of ways, such as handling emergency management operations, dispatching search and rescue personnel, offering emergency medical assistance, establishing emergency communications, and supplying manpower and material to support relief efforts. Moreover, Chinese military leaders frequently underscore the importance of this role for the military, portraying the PLA as the “backbone and vanguard” of domestic relief activities (Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 26, 2009).

The PLA is clearly gearing up to participate more in international humanitarian assistance (guoji rendaozhuyi jiuyuan) activities. Humanitarian assistance, according to Chinese sources, involves dispatching military aircraft, ships, and personnel to conduct operations either independently or as part of a coordinated international assistance effort in response to a major natural disaster or international humanitarian crisis [7]. As a growing regional power, China clearly wants to play a larger role in this area than it did in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, where the PLA’s presence was either absent or conspicuously limited in the disaster relief efforts, especially in comparison to the U.S. military (See “Tsunami Relief Reflects China’s Regional Aspirations,” China Brief, Volume 5, Issue 2).

Counter-terrorism is often identified as an increasingly important mission for the PLA. According to General Xu, “International terrorism is increasingly rampant … the threats facing China caused by secessionist, extremist and terrorist forces are also on the clear rise” (Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 26, 2009). In addition, the PLA also plays an important role in providing security for major public events, like the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.

Chinese scholars also clearly view U.N. Peacekeeping as an increasingly important mission for the PLA, reflecting China’s emergence as a major contributor to peacekeeping operations in recent years. Indeed, as of August 2009, about 2,150 Chinese personnel were serving under the auspices of 10 different U.N. Peacekeeping missions. Beijing appears to view Chinese participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations as a way to gain international prestige, demonstrate China’s willingness to contribute to global security and stability, and provide practical experience to Chinese military personnel [8].

MOOTW also includes non-combatant evacuation operations (cheli feizhandou renyuan), which would involve dispatching military aircraft or ships to rescue Chinese citizens and overseas Chinese from countries where the security situation is deteriorating rapidly or major incidents of anti-Chinese violence or turmoil are taking place [9]. As more Chinese citizens and businesses go abroad, and as they live in some of the world’s worst neighborhoods, this type of operation may become necessary in the future [10].

Conclusion and Implications

As China’s expanding regional and global interests create broader requirements for military capabilities, the PLA will increasingly be called upon to prepare for and take part in MOOTW activities. For China’s leadership, involvement in such missions enhances their country’s image as a constructive player in global security affairs, and for the PLA, these activities offer valuable operational experience that could enhance its ability to conduct combat operations. Indeed, Chinese analysts argue that MOOTW missions help improve the PLA’s ability to win wars by giving it experience in critical areas such as command and decision-making, projection of military strength, logistics and support operations, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities [11]. And the PLAN is currently honing its skills in some of these areas in the Gulf of Aden counter-piracy operations.

However, striking a balance between enhancing its combat capabilities and improving its capacity to perform MOOTW also presents a challenge to the PLA [12]. The resources required to successfully conduct the range of MOOTW activities described above are significant. Although the PLAN’s counter-piracy task forces have certainly been a successful first out-of-area deployment, it is still a small step when one considers the capabilities necessary to perform some of the other missions that the Chinese leadership might envision for the PLA in the future, such as sea lines of communication (SLOC) protection to safeguard China’s maritime energy and trade routes.

The PLA’s increased presence abroad as it conducts more MOOTW activities could also create new opportunities, and challenges, for the U.S.-China military relationship. The two militaries will undoubtedly encounter each other more than in the past, making clear rules of engagement and communication on issues such as safety at sea a necessity. There will also be opportunities for increased U.S.-China partnership and cooperation, particularly in anti-piracy, international humanitarian assistance, and search and rescue operations—all activities that senior U.S. military officers have highlighted as possible areas for greater cooperation (, April 21, 2009). Chinese military leaders also appear to recognize that the PLA’s growing role may enhance opportunities for cooperation with the U.S. military. In April 2009, Admiral Wu Shengli discussed U.S.-China navy-to-navy cooperation during the PLAN’s International Fleet Review, and during his speech at CSIS, General Xu Caihou stated, “the Chinese military’s execution of multiple military tasks provides a broader space for Chinese-U.S. military exchanges and cooperation” (PLA Daily, April 20, 2009; Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 26, 2009). Regardless, the “new historic missions” and “multiple military tasks” provide the foundation for a PLA that the world will clearly see more of in the future.

[The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Naval War College, Department of the Navy, or Department of Defense.]


1. The New Historic Missions are defined as: 1) Consolidate ruling status for the CCP; Ensure China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and domestic security to continue national development; 3) Safeguard China’s expanding national interests; 4) Help maintain world peace. For more information, see Daniel Hartnett, Towards a Globally Focused Chinese Military: The Historic Missions of the Chinese
Armed Forces, The CNA Corporation, Alexandria, VA, June 2008.
2. Gai Shijin and Zhang Peizhong, Duoyanghua Junshi Renwu Lun [On Multiple Military Missions], Beijing, China: Changzheng Chubanshe [Long March Press], 2009, pp. 64-65. And Peng Guangqian, “The Development and History of Our Country’s Strategic Guideline of an Active Defense Since the Founding of the Nation,” in Peng Guangqian, Researching Questions of Chinese Military Strategy (Bejing: Liberation Army Publishing House, January 2006),
3. Gai and Zhang, Duoyanghua Junshi Renwu Lun, pp. 64-65.
4. Ibid., p. 65.
5. Ibid., p. 65.
6. Song Guocai, Shi Limin, and Yang Shu, ed., Feizhanzheng junshi xingdong shili yanjiu [MOOTW Examples Research],Beijing, China: Junshi kexue chubanshe [Military Science Press], 2009, pp. 84-128.
7. Gai and Zhang, Duoyanghua Junshi Renwu Lun, p. 68.
8. Bates Gill and Chin-hao Huang, China’s Expanding Role in Peacekeeping: Prospects and Policy implications, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Policy Paper No. 25, November 2009.
9. Gai and Zhang, Duoyanghua Junshi Renwu Lun, p. 68.
10. Xiao Tianliang and Li Guoting, ed., Feizhanzheng junshi xingdong zhishi wenda [MOOTW Knowledge Questions and Answers], Beijing, China: Junshi kexue chubanshe [Military Science Press], 2009.
11. Gai and Zhang, Duoyanghua Junshi Renwu Lun, p. 63.
12. Qi Sanping, “Xuexi dang de junshi zhidao lilun zui xin chengguo, tigao wancheng duoyanghua junshi renwu de nengli [Study the latest results of the party’s military guiding theory, enhance the capability to fulfill multiple military tasks],” in Gai Shijin and Zhang Peizhong, Duoyanghua Junshi Renwu Lun [On Multiple Military Missions], Beijing, China: Changzheng Chubanshe [Long March Press], 2009, p. 2.Qi, “Xuexi dang de junshi zhidao lilun zui xin chengguo,” p. 2.