2021 People’s Liberation Army Conference (Seattle)

Modernizing Capabilities and Evolving Doctrine: China’s Approach to Deterrence

On December 16 and 17, 2021, The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) and the China Strategic Focus Group (SFG), Headquarters, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, convened the 2021 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Conference (Seattle). The conference brought together a hybrid in-person and virtual audience representing the world’s leading specialists from academia, government, the military, and policy think tanks.

The theme of the 2021 conference, “Modernizing Capabilities and Evolving Doctrine: China’s Approach to Deterrence,” examined the traditional approaches of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) to deterrence and assessed how those approaches are now shifting across both existing and emerging domains. This area of focus is particularly relevant against the backdrop of the PLA’s increasingly sophisticated and modernizing arsenal of deterrence capabilities and heightened willingness to assert itself through more provocative and problematic means. The conference sought to supplement ongoing work in policy, military, and scholarly circles that is focused on understanding how China’s increasing risk tolerance and willingness to deploy integrated cross-domain approaches to deterrence suggest fundamental shifts in its strategic thinking.

China’s approach to deterrence employs a wide range of strategic, conventional, nonconventional, and emerging capabilities to achieve national deterrence objectives. In the strategic nuclear realm, for instance, the PLA has long adhered to a “limited deterrent” posture and “no first use” policy. In contrast, China’s approach to conventional and nonconventional deterrence has evolved along with the country’s successes at military modernization and growing comprehensive national power across economic, information, and political domains. Nevertheless, fundamental shifts in thinking on deterrence appear to be underway. The rapid modernization of China’s nuclear forces and apparent construction of new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICMB) silos suggest a foundational shift in its approach to nuclear weapons. The PRC also continues to enhance nonconventional capabilities in cyberspace and other technological domains while deploying more overt coercive economic and diplomatic measures. Most recently, PLA writings indicate an ongoing effort to integrate capabilities across a broad spectrum of domains from strategic to conventional to nonconventional. Ultimately, the conference addressed the question of whether changes in PLA doctrine, organization, and operations indicate a structural shift in the Chinese military’s approach to deterring adversaries. To answer this question, the conference featured four panels on the following themes: “Traditional PRC Views on Deterrence”; “Shifting PRC Perspectives on Deterrence in Existing and Emerging Domains”; and “When Deterrence Fails.”

The first panel, “Traditional PRC Perspectives on Deterrence,” assessed China’s long-standing approach to conventional and strategic nuclear deterrence. Over the last two decades, the PRC’s approach to conventional deterrence has evolved to adapt to the PLA’s shifting conventional capabilities. The modernization of the PLA Navy and Air Force, the augmentation of conventional missile capabilities and centralization of command and control under the PLA Rocket Force, and Beijing’s desire to exploit the dual-use nature of cutting-edge technology such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing has produced newfound organizational structures and capabilities thought to be unattainable years ago. Regarding strategic deterrence, panelists debated how traditional ideas on nuclear weapons have endured despite the rapid changes in recent years. Presenters assessed that PRC nuclear strategy has historically been grounded in ideology as opposed to practical objectives. In particular, ideology has long guided China’s no-first-use policy and demanded that the country pursue a strategy of minimal deterrence and defensive-use distinct from other superpowers.

The second panel, “Shifting PRC Perspectives on Deterrence,” addressed new developments in Beijing’s approach to deterrence in existing and emerging domains, from nuclear deterrence and information warfare to cyberspace and frontier technologies, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Panelists argued that the PRC’s new nuclear force posture, suggested by the recent discovery of hundreds of ICBM silos in western China, was indicative of a fundamental shift away from the country’s long-standing no first-use policy and doctrine of minimal deterrence. In the economic, information, and political domains, while the PRC’s employment of nonmilitary methods of coercion began before Xi Jinping rose to power, there has been a marked increase in the scope and intensity of their application in the last decade as Beijing has been more assertive in advancing its own interests, values, and objectives. In emerging domains, activity in cyberspace and outer space, unlike the strategic nuclear domain, blurs the line between deterrence and warfighting, thereby necessitating a distinct approach from conventional domains. In frontier technologies, Beijing appears to lack a singular approach to deterrence centered on scientific and technological development. Instead, frontier technologies are broadly understood to play a key role in improving the PLA’s capabilities to fight and win wars under “informatized” conditions.

The third panel, “When Deterrence Fails,” assessed three prospective Chinese responses to a failure of deterrence: (1) crisis management, (2) conflict escalation, and (3) disengagement and de-escalation. The PLA’s recent activities in the Taiwan Strait and East China Sea all indicate that Beijing has distanced itself from crisis-management mechanisms and communication channels. Additionally, the Sino-Indian border skirmishes in June 2020 were a clear example of the PLA overtly violating existing bilateral crisis-management agreements with India. In trying to understand when China may choose to either escalate or de-escalate a potential crisis, panelists identified several key variables, including the nature of the crisis, the emotional state of decision-makers, the nature of the decision-making system, the historical basis for the incident, and the circumstances surrounding the crisis. As for scenarios when the PLA could act to escalate a conflict, panelists debated the objectives Beijing considers in its approach. They concluded that while controlling escalation and minimizing costs are important, the most consequential factors are for the PLA to simultaneously limit uncertainty, maximize predictability, and achieve the military goals for which action was taken.

In addition to the three panels, the 2021 PLA Conference (Seattle) also featured keynote remarks by current U.S. officials, who drew on their experience and interactions with the PLA to supplement conference discussions and address audience questions. The commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Admiral John C. Aquilino and the deputy commander Lieutenant General Stephen Sklenka discussed the PRC’s efforts to conduct cross-domain deterrence against the United States and its allies and explained Indo-Pacific Command’s approach to integrated deterrence, commenting on how allies and partners can help maintain and strengthen the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China Michael Chase provided an overview of the Department of Defense’s role in the Biden administration’s China policy, as well as the PLA’s future trajectory gleaned from the 2021 China Military Power Report. In closing, Rear Admiral Michael Studeman, director of intelligence for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, emphasized the importance of adopting a multidimensional approach to deal with the comprehensive power of the PRC while considering how to maintain the status quo and deter provocative and assertive behavior.

A reflection and wrap-up session concluded the 2021 conference and offered authors, discussants, and attendees an opportunity to engage in a robust and dynamic discussion. The chance to debate and synthesize the ideas and policy options presented over the preceding two days allowed for direct, dynamic, and collegial interactions among participants by virtue of the hybrid conference model. Conference proceedings are expected to be published in Summer 2022 as a conference volume.

This summary was prepared by Jeremy Rausch, who is a Project Associate with the Political and Security Affairs group at the National Bureau of Asian Research.