12 September 2015

PLA Influence on China’s National Security Policymaking

Timely treatment of a tremendously important topic by some of the leading experts in the field!

Phillip C. Saunders and Andrew Scobell, eds., PLA Influence on China’s National Security Policymaking (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015).


In recent years there have been reports of actions purportedly taken by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) units without civilian authorization, and of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) civilian leaders seeking to curry favor with the military—suggesting that a nationalistic and increasingly influential PLA is driving more assertive Chinese policies on a range of military and sovereignty issues. To many experienced PLA watchers however, the PLA remains a “party-army” that is responsive to orders from the CCP.

PLA Influence on China’s National Security Policymaking seeks to assess the “real” relationship between the PLA and its civilian masters by moving beyond media and pundit speculation to mount an in-depth examination and explanation of the PLA’s role in national security policy-making. After examining the structural factors that shape PLA interactions with the Party-State, the book uses case studies to explore the PLA’s role in foreign policy crises. It then assesses the PLA’s role in China’s territorial disputes and in military interactions with civilian government and business, exploring the military’s role in China’s civil-military integration development strategy. The evidence reveals that today’s PLA does appear to have more influence on purely military issues than in the past—but much less influence on political issues—and to be more actively engaged in policy debates on mixed civil-military issues where military equities are at stake.



In significant contrast to Hu Jintao, and even to Jiang Zemin in some respects, 25 years of executive experience with ultimate responsibility for important decisions made Xi capable of imposing his will as needed.

Nan Li, “Top Leaders and the PLA: The Different Styles of Jiang, Hu, and Xi,” in Phillip C. Saunders and Andrew Scobell, eds., PLA Influence on China’s National Security Policymaking (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 121-37.

Nan Li’s chapter assesses how Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao exerted influence over the PLA, and analyzes why their methods differed. He distinguishes between two approaches: “currying favor” by catering to PLA interests and “imposing will” by forcing the PLA to do things it would not otherwise want to do. He argues that Jiang curried favor early in his leadership and then imposed his will, while Hu curried favor throughout his tenure. Nan Li suggests Xi Jinping is likely to curry favor initially to consolidate power, but then to impose his will by downsizing and reorganizing the military.

Click here to access link posted with author’s explicit written permission.


“The role of the Chinese military in decision-making is one of the most puzzling, yet most important, questions facing those who try to assess the threat that a rising China may pose to peace in Asia. In the face of alarmist myths and speculations, this book offers the seasoned insights of our best specialists into the distinctive Chinese model of civil-military relations.”

—Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, Columbia University

“Bringing together the field’s leading scholars under a single cover, PLA Influence on China’s National Security Policymaking is a signal contribution to understanding PLA sway over China’s national security policies and crisis management behavior. Describing the pathways by which PLA influence is exerted, this volume is the new field standard.”

—David M. Lampton, Hyman Professor and Director of China Studies, Johns Hopkins—SAIS

“Few issues concerning China are as important yet vexing as the roles of the military. This unique volume, by the leading specialists in the world, offers in-depth and nuanced analyses of both inputs and outputs of the PLA in shaping China’s national security posture. Empirically rich and analytically insightful, this is the best assessment of the Chinese military to appear in many years.”

—David Shambaugh, George Washington University and the Brookings Institution


Phillip C. Saunders is Director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University.

Andrew Scobell is a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation.