09 June 2021

The Joel Wuthnow Bookshelf: PLA Organization, Development & Growing Global Activities

Dr. Joel Wuthnow is a senior research fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs within the Institute for National for Strategic Studies at the U.S. National Defense University (NDU).

Wuthnow’s research areas include Chinese foreign and security policy, Chinese military affairs, U.S.-China relations, and strategic developments in East Asia. In addition to his duties in INSS, he also serves as an adjunct professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Wuthnow’s recent books and monographs, all from NDU Press, include The PLA Beyond Borders: Chinese Military Operations in Regional and Global Context (2021, lead editor), System Overload: Can China’s Military Be Distracted in a War over Taiwan? (2020), Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms (2019, co-editor), and China’s Other Army: The People’s Armed Police in an Era of Reform (2019). His research has also appeared in journals such as Asia PolicyAsian SecurityThe China QuarterlyChinese Journal of International PoliticsJoint Force Quarterly, Journal of Contemporary China, Journal of Strategic Studies, and in edited volumes.

Prior to joining NDU, Dr. Wuthnow was a China analyst at CNA, a postdoctoral fellow in the China and the World Program at Princeton University, and a pre-doctoral fellow at The Brookings Institution. His degrees are from Princeton University (A.B., summa cum laude, in Public and International Affairs), Oxford University (M.Phil. in Modern Chinese Studies), and Columbia University (Ph.D. in Political Science). He is proficient in Mandarin.


Joel Wuthnow, Arthur S. Ding, Andrew Scobell, Phillip C. Saunders, and Andrew N.D. Yang, eds., The PLA Beyond Borders: Chinese Military Operations in Regional and Global Context (Washington, DC: NDU Press, 2021).

Broad survey of China’s increasingly active military operations within and beyond Asia. Themes include the goals of bureaucratic actors and how they pursue them; the motivations behind different types of operations and activities; restructuring to support overseas operations with theater commands, SSF, and JLSF; overseas access and sustainment of expeditionary forces; remaining challenges for power projection; and implications.

No longer confined to China’s land territory or its near abroad, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is conducting increasingly complex operations farther and farther from China’s continental borders. Within Asia, the PLA now regularly operates into the far reaches of the South China Sea and deep into the Western Pacific, enforcing China’s territorial claims and preparing to counter U.S. intervention in a regional conflict. Beyond Asia, the PLA is present on the ground, at sea, or in military exercises with foreign partners across the Indian Ocean and into the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Foreign militaries now regularly encounter the PLA, whether in tense incidents or friendly contacts, on their home turf and in the global commons.

Drawn from a 2019 conference jointly organized by NDU, the RAND Corporation, and Taiwan’s Council on Advanced Policy Studies, The PLA Beyond Borders surveys the dimensions of Chinese operations within the Indo-Pacific region and globally. The international contributors look both at the underlying enablers of these activities, including expeditionary capabilities and logistics, command and control, and ISR systems, as well as new and evolving operational concepts and operational patterns. Employing different analytic lenses, they portray a reformed PLA accelerating the pace of its overseas operations and increasing its modernization not only in the traditional domains, but also in space and cyber.

Joel Wuthnow, System Overload: Can China’s Military Be Distracted in a War over Taiwan? (NDU, China Strategic Perspectives 15, June 2020).

Executive Summary

  • A war with Taiwan remains the primary contingency of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). While the near-term prospects of China initiating a war are low due to the enormous economic costs and military risks, the PLA must still prepare to compel Taiwan’s leaders to accept unification or, barring that, to seize and occupy the island.
  • At the same time, the PLA has been tasked with an array of additional missions, including deterring other regional rivals, enforcing China’s territorial claims, protecting China’s overseas interests, and serving as the ultimate guarantor of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) survival in the face of domestic challenges. Those missions reduce PLA resources and attention devoted to Taiwan and result in capabilities that are less relevant to cross- Strait scenarios.
  • Chinese strategists have long worried that China’s rivals—including domestic secessionists, regional powers, or the United States—could exploit a Taiwan conflict to press their own agendas, such as launching border wars to solidify their territorial claims or even stoking a “color revolution” to overthrow the CCP. PLA analysts refer to this as “chain reaction” warfare.
  • Navigating these dilemmas requires the PLA to be able to concentrate warfighting capabilities across the Taiwan Strait while simultaneously maintaining readiness in other regions, shift resources among theaters when required, and coordinate multi-theater operations. These demands have led to a number of changes in PLA force development, force distribution, command and control, logistics, and human capital.
  • However, handling multiple problems remains a weakness for the PLA. Specific deficiencies include difficulties setting priorities due to interservice bargaining, a weak force posture beyond the First Island Chain, a convoluted command structure for multitheater operations, and the lack of a rotational assignment system that would give officers exposure to multiple problem sets. Latent civil-military distrust could also reduce the confidence of civilian leaders that the system will work as intended in a war.
  • U.S. discussions on improving Taiwan’s defenses tend to focus on selling defense articles to Taipei and enabling U.S. operations in an antiaccess/area-denial environment. However, there is also room for a broader military strategy that strengthens Taiwan’s security by exploiting China’s limited ability to handle multiple challenges. U.S. strategy should aim to achieve “system overload” by expanding the range of challenges the PLA faces in other theaters and overwhelming its capacity to conduct multitheater operations.
  • An effective peacetime strategy would aim to encourage the PLA to build capabilities less relevant to cross–Taiwan Strait operations and reduce its ability to concentrate resources on Taiwan. Activities that support that objective include providing advanced arms to China’s other neighbors and conducing dynamic U.S. military operations throughout the region. Highly publicized upgrades in U.S.-Taiwan defense relations would negate this effect by catalyzing the PLA to focus on a single contingency. Washington should instead prioritize selling Taiwan low-profile but highly effective defensive systems.
  • If deterrence fails, U.S. operations could attempt to cause delays in PLA decisionmaking and operations, buying time for U.S. forces to arrive. This supports what U.S. doctrine refers to as presenting adversaries with “multiple dilemmas” by reducing their capacity to quickly reach and execute decisions. Options that exploit stresses in China’s ability to coordinate large campaigns and shift resources among theaters include attacks on China’s command and control and logistics networks, information operations aggravating tensions in China’s civil-military relations, conventional strikes launched from multiple directions, and a “far seas” blockade.

Joel Wuthnow, China’s Other Army: The People’s Armed Police in an Era of Reform (NDU, China Strategic Perspectives 14, April 2019). 

One of the only publications to focus on the People’s Armed Police (PAP). It examines the post-2017/2018 reform impacts on the force, such as its degree of centralized control, its composition, missions in peacetime and wartime, and its current and future potential for cooperation with the PLA as a whole and different services.

Executive Summary

China’s premier paramilitary force—the People’s Armed Police (PAP)—is undergoing its most profound restructuring since its establishment in 1982.

  • Previously under dual civilian and military command, the PAP has been placed firmly under China’s military. As chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi Jinping now has direct control over all of China’s primary instruments of coercive power. This represents the highest degree of centralized control over China’s paramilitary forces since the Cultural Revolution.
  • Local and provincial officials have lost the ability to unilaterally deploy PAP units in the event of civil unrest or natural disasters, but can still request support through a new coordination system.
  • The China Coast Guard, which previously reported to civilian agencies, has been placed within the PAP and is thus now part of the military command structure.
  • New PAP operational commands, known as “mobile contingents,” have been established with a diverse mix of capabilities. They will play a key role in protecting the capital and could be deployed in a Taiwan contingency, among other missions.
  • Geographic distribution of mobile PAP units remains skewed to western China, providing rapid reaction capabilities that could be used to repress dissent in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Politically, the reforms reaffirm Chinese Communist Party (and Xi Jinping’s) control over the PAP and may reduce the scope for local abuse of power.

  • Despite earlier reforms, the PAP’s chain of command was convoluted, confusing, and decentralized. These reforms sought to ensure central party control over an organization deemed vital for ensuring the party’s security and survival.
  • Centralizing command also attempts to bolster the party’s legitimacy by reducing the ability of local officials to misapply PAP assets through corruption or overuse of force to handle local grievances.
  • A consequence of tighter control, however, could be slower responses to incidents as local officials have to submit requests through PAP channels. In some cases, officials may be reluctant to request PAP support in order to avoid negative attention from senior leaders.
  • The reforms place Xi firmly in charge of the PAP, though he will have to exercise authority through trusted agents. The success of continued PAP reforms will depend on elite consensus that centralized management of PAP deployments is desirable.

Operationally, the reforms narrow the PAP’s responsibilities to three key areas: domestic stability, wartime support, and maritime rights protection.

  • Several law enforcement and economic functions previously under the PAP, such as border guards and gold mining, have been divested and placed within appropriate civilian ministries and localities.
  • PAP internal security forces remain focused on domestic security missions, including maintaining stability in western China, guarding government compounds, and disaster relief. PAP units would also be on the frontlines in responding to a major threat to the regime.
  • The PAP has also been encouraged to play a stronger role in supporting People’s Liberation Army (PLA) combat operations. Key roles could include guarding critical infrastructure and supply lines during wartime. Nevertheless, current PAP-PLA cooperation appears superficial and will remain so if the PAP is not better integrated into the PLA’s joint command system.
  • Incorporating the coast guard into the PAP could presage stronger integration with the navy in terms of operations, training, and equipment development, but this will require closer institutional cooperation than currently exists.
  • The PAP will continue to face capabilities gaps, especially in niche areas such as special operations forces and helicopters. Its ability to close those gaps will depend on its political effectiveness in future budget negotiations.

PAP activities beyond China’s borders are likely to increase and could have implications for the United States and other Indo-Pacific states.

  • The PAP has emerged as a partner of choice for foreign governments in areas such as counterterrorism and peacekeeping training, in addition to its longstanding role as contributors to United Nations peacekeeping missions.
  • PAP units are also likely to deploy overseas to support counterterrorism operations. In some cases, Beijing may also rely on PAP capabilities to protect Chinese citizens and assets abroad, such as projects under the Belt and Road Initiative.
  • Closer coast guard–navy cooperation, if it emerges, would increase risks to U.S. and allied maritime operations in the South and East China seas. U.S. officials will need to determine if new agreements are needed, and feasible, to cover coast guard encounters.
  • Over the long run, PAP forces may one day deploy to support Chinese combat operations; one example is a potential role in providing stability during a pacification campaign on Taiwan.

Phillip C. Saunders, Arthur S. Ding, Andrew Scobell, Andrew N.D. Yang, and Joel Wuthnow, eds., Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2019).

China’s current military reforms are unprecedented in their ambition and in the scale and scope of the organizational changes. Virtually every part of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) now reports to different leaders, has had its mission and responsibilities changed, has lost or gained subordinate units, or has undergone a major internal reorganization.

Drawing on papers presented at two conferences co-organized by the U.S. National Defense University, The RAND Corporation, and Taiwan’s Council of Advanced Policy Studies, this edited volume brings together some of the world’s best experts on the Chinese military to analyze the various dimensions of the reforms in detail and assess their implications for the PLA’s ability to conduct joint operations, for the Chinese Communist Party’s control of the army, and for civil-military integration.

The contributors review the drivers and strategic context underpinning the reform effort, explore the various dimensions of PLA efforts to build a force capable of conducting joint operations, consider the implications for the PLA services, and examine Xi Jinping’s role in driving the reforms through and using them to strengthen control over the military. The chapters chronicle successes and outstanding problems in the reform effort, and consider what the net effect will be as the PLA strives to become a “world-class” military by mid-century, if not much sooner. … … …

Nilanthi Samaranayake, Satu Limaye, and Joel Wuthnow, Raging Waters: China, India, Bangladesh, and Brahmaputra River Politics (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University Press, 2018).

Events in the past decade—and especially during the past year—highlight the need for policy makers and scholars of Asia and water security to pay more attention to the stability of the Brahmaputra River basin. Originating in China, and flowing through India and Bangladesh, the river runs through three of the most populated countries in the world.1 China and India are major geopolitical players and fought a war in 1962 over territory that they still dispute and through which the Brahmaputra runs. In the summer of 2017, military forces of both countries engaged in a lengthy standoff due to a border dispute involving a third country—Bhutan. While the standoff was not directly tied to Brahmaputra basin resources, the conflict resulted in Beijing halting data sharing to New Delhi for flood fore- casting purposes. This is an important cooperative measure, considering no water management agreement has been achieved in the basin.

Furthermore, China’s attempt in September 2016 to block a tributary of the Brahmaputra in Tibet for hydroelectric dam construction alerted policy makers and experts in both India and Bangladesh to the potential for Beijing to wield undue influence on the two downstream riparian nations.2 Meanwhile, Bangladesh faced another bout of severe flooding in the summer of 2017, thereby highlighting the ongoing pressures faced by the country due to this river, which is also at the mercy of activities by the two upper riparian countries, India and China. Flooding also took place on the Teesta River, a tributary of the Brahmaputra that enters Bangladesh from India and for which New Delhi still has not concluded a water-sharing agreement sought by Dhaka.

Even prior to 2018, voices from both China and India have increasingly stirred discussion for the last decade about the potential for conflict and the threats to human security as a result of water resource competition in the Brahmaputra basin. Most prominent has been Indian author Brahma Chellaney, whose 2011 book, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, raised alarms about China’s dam-building efforts on the Brahmaputra.3 Chellaney’s analysis was, in part, inspired by the controversy over a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officer’s 2005 book, Xizang Zhi Shui Jiu Zhongguo (Tibet’s Waters Will Save China).4 Li Ling argues that upper riparian China should divert the Brahmaputra for internal use, despite the consequences for lower riparian states India and Bangladesh. Meanwhile, Bangladesh, as the lowest riparian, has long been concerned about activities by its northern neighbors that negatively affect its citizens and resources. Interestingly, India is both a lower riparian in this basin with accompanying threat perceptions—similar to Bangladesh—and an upper riparian—similar to China. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, Chinese Perspectives on the Belt and Road Initiative: Strategic Rationales, Risks, and Implications (NDU, China Strategic Perspectives 12, October 2017).

Chinese officials have downplayed the security dimensions of Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy initiative—the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, Chinese strategists have extensively analyzed three major issues: strategic benefits the BRI can provide for China, key security risks and challenges, and ways to reduce those risks. This study surveys their views and comments on implications for U.S. strategy.

Executive Summary 

Chinese officials have downplayed the security dimensions of Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy initiative—the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, Chinese strategists have extensively analyzed three major issues: strategic benefits the BRI can provide for China, key security risks and challenges, and ways to reduce those risks. This study surveys their views and comments on implications for U.S. strategy. Key findings include:

The main strategic benefits of the BRI include bolstering regional stability, improving China’s energy security, and amassing influence in Eurasia.

  • Chinese analysts see Eurasian integration as a way to create a more stable security environment around China’s southern and western periphery by addressing the underlying sources of violence and building mutual trust. Another benefit is increasing China’s energy security by diversifying oil and natural gas supply and transport routes.
  • Several analyses describe the BRI as a way for China to simultaneously achieve two geopolitical objectives: amassing strategic influence in Eurasia’s heartland while deftly avoiding direct competition with the United States. Some sources, however, are more explicit in portraying the BRI as a response to U.S. pressure, especially that posed by the Barack Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia policy.

Implementing BRI projects could be frustrated by domestic and regional instability, nontraditional security threats, and strategic balancing from other major powers.

  • Chinese sources—including Xi Jinping himself—portray the BRI as unfolding within a turbulent and, in some ways, deteriorating security environment.
  • Key operational challenges include regional conflict and protecting property and personnel from “radical” groups, such as Uighur separatists, the so-called Islamic State, and Pakistani militants, although Chinese sources rarely acknowledge that anti-China sentiment stemming from policies such as exclusive use of Chinese labor could be contributing to that violence.
  • Chinese observers closely follow perceptions of the BRI in states such as the United States, Japan, and India, and assume that all three will respond individually or collectively to oppose China’s ambitions, or have already done so. Lesser concerns are raised about Russia and Southeast Asian states.

China will have to marshal military, intelligence, diplomatic, and economic tools to counter perceived threats to the BRI’s long-term viability.

  • While some Chinese sources advocate greater expeditionary naval and ground force capabilities as a means to protect overseas equities, others argue that many challenges can be reduced through private security forces and host nation support. Mitigating threats to Chinese overseas interests also requires stronger risk assessment capabilities and enhanced nontraditional security cooperation, especially in the counterterrorism arena.
  • Many Chinese writings argue that strategic competition can be avoided by co-opting other major powers, such as by including U.S. companies in key BRI projects, and by carefully avoiding encroaching in other states’ spheres of influence. Many also call for a more attractive strategic message to enlist supporters and calm detractors.

U.S. strategy should seek to check China’s geopolitical ambitions while advancing mutually beneficial cooperation where possible.

  • The most negative outcome for the United States would be a Sinocentric Eurasian order in which Beijing locks countries into exclusive economic relationships and U.S. interests are marginalized.
  • China’s ability to pursue an exclusive regional sphere of influence hinges on variables including China’s interests in maintaining stable relations with the United States, the willingness of other major powers to check China’s aspirations, and the ability of BRI partners to avoid overreliance on China’s economic largesse.
  • U.S. strategy should aim to preserve the strategic balance in Eurasia by maintaining strong U.S.-China economic relations, encouraging alternative regional infrastructure development plans, and remaining a committed partner to states across the continent. However, this does not preclude U.S.-China cooperation in areas of shared interest, such as in the counterterrorism domain. The mix of competitive and cooperative responses to the BRI should facilitate larger U.S. strategic aims in the region and vis-à-vis China.

Joel Wuthnow and Phillip C. Saunders, Chinese Military Reforms in the Age of Xi Jinping: Drivers, Challenges, and Implications (NDU, China Strategic Perspectives 10, March 2017).

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has embarked on its most wide-ranging and ambitious restructuring since 1949, including major changes to most of its key organizations. Contains an overview of the PLA reforms begun by Xi Jinping in 2015, and “assesses the contents, drivers, and implications of the PLA’s restructuring.” Includes an appendix detailing CMC departments, commissions, and offices, with summaries for each.

Nilanthi Samaranayake, Satu Limaye, and Joel Wuthnow, Water Resource Competition in the Brahmaputra River Basin: China, India, and Bangladesh (Arlington, VA: CNA, May 2016).

This project, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, provides greater understanding of the equities and drivers fueling water insecurity in the Brahmaputra River basin. After conducting research in the three countries, CNA offers recommendations for key stakeholders to consider at the subnational, bilateral, and basin-wide levels. CNA’s findings lay the foundation for policymakers in China, India, and Bangladesh to discuss steps that manage and resolve water resource competition in order to help move the discussion toward solutions that address underlying long-term water needs and development of the Brahmaputra basin, thereby strengthening regional security.


The Brahmaputra River originates in China and runs through India and Bangladesh. China and India have fought a war over contested territory through which the river flows, and Bangladesh faces human security pressures in this basin that will be magnified by upstream river practices. Controversial dam-building activities and water diversion plans could threaten regional stability; yet, no bilateral or multilateral water management accord exists in the Brahmaputra basin.

This project, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, provides greater understanding of the equities and drivers fueling water insecurity in the Brahmaputra River basin. After conducting research in Dhaka, New Delhi, and Beijing, CNA offers recommendations for key stakeholders to consider at the subnational, bilateral, and multilateral levels to increase cooperation in the basin. These findings lay the foundation for policymakers in China, India, and Bangladesh to discuss steps that help manage and resolve Brahmaputra resource competition, thereby strengthening regional security.

Executive Summary 

The Brahmaputra River, which originates in China and runs through India and Bangladesh, raises serious concerns for regional stability. China and India have fought a war over contested territory through which the Brahmaputra flows, while Bangladesh faces human security pressures in this basin that will be magnified by upstream river practices. Despite potential threats to regional stability from dam-building activities and water diversion plans on shared resources, no bilateral or multilateral water management accord exists in the Brahmaputra River basin. Moreover, this basin has received little scholarly attention compared with other river basins such as the Ganges and Indus. As a result, CNA undertook a study to gain an understanding of the equities and challenges over Brahmaputra resources at the bilateral and domestic levels in order to consider the possibilities for greater cooperation across the basin.

We find that upper riparians China and India are more concerned about the basin in political terms, whereas lowest riparian Bangladesh is primarily concerned about the basin in physical terms. While current water cooperation in this basin is limited and each riparian has its own domestic considerations, there are ways to pursue positive interactions in the Brahmaputra basin at the bilateral and even multilateral levels. In fact, because there are no interstate or water-related crises at present, the moment is opportune for China, India, and Bangladesh to work cooperatively to prevent future problems. Appealing to the shared interests of the three countries—such as economic integration and development of the basin—will be more effective for multilateral cooperation than focusing on the narrow lens of water-sharing.

Bilateral relations 

China and India are engaged in a border dispute over Indian-administered Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing regards as “southern Tibet.” The Brahmaputra River runs through this disputed territory. While India’s concerns are evident as a lower riparian with a border dispute, China surprisingly also has concerns despite being upriver of India. Bangladesh does not have territorial disputes with India but still fears the ramifications of poor water management by its upstream neighbors, especially India.

  • China has concerns that India’s dam-building activities downstream could further strengthen New Delhi’s “actual control” over Arunachal Pradesh. This issue could complicate border negotiations and further reduce Beijing’s hopes of recovering this territory.
  • As the middle riparian in the basin, India faces threats from upper riparian China and poses challenges to lower riparian Bangladesh. India perceives political threats from China because of Beijing’s claim to part of the territory where the Brahmaputra River runs and therefore seeks to establish user rights to the river waters. India also faces physical challenges from China’s upstream activities such as its robust dam-building program and possible implementation of a water diversion project.
  • Bangladesh has the most to lose from water diversion activities and poor river management by upper riparian states. Bangladesh’s relations with neighboring India are the more complicated of its two bilateral relationships on the Brahmaputra.

Domestic considerations 

Each riparian has national priorities with regard to the Brahmaputra. Whereas China finds value in it for hydropower generation, Bangladesh’s main domestic challenges encompass managing the physical impacts of the river. India’s considerations reflect a combination of these interests as well as a desire to promote domestic integration.

  • Upper riparian China prioritizes harnessing the Brahmaputra’s economic and energy opportunities, such as the generation of hydropower to develop its western regions and to invest in clean energy resources. China has built one hydropower dam on the river and has plans for several more. In the near to medium term, China is unlikely to pursue plans to divert the Brahmaputra to relieve domestic water shortages—which is a concern for Indian observers—given cost and logistical concerns.
  • India’s main domestic considerations are the management of and access to Brahmaputra waters for hydroelectricity, flood control, local development, and integration of isolated northeast India into the rest of the country. India’s northeast states, primarily concerned about physical impacts of the river, differ among themselves and with the central government—further exacerbating India’s threat perceptions and policy quandaries.
  • While Bangladesh’s greatest potential threat from the Brahmaputra comes from the outside, the country’s most immediate challenges on this river exist within its borders. These challenges are primarily riverbank erosion, floods, and diminished water flow and groundwater availability in the dry season. The country’s capacity constraints, dense population, and dependence on external water sources exacerbate Bangladesh’s Brahmaputra-specific challenges.

Prospects for multilateral cooperation 

The three riparians have taken modest steps at the bilateral level to cooperate in the Brahmaputra basin, such as limited water data-sharing and government dialogues between technical experts. Multiple options exist to expand cooperation across the basin. Bangladesh is most favorably disposed to multilateral cooperation, while China and India are cautious and selective.

  • Bangladesh is the strongest advocate for basin-wide management of the Brahmaputra, given the cumulative impacts of activities by its upper riparian neighbors and Dhaka’s limited capacity to address internal challenges.
  • China and India have shown marginal interest thus far in addressing water resource management at a multilateral level given both countries’ preferences for bilateralism. Yet neither is opposed. There are precedents and space for New Delhi and Beijing to experiment with pursuing innovative approaches to the Brahmaputra with its neighbors.
  • Opportunities to expand cooperation at the multilateral level include 1) technical exchanges on the development of hydrological tools, disaster management, and pollution control and 2) confidence-building activities through official and unofficial dialogues, especially by international organizations and extraregional governments.

The only regional, multilateral framework where the three Brahmaputra riparians are members of equal status is the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) initiative. BCIM seeks to expand regional connectivity, such as through investments in infrastructure and resources. This established framework provides a built-in opportunity to cooperate on Brahmaputra issues.

  • The BCIM Economic Corridor is the most promising existing framework for multilateral cooperation on the Brahmaputra. All three basin countries studied in this report are equal members of BCIM and are formally committed to pursuing greater regional integration through the BCIM Economic Corridor.
  • Beginning cooperative efforts on water resources (e.g., through bilateral accords, trilateral consultations, and even a multilateral memorandum of understanding) could pave the way for a new entity—possibly a Brahmaputra Basin Commission—through which a water management and development accord could be designed and implemented. …

Joel Wuthnow, Chinese Diplomacy and the UN Security Council: Beyond the Veto (New York: Routledge, 2013; paperback 2015).

This book is animated by the observation that, within the last several years, China has played a much more influential role in Security Council affairs than at any time since the PRC was admitted to the UN in 1971. In contrast to prior studies, which often treat it as an object to be socialized through engagement, the book shows China for what it really is: a mature state trying to balance complex and contradictory interests. Based on dozens of interviews with participants, the book covers negotiations on North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Burma, and touches on the recent cases of Libya and Syria. In short, the book considers how China has made a decisive impact on world politics through its behavior in a key international institution.

China has emerged in the 21st century as a sophisticated, and sometimes contentious, actor in the United Nations Security Council. This is evident in a range of issues, from negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program to efforts to bring peace to Darfur. Yet China’s role as a veto-holding member of the Council has been left unexamined. How does it formulate its positions? What interests does it seek to protect? How can the international community encourage China to be a contributor, and not a spoiler?

This book is the first to address China’s role and influence in the Security Council. It develops a picture of a state struggling to find a way between the need to protect its stakes in a number of ‘rogue regimes’, on one hand, and its image as a responsible rising power on the world stage, on the other. Negotiating this careful balancing act has mixed implications, and means that whilst China can be a useful ally in collective security, it also faces serious constraints. Providing a window not only into China’s behavior, but into the complex world of decision-making at the UNSC in general, the book covers a number of important cases, including North Korea, Iran, Darfur, Burma, Zimbabwe, Libya and Syria.

Drawing on extensive interviews with participants from China, the U.S. and elsewhere, this book considers not only how the world affects China, but how China impacts the world through its behavior in a key international institution. As such, it will be of great interest to students and scholars working in the fields of Chinese politics and Chinese international relations, as well as politics, international relations, international institutions and diplomacy more broadly.



  1. China’s First Forty Years in the UN Security Council, 1971-2011
  2. Collective Security Decision-Making: An Analytical Framework
  3. Pressuring Pyongyang: Debates on North Korea, 2006
  4. Tangling with Tehran: The Iranian Nuclear Issue, 2010
  5. Deploying to Darfur: Peacekeeping in Sudan, 2007
  6. China Says “No”: Political Repression in Burma, 2006
  7. Conclusion


Joel Wuthnow and Phillip C. Saunders, “A More Cohesive Force: Enabling Joint Operations in the PLA,” in Roy Kamphausen, David Lai, and Tiffany Ma, eds., Securing the China Dream: The PLA’s Role in a Time of Reform and Change (Seattle, WA: NBR, 2020), 35-52.

Since assuming the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in late 2012, Xi Jinping has often referenced the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as a tool that may be used to overwhelm opponents. During a visit to the Southern Theater Command in October 2018, for instance, Xi called on PLA units responsible for enforcing China’s claims in the South China Sea to “concentrate on preparations for fighting a war.”1 In a speech on cross-strait relations in January 2019, he claimed that “Chinese don’t fight Chinese,” while asserting that Beijing “reserves the option of taking all necessary means” to achieve reunification with Taiwan.2 Although Xi’s comments might be interpreted as rhetoric designed to intimidate rivals and assuage domestic nationalists, his administration has taken a number of notable steps to improve PLA combat capabilities. Examples include building new destroyers, developing stealth bombers, and increasing the size of the PLA Marine Corps.3

Xi’s agenda is focused not just on force modernization but also on achieving stronger coordination among the PLA’s services and branches. Xi and his advocates in the military understand that the PLA must be able to conduct joint operations in a high-tech environment if it is to be able to “fight and win” future conflicts. This is not a new agenda but one that seeks to build on the achievements of Xi’s predecessors. Since the early 1990s, PLA training, professional military education (PME), logistics, and doctrinal development have increasingly focused on joint operations. Weaknesses remain, however, such as an army-dominant force structure and the lack of a permanent joint command-and-control system. Under Xi, the PLA has taken steps to correct these and other flaws with a series of organizational reforms launched at the end of 2015. This should be of concern to China’s regional rivals as well as to the U.S. military, which will need to contend with a more joint (and thus more lethal) PLA. The PLA’s intended direction is clear, but success will depend on its ability to overcome impediments, such as the lack of capable joint commanders and staff officers, as the reforms continue through the planned end date in 2020 (though discussions with PLA officers indicate that date may have slipped by a year or two).

This chapter reviews PLA joint force development under Xi, with equal attention paid to areas of progress and lingering obstacles. The first part reviews progress through a historical lens and identifies the problems that existed when Xi assumed office. The second part discusses the operational drivers of the Xi-era reforms and identifies the specific ways in which the PLA has expanded its joint operations capabilities in command and control, force composition, and human capital. The third part analyzes remaining obstacles and describes indicators of continued improvements. The conclusion assesses the overall impact of the military reforms on the PLA’s ability to conduct joint operations and argues that a significant increase in the scale, degree of jointness, duration, and nature of PLA overseas operations will likely require the development of new joint command-and- control mechanisms. … … …

Joel Wuthnow and Phillip C. Saunders, “A Modern Major General: Building Joint Commanders in the PLA,” in Phillip C. Saunders, Arthur S. Ding, Andrew Scobell, Andrew N.D. Yang, and Joel Wuthnow, eds., Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2019), 293-323.

Among the key ingredients in fielding a modern joint military force is cultivating a cadre of high-caliber commanders and staff officers to plan and lead operations. This has been a perennial challenge for all modern militaries, as the scope and scale of warfare has extended past single battle campaigns of short duration. Since the end of World War II, for instance, the U.S. military has considered and reconsidered ways in which officers can be given the requisite training, experience, and education to work effectively across Service boundaries and within joint organizations such as the combatant commands and Joint Staff. The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 mandated joint professional military education and joint assignments as requirements for promotion, yet the creation of a deeply rooted joint culture remains elusive—if achievable at all.1

For decades, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has also struggled with producing the officers it needs to perform joint operations. Reforms carried out during the 1990s and 2000s attempted to reorient the PLA toward a stronger joint operational capability, but weaknesses in the human resource domain persisted. Key problems included senior and mid-level officers with limited exposure to other services, few opportunities for non–ground force officers to get joint assignments, and training that paid lip service to joint operations via superficial involvement of other services to allow portraying service exercises as “joint.” Yet the need for qualified personnel has only increased as the PLA, under Xi Jinping, has been tasked with being able to fight and win “informationized local wars,” which are inherently joint.2 Xi and his fellow reformers in the PLA understand the problem and have adopted several initiatives designed to alleviate it, but the effectiveness of those reforms remains unclear.

This chapter documents how the PLA has tried to cultivate joint commanders before and during the current reform cycle, and comments on obstacles limiting the chances for success. It is divided into five sections. The first discusses the motivation for human capital reforms under Xi. The next reviews reforms instituted during the preceding two administrations. This is followed by a discussion of identified weaknesses as well as solutions considered in PLA sources prior to the Xi era. The fourth assesses reforms undertaken since 2016 to build qualified joint commanders in three areas: professional military education (PME), personnel management, and training. The conclusion assesses possible obstacles to current reforms and states the implications for the PLA. … … …

Phillip C. Saunders and Joel Wuthnow, “Large and In Charge: Civil-Military Relations under Xi Jinping,” in Phillip C. Saunders, Arthur S. Ding, Andrew Scobell, Andrew N.D. Yang, and Joel Wuthnow, eds., Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2019), 519-555.

Chinese military modernization has made impressive strides in the past decade.1 The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has achieved progress in key technological areas, ranging from precision-guided missiles to advanced surface ships and fighter aircraft; PLA personnel are more highly trained and skilled, capable of carrying out increasingly complex operations near to and farther away from China’s shores; and Chinese military doctrine has been updated to emphasize modern, joint maneuver warfare on a high-tech battlefield.2 This progress has been undergirded by significant increases in Chinese defense spending every year since 1990.3 Taken together, these changes better enable the PLA to fight what the U.S. Department of Defense describes as “short-duration, high-intensity regional conflicts.”4

As the title of a 2015 RAND report suggests, however, PLA modernization has been “incomplete.”5 Among the major weaknesses outlined in that report is the PLA’s antiquated organizational structure, which had experienced few major changes since the 1950s. Key problems include the lack of a permanent joint command and control (C2) structure, inadequate central supervision—which bred corruption, lowered morale, and inhibited the development of a professional force—and institutional barriers in the defense research and development (R&D) process.6 Prior military reforms made only limited and incremental adjustments to the PLA’s structure; more comprehensive reform efforts stalled in the face of bureaucratic resistance.

Since the early 1990s, PLA reformers had argued for comprehensive changes to the military’s structure. There were two basic reasons. First was the trend of modern warfare toward joint operations, most notably in the maritime and aerospace domains. This required the PLA to rebalance from the army to the navy and air force, and to institute a joint C2 structure that could integrate the capabilities of all the services as well as command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets. The need to conduct effective joint operations in multiple domains only increased as China’s national economic and political interests expanded outward to the maritime periphery and, later, to a global scale.7 Second, the general departments and military regions had amassed too much power and were too poorly supervised, leading to growing financial waste and corruption throughout the force. This, in turn, raised serious concerns about PLA combat readiness and proficiency.8

To address these problems, the PLA embarked on a series of institutional reforms during the Central Military Commission (CMC) chairmanships of Jiang Zemin (1989–2004) and Hu Jintao (2004–2012). Important changes included reducing the PLA’s size by 500,000 in 1997 and 200,000 in 2003; establishing a professional noncommissioned corps (NCO) in 1998; increasing resources to the navy, air force, and Second Artillery Force in 2004; and restructuring the research, development, and acquisition process in 1998.9 However, more fundamental changes to the PLA’s C2 and administrative structure eluded reformers. Resistance to change was likely strongest among the potential losers of reform, including the ground forces and general departments. Moreover, the relative weakness of Jiang and Hu within the military made bureaucratic opposition much harder to overcome.10

Conversely, Xi Jinping has been willing to invest significant amounts of time and political capital in pushing forward an ambitious PLA reform agenda. Prior to the initiation of the reforms, Xi’s signature military initiative was the directive that the PLA must focus on “fighting and winning an informationized war.”11 Xi appears to place a high personal priority on sovereignty and territorial disputes; a more effective military would be an important tool in strengthening China’s ability to resolve these disputes on favorable terms.

Revelations about widespread corruption within the PLA and the limited authority that former CMC Chairman Hu wielded over senior PLA officers also raised important questions about Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control over the military.12 The corollary to Mao Zedong’s dictum that “political power grows from the barrel of a gun” is that “the Party must always control the gun.” The extent of corruption within the PLA—and the fact that neither political ideology nor existing supervisory mechanisms could control it—was evidence that Party control over the PLA had eroded, perhaps to dangerous levels. More broadly, Xi appears to believe that emphasizing ideological conformity and obedience to Party central leadership are necessary conditions for continued CCP rule.

A final point involves the extent to which Xi seeks to overturn the norms of CCP collective leadership that Deng Xiaoping painstakingly constructed.13 Given Xi’s apparent desire to build his personal power at the expense of collective leadership norms, the military is an area where he (as the sole member of the Politburo Standing Committee with direct responsibility for military issues) has important advantages over potential political rivals. If Xi’s efforts to reassert CCP control over the PLA also build his personal authority over the military and create a senior officer corps that is personally loyal to him, this would be an important political asset.

This chapter is organized in four parts. The first section examines problems in civil-military relations in China from a historical, theoretical, and empirical perspective. It focuses on identifying the problems that PLA reforms are intended to solve: ineffective information-sharing between military and civilian authorities, corruption and cronyism, and a perceived waning of ideological commitment to Party ideals and values within the PLA. The second section examines how specific organizational and political aspects of the reforms are intended to address these problems. Given that the reforms will adversely affect the organizational and personal interests of some parts of the PLA and some PLA senior leaders, reformers anticipated resistance. The third section examines some of the political tools and tactics that Xi has used to push reforms through. The conclusion assesses whether this political strategy is likely to succeed in building a PLA that is more capable of executing joint operations to “fight and win wars” and in reasserting CCP control—and perhaps Xi’s personal authority—over the Chinese military. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “China’s Belt and Road: One Initiative, Three Strategies,” in Ashley J. Tellis, Alison Szalwinski, and Michael Wills, eds., Strategic Asia 2019: China’s Expanding Strategic Ambitions (Seattle, WA: NBR, 2019), 211-246.

The chapter finds that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) reflects both China’s global aspirations and domestic economic and political imperatives but will have to overcome a range of challenges and uncertainties.

Main Argument

BRI is one of the most notable manifestations of China’s rising global power, yet its drivers and implications remain clouded in uncertainty. BRI is composed of three distinct strategies, each with its own goals, tools, and sets of challenges. Politically, it enhances the image of both Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party but has to contend with public ambivalence and distorted bureaucratic incentives. Economically, BRI benefits a number of Chinese interest groups, including select provinces and cities, as well as state-owned enterprises, but faces a panoply of economic, legal, and governance risks. Geopolitically, the initiative strives to create a more stable frontier, advance key partnerships, diversify energy sources, and position China to compete more effectively with the U.S. Yet it has been hobbled by hedging among recipients and growing international skepticism about its purposes and ramifications.

Policy Implications

  • BRI illustrates a number of lessons about China’s status as an emerging global power, including its strategic flexibility, use of economic statecraft, multilayered goals and motivations, and contradictions within its own bureaucratic system.
  • If left unchecked, BRI could threaten the sovereignty of recipients and undermine U.S. strategic interests. This outcome, however, is not preordained. China’s own limitations, hedging by partners, and financing alternatives may all work in the opposite direction.
  • The U.S. cannot compete symmetrically with BRI due to resource and political constraints. A better approach is to leverage U.S. comparative advantages, including alliances, security partnerships, and values, to retain regional balance, market access, and liberal norms.

Joel Wuthnow, “A View from the United States on Sino-U.S. Relations,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., The Sino-ROK-U.S. Triangle: Awaiting the Impact of Leadership Changes, Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies, Volume 28 (Korea Economic Institute of America, 2017), 37-54.

During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the candidates reached a bipartisan consensus on one issue: how to deal with North Korea. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both called for China to do more to convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program once and for all. Candidate Trump said that China has “absolute control” over North Korea and promised to do whatever it takes to convince Beijing to use that leverage, including imposing penalties on Chinese firms. As president, however, Trump will have to navigate the reality of China’s extreme hesitance to use the only type of pressure likely to divert North Korea’s nuclear ambitions—the threat of regime-endangering punishment. If and how China should continue to fit into U.S. strategy for dealing with North Korea will thus be a key issue facing Trump and his advisors.

For the United States and its allies, the stakes are enormous. Mismanaging the North Korea threat could result in Pyongyang accelerating development of intermediate and long-range ballistic missiles capable of striking U.S. and allied targets in Asia, and the U.S. homeland.1 Those missiles could eventually be mated with nuclear warheads, giving Pyongyang a credible nuclear deterrent.2 Mishandling China’s role in addressing the North Korean threat could also have negative consequences. Overestimating China’s ability and willingness to help resolve the situation could become a chimerical goal. Conversely, circumventing Beijing and relying solely on missile defense and U.S.-ROK-Japan cooperation could damage Sino- U.S. relations and push China into an obstructionist role. Like his predecessors, President Trump will have to balance competing interests while prioritizing defense of the homeland from what could become an existential threat.

This chapter addresses these issues in three main sections. The first details how and why U.S. presidents have engaged China on North Korea over the past 15 years. The second explains U.S. concerns about China’s limited willingness to exert pressure on Pyongyang and identifies the reasons why Beijing has been reluctant to do so. This section also reviews the constraints on additional U.S.-ROK-China trilateral coordination, which was a goal of former ROK President Park Geun-hye. The third section discusses three schools of thought in U.S. policy circles about how to engage China in light of North Korea’s two nuclear tests in 2016. The conclusion discusses how the Trump administration handled this issue in its first few months, and argues that expectations for a fundamental revision in China’s North Korea policy are misguided. This means that Trump and his advisors will have to find other ways to address the North Korean challenge, including through expanded cooperation with Tokyo and Seoul. Nevertheless, engaging Beijing cannot and should not be entirely avoided. One area where expanded engagement is necessary is in contingency planning for a North Korean crisis. … … …


Joel Wuthnow and Dingding Chen, “China’s ‘New-Type’ Private Think Tanks: Is ‘New’ Better?Journal of Chinese Political Science 26.2 (May 2021): 373–391.

China’s public policy research community has long been dominated by large state-run research institutes, but in recent years financially and bureaucratically independent think tanks have played a more prominent role. While private think tanks have used a variety of strategies to secure funding and access to officials, a major constraint is the continuing influence of their state-run counterparts. What are the conditions under which private institutes can prosper in this environment, both in terms of providing meaningful advice and developing prestigious brands? This essay theorizes that these goals can be achieved under three conditions: when human capital is leveraged to provide new advice, when networks are deployed to build bridges between scholarly communities, and when effective use of information technology supports the dissemination of research outputs. An organization’s ability to meet those criteria depends both on resource endowments and on willingness to buck the conventional wisdom.


Long dominated by large state-run research institutes and universities, China’s public policy research is increasingly being conducted by financially and bureaucratically autonomous think tanks, hereafter called “private think tanks” (PTTs). Many are small and poorly-resourced, but others are surprisingly well-funded. At least two have endowments of over $30 million—comparable to some leading U.S. institutes such as Brookings or the Center for Strategic and International Studies. They carry out research across various disciplines including social and economic policy, foreign affairs, and national security studies, and contribute to elite and popular discourse. But their goal is not simply to influence policy. One Beijing-based PTT’s lobby is adorned with photos of world-famous institutes. The goal, an interlocutor explained, is to build a domestic version worthy of global respect.

China’s PTT community has gained more attention since January 2015, when Xi Jinping launched a campaign to encourage “new-type think tanks” (xinxing zhiku, 新型智库) with the ability to provide better advice to policymakers. A key driver of this campaign was the recognition of the need for more useful policy research. Those analytic contributions would be essential in informing future policy decisions and establishing prestigious global brands, correcting China’s deficit of contenders on the global league tables. Yet the July 2019 closure of the Unirule Institute of Economics, widely regarded as retribution for criticism of Xi’s policies by Unirule’s liberal scholars, raises serious doubts about the ability of China’s PTTs to question the political orthodoxy and provide controversial new policy option.

Chinese officials’ encouragement of the further growth of the PTT community has led to a recent burst of scholarly articles. Key themes in this literature include China’s development of a western-style “revolving door” system through which elites cycle into and out of government positions, resource constraints such as limited funding or access to policy officials, the “internationalization” of new think tanks based on their links with foreign scholars, and the use of social media to expand influence at the popular and elite levels. These studies, which mostly focus on either single case studies or large-N analyses, provide a stronger empirical and conceptual basis from which to analyze these developments and derive judgments about their potential future contributions.

A key question that has not been well addressed in the literature, however, is whether Chinese PTTs can fulfill the demands of Chinese leaders in light of the persistent advantages held by large state-run institutes, which continue to have preferential access to funding and officials. This essay explores the conditions under which PTTs can serve their intended roles as purveyors of innovative policy advice and prestigious brands within this larger context. The argument is that PTTs are most likely to succeed under three conditions, each of which involves the application of a specific resource to generate a comparative advantage vis-à-vis the state sector. First is when a PTT leverages human capital in terms of expertise to provide new or different advice from state think tanks; second is when they use convening power and networks to foster the spread of new ideas and perspectives within and beyond China’s analytic community; third is when they widely disseminate their research results by more effectively utilizing information technology, especially social media. Achieving these conditions depends both on prior resource endowments and on the willingness of think tank leaders to buck the conventional wisdom.

As a probe of these arguments, we focus on eight leading PTTs as ranked in the University of Pennsylvania’s 2018 Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) index as well as two prominent national security think tanks not included in that list (Tsinghua’s National Strategy Institute and the Knowfar Institute for Strategic and Defence Studies; see Table 1 below). This subset is not representative of the larger pool of PTTs, which number more than 200, and systematic comparisons between the ten institutes we survey are often difficult due to the lack of publicly reported data. However, examples drawn from these cases allow us to investigate whether and how some of the most well-endowed PTTs are meeting the postulated conditions, which provides initial evidence that the framework is worth pursuing in other cases. The analysis is based on a variety of databases, media reports, government documents, scholarly articles, and interviews with over two dozen Chinese PTT officials between 2017 and 2019.

The article develops the framework in five sections. The first briefly discusses the growth of the PTT sector since the 1980s. The second considers the development strategies used by think tank entrepreneurs, which is necessary to understand the capabilities PTTs have developed to achieve comparative advantages in the current environment. The third section provides a cursory overview of the “new type think tank” campaign, focusing on the role of PTTs within that construct. The fourth theorizes the conditions under which PTTs can leverage existing resources to gain advantages over their state-run brethren in terms of supplying quality advice and promoting globally-recognized brands. The fifth considers the major constraints that could prevent PTTs from meeting those conditions, focusing on political incentives to avoid pushing iconoclastic policy prescriptions. The conclusion recaps the argument and details questions for further research. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “A New Era for Chinese Military Logistics,” Asian Security (Published online: 11 Feb 2021).

The PLA’s ability to project force within and beyond China’s borders, which Chinese strategists refer to as “strategic delivery,” depends on adequate logistics capabilities, systems, and policies. The new Joint Logistic Support Force will play a critical role in these respects. The force, established in 2016 as part of Xi Jinping’s reforms, made its operational debut in the PLA’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in 2020. That case provides details about the JLSF’s structure, capabilities, and operations. Leveraging insights from that case, the essay portrays the JLSF as a force in transition, both the inheritor of decades of investments in logistics modernization and recent upgrades, but also a new and largely untested force with several apparent weaknesses. Unless further improvements are made, the JLSF could be a weak link in future Chinese joint operations. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “Contested Strategies: China, the United States, and the Indo-Pacific Security Dilemma,” China International Strategy Review 1:1 (June 2019), 99–110.

The Sino-U.S. security dilemma is driven, in large part, by concerns in both countries about the regional strategies being pursued by the other. U.S. analysts worry about the implications of China’s regional economic diplomacy, while their Chinese counterparts construe U.S. strategy as a containment plot. Those dynamics are accelerating under the bold approaches being undertaken by Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative and Donald Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy. These perceptions are leading to responses which, in turn, make both sides feel even less secure. Nevertheless, the security dilemma is mitigated by perceptions that both countries are facing serious constraints in achieving their regional ambitions, and by the sense that neither country will be able to eliminate the key strategic advantages of the other. Policymakers thus need to be aware that there is a gap between how regional strategies are explained and how they are received, and avoid particularly severe provocations that could lead to further tensions and counter-moves. But mutual constraints mean that leaders do not need to be overly sensitive, and provides some hope that a modicum of strategic stability can be injected into the relationship. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “U.S. ‘Minilateralism’ in Asia and China’s Responses: A New Security Dilemma?Journal of Contemporary China 28.115 (January 2019), 133-50.

A key feature of Asia’s evolving strategic landscape is U.S. efforts to promote policy coordination and interoperability among its allies and partners, through dialogues, exercises, intelligence-sharing agreements, and other means. Though useful in addressing practical issues and underscoring shared values, a concern is that these ‘minilateral’ activities could exacerbate Chinese fears of ‘encirclement’ and lead to strategic or economic counter-moves. However, this article suggests that a new ‘security dilemma’ in Asia is not likely. Although Chinese officials and analysts are apprehensive about U.S. bilateral alliance developments, they have largely discounted the emergence of an ‘Asian NATO’ under U.S. stewardship. This is due to perceived divergences between U.S. allies, many states’ economic dependence on China, and U.S. self-restraint. This should open possibilities for greater minilateral cooperation under most conditions. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “Asian Security without the United States? Examining China’s Security Strategy in Maritime and Continental Asia,” Asian Security 14:3 (October 2018), 230-45.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has touted an Asian security architecture in which “it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia.” But does China really want to exclude the United States from the regional order? This article argues that previous answers are often insufficient because they do not account for sub-regional variation in China’s strategy. In maritime Asia, China seeks a significantly reduced role for the U.S. and its alliances though major constraints limit the prospects for success. In continental Asia, however, the situation is more nuanced, with Beijing alternately ignoring, supporting, or hedging against U.S. presence. The policy implication is that Washington should not overstate Beijing’s role as either a regional adversary or a regional partner. Rather, the United States needs to approach China on its own terms across sub-regions. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “China’s New ‘Black Box’: Problems and Prospects for the Central National Security Commission,” The China Quarterly, Vol. 232 (December 2017): 886-903.


China’s establishment of a Central National Security Commission (CNSC) in late 2013 was a potentially transformative event in the evolution of China’s national security decision-making structure. Yet, as of mid-2017, few details about this organization and its activities have been released, leading to continuing questions about its likely role and functions in the Chinese system. Based on an analysis of numerous authoritative but under-utilized Chinese sources, this article addresses the rationale, prospects and implications of the CNSC. It argues that the organization is both a fulfilment of a long-held desire by many in China for a centralized, permanent national security deliberation forum and also a reflection of the unique challenges facing China in the 21st century. Contrary to existing analyses, which argue that the CNSC is likely to be focused primarily on domestic security tasks, the article contends that it is more likely to play a major role in both internal and external security affairs. Moreover, the article argues that if certain obstacles can be addressed, the CNSC may have broad implications in areas ranging from China’s crisis response capability to the role played by the Chinese Communist Party general secretary in the national security decision-making process. The conclusion recaps the findings and suggests avenues for further research.


中国在 2013 年底设立的中央国家安全委员会 (简称为国安委) 成为了中国国家安全决策结构演变的潜在的改革性的时刻. 但是, 截至 2015 年后期, 中国公布了较少关于国安委的结构和行动的信息, 而引起了对于它在中国体系的作用和职能的持续问题. 这片文章采用了各种不常利用的权威性的研究资料而进行了对于国安委的意图, 前途, 和影响力的探索. 本篇文章认为国安委的成立不仅实现了建立一个固定的国家安全决策机构长期持有的期望, 也是中国在 21 世纪面临的独特挑战的反映。 现有研究分析认为国安委的主要任务集中在国内安全事务, 但本文章却认为组织更有可能发挥内部以及外部安全事务的重大作用. 此外, 文章认为, 如果某些障碍能取得解决, 国安委即可影响到各种各样的安全领域, 包括了中国的危机应对能力以及中共总书记在国家安全决策过程中的角色等领域. 结论重述结果和提出了进一步研究的领域。

Joel Wuthnow, “Beyond Imposing Costs: Recalibrating U.S. Strategy in the South China Sea,” Asia Policy 24 (July 2017): 123-38.

This essay assesses how U.S. strategy in the South China Sea can be optimized to retain military superiority while addressing the risk of instability resulting from a clash with China.

Main Argument

U.S. policy in the South China Sea has failed to fully address two problems: China’s continuing buildup of military and paramilitary power in the region, and the risk of an incident at sea escalating into major conflict. The main alternative to current policy focuses on imposing political, economic, and military costs on China to deter further militarization of the region. However, this approach risks spoiling cooperation on risk-reduction measures while pushing Beijing toward even greater regional militarization. Instead of a fundamental revision, U.S. strategy should be recalibrated through sustained cooperation at a practical level, more finely tuned deterrence measures, and clearer and more consistent messaging. Nevertheless, U.S. options will continue to be constrained by the need for broader stability in Sino-U.S. relations as well as by China’s inherent resolve. It will be up to the Trump administration to exert the political will necessary to refine U.S. strategy.

Policy Implications

  • U.S. policymakers will have to balance the competing demands of improving communication during a crisis with Beijing and strengthening deterrence. The latter goal needs to be focused squarely on preventing Chinese military domination within the South China Sea and should consist of unilateral military enhancements, stronger partnerships with Japan and others, and progressively clear commitments to the Philippines.
  • A linchpin of effective strategy is delivering a consistent and clear message to Chinese interlocutors about U.S. intentions. Care should be taken to direct this message to the appropriate audience and avoid unnecessarily incendiary rhetoric.

Joel Wuthnow, “A Brave New World for Chinese Joint Operations,” Journal of Strategic Studies 40.1-2 (February 2017), 169-195.

A key organizational challenge for all modern militaries is instituting an effective command-and-control (C2) structure for joint operations. China has been a relative latecomer to joint operations, with a persistent weakness in joint C2. Reforms launched in early 2016 sought to overcome this challenge by establishing a permanent two-level joint C2 structure. Although not a ‘tipping point’ that will lead ineluctably to stronger operational effectiveness, this reform is nonetheless an important milestone in an evolutionary process towards better PLA joint operations. The result could be added operational challenges for several of China’s neighbors and the United States.

Phillip C. Saunders and Joel Wuthnow, “China’s Goldwater-Nichols? Assessing PLA Organizational Reform,” Joint Force Quarterly 82 (July 2016), 68-75.

In the past few months, China has announced a series of major reforms to the organizational structure of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA): the Central Military Commission (CMC) has been revamped, the four general departments dissolved, new service headquarters created, and five new theater commands established in place of the seven military regions (MRs). These changes are part of a sweeping transformation of PLA institutions, force structure, and policy that will be ongoing through 2020. In pursuing these reforms, China’s leaders hope both to tighten central political control over a force that was seen as increasingly corrupt and to build the PLA into a credible joint warfighting entity. Yet important obstacles remain, and it may be years before the implications of these reforms come into full view.

Andrew S. Erickson and Joel Wuthnow, “Barriers, Springboards and Benchmarks: China Conceptualizes the Pacific ‘Island Chains’,” The China Quarterly 225 (March 2016): 1-22.


U.S. government reports describe Chinese-conceived “island chains” in the Western Pacific as narrow demarcations for Chinese “counter-intervention” operations to defeat U.S. and allied forces in altercations over contested territorial claims. The sparse scholarship available does little to contest this excessively myopic assertion. Yet, further examination reveals meaningful differences that can greatly enhance an understanding of Chinese views of the “island chains” concept, and with it important aspects of China’s efforts to develop as a maritime power. Long before China had a navy or naval strategists worthy of the name, the concept had originated and been developed for decades by previous great powers vying for Asia-Pacific influence. Today, China’s own authoritative interpretations are flexible, nuanced and multifaceted – befitting the multiple and sometimes contradictory factors with which Beijing must contend in managing its meteoric maritime rise. These include the growing importance of sea lane security at increasing distances and levels of operational intensity.


美国政府报告把中国设想的西太平洋 “岛链” 概念描述为中国军队为在有关领土争端的 “反干涉”作战中试图打败美国和盟国部队而设立的狭窄的界线。寥寥无几的相关研究对这个过于短视的看法也没有提出不同意见。然而, 进一步的分析却发现此概念有迥然不同的含义。这些含义能大大增强我们对中国为发展成为一个海洋大国所做出的努力的理解。这个概念是在中国有一个现代的海军或海军战略家之前由其他有影响力的大国为争夺亚太地区的影响力而发展起来的。如今, 中国对此概念的权威解释显示出其灵活性, 微妙性和多面性。这些解释特征恰恰能与北京在管理其海上崛起过程中许多有时是相互矛盾的因素相适应。这些因素包括由于不断增大距离和活动强度所导致的海上通道安全日益增长的重要性。


China; island chain; strategy; military; maritime; navy


中国; 岛链; 战略; 军事; 海事; 海军


Joel Wuthnow, Phillip C. Saunders, and Ian Burns McCaslin, PLA Overseas Operations in 2035: Inching Toward a Global Combat CapabilityStrategic Forum 309, May 2021.

Key Points

  • The Chinese military presence in the “far seas” beyond Asia is growing and will expand further as the PLA moves toward its 2035 goal of fielding a fully modern military.
  • Existing overseas activities are mostly conducted by a single service and have not involved combat.
  • Future scenarios for overseas joint operations include larger-scale military operations other than war, extended-range counterintervention, and overseas combat.
  • Conducting more complex overseas operations would require substantial improvements in PLA capabilities, including a better developed global command structure, increases in sealift and airlift assets, a stronger overseas joint logistics system, and more effective joint commanders.
  • Changes in the domestic or regional security environment or intensified U.S.-China competition could accelerate a transition toward greater emphasis on expeditionary operations, including higher-end combat scenarios.

Joel Wuthnow, Just Another Paper Tiger? Chinese Perspectives on the U.S. Indo-Pacific StrategyStrategic Forum 305, June 2020.

Key Points

  • Chinese officials have responded to the U.S. “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy through a regional counternarrative that raises doubts about the motives and sustainability of U.S. leadership in Asia while presenting China as a partner of choice.
  • Chinese analysts perceive the Indo-Pacific strategy as a form of containment based on stronger U.S. relations with Japan, India, and Australia. They assess that, if left unchecked, the strategy will reduce China’s influence and increase regional tensions.
  • Chinese observers identify weak regional support as the primary constraint on U.S. strategy in Asia and advocate responding by improving China’s own relations throughout the neighborhood.
  • U.S. messaging needs to offer assurances of U.S. commitments and evidence of regional contributions. These messages should be regularly reinforced in regional gatherings, even those hosted by China.
  • Washington needs to maintain key relationships in the region but need not respond in kind to every Chinese overture. The strategy may also create new opportunities to negotiate with China on certain issues from a position of strength.

Joel Wuthnow, The PLA Beyond Asia: China’s Growing Military Presence in the Red Sea RegionStrategic Forum 303, January 2020.

Key Points

  • China has gradually expanded its military footprint in the Red Sea region, an area of critical importance for global maritime commerce and energy production. Key aspects include a People’s Liberation Army role in United Nations peacekeeping, anti-piracy patrols, and a new base in Djibouti.
  • China’s military presence—its largest outside the Indo-Pacific—supports Beijing’s diplomatic relations in the region, contributes to China’s maritime security interests, and provides useful lessons in building an expeditionary capability.
  • U.S. officials need to address operational safety and counterintelligence issues and determine whether China’s presence—which also includes military diplomacy and arms sales—is eroding traditional U.S. advantages as a security partner.
  • Opportunities for military cooperation should be explored in areas where U.S. and Chinese interests align, such as disaster management and maritime safety.

Phillip C. Saunders and Joel Wuthnow, “China’s Goldwater Nichols? Assessing PLA Organizational Reforms,” Strategic Forum 294, April 2016.

This analysis dubs the 2015 reforms “Goldwater Nichols with Chinese characteristics” for their similarity to the reforms undertaken within the U.S. military following the passage of the eponymous 1986 congressional act.

In the past few months, China has announced a series of major reforms to the organizational structure of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA): the Central Military Commission (CMC) has been revamped, the four general departments dissolved, new service headquarters created, and five new theater commands established in place of the seven military regions (MRs). These changes are part of a sweeping transformation of PLA institutions, force structure, and policy that will be ongoing through 2020. In pursuing these reforms, China’s leaders hope both to tighten central political control over a force that was seen as increasingly corrupt and to build the PLA into a credible joint warfighting entity. Yet important obstacles remain, and it may be years before the implications of these reforms come into full view.

Key Points:

  • The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is undertaking its most significant restructuring since 1949, including changes to all of the PLA’s main organizational pillars—the Central Military Commission, services, and theaters.
  • The reforms are modeled partly on the U.S. military structure, where combatant commanders lead operations and the services train and equip troops. However, the PLA remains a Leninist military responsible for defending Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule.
  • The reforms aim to tighten CCP supervision over a force seen as corrupt and unaccountable and to enhance the PLA’s ability to conduct joint operations across multiple domains.
  • Theater commanders will be able to develop force packages drawn from all the services, and a new Strategic Support Force will provide C4ISR support.
  • The reforms will create a short- term organizational disruption, but may enable more effective joint warfighting over the long term. The PLA will have to overcome significant obstacles such as continued ground force dominance and inter-service rivalry to make the reforms succeed.

Joel Wuthnow, Posing Problems without an Alliance: China-Iran Relations after the Nuclear Deal, Strategic Forum 290, February 2016.

Key Points

  • China is poised to increase economic and diplomatic cooperation with Iran as a result of sanctions relief under the recent Iran nuclear deal, though a close geopolitical alignment between the two states is unlikely.
  • Sino-Iranian relations will remain limited by several enduring constraints, including China’s desire for positive ties with other states, its pursuit of energy diversification, and its need for regional stability.
  • Renewed Chinese arms sales to Iran could constitute an emerging challenge for the United States. This could increase Iran’s antiaccess/ area-denial threat to U.S. military forces and create proliferation risks.
  • U.S. officials should press Chinese interlocutors to avoid exporting advanced weapons, which could embolden Iran to conduct a more brazen foreign policy that would threaten China’s fundamental need for regional stability.


Joel Wuthnow, “What I Learned From the PLA’s Latest Strategy Textbook,”  Jamestown China Brief (25 May 2021).

This analysis of the new (2020) edition of PLA NDU’s Science of Military Strategy, a key PLA textbook contains a number of updates in response to PLA reforms, but also suggests a revision to the military strategic guidelines. Key excerpt:

“One of the key judgements underpinning the [military strategic] guidelines is the “basic operational form” (基本作战形式, jiben zuozhan xingshi), which can be thought of as the dominant features of modern warfighting that may require the PLA to adapt or innovate. In the 2020 revision, Chapter 13 on operational guidance (作战指导, zuozhan zhidao) makes the new statement that this has shifted from “integrated joint operations” (一体化联合作战, yiti hua lianhe zuozhan) to “multi-domain integrated joint operations” (多域一体化联合作战, duo yu yiti hua lianhe zuozhan) (p. 264-7). The latter refers to an “advanced stage” of joint operations consisting of a high level of operational coordination across domains, including land, sea, air, space, cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum, and also the cognitive domain (智, zhi).[7]


In August 2020, China’s National Defense University (NDU) released a revised version of its Science of Military Strategy (战略学, zhanlüe xue) (SMS), a core textbook for senior PLA officers on how wars should be planned and conducted at the strategic level. This article compares the 2020 version of this book with its last revision, in 2017, and finds that the former contains new details on wartime political work, “intelligentization” concepts, China’s military strategic guidelines, major war operations, joint logistics and the People’s Armed Police. It should be a go-to reference for those seeking to understand Chinese military thinking as it is currently explained to PLA officers themselves.


Over the last three decades, China’s two premier defense institutes—the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) and NDU—have produced several editions of the Science of Military Strategy. AMS published new editions in 1987, 2001 and 2013. NDU published new editions in 1999 and 2015. In May 2017, NDU released a revision (修订, xiuding) to the 2015 edition, and then released another revision in August 2020.[1]

The postscript to the 2020 SMS explains that the recent revisions were necessary to “better adapt to the major trend in the form of warfare shifting from informationization (信息化, xinxi hua) to intelligentization (智能化, zhineng hua), elucidate the characteristics and rules of military struggle in the new era, reflect the newest results of national defense and army reforms, and promote innovation in our strategic theories” (p. 452). These volumes are best described as doctrinal teaching materials: previous editions have been included in the curricula at NDU, whose function is to train commanders at the senior colonel level and above.[2]

Although the books themselves are not “doctrine” per se, it is likely that the authors had access to—and based some of their judgements on—classified or otherwise non-public materials, including China’s formal military strategy, known as the “military strategic guidelines” (军事战略方针, junshi zhanlüe fangzhen). Reviewing changes in the SMS over time can thus reveal insights into new issues, perspectives, and developments that the leaders of China’s professional military education system believe need to be imparted to PLA officers. … … …


The 2020 SMS is not a fundamental rethinking of China’s military strategy but provides new insights in all three of its main parts. When translated and widely available, it should be the standard reference for foreign scholars looking to better understand Chinese thinking at the strategic level of warfare. It is also worth considering how the PLA will close the gap between frequently updated teaching materials on military strategy and core texts at the campaign and tactical levels that are now quite old. The Central Military Commission’s issuance of a new outline for joint operations in November 2020 (PRC Ministry of Defense, November 26, 2020), for instance, could prompt NDU to revise its Science of Campaigns (战役学, zhanyi xue), which has been an often-cited resource for PLA watchers but whose last edition dates from 2006.

Joel Wuthnow, “Improving U.S.-China Crisis Communications—Thinking Beyond the Air and Sea,” PacNet #25, 21 May 2021.

As the Pentagon’s China Task Force prepares to deliver its final report to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin next month, one of the key issues on the table is how to strengthen U.S.-China crisis communications. The focus is likely to center on improving safety for air and maritime encounters near China’s borders and handling crises if they occur. This is logical given the occasional “near misses” between U.S. and Chinese forces—a repeat of the 2001 EP-3 incident could be a disaster. But there are already rules on the books and misaligned interests mean that encouraging China to enforce them will be difficult. U.S. policymakers should not overlook the chance of productive talks for crises in other domains, including on land and in nuclear, space, and cyber, where the rules are more ambiguous and both sides have reasons for restraint.

Crisis communications talks can be useful under two conditions: incomplete mechanisms or “rules of the road” that require new agreements and common interests that promote enforcement and refinement of existing rules. The Obama administration focused on air and maritime cooperation because of the lack of concrete agreements. The 1998 Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA), created after the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, provided a venue for the two sides to discuss maritime incidents but lacked the detailed protocols that Washington had reached with Moscow in the 1972 Incidents at Sea agreement. Driven by leadership from both Obama and Xi, the two sides agreed to a similar protocol for U.S.-China naval encounters in 2014; an annex covering air incidents was added the following year. Encouraged by Washington, China also agreed to follow the multilateral Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in 2014.

With detailed rules already on the books, the next step for both sides should be greater enforcement and consultation when incidents do happen. The problem is that the incentives for each side are misaligned. Washington seeks the predictability and stability of safe air and naval encounters, but China’s strategy for dissuading the United States from operating freely in the Western Pacific or intervening on behalf of an ally (or Taiwan) benefits from the “costly signal” offered by dangerous intercepts—one example was a September 2018 close call in which a Chinese destroyer maneuvered within 45 yards of the USS Decatur in the South China Sea. Chinese representatives, with less to lose, also refused to participate in an MMCA dialogue scheduled for December 2020. Crisis communications talks are of little value when one side refuses to follow existing protocols or participate in discussions.

Given the challenges for making current agreements stick, U.S. officials should have low expectations for “more communications channels and mechanisms” in these domains, as Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan put it in 2019. One idea occasionally discussed is expanding the naval agreement to cover the Chinese Coast Guard and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, which have been involved in several tense incidents with U.S. ships over the years, or to include representatives from these forces in the MMCA. But China’s incentive is to retain maximum flexibility of these assets, which are helpful in a “gray zone” campaign of gradually expanding control of contested regions without resorting to war. Thus, Beijing has shown little willingness to expand the regime to include “white hull” ships.

There have also been periodic calls for a maritime and air “hotline,” such as a link between the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and a PLA theater command. The two sides have managed to establish three hotlines so far: a presidential link in 1998, a link connecting the defense ministries in 2008, and space hotline in 2015. However, as Kurt Campbell recently noted, China has been reluctant to use these systems in real-world situations, with the phones essentially ringing out in “empty rooms.” Even if Beijing were more willing to use these systems, a new hotline linking operational forces would be of little value given the PLA’s more centralized decision-making structure.

With limited hope for progress in these domains, members of the China Task Force should look for progress elsewhere. One potential avenue is discussions on land crises. Unlike the air and maritime domains, there are no detailed protocols for how land forces can communicate and resolve crises. The two sides, to be sure, are not preparing for a land conflict against the other but could find themselves in one given a disaster on the Korean Peninsula. Lack of communication could set the stage for accidental fire incidents or miscalculations about each side’s intentions. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “China’s Shifting Attitude on the Indo-Pacific Quad,” War on the Rocks, 7 April 7 2021.

In 2018, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi famously dismissed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as nothing more than dissipating “sea foam.” However, recent developments have forced Chinese observers to take “the Quad” — comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States — more seriously. Even before the “historic” March 12 virtual summit with Quad heads of government, Chinese strategists saw the group transitioning from a loose diplomatic configuration with little impact into a more institutionalized and worrisome arrangement. As I found in a review of three dozen articles from leading Chinese academics and government-affiliated analysts between 2018 and 2021, their prescriptions shifted from calls to drive wedges between the four states to efforts to marginalize the Quad by highlighting other regional institutions where the balance of influence works more in China’s favor.

However, Beijing’s leadership has not consistently followed this in-house strategic advice, often yielding to nationalistic policies that drive the Quad members closer together. In fact, other countries are reportedly considering their options for joining a Quad-Plus arrangement. China’s top officials will likely only consider the Quad a real threat if the group begins to deliver concrete results that undermine China’s economic appeal for the wider region, such as by pooling resources to provide alternative infrastructure investment financing or creating new supply chains that route around China. Unless the Quad is perceived to be cutting into its core strategic advantages, Beijing is unlikely to feel compelled to dial back its disputes with the four states and their regional supporters. Consequently, the Quad members should work to produce tangible goods for other countries in the Indo-Pacific to advance their own national interests and to possibly modify China’s assertive and antagonistic posture. … … …

Joel Wuthnow and Phillip C. Saunders, “A New Step Forward in PLA Professionalization,” Jamestown China Brief 21.5 (15 March 2021).

A linchpin of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s transformation into a “world-class military” is whether it can recruit, cultivate, and retain talent, especially among the officer corps tasked with planning and conducting future wars. Uneven progress over the past few decades has meant that deeper reforms to the officer system are necessary under the leadership of Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman Xi Jinping (习近平). New regulations announced in January 2021 suggest a commitment to clarifying hierarchical relationships between officers, improving the officer management system, incentivizing high performers, and recruiting and retaining officers with the right skills. Nonetheless, several challenges and complications remain.


The new regulations are the latest step in a long but uneven path towards professionalization. The process began in the 1950s under then-Defense Minister Peng Dehuai (彭德怀) but was suspended just prior to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), during which the PLA focused more on political indoctrination than developing professional skills, and even abandoned formal ranks for a time. Officer ranks were not restored until the issuance of the Active Duty Officer Law in 1988 (Xinhua, May 12, 2014), itself part of a larger effort under then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (邓小平) to professionalize the personnel system through formal rules and policies. Under the leadership of former CMC chairmen Jiang Zemin (江泽民)(1989-2004) and Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) (2004-2012), the PLA made further changes to recruitment and retention policies, military training and education, pay and welfare, and related areas, to promote the army’s evolving focus on fighting and winning “high-tech local wars.”(高技术局部战争, gaojishu jubu zhanzheng)[1] … … …

Joel WuthnowSatu Limaye, and Nilanthi Samaranayake, “Brahmaputra: A Conflict-Prone River Takes a Step Backwards,” War on the Rocks, 23 December 2020.

The Brahmaputra River is a source of life for more than 130 million people in China, India, and Bangladesh, but also a persistent irritant. The three riparian states, unlike those in other regional river basins, have never concluded a water-sharing agreement, and upstream dam construction by China and India is often viewed as a threat by downstream countries (i.e., Bangladesh and even India). Low-level tensions have sometimes boiled to the surface, such as in 2000, when a landslide in Tibet caused a flood that killed 30 Indian nationals, and some have predicted a future “water war” involving a conflict over scarce resources, a probability exacerbated by the impact of climate change. At best, the river has become a challenge to be managed rather than an opportunity to drive regional cooperation.

The latest flare-up between the three states was sparked last month by new Chinese policy guidance that envisioned hydropower construction on the section of the Brahmaputra closest to India. While Chinese diplomats downplayed the decision, Indian officials conveyed concerns, and some speculated about tit-for-tat dam construction. Bangladesh, as the lowest riparian, may be the victim of wrangling between its two more powerful upstream neighbors, but its close economic ties with China mean that it is unlikely to align with New Delhi to pressure Beijing. These problems underscore the need for confidence-building measures between all three countries. Leaders should take small steps in the near term to guard against a further escalation of tensions over the long run. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “PLA’s Capability Expands,” East Asia Forum Quarterly 12.4 (October-December 2020): 13-14.

China’s military modernisation began long before Xi Jinping became Chairman of the Central military Commission in November 2012, but the pace and scope of that effort has greatly accelerated under him. Key changes include the introduction of advanced weapons and equipment, structural reforms to make the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a more effective force, and a campaign to root out corruption and improve Xi’s control. This has given China greater confidence to press its territorial claims with a range of regional rivals.

The PLA was once a poorly outfitted force that aimed to win land battles through guerrilla tactics and  attrition. Chairman Deng Xiaoping, focused on reviving the economy, famously relegated the military to the last of the ‘four modernisations.’ beginning with Jiang Zemin (1989–2004), the PLA pivoted toward deterrence and preparations for ‘local wars’ against regional opponents. This implied a need for more capable air and naval forces as well as expanded conventional missile forces, accompanied by changes in training, doctrine, recruitment and education.

The limited political influence of Jiang and his successor Hu Jintao (2004–2012) over the military meant that the PLA was able to resist certain aspects of reform. One problem was that the PLA held on to a ‘big army’ mentality: ground force officers held most PLA senior positions and the other services were poorly integrated into the command structure. Another problem was that top party officials were unable to rein in prolific corruption, a product of PLA autonomy granted by Deng in return for its willingness to accept low budgets in the 1980s. Xi’s arrival heralded an acceleration of modernisation and solutions to problems that had confounded his predecessors. While many had their origins under Jiang and Hu, a number of key systems came online in the Xi era, including the indigenous aircraft carrier Shandong, the type-055 guided missile destroyer, the J-20 stealth fighter, the Y-20 long-range transport aircraft, the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, and the DF-17 ballistic missile fitted with a hypersonic glide vehicle. … … …

Joel Wuthnow and Phillip Saunders, “America Has Created a ‘China-Iran Collaboration’ Monster,” The National Interest, 18 July 2020.

Beijing and Tehran could use the prospects of deeper bilateral cooperation to generate leverage with foreign leaders—leaving Washington out in the cold.

News that China and Iran are nearing a twenty-five-year cooperation agreement has sparked concern about a growing alignment between two U.S. rivals. New York Times reporters Farnaz Fassihi and Steven Lee Myers disclosed details on the purported agreement claimed that it would “extend China’s influence in the Middle East, throwing Iran an economic lifeline and creating new flashpoints with the United States.” Those concerns seem overstated. The leaked text is apparently long on vision statements and short on actual commitments by either side. Both countries remain deeply wary about over-reliance on the other and have incentives to maximize their flexibility. Nevertheless, while the threat of a Sino-Iranian axis remains low, closer cooperation could still result in a stronger Iranian military and greater Chinese military and intelligence presence in the region. Those challenges, which are alluded to but not specified in the reported agreement, constitute the more difficult problems that will need to be addressed in the next few years.

In January 2016, the two countries agreed to pursue a twenty-five-year “comprehensive cooperation agreement” as part of their new “comprehensive strategic partnership.” The eighteen-page leaked document indicates that the two sides are nearing completion on such an agreement—neither side has disputed its authenticity—although the final version could differ. The agreement anticipates that the two sides will continue or expand cooperation in six major areas, including Chinese investments and purchase of Iranian oil and natural gas, infrastructure (including Chinese assistance developing the Chabahar and Bandar-e-abbas ports), technology (including 5G and artificial intelligence), banking and trade, defense (focusing on counter-terrorism), and coordination in multilateral institutions. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “China’s Inopportune Pandemic Assertiveness,” PacNet #33, 9 June 2020.

For a state just beginning to recover from Covid-19, China has been remarkably active in pressing its sovereignty claims. Chinese forces have been involved in a spate of incidents around its borders, most recently a series of tense encounters with India. Foreign media have seized on this as another example of Chinese opportunism, in which Beijing shamelessly presses its territorial agenda against weaker rivals still in the throes of the disease. However, China’s actions also constitute a strategic blunder, sacrificing the propaganda value of its contributions to regional pandemic responses and weakening its long-running attempts to dilute U.S. influence. This gives Washington a second chance at drawing a contrast with China and demonstrating concrete leadership for a region still reeling from Covid-19’s effects.

Untimely Bellicosity 

In February, Chinese jets crossed the mid-line of the Taiwan Strait, forcing Taiwan to scramble interceptors, and People’s Liberation Army troops carried out live-fire combat drills in the vicinity. In March, a Chinese fishing boat—possibly belonging to the paramilitary maritime militia—collided with a Japanese destroyer in the East China Sea, damaging the latter ship. In April, Beijing declared new administrative districts in the Paracel and Spratly islands, the latest step in China’s bid to legitimize effective control over these areas. The same month, a Chinese coast guard ship sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea. In May, Chinese and Indian troops were involved in a confrontation along the disputed Himalayan border, though Indian officials suggested both sides bore some responsibility. And, over several months, Chinese ships repeatedly entered Japan’s claimed territorial waters near the Senkakus.

China has recently taken steps to defuse some of these problems, such as ending a standoff with Malaysia related to energy exploration in the South China Sea and convening a dialogue with Indian military leaders. There is also nothing fundamentally new about this recent brashness; in 2019 alone, China was involved in tense episodes with most of these countries (save India). Those caveats aside, the key takeaway about China’s regional diplomacy in the first half of 2020 was a willingness to confront so many regional rivals in such a short timeframe, at a time when conventional wisdom suggested Beijing would scale back external provocations to focus on disease control at home. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “Responding to the Epidemic in Wuhan: Insights into Chinese Military Logistics,” China Brief 20.7 (13 April 2020).

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has portrayed its response to the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in heroic terms: battling against an insidious enemy, PLA personnel courageously and tirelessly helped to mitigate the disaster in the epidemic-ravaged city. The PLA has even made the amazing (and highly improbable) claim that it accomplished this while suffering zero infections within its own ranks (China Military Online, March 3). Despite the hype, the crisis has provided an opportunity for the PLA’s newly reformed logistics system to test its ability to mobilize resources in exigent circumstances.

The Joint Logistic Support Force (联勤保障部队, Lianqin Baozhang Budui) or JLSF, which was created in September 2016 as part of Xi Jinping’s larger overhaul of the military, has been at the forefront of the PLA’s response. [1] The JLSF’s role in Wuhan illuminated several key strengths of the PLA logistics system—including centralized control, effective use of information technology, and civil-military coordination—while also suggesting potential deficiencies. At a minimum, the crisis likely resulted in “lessons learned” that could improve the JLSF’s role in supporting commanders during wartime. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “China’s Military Claims to Be Virus-Free,” Foreign Policy, 20 March 2020. 

Officially, not a single PLA soldier has been infected.

U.S. observers have widely criticized China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for its lackluster initial response to the 2019 coronavirus outbreak. After the deployment of hundreds of PLA medics and other support personnel into Wuhan and other cities, those critiques are now less tenable. PLA personnel have been on the front lines of the crisis for the past two months, reprising roles they have played during other emergencies, such as the 2002-2004 SARS crisis and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and providing relief to stressed local health systems.

The question now is whether the PLA has been forthcoming about its ability to withstand the withering effects of the virus on its own personnel. On March 3, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman claimed that not a single PLA service member—out of a force of some 2 million—had been infected, pointing to the effectiveness of the PLA’s force protection measures (such as avoidance of large gatherings).

That seems highly unlikely. A  strong circumstantial case can be made that the PLA is unlikely to have been spared from infections that have ravaged the country since the end of last year. Concealment of a disease making its way through parts of the PLA, if true, would underscore a military highly sensitive to the release of details on its current readiness. This would be a sign of weakness, not confidence.

The PLA under President Xi Jinping’s leadership has cultivated an image of confidence and determination in its ability to carry out the most dangerous assignments. Such self-assurance has been broadcast to domestic and international audiences through high-octane recruitment ads, films such as Wolf Warrior 2, and grandiose military parades. Images of Chinese troops boldly deploying to Wuhan over the past two months, and doing so without falling victim to the insidious virus, confirm this narrative of the PLA as a force to be reckoned with. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “Will China Strengthen Iran’s Military Machine in 2020?The National Interest, 16 January 2020.

Washington needs to work closely with its regional partners to dissuade China from making this choice, or else risk facing a significantly stronger Iran in the coming years. 

Following the recent U.S. drone strike on Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, China’s foreign minister told his Iranian counterpart that the two countries should jointly oppose “unilateralism and bullying.” Such rhetorical volleys, while offering a pointed critique of U.S. actions, belie the reality that Beijing has carefully limited its support for Iran’s military modernization for the last fifteen years. As UN Security Council restrictions on arms transfers to Tehran begin to expire later this year, however, a combination of market opportunities, strategic incentives, and weakening political costs could lead Beijing to reconsider its cautious approach. A return to a strong Sino-Iranian arms partnership, which flourished in the 1980s, would embolden Tehran by filling some of its conventional weapons gaps and bring new challenges for U.S. and allied forces. Washington needs to work closely with its regional partners to dissuade China from making this choice, or else risk facing a significantly stronger Iran in the coming years.

China’s Mixed Motives

Since the 1979 revolution, the Chinese strategy towards Iran has fluctuated based on external opportunities and constraints. On one hand, Beijing has long pursued economic interests, especially in terms of exports of consumer products and investments in Iran’s oil and natural gas sectors. Additionally, in the 1980s, China became Iran’s top arms supplier, profiting from the ongoing Iran-Iraq war. China’s key transfers included assets such as tanks, J-7 fighters, armored personnel carriers, surface-to-air missiles, and Silkworm anti-ship cruise missiles valued at $1 billion, several of which were used against foreign tankers and Kuwaiti infrastructure. Iran was also a useful ally in China’s relations with the two superpowers: China’s military assistance helped to build Iran into a “bulwark” against the Soviet Union and was later a card that could be played in talks with the United States on other issues, including U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “The Re-Conquerors of Hong Kong? A Primer on China’s People’s Armed Police,” War on the Rocks, 23 August 2019. 

As Hong Kong’s summer of discontent wears on, all eyes are on Beijing’s next moves. On Aug. 12, a state council spokesman warned that the protests were showing “signs of terrorism” and “must be resolutely combated according to law, with no hesitation or mercy.” Videos of Chinese troops parading and conducting anti-riot exercises across the border in Shenzhen have also circulated online, underscoring Beijing’s seriousness and raising the specter of a military intervention. While some observers have speculated that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could take the lead, it is more likely that China would deploy the PLA’s paramilitary cousin, the People’s Armed Police. Unlike the more combat-oriented PLA, the People’s Armed Police focuses on social stability missions. Escalation to a 1989 Tiananmen Square-like crackdown is unlikely, but Beijing will still have to carefully weigh the risks of international condemnation or an inadvertent use of force by the People’s Armed Police. Those risks create a high bar for an intervention, even if it is led by paramilitary troops.

A Modernizing Paramilitary Force 

The Chinese Communist Party has maintained a paramilitary outfit since the 1920s, but the modern People’s Armed Police took shape under Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s. In its early years, the force was in a poor state of readiness and modernization. When the Tiananmen crisis erupted in 1989, it was incapable of responding and active PLA troops had to be deployed. Moreover, both Deng and his successor, Jiang Zemin, used the People’s Armed Police as a repository for ex-PLA units and personnel. Deng transferred PLA “economic construction” and law enforcement units such as gold miners and border guards to the People’s Armed Police in the 1980s, while 14 PLA divisions entered the People’s Armed Police ranks a decade later to become mobile contingency units. These transfers contributed to the modernization and streamlining of the PLA, but they also meant that the paramilitary forces were bloated and poorly focused.

The experience of Tiananmen and the rise of local protests across China in the 1990s and 2000s, however, put pressure on the Chinese Communist Party to field a more capable force. This problem was illuminated tragically by the March 2008 protests in Lhasa, Tibet that led to rioting. Over a two-week period, local police and People’s Armed Police units lost control of the situation, restored order through the use of deadly force, and had to be augmented by PLA troops for transportation and other support. The experience in Lhasa indicated that additional changes were necessary, but they were slow in coming.

On Jan. 1, 2018, as part of a major restructuring of the Chinese armed forces carried out under Xi Jinping, the People’s Armed Police was placed under the sole command of the Central Military Commission. Previously, the People’s Armed Police had been under a “dual leadership” system in which it reported both to the commission and to the state council’s Ministry of Public Security. The force itself also underwent significant structural reform. Most visibly, the China Coast Guard was assigned to the People’s Armed Police, and its former economic production and law enforcement units were transferred to civilian ministries or local governments.

The force’s mobile capabilities, which can be deployed to areas beyond where they are stationed, have proliferated. Mobile rapid-response units are found in all the provinces and major cities. For example, Beijing has four, while Xinjiang has five. These units are part of larger Internal Security Force “contingents” roughly the size of a small army corps. While most provinces only have one contingent, Xinjiang has two as well as a newly formed counter-terrorist unit, the Mountain Eagle Commandos, which reflects the fears of Uighur unrest in China’s far west. Furthermore, in 2018, two large “mobile contingents,” one based in multiple provinces in northern China and one based in the south, were created, replacing the 14 former PLA divisions. These “mobile contingents” also command counter-terrorist, helicopter, and transportation/engineering units.

The increasing mobile capabilities of the People’s Armed Police have been buoyed by more advanced weapons and equipment, such as Z-11WB multi-role light utility helicopters, armored personnel carriers, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and special operations detachments. They are also supported by a budget that has grown every year. After recent reforms, the force’s total strength is unknown but may be somewhere around 1 million — half of the size of the PLA. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “Deciphering China’s Intentions: What Can Open Sources Tell Us? The Asan Forum, 29 July 2019.

Over the past several years, bold assertions about China’s long-range strategic goals have become common in the U.S. public discourse. In 2015, Michael Pillsbury published his influential volume The Hundred-Year Marathon, which purported to disclose China’s “frightening plans” to overtake the United States as the world’s leading power by 2049 and rewrite the rules of global order to suit Beijing’s parochial interests. Such views are echoed in official U.S. assessments. The 2018 National Defense Strategy asserted that:

As China continues its economic and military ascendance, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.

Skeptics have challenged these judgements on various grounds. Several have critiqued Pillsbury’s evidence as flawed and inadequate. Others have argued more generally that China’s aspirations are less sweeping than they have sometimes between portrayed in scholarly and official circles. Writing in The Asan Forum, former senior U.S. intelligence official Paul Heer argues that instead of trying to supplant the international order, China is “increasingly pursuing its interest within Western-established institutions like the UN and the G-20 because China sees most of those institutions trending in its favor.”

Implicit in these debates is a prior question: how can we know what China’s strategic goals are in the first place? International relations theorists have long speculated based on comparative history and deductive logic, but the gold standard is evidence from China itself. Without access to privileged information about the inner workings and designs of the Chinese party-state, however, we have to make do with three categories of open source data: documentary evidence, such as party documents and non-authoritative books and articles; inferences based on China’s development of military, economic, and diplomatic power resources; and the track record of Chinese behavior, notably on contentious regional issues. Each category presents unique challenges, but can—alone and in combination—yield some insights into China’s ambitions. Thus, it is worth asking what these sources can tell us, what they cannot, and how we can apply analytic rigor to data that are often, at best, incomplete and difficult to interpret. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “Shangri-La 2019: Shanahan’s Turn in the Bully Pulpit,” The National Interest, 30 May 2019.

As in medicine, the first rule of Shangri-La is to do no harm.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan will deliver a major address on the Department of Defense’s Indo-Pacific strategy at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday. The annual dialogue, hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, is Asia’s premier security forum and is attended by senior officials and opinion leaders from dozens of countries. This is an important chance for Shanahan—a former business executive who spent two years as the Deputy Defense Secretary focusing on internal management issues—to build connections with regional counterparts and demonstrate his competence in Asian security affairs. This will help as he prepares to lead the department on a permanent basis as the president’s nominee to replace former Defense Secretary James Mattis.

The path of least resistance for Shanahan would be to explain the Trump administration’s vision for a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region and reaffirm the importance of U.S. alliances and partnerships, much as Secretary Mattis did at last year’s dialogue. He might also provide new details on how the department is implementing the strategy in areas such as the evolving U.S.-India defense cooperation or the cultivation of new security partnerships with smaller Pacific Island and South Asian countries. This kind of “vanilla” rhetoric would stir no controversy but might also be easily forgettable.

A riskier but potentially more fruitful approach would be to reinforce the U.S. critique of China as a regional challenge. On his first day as Acting Defense Secretary, Shanahan reportedly said that the department’s focus should be on “China, China, China.”  In Senate testimony in March, he fleshed out his view that the Chinese Communist Party “exports coercive influence far beyond its borders while internally wielding authoritarian governance over its own people.” His Shangri-La speech is a chance to explain his thinking to a broad regional audience, including some who may be concerned about overheated U.S. rhetoric. This would help justify the administration’s strategy and keep China, whose defense minister, Wei Fenghe, is likely to use his own remarks at the forum to critique U.S. policy, on the defensive. … … …

Joel Wuthnow,China’s ‘New’ Academy of Military Science: A Revolution in Theoretical Affairs?” JamestownChina Brief 19.2 (18 January 2019).


One of the overlooked but consequential features of China’s current period of military reform has been an overhaul of the research and doctrinal development system within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). One key change has been a realignment of research institutes within the Academy of Military Science (AMS), which has emphasized blending AMS’s traditional focus on doctrine writing with new capabilities being developed by the science and technology (S&T) community. Whether or not a new generation of PLA doctrine will be able to leverage advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, and other high-tech fields will be a key test of the success of the new system.

The overarching operational focus of the current round of reforms has been on improving the PLA’s ability to wage “informationized local war” (信息化局部战争), which is defined by the incorporation of advanced technology into joint operations—such as amphibious landings, blockades, or precision firepower strikes—that would be used in a conflict against Taiwan or another regional adversary. The first round of reforms, carried out in late 2015 and 2016, aided this goal by creating a new joint command structure and establishing the Strategic Support Force and the Joint Logistics Support Force, which will supply critical capabilities to joint commanders [1]. The second round, completed in 2017, pushed this agenda a step further through “below-the-neck” force structure changes, and by revising the professional military education (PME) system to provide more instruction on joint operations— including changes to the National Defense University (NDU) and the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT). … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “President Trump, Don’t Forget the United Nations,” East Asia Forum, 3 November 2018.

In reforming its relations with Beijing, Washington has paid little attention to the United Nations. Cooperation in the UN can stabilise this relationship when the interests of the two powers align. Washington also needs to better prepare for ideological competition in UN forums such as the Human Rights Council or else risk ceding discursive opportunities to Beijing.

Washington is increasingly critical of China. During a recent speech, Vice President Mike Pence castigated Chinese activities ranging from unfair industrial and trade policies to perceived interference in U.S. domestic politics. To address such challenges and deter further adventurism, Washington has begun to employ a range of tools including tariffs and military operations in contested regions. President Trump has also prioritised direct conversations with Xi Jinping. A meeting may occur as soon as next month’s G20 summit.

U.S. officials are deeply skeptical about the United Nations, criticising it as a threat to U.S. sovereignty and lambasting the skewed distribution of financial responsibility. The 2017 National Security Strategy mentioned the UN only briefly as an organisation that can help solve many global issues but that is in need of reform. During his September speech to the UN General Assembly, President Trump said that Washington would distance itself from two key forums — the Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court — until reforms were made.

Although often an object of skepticism and derision, the UN can support Washington’s evolving China strategy in two ways.

The UN can facilitate coordination and cooperation between the two states when their interests coincide. In recent years, Washington and Beijing have cooperated effectively in the UN Security Council on several key issues, including developing sanctions that brought Iran and North Korea to the negotiating table. That cooperation has continued despite variations in the broader bilateral relationship. In the first nine months of 2018, the two countries agreed in about 70 per cent of Security Council votes and used the veto only sparingly.

Sustained cooperation in the UN can support U.S.–China relations as tensions flare up in other areas, such as trade and disputes in the South China Sea. It would highlight the Trump administration’s commitment to a ‘constructive relationship with Beijing’ and demonstrate that both sides can work together despite their differences. Cooperating in practical areas such as human trafficking, transregional terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation would also promote international stability. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “Why China Discounts the Indo-Pacific Quad,” PacNet #55, 7 August 2018.

As the United States rolls out its initial Indo-Pacific strategy, one of the surprising early outcomes has been China’s muted response to its signature pillar – the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Japan, India, and Australia. Rather than raising alarm bells as they did over the original Quad a decade ago, Chinese officials and analysts have generally brushed it aside. The key reason is the assumption that economic reliance of Quad members on China will limit the grouping’s future development. Such a dismissive perspective, while potentially underestimating the possibility that states could look past economic considerations in deciding how strongly to hedge against Chinese adventurism, suggests that the Quad’s deterrent value remains rather limited. What is needed is for the United States and its partners to move beyond symbolism and give the grouping more operational substance.

The revival of the Quad is not the only demonstrable feature of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, but it is an important and highly visible one. The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy cites it as a product of efforts to develop a “strong defense network with our allies and partners,” and it clearly fits within the U.S. National Defense Strategy’s vision of building a “networked security architecture” that would promote deterrence and stability by linking U.S. allies and partners. The first iteration of the new Quad was held in November 2017 in Manila at the working-level while a second meeting was held at a more senior-level in Singapore in June 2018.

China’s official reaction to the Quad has been muted at best. A foreign ministry spokesman reacted to the first meeting with the vague observation that “various parties can put forward designs and call on ways to promote regional cooperation” so long as they “are in line with the overall situation.” The foreign ministry did not comment on the second meeting at all, indicating that the Quad was not deemed a high enough priority for Beijing to signal its discontent to an international audience. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been dismissive of the entire notion of the Quad, comparing it to “sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean: they may get some attention, but soon will dissipate.”

These muted responses are surprising in light of China’s consternation about the original Quad, which came about largely due to Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s efforts during his first term in 2006-7. Before the initiative could get off the ground, China sent demarches to all four countries and the new Rudd government in Australia backed off to avoid antagonizing Beijing. China’s strong reaction in that case echoed the warnings of hawkish Chinese strategists that the U.S. might be trying to weave its regional alliances and partnerships into a kind of “Asian NATO” (亚洲版的北约) designed to contain China’s rise, just as NATO was formed to check Soviet ambitions in Western Europe. The absence of a strong response this time around suggests that those views may have lost currency an official level. … … …

Joel WuthnowSatu Limaye, and Nilanthi Samaranayake, “Doklam, One Year Later: China’s Long Game in the Himalayas,” War on the Rocks, 7 June 2018.

For 73 days last year, the world watched as Chinese and Indian forces faced off in a remote stretch of the Himalayas. The problem started in June when Chinese army engineers attempted to build a road through the Doklam plateau, claimed by both China and Bhutan. Following “coordination” with Bhutanese authorities, Indian soldiers based just across the border intervened and literally stopped the Chinese crews in their tracks. After weeks of negotiations, Delhi and Beijing agreed to withdraw their troops to their original positions; China “blinked” because it had to abandon the project. Since then, however, China has quietly deployed troops and built new infrastructure in the area, slowly but steadily gaining advantage in the contested region. As the first anniversary of the crisis approaches, neither India nor Bhutan have stepped in to block these activities.

Rather than offering lessons in deterrence, recent events in Doklam illustrate the complexities of convincing China to curb its territorial ambitions. In particular, India’s so-called “reset” with China in the months since the August 2017 settlement should raise doubts about its willingness to stand up to China and ability to be a net security provider as it faces increasing challenges to its role and influence in its Southern Asian neighborhood. India’s muted response also raises questions about the resolve of other major powers, including the United States, to intervene in a future Doklam-like situation in which their own sovereignty is not at stake.

New Inroads                                                                      

For China, building roads through the rugged 14,000-foot Doklam plateau serves two major strategic purposes. First, a road network would support a more entrenched Chinese presence in the region. This would allow China to hand Bhutan a fait accompli in the territorial dispute, ending years of inconclusive border talks. Second, new infrastructure would allow Chinese troops to access a key ridge overlooking the Siliguri corridor. Also known as the “Chicken’s Neck,” the corridor is a narrow stretch of land that connects India’s northeastern states with the rest of the country. Chinese forces could use their positions on higher ground to collect intelligence on Indian military positions and, in a conflict, even threaten Indian supply routes.

China may have backed down last year because local PLA units were caught off guard by India’s rapid response and because Xi Jinping did not wish to face a diplomatic fiasco months before his leadership tenure was to be renewed at the 19th Party Congress. Nevertheless, since the crisis ended, China has quietly maintained, and in some ways deepened, its presence in and around Doklam. In late August, just after the standoff was resolved, a Chinese defense ministry spokesman stated that the PLA would increase patrols in Doklam to “resolutely safeguard” the country’s sovereignty claims. In December, Indian media reported that China had continued to deploy roughly 1600 troops, about the size of an army regiment, in the contested area. These were reportedly supplemented by an increase in the number of advanced PLA fixed-wing and rotary aircraft based across the border in Tibet. In January, India’s Army Chief General Bipin Rawat confirmed that the PLA had remained over the winter and “carried out some infrastructure development,” though Delhi rejected the assertions of some hawkish Indian analysts that China had undertaken a more significant military buildup. In March, Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman noted that PLA forces had built “sentry posts, trenches, and helipads” designed to facilitate year-round deployments. In short, China’s tactical withdrawal during the crisis did not imply abandonment of its larger objectives to resolve the dispute on favorable terms and gain military advantage vis-à-vis India. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “From Friend to Foe-ish: Washington’s Negative Turn on the Belt and Road Initiative,” The Asan Forum 6.3 (May-June 2018).

Despite its status as a Pacific power, the United States has been somewhat peripheral to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since the latter’s inception in late 2013. The United States does not host BRI investments and, like many other major countries, has not signed a formal cooperation agreement setting out terms and conditions for a U.S. role in the BRI, even though some U.S. firms have participated on an individual basis. Nevertheless, China has closely watched, and sought to influence, U.S. policies and perspectives for two reasons: U.S. support helps grant legitimacy to the BRI, and by extension, to one of President Xi Jinping’s legacy achievements, while active U.S. opposition—alone or in concert with allies and partners—could undermine the BRI by casting aspersions on China’s motives and by providing alternatives to Asian states in need of development finance for large-scale infrastructure projects.

U.S. responses to the BRI under the Obama administration, and initially under the Trump administration, were benign and even positive at times. This was not so much a function of U.S. enthusiasm for Xi’s initiative but a result of bilateral cooperation in other areas. Since mid-2017, however, senior U.S. officials have been far more critical of the BRI, and Washington has begun to explore ways to promote alternatives to Chinese financing by proposing reforms to the U.S. development finance system and coordinating with allies and partners. Both a downturn in Sino-U.S. relations and an evolving strategic outlook emphasizing China as a competitor (and India as a partner) help explain this trend. While limits on the U.S. willingness to compete in this area remain—for instance, there has not been a major increase in U.S. funding for Eurasian infrastructure development projects—the shift represents a diplomatic failure for Beijing and at least a qualified victory for U.S. policy elites who see the BRI as a strategic challenge.

This essay traces and explains the evolution of U.S. official perspectives on the BRI from 2013 to mid-2018 and is divided into five parts. The first covers initial U.S. responses during the Obama and early Trump administrations. The second outlines more critical U.S. approaches beginning in mid-2017. The third explains the latter development, focusing on problems in U.S.-China relations and the evolution of the Trump administration’s strategic views on China. The fourth identifies the budgetary, economic, and diplomatic factors that have prevented a more direct U.S. confrontation with Beijing. The conclusion argues that the likeliest outcome over the next few years is a continuation of the current modestly antagonistic U.S. policy, though a pivot in a more cooperative or competitive direction is also possible. … … …

Joel Wuthnow and Phillip C. Saunders, “Major Progress and Unfinished Business: China’s Military Under Xi Jinping,” Global Asia 13.1 (Spring 2018): 13-17. 

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has developed into one of the region’s premier militaries, with notable advances made in the past few years under President Xi Jinping. Although the roots of PLA modernization and professionalization stretch back to the 1980s, a number of obstacles slowed the pace of reform under Xi’s two immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Through savvy political leadership, Xi has overcome bureaucratic obstacles to push through the most significant set of organizational reforms since the 1950s. PLA hardware has also made major strides during his tenure. As a result, the PLA is better able to carry out its two key missions — winning wars and deterring opponents — as well as its ancillary roles in protecting China’s economic interests and supporting Beijing’s diplomatic agenda. 

Roots of Reform​

​For 30 years following the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, the PLA focused primarily on two priorities: ensuring domestic stability as the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party, a role it performed most notably during the Cultural Revolution; and preparing to counter a land invasion, which at different points of the Cold War included threats from the United States, Kuomintang (Nationalist) forces on Taiwan and the Soviet Union. Both missions lent themselves to a large, army-dominated force structure, with little need for extensive air force or naval capabilities. China’s international isolation and domestic turmoil also inhibited development of modern weapons, leaving the PLA technologically inferior to the superpowers (with partial exceptions in areas such as ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads). … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “China’s Overseas Basing: Will the PLA Follow the Renminbi?The National Interest, 17 February 2018.

The People’s Liberation Army will play an increasingly visible role in and beyond Eurasia, through deployments and diplomacy.

Recent media reports suggesting that China may soon open a second overseas military base, to be located in Pakistan, raise the question: where will it end? Will China follow other great powers, which garrisoned forces in large numbers to protect their commercial empires, or will its global military footprint be smaller? While China may open additional naval facilities to support its overseas interests, high costs and limited benefits impose constraints on developing a larger U.S.-style network of bases. However, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will play an increasingly visible role in and beyond Eurasia, through deployments and diplomacy. This means that the United States will have to continually reevaluate its own military partnerships in the region.

More Pearls on the String

In the mid-2000s, U.S. and Indian analysts began discussing a notional Chinese “String of Pearls” strategy, anticipating that Beijing would use commercial investments in ports throughout the Indian Ocean region and beyond to support operations in a crisis or war. Rejected at the time by Chinese officials as a product of foreign-threat inflation, the thesis has been somewhat borne out by recent developments. In August, China established its first overseas base in Djibouti, sitting astride a key maritime “chokepoint” linking the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. More recent media reports indicate that China has made progress towards a second base, to be located on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast near the Iranian border.

These facilities provide a number of clear-cut strategic and operational benefits, including reducing the costs of long-range Chinese naval deployments, such as those that have been allocated to anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden since 2008; acting as hubs through which mass evacuations of Chinese citizens can be conducted, a need highlighted by the evacuation of Chinese nationals from Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015; providing increased protection of China’s extensive energy import routes, which are vulnerable to interdiction in critical locations such as the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca; and serving as places from which Chinese intelligence operators can monitor civilian and military activities, likely a mission of PLA units in Djibouti. … … …

Joel Wuthnow and Phillip Saunders, ““China’s Military Has a Discipline Problem. Here Is How Xi Jinping Is Trying to Fix It,” The National Interest, 12 November 2017. 

Instilling discipline is critical to the PLA’s ability to achieve progress in its current cycle of reform and modernization.

Among the most notable developments of China’s recently-completed 19th Party Congress was the reshuffling of the Central Military Commission (CMC), which exercises overall administrative and operational control over the two-million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Changes to both the individuals and organizations represented on the CMC suggest that Xi Jinping and his allies in the PLA continue to face problems in building a senior officer corps that is not only corruption-free, but also responsive to the Party’s (and Xi’s) dictates. Instilling discipline is critical to the PLA’s ability to achieve progress in its current cycle of reform and modernization, though problems such as malfeasance, bureaucratic resistance and the absence of civilian oversight could all hamper the prospects for success.


After he assumed the CMC chairmanship in November 2012, Xi outlined an expansive vision for a streamlined PLA that would be able to “fight and win” modern wars across China’s periphery, deter potential adversaries and protect China’s expanding global interests. However, Xi also recognized that achieving this ambition required a professional and politically reliable cadre of senior officers. This was problematic due in part to pervasive corruption, including allegations of improprieties in the logistics system and the buying and selling of promotions at the highest levels of the PLA. Even before Xi arrived, the PLA had begun a campaign to root out offenders. Xi expanded those efforts, resulting in more than 4,000 antigraft investigations and hundreds of officers sacked or reprimanded within two years. The most high-profile targets included Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, who both served as CMC vice chairmen under Hu Jintao and were implicated in the corruption of the PLA promotion system.

However, Xi’s problem extended well beyond the anticorruption arena. Just as insidious was the more parochial tendency of individuals and bureaucracies to protect their own vested interests (known colloquially as “iron rice bowls”). Resistance from within the PLA had stymied previous attempts by the civilian Party elite, led by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, to reform the military. The ground forces—the PLA’s largest and arguably most influential service—remained dominant, and the four general departments (massive Soviet-inspired bureaucracies which operated as semi-independent fiefdoms) were left largely unscathed. This was especially problematic as Xi sought to reorient the PLA towards a greater focus on naval, air force, and missile capabilities, and reduce the number of redundant or noncombat-related staff, such as those inhabiting the general departments. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “Did China Use Water as a Weapon in the Doklam Standoff?War on the Rocks, 4 October 2017.

A concerning, if little-noticed, sub-plot to the recent Sino-Indian military standoff in Doklam was China’s alleged suspension of hydrological data sharing with India during the crisis. The crisis began in June when Chinese army engineers attempted to extend a road through disputed territory along the tri-junction between China, India, and Bhutan. Indian forces quickly intervened and departed only when a mutual withdrawal was agreed upon in late August. Observers in both countries claim that Beijing cut off delivery of data related to the Brahmaputra River as a way to exert leverage on New Delhi. Data on the river, which originates in Tibet and traverses both countries as well as Bangladesh, helps India improve flood forecasts. If these allegations are accurate — Chinese officials have denied them — China’s politicization of the data could set a worrisome precedent in its evolving use of coercive “sticks” in regional disputes and should be opposed within and beyond the region.

Sino-Indian Water Worries 

The data cutoff came at a time when Sino-Indian cooperation along the Brahmaputra was already precarious. The border dispute and low levels of trust between the two countries (as well as between India and Bangladesh) has long prevented a water-sharing treaty or a more formalized water management system of the sort that exists in the Nile, Mekong, or Danube basins. A particular source of tension has been China’s recently planned construction of hydropower dams in rural Tibet, which some Indian observers contend might be capable of diverting water and silt and thus denying those valuable resources to downstream users. Beijing counters that its dams are not capable of storing or diverting water.

Nevertheless, the two countries have established limited cooperation and communication regarding the Brahmaputra over the past two decades. Momentum for this cooperation grew out of a June 2000 flood in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam that claimed 30 Indian lives. India contended that the flood’s impact could have been reduced if China had been more transparent about upstream river conditions. Although China rejected that assessment, to improve relations it agreed in 2002 to share hydrological data with India during the flood season, between May and October. That accord was slightly expanded during a visit by Indian premier Manmohan Singh in October 2013. (Under separate agreements, China also provides the same data to Bangladesh.) China and India also agreed to establish a working group that meets annually to discuss river issues. Although small in scale and ambition, the agreements are regularly cited in Sino-Indian summits as evidence that the two states have been able to achieve practical cooperation despite their differences. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “China’s Russia problem on North Korea,” PacNet #56, 17 August 2017. 

The Trump Administration has hailed a recent 15-0 UN Security Council vote imposing new sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as a diplomatic victory. The sanctions include a complete ban on coal, iron, and lead exports, a major source of foreign currency for Pyongyang. Success will depend on how effectively China, as North Korea’s predominant trading partner, enforces the new sanctions. In deciding how vigorously to implement them, Beijing will have to weigh multiple competing factors, including assessments of North Korea’s reaction, Chinese public expectations, and the possibility of additional secondary sanctions by the U.S. on Chinese firms. A less obvious, but potentially crucial, variable in China’s calculus is whether Russia will take advantage of a curtailed Sino-DPRK economic relationship to build its own influence in North Korea.

Russia’s economic presence in North Korea is currently marginal, with a total trade volume of less than $100 Million (compared to China’s more than $5 Billion). But that could change. Prior to the latest sanctions, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley warned that Russia might “backfill” the DPRK as China’s economic role diminishes. She added, “We don’t have proof of that, but we are watching carefully.” Around the same time, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted two Russian firms, including one oil company, for evading sanctions on North Korea.

From a Chinese perspective, even the possibility that Russia could exploit a reduction of Chinese trade for its own benefit could give Beijing second thoughts about how aggressively to pressure Pyongyang. Stronger Russian-DPRK economic ties might not only negate the impact of sanctions on North Korea’s  decision-making regarding its missile and nuclear programs, but could also further weaken China’s already limited political influence over North Korea. Beijing might try to avoid that outcome through lax enforcement of sanctions or by compensating with cooperation in other areas. (For instance, China coupled a recent reduction in coal purchases from North Korea with an overall increase in Sino-DPRK trade). … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “Did India Miscalculate China’s Red Lines in Australia Snub?” The National Interest, 7 June 2017.

Chinese analysts have become less concerned about the prospects of an “Asian NATO” and more tolerant of regional multilateral-security activities.

India has denied Australia’s request to send a flotilla to the annual U.S.-Japan-India trilateral Malabar exercise, to be held in the Bay of Bengal in July. Citing Indian diplomats and military officials, Reuters reported in late May that New Delhi’s decision to deny the request was intended to assuage Chinese concerns about encirclement and avoid a stronger Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean. If true, then this would represent a misreading of Chinese perceptions: China likely would not have interpreted Australia’s participation in the exercise as a major security challenge, nor would it have overreacted. Given the potential benefits, India should consider including Australia in this exercise or in a future iteration of the exercise.

Analysts have discussed a range of possible motives behind India’s decision, including Indo-Australian bilateral tensions over several nonmilitary issues and New Delhi’s general aversion to dramatically increasingly multilateral security cooperation with the United States and its key Asian allies. But China was also a likely factor. The backdrop for India’s decision was recent tensions in Sino-Indian relations due to issues such as the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh (which China claims as “southern Tibet”) in April and India’s decision not to send a delegation to China’s Belt and Road Initiative summit in May. India’s logic may have been that denying Australia would accommodate a key Chinese interest, and thus lower the chance that Beijing would respond in a tit-for-tat manner, such as by increasing naval deployments in the Indian Ocean. China may have encouraged such thinking: a Chinese foreign-ministry spokesman alluded to this by noting that decisions regarding routine exercises like Malabar must take into account the “security concerns” of “all parties” in the region.

Indeed, developing a U.S.-Japan-India-Australia security cooperation may have once constituted a kind of “red line” for Beijing. In 2007, as part of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s vision of creating an Asian “arc of freedom,” which was strongly supported by Vice President Dick Cheney, the four countries held a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and, along with Singapore, staged an expanded Malabar in the Bay of Bengal. Despite assurances to the contrary, including from Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, some Chinese analysts concluded that the developments augured an “Asian NATO” that targeted China’s rise in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and Beijing formally demarched all four capitals. The next year, the new Rudd government exited the “Quad” after deciding that the benefits were not worth the costs to Australia’s economic relationship with China.

Over the ensuing decade, however, Chinese analysts have become less concerned about the prospects of an “Asian NATO” and more tolerant of regional multilateral-security activities, such as Malabar. Although some Chinese pundits continue to circulate the theory that the United States is seeking to coalesce its allies and partners into a kind of Cold War-style containment structure, most sophisticated analysts reject this notion. This is based on their understanding of the reasons why such an alliance is unlikely. Those include India’s nonaligned status and fundamental opposition to alliances; historical tensions and unresolved territorial disputes between Japan and South Korea; and the close economic cooperation that many states share with China, which has led many of them to avoid relying too closely on the United States as a security partner. Rear Adm. Yang Yi, a research fellow at China’s National Defence University, summed up this view by dismissing an “Asian NATO” and calling on China to “maintain the calmness of a great power.” … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “The CMC General Office: Recentralizing Power in the PLA,” Jamestown China Brief 17.7 (11 May 2017).

One of the key themes of Xi Jinping’s attempts to reform the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the need to recentralize power under the Central Military Commission (CMC), the PLA’s highest-level decision-making organ which Xi has led since November 2012. The thinking is that PLA modernization previously stalled (and corruption flourished) because too much authority had been ceded to the four general departments, seven military regions, and other power centers in the PLA that were more interested in protecting their own “vested interests” than in reform. Over the last few years, Xi has tried to restore power to the center in several ways: abolishing the general departments, increasing the autonomy of supervisory organs such as the Audit Office and the military legal system, and overseeing a major anti-corruption campaign in the PLA. [1]

Yet all these changes leave open a question: how does an 11-member CMC (not to mention Xi personally) exercise oversight over a 2.3 million-person organization? An important part of the answer lies in the CMC General Office (CMC-GO), which has provided staff support to CMC members since 1949. Though long a key administrative agent, the responsibility, and influence of the CMC-GO has grown as Xi has sought to revitalize the CMC’s authority and assert his position as CMC chairman. Available evidence indicates that that the CMC-GO has supported these goals in three ways: managing an enlarged CMC bureaucracy, providing trusted counsel to Xi, and carrying out new legal and propaganda roles. Its ability to carry out these missions is thus key to Xi’s ability to implement his larger reform program.

Managing an Expanded Bureaucracy 

As with other general offices across the Party and state apparatus, the CMC-GO’s essential role is to provide staff support for senior leaders. Its official mission, according to the Ministry of National Defense, is to process “all CMC communications and documents, coordinate meetings, and convey orders and directives to other CMC subordinate sections.” [2] These are such indispensable functions that the CMC-GO was largely unaffected by historical events that disrupted other parts of the PLA, such as the Cultural Revolution and the large-scale military restructurings of the 1950s and 1980s. [3] Led by a director and several deputy directors, the CMC-GO originally carried out its duties from an office adjacent to the Zhongnanhai leadership compound before moving to the top floors of the Bayi (August 1st) building in 2000.

Under Xi, the CMC-GO continues to serve as a liaison between the CMC, the four services, and the five new theater commands (TCs). Yet changes to the internal CMC structure under Xi’s leadership have placed new demands on the general office. In January 2016, Xi announced a new CMC organization composed of 15 departments, commissions, and offices. [4] These included the successor organizations of the four general departments, as well as separate training, administration, and national defense mobilization departments (previously under the General Staff Department). Supervisory organs like the Discipline Inspection Commission (previously under the General Political Department, GPD), and smaller offices responsible for niche areas such as strategic planning and foreign military exchanges also appeared. … … …

Joel Wuthnow and Phillip C. Saunders, “From Green to Purple: Can the Chinese Military Become More Joint?” War on the Rocks, 30 March 2017.

Is China’s military ready to fight Asia’s next major war? Over the past decade, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has made tremendous progress in modernizing its weapons and platforms, with notable advances ranging from precision-guided missiles to surface ships to cyber and space capabilities. However, progress has eluded the PLA in another area: becoming a modern joint force. The unique capabilities resident in its four services (the army, navy, air force, and rocket force, in addition to the new Strategic Support Force) still cannot be effectively combined to carry out complex military operations, such as island landings, blockades, and joint missile strikes. Yet those are exactly the types of missions that the PLA might need to carry out in future conflicts against highly-capable opponents. PLA organizational reforms implemented in 2016 reduced some roadblocks to greater jointness, but problems remain including ground force dominance and an officer corps with limited joint expertise. A key task for PLA reform is trying to reduce these obstacles. Are they up to the challenge?

Historically, the PLA has been a “green” military — organized, trained, and manned to conduct ground combat missions, such as repelling a land invasion and ensuring domestic stability. Two key changes have created the need for the PLA to become more “purple” (a term used in the U.S. military to denote jointness). First is the changing character of war. Most advanced militaries have become more joint over the last few decades, resulting in operational successes such as the 1991 Gulf War — in which U.S. forces used land, sea, and airpower together with stunning lethality. This success required the ability to share intelligence and information freely across the services. Watching from China, the PLA knew it had to adapt or be left behind. Second is the expanded missions the PLA faces in response to changing security threats. Challenges posed by the Taiwan independence movement in particular drove the PLA to pay more attention to joint operations like amphibious assaults and blockades. The PLA also needed to find ways to counter potential U.S. involvement in and beyond Taiwan.

Prodded by these imperatives, the PLA made some initial strides towards jointness in the 1990s and 2000s. First, the PLA developed new doctrine for joint campaigns and produced new educational materials in the joint operational arts for its officers. Second, PLA training increasingly included combined arms and long-distance maneuvers, though true joint training (involving in-depth cooperation between multiple services) remained relatively infrequent and superficial. Third, the PLA experimented with a joint logistics system to reduce supply chain inefficiencies. Fourth, new tactical networks were introduced to ensure that PLA units from different regions and branches could communicate on the battlefield. Nevertheless, progress under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao was limited because of weak civilian leadership and strong resistance from those, such as the PLA ground forces, that would have had to sacrifice autonomy and resources to build a joint force.

After Xi Jinping became Central Military Commission chairman in late 2012, the PLA took aim at the remaining obstacles to jointness. As we discuss in a new National Defense University monograph, based in part on discussions with senior PLA officers over the past year-and-a-half, an initial tranche of reforms led by Xi focused on reorganizing the PLA to improve its joint operations capabilities. A centerpiece was establishing a joint command-and-control system that will operate in both peacetime and wartime. This overturned the previous system in which naval and air forces reported to their respective service headquarters during peacetime, while ad hoc joint headquarters would have been hastily set up during a crisis. Other changes included the creation of a Strategic Support Force that will consolidate space and cyber functions, and a Joint Logistics Support Force that will ensure the flow of supplies. Both organizations will likely be useful to joint commanders during wartime. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “PLA Reform in 2017: Likely Directions and Implications for Taiwan,” Global Taiwan Brief 2.10 (8 March 2017).

In 2016, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began its most ambitious and far-reaching cycle of reforms in the past 70 years. The key operational goal was to improve the PLA’s ability to carry out joint operations such as blockades, island landing operations, and joint firepower attacks (involving strikes launched from land-, air-, and sea-based platforms). The first tranche of the reforms, announced last year, took a step in this direction through several high-level structural changes, most notably by creating a permanent joint command and control system. Commanders of five new regionally-aligned theater commands will able to develop and deploy force packages from army, naval, air force, and conventional missile forces—a capability that proved elusive under the former Military Region system.

A second phase of Chinese military reforms, to be announced this year, will attempt to reduce the remaining obstacles to successful PLA joint operations. In part, this will mean putting the new joint command and control system into practice, such as by having theaters take the lead in joint training and peacetime operations (some of which continue to be led by the individual services). It will also mean additional structural and policy changes, including those in the following areas:

  • Force Composition Changes. At present, PLA force structure is heavily skewed towards the ground forces (which account for approximately 70 percent of PLA end strength). The reforms this year will likely make deep cuts to the PLA ground forces, focusing especially on non-combat units and headquarters staff, while increasing the relative (and perhaps absolute) size of the navy, air force, and rocket forces. These changes will be carried out as part of a planned downsizing of the PLA from 2.3 to 2 million personnel, slated for completion by the end of this year.
  • Army Force Structure Changes. Along with shrinking the ground forces, the PLA will also likely overhaul the army’s outdated force structure. At present, the army is still centered on 18 large-scale group armies, which primarily operate in fixed geographic areas. Changes could consolidate or eliminate group armies, while placing more attention on smaller, more deployable units such as brigades. Another beneficiary could be special operations forces, which currently only number around 20,000-30,000 personnel.
  • More Joint Leadership. Historically, the PLA has had a ground force-centric leadership, with army officers occupying most senior command and staff billets. Personnel turnover ahead of the 19th Party Congress, which will be held this fall, will give the PLA an opportunity to advance more air force and naval officers into senior positions, especially in maritime-focused theaters. An early example was the promotion of North Sea Fleet commander Yuan Yubai to lead the Southern Theater Command, which is responsible for operations in the South China Sea.
  • New Career Paths. A persistent weakness has been lack of officers qualified to conceive, plan, and lead joint operations. Reforms this year will likely address this problem by offering officers rotational assignments, in which they will gain “joint” experience at various points in their careers. The professional military education system will also undergo reforms to enhance schoolhouse and field training in joint operations, introducing these concepts earlier in an officer’s career.
  • New Laws and Regulations. At a more general level, the PLA has struggled to establish and enforce laws and norms governing its personnel. Specific impediments have included corruption and a culture in which officers think that “their word is law.” In 2017, the PLA will likely take steps to address both problems, including continuing the anti-corruption campaign (which could focus on higher level officers and operational commanders, who have heretofore been excluded from the campaign), and introducing new regulations. One sign of progress in the latter area was the recent release of new guidelines governing auditing work.

A major question mark is the extent of potential resistance in the PLA to any or all of these efforts. Major force composition and structure changes impinge on what Xi Jinping and other Chinese reformers call “bureaucratic interests” (部門利益). The ground forces could be a particular obstacle to reform, as well as individual officers who might, as part of the force reduction, lose their jobs entirely or be forced to transfer to civilian roles in the PLA (with an inferior pension and lesser benefits). The personnel reshuffle could give Xi a chance to counter opponents, but might not be sufficient to stamp out resistance altogether. Another challenge could be discontent on the part of demobilized soldiers—recent veterans’ protests in Beijing suggest that prior efforts to compensate laid off personnel have not been entirely successful. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “China Cannot Be Expected to Punish North Korea,” The National Interest, 18 February 2017.

In fact, China might exploit U.S. beliefs about its ability to control North Korea.

North Korea’s recent ballistic missile launch—the first to occur during the Trump administration—once again raises the question of how the United States should handle the North Korean nuclear program, and how China should fit into the equation. As president-elect, Trump argued that China should face consequences if it refused to use its leverage to convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made much the same argument. However, because of its overriding concern with maintaining stability, China has repeatedly refused to apply the only type of pressure that could steer North Korea off the nuclear path: the threat of regime-ending punishment. Relying on China is not only unlikely to solve the problem, it could also give Beijing a card to play in other negotiations with the United States. Instead, President Trump should focus more on strengthening U.S. alliances in Northeast Asia, especially in the field of ballistic missile defense.

Enlisting China’s support has been a goal of U.S. strategy on North Korea since the early 2000s. Both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations worked with Beijing through the UN Security Council to impose a serious of sanctions against North Korea, the most recent of which was approved in November 2016. The argument was that China remains the only country with sufficient economic and political leverage to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and convince it to return to the negotiating table. U.S. negotiators suggested that without sufficient Chinese pressure to change Pyongyang’s nuclear calculus, a North Korean nuclear capability could spark a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia—or prompt the United States to carry out a preemptive strike should North Korea appear ready to launch an ICBM. The Obama administration even slapped secondary sanctions on Chinese firms suspected of evading UN sanctions on North Korea in an attempt to prod Beijing.

Although China has accepted a progressive series of UN sanctions, and taken some steps to implement them, Beijing has refused to adopt stiffer penalties, such as cutting off North Korea’s fuel supplies or food assistance, or suspending diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. Moreover, China’s willingness to use sticks has often been transient. Just last month, for instance, China resumed coal imports from North Korea after suspending them for only a month. The reason is straightforward: China prioritizes the preservation of stability on the Korean Peninsula over aggressive nonproliferation efforts, which could jeopardize the DPRK regime. This preoccupation with stability serves several of China’s strategic goals, which include avoiding a flood of refugees into China’s northeast (a region that already faces a precarious economic situation), maintaining North Korea as a strategic buffer separating China from U.S. and ROK forces, and reducing the chance that tensions might escalate into a nuclear conflict near China’s borders. … … …

Satu Limaye Joel Wuthnow, and Nilanthi Samaranayake, “China and India’s Slow-Moving Path to ‘Water Wars’,” The National Interest, 1 November 2016.

There’s a smarter way to handle the Brahmaputra conflict.

China’s September 30 announcement that it would temporarily divert the Xiabuqu—a domestic river that feeds into the mighty Brahmaputra running from Tibet through Northeast India and Bangladesh into the Bay of Bengal—to allow for the construction of two hydroelectric dams exacerbates anxieties in both downstream Delhi and Dhaka. However, the latest round of recriminations and uncertainties also offer an opportunity to move beyond existing piecemeal and bilateral arrangements, and on to multilateral and confidence-assuring commitments to share information and ultimately even water. In a recent CNA report, Water Resource Competition in the Brahmaputra River Basin: China, India and Bangladesh,” we argued for just such steps.

Upper Riparian China: Driven by the Domestic

China’s plans for dams on Tibetan rivers are key to national economic and energy-development priorities. Chinese media focused almost exclusively on the domestic benefits of the Xiabuqu project. The state-run Communist Youth Daily, for instance, boasted that the project would improve irrigation and thus allow for an increase in grain production in an area known as Tibet’s “breadbasket,” improve flood control and raise electricity production, all of which would help raise the standard of living in Tibet—one of China’s most impoverished regions. These arguments are consistent both with Beijing’s long-running “Develop the West” strategy of promoting greater economic development of and migration into China’s western areas, and with its more recent emphasis on developing clean sources of energy. Some independent analysts, however, contend that the project will have an adverse effect on Tibet’s indigenous population by accelerating desertification and increasing water shortages.

China’s press placed less emphasis on the international ramifications of the diversion. The popular but non-authoritative Global Times rebutted Indian speculation that the announcement could be a way to pressure India in its own ongoing dispute with Pakistan, a close strategic partner of China. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recently discussed scrapping the Indus Waters Treaty, a decades-old water-sharing accord with Pakistan. Nevertheless, the Global Times noted that the Xiabuqu project began in 2014, before the latest India-Pakistan row. Indeed, Chinese media noted back in December 2015 that the tributary would be diverted this year as part of the dam project, suggesting that the announcement was not intended as a diplomatic bargaining chip. More broadly, as has been the case in the past, Chinese press accused Indian media of “hyping” the issue and misgauging China’s intentions. … … …

Joel Wuthnow and David Logan, “Should Taiwan Fear China’s New Rocket Force?Policy Forum, 2 September 2016.

A new set of challenges for Taipei and the region

China’s military reforms will have a far-reaching impact on the People’s Liberation Army, but the implications for Taiwan are less clear, write Joel Wuthnow and David Logan.

As part of a sweeping set of organisational reforms announced earlier this year, China’s military (the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA) created a new Rocket Force. This organisation, responsible for the country’s land-based nuclear and conventional missile forces, is a fully-fledged service on par with the ground forces, navy, and air force. It replaced the Second Artillery Force, which had existed since 1966 as an independent branch of the army.

From a regional security perspective, the creation of the Rocket Force is most relevant to Taiwan. For the past 20 years, China has been increasing its conventional missile arsenal located opposite Taiwan. These forces (numbering more than 1,200 missiles) are designed to deter Taipei from declaring independence and the United States or other third parties from militarily intervening on Taiwan’s behalf. China’s missile forces are a coercive tool that would also play a key role in any actual conflict that occurred across the Taiwan (Formosa) Strait. In this context, will the upgrading of China’s missile forces from a branch to a service create new problems for Taiwan?

In one sense, the answer is no. The creation of the Rocket Force did not itself include any obvious tangible changes to the composition or structure of China’s land-based missile forces or in the PLA’s missile doctrine, which refers to the ways in which missiles are to be used in the context of a military campaign. There have also been no significant changes to the Rocket Force’s leadership as a result of the reorganisation. The only real changes that have been announced to date have been superficial ones, including the unveiling of new uniforms and patches. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “China’s Calibrated Response to the South China Sea is Firm (Yet Flexible),” The National Interest, 17 August 2016.

Beijing won’t allow its aggression to compromise the underlying goal of stability.

China’s response to The Hague’s recent South China Sea arbitration ruling has been mixed. Despite negative rhetoric to the press and some military posturing, Beijing has—for the moment—avoided some of the more incendiary possible responses, such as conducting land reclamation around Scarborough Shoal, and has indicated a willingness to renew dialogue with Manila. The United States should welcome evidence of Chinese restraint, but prepare for an uptick of tensions, especially after September’s G20 meeting.

The ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the Philippines’ submission was largely unfavorable to Beijing. The tribunal invalidated China’s “nine-dash line,” which covers roughly 85 percent of the South China Sea, denied any claims to “historic rights” therein, ruled that none of the maritime features included in the case are legally “islands” and thus entitled to 200-nautical miles exclusive economic zones, found that China had violated UNCLOS provisions to protect the marine environment, and concluded that Beijing had violated its obligations to refrain from aggravating the dispute, including by carrying out its large-scale land reclamation program.

China’s response to the ruling has in many ways been negative, even hawkish. A Foreign Ministry statement and subsequent government white paper rejected the ruling and restated that Beijing had no intention of abiding by it. Later, China’s Defense Minister made headlines by calling for preparations for a “people’s war at sea.” Beijing also took a few tangible steps to signal displeasure, including sending civilian aircraft to land on Mischief Reef and Subi Reef, conducting naval exercises in the South China Sea  and most notably, dispatching H-6K bombers and other aircraft as part of a new practice of regular “combat air patrols” in the region. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “China’s Much-Heralded NSC Has Disappeared,” Foreign Policy, 30 June 2016. 

Is it a sign of Beijing’s secrecy or Xi Jinping’s weakness?

China’s National Security Commission (NSC), which President Xi Jinping established in late 2013 to steer the country’s national security affairs, has gone dark. Its full membership has never been announced, it has held no publicly reported meetings since April 2014, and it has played no apparent role in China’s response to any foreign or domestic crisis. Whether the NSC is even operational is unknown. Over the last two years, Chinese scholars, who once held high expectations for the NSC, have been notably reluctant to provide details on — or even entertain questions about — the secretive body.

In light of the commission’s background and stated purpose, this is puzzling. Plans for a Chinese NSC have floated around in China’s security studies community for more than two decades. The impetus was the sense that the nation’s responses to crises in the 1990s and 2000s — such as the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 by NATO forces and the collision of a U.S. surveillance plane with a Chinese fighter jet in 2001 — were poorly coordinated and ineffective. Proponents argued that a strong and well-staffed NSC would produce better responses to crises by increasing the flow of information to policymakers and integrating the activities of the military, foreign ministry, intelligence services, and others. This would replace the pre-existing system, in which supervision of national security affairs was managed on an ad-hoc basis, and in which there was no central institution capable of ensuring bureaucratic coordination and timely information flows to senior leaders.

In developing their plans, Chinese reformers referred explicitly to the U.S. National Security Council, which serves as a key forum through which the president receives advice on national security matters and oversees interbureaucratic coordination.

Chinese analysts observed that not only the United States, but most other major powers, including Russia, India, and the United Kingdom, have similar organizations. Establishing its own NSC was thus not only meant to solve coordination problems, but was arguably a symbol signifying China’s status as a major power with increasingly complex and global national security interests and challenges. … … …

Phillip C. Saunders and Joel Wuthnow, “What Do China’s Military Reforms Mean for Taiwan?NBR Commentary, 19 May 2016.

In late 2015 and early 2016, China announced a sweeping set of reforms to the organizational structure of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). [1] Key changes included the following:

  • The four semiautonomous general departments (responsible for operations, political work, logistics, and armaments) were replaced by fifteen departments directly under the Central Military Commission (CMC).
  • At the service level, a new Strategic Support Force was set up to provide support in the electromagnetic, space, and cyber domains. A separate headquarters was established for the ground forces (which were previously collectively led by the general departments), and the Second Artillery Force, an independent branch responsible for China’s conventional and nuclear missiles, was upgraded to a full-fledged service and renamed the PLA Rocket Force.
  • The seven military regions, responsible for administering forces at the regional level, were replaced with five “theater commands” aligned against specific maritime and land threats on China’s periphery.
  • The reforms not only significantly altered the PLA’s organizational structure but also redefined authority relationships between major components. The PLA Air Force and Navy headquarters, which previously commanded operations during peacetime, were reassigned to administrative roles focused on training and equipping troops. Operational authority moved to a two-tiered system in which decisions will be made by the CMC and carried out by theater commanders. [2]

In some ways, the new system is reminiscent of the U.S. military structure that developed following the passage of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act. That act similarly assigned the services an “organize, train, and equip” function, while placing operations in the hands of regional combatant commands such as the U.S. Pacific Command. Nevertheless, a key difference is that the PLA remains a “party army”—with a primary focus on defending the interests of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—not a national army, like the U.S. military, that serves the country’s interests regardless of which political party is in power. Thus, the PLA will continue to possess Leninist features that have no cognate in the U.S. system, such as a CMC, political commissars, and party committees down to the regimental level.

Why did Chinese president Xi Jinping and his supporters in the PLA pursue this course of reform? There are both political and operational motivations. Politically, the reforms were designed to enhance the ability of the CCP to supervise the armed forces, which were seen as increasingly corrupt and undisciplined. The reforms thus go hand in hand with parallel efforts to weed out malfeasance through an anticorruption campaign in the PLA that has already resulted in the dismissal of dozens of senior officers (including two former CMC vice chairmen, Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong) and efforts to strengthen Xi’s authority over the military in his role as CCP general secretary. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “Water War: This River Could Sink China-India Relations,” The National Interest, 18 April 2016.

The Brahmaputra is the next test for Beijing and New Delhi.

On April 18–19, the Chinese and Indian defense ministers will meet in Beijing to discuss border issues. At the top of the agenda will be how to improve stability along the border, where both countries have overlapping sovereignty claims. Chinese military incursions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) into Indian-controlled territory, most recently in March, have been a particular source of tension between Beijing and New Delhi. At the same time, the two sides should not ignore another point of friction in the LAC region—and a potential source of security cooperation—the transboundary Brahmaputra River.

The Brahmaputra originates in Tibet (where it is known locally as the Yarlung Tsangpo), and meanders across the LAC and into the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. This is one of two major contested regions along the Sino-Indian border, the other being Aksai Chin to the far west (where most of the recent Chinese military incursions have taken place). Chinese troops conducted a major offensive in Arunachal Pradesh as part of a border conflict with India in 1962, before withdrawing pending negotiations. Beijing claims sovereignty over this territory, which it refers to as “southern Tibet,” while New Delhi regards it as rightfully India’s territory under a 1914 treaty. The river then continues through Indian territory and into Bangladesh, where it ultimately flows into the Bay of Bengal.

Among the world’s major international rivers, the Brahmaputra ranks low in terms of institutionalized management. Countries along the Nile, for instance, have formed the Nile Basin Initiative to encourage peace and security, while states in the lower Mekong region have formed the Mekong River Commission (of which China is an observer, but not a full member). By contrast, there is no institution capable of promoting cooperation between the Brahmaputra’s three major riparian states – China, India, and Bangladesh. Even at a bilateral level, China-India cooperation is limited to a modest river data sharing agreement and a joint working group that has apparently not met regularly. The prospects for a larger accord (such as a water sharing treaty) are frustrated by the fact that the river passes through contested territory. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “Warning: Is China Pivoting Back to North Korea?The National Interest, 8 March 2016.

The West needs Beijing’s help in coercing Pyongyang.

U.S. media has described China’s support for expanded UN sanctions on North Korea in response to the latter’s January nuclear test as a shift in Beijing’s approach to Pyongyang (see herehere, and here). However, China’s actions are consistent with its response to the three previous DPRK nuclear tests, in which it condemned the North’s behavior and supported a limited expansion of sanctions against its erstwhile ally. If history is a guide, China’s next move could be to revert back to a more conciliatory effort to persuade North Korea to return to the negotiating table. This will frustrate those who hope for a strong, sustained campaign by Beijing to pressure Pyongyang.

After North Korea’s 2006, 2009 and 2013 nuclear tests, China issued rare Foreign Ministry statements decrying Pyongyang’s actions and reaffirming Beijing’s commitment to international nonproliferation norms. This was followed by coordination with Washington, Seoul and others to assemble sanctions in the UN Security Council. In each case, China faced the “Goldilocks” dilemma of doing just enough to signal dissatisfaction to North Korea, but not so much as to destabilize the DPRK regime or irreparably harm Chinese relations with North Korea. The result was a series of UN resolutions that were simply not strong enough to dissuade Pyongyang from further nuclear or ballistic missile tests.

China’s response to the January 2016 nuclear test fits this pattern. China’s Foreign Ministry initially expressed “firm” opposition to the test. This was followed by two months of negotiation with the United States, at times involving the U.S. and Chinese presidents, on the text of a new UN resolution. The resolution closes some loopholes, such as making cargo inspections mandatory (China previously argued that they should be voluntary), blacklisting additional North Korean individuals and entities and banning the sale of aviation and rocket fuel to the North. However, the resolution stops short of more forceful measures, such as threatening Pyongyang’s energy supply. Sanctions targeted at North Korea’s lucrative mineral exports were diluted and deemed by analysts as impossible to monitor. … … …

Andrew S. Erickson and Joel Wuthnow, “Why Islands Still Matter in Asia: The Enduring Significance of the Pacific ‘Island Chains’,” The National Interest, 5 February 2016.

The Western Pacific “island chains” are a persistent feature of Asia’s maritime geography. While their underlying fundaments remain constant, their specific strategic importance has evolved over time. Different major powers have thus interpreted, then re-interpreted and re-evaluated, the value of particular islands, the role they play in national military strategy, and their operational significance in a warfighting context. Chinese naval strategists such as former naval commander Admiral Liu Huaqing have devoted considerable attention to the island chains since the mid-1980s, examining how and where the island chains can hinder or support China’s maritime goals. Yet Chinese strategists are hardly unique in their efforts—military theorists and planners from Germany, Japan and the United States have all pondered the geopolitics of the islands and archipelagos of the Western Pacific, during both peacetime and wartime. To understand the progression of Chinese views, and more recent debates among U.S., Japanese and Chinese strategists, we must trace this lineage of strategic ideas that stretches back more than a century.

Foreign Imperial Origins

The earliest known inklings of island chain-related concepts are intertwined with imperial Germany’s Pacific involvement at the turn of the twentieth century, just as the United States was taking possession of Spain’s previous colonial Pacific territories of Guam and the Philippines. Germany’s tenure as a Pacific colonial power—having acquired the Mariana Islands; and the Caroline Islands, including Palau; from Spain in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898—coincided with the early writing career of Major General Karl Ernst Haushofer. Serving as a military attaché to Japan from 1908 to 1910, Haushofer was preoccupied with the geopolitics of the Pacific, penning several books on the subject. He regarded the “offshore island arcs” of what he termed the “Indo-Pacific realm” as important geopolitical features providing a useful “protective veil” sheltering continental powers such as China and India.

Japan, for its part, was already a major Pacific sea power at the turn of the twentieth century, having defeated the Chinese Navy and seized Taiwan in 1895. As its maritime strength increased, Tokyo gave careful attention to the strategic value of different islands and archipelagos in the Western Pacific. During World War I, a Japanese expeditionary force wrested control over several Micronesian islands from imperial Germany. These were not only useful steppingstones in Japan’s “southward turn,” focused on exploiting Southeast Asia’s economic and natural resources, but also served as a valuable strategic buffer. In particular, control over Micronesia (chiefly the Mariana, Marshall, and Caroline islands; the last, notably, including Palau) was seen as a hedge against the possibility that the United States would use its bases in Guam and on the Philippines to threaten Japan in a future conflict.

U.S. military theorist Milan Vego explains how Japan took steps to solidify its control over Micronesian islands in the decades following World War I. Vego observes that the Japanese government embarked on a significant settlement and economic campaign during the 1920s and 1930s. The number of Japanese settlers on the islands eventually outnumbered the native islanders. In 1935, Vego notes, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations and its islands became “closed territories,” with Westerners restricted from entry. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “Are Chinese Arms About to Flood into Iran?The National Interest, 13 January 2016.

Ahead of Xi’s visit to Tehran, Sino-Iranian military cooperation looks to expand.

China is often regarded as one of the prime beneficiaries of the Iran nuclear deal, signed in July 2015 with the P5+1 countries. Under the deal, Iran will limit its uranium enrichment and make other changes to its nuclear program in exchange for the termination of sanctions. This potential opening could provide Chinese state-owned energy companies a chance to increase their involvement with Iran’s oil and natural gas industries, and Iran could become a more important export market for a range of Chinese products. Beijing may also assist Tehran in building infrastructure as part of the massive Eurasian development project known as “One Belt, One Road,” as well as offer financing through the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Many agreements are likely to be announced during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s inaugural visit to Iran, planned for late January.

A more worrisome, but overlooked, aspect of China’s growing ties with Iran could occur in the arms sector. A bit of historical context is needed here. In the 1980s and early 1990s, China was a major supplier of advanced weapons to Iran in areas ranging from tanks and fighter jets to fast-attack patrol craft and anti-ship missiles. Beijing was driven not only by profit motivations, but also, it seems, by a strategic desire to strengthen Iran as a bulwark against excessive U.S. influence in the Middle East.

Chinese arms sales to Iran gradually declined in the late 1990s and 2000s, due to pressure from the United States and the imposition of UN sanctions against Iran. Those sanctions initially prohibited involvement with Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile industries, and were later expanded to cover major conventional weapons, such as combat aircraft and warships. Iran was also increasingly seen as a ‘pariah state,’ a status symbolized by the UN embargo, which discouraged China from maintaining overly close security ties with Tehran. Consequently, China’s arms relationship with Iran has been left largely moribund in the past decade.

The Iran nuclear deal could spawn a resurgence of Chinese arms exports to Iran by lifting UN sanctions and helping diminish Iran’s ‘pariah state’ status. China, and other states, would be allowed to export major conventional weapons to Iran in the next eight years with UN Security Council approval. After eight years, even those restrictions would be lifted, assuming Iran complies with the agreement. In addition, certain types of weapons could be sold to Iran without a waiver. For instance, Russia has argued that its sale of S-300 missile defenses to Iran are permissible because this system is not specifically prohibited under the nuclear deal. China could make a similar argument regarding small arms, short-range missiles and other systems. … … …


Joel Wuthnow, “Projecting Strength in a Time of Uncertainty: China’s Military in 2020,” Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Hearing on “U.S-China in 2020: Enduring Problems and Emerging Challenges,” 9 September 2020.

Key Points

  • The Chinese Communist Party has long considered 2020 a milestone for the completion of important military modernization and reform goals. Chinese officials and media projected confidence that these goals would be completed despite the impact of COVID- 19. Achievements over the past year included new hardware and operational “firsts.”
  • Chinese media and officials note that there is much ‘unfinished business’ left for the PLA to accomplish. Major challenges include delayed reforms, outdated weapons and equipment, corruption in the officer corps and defense industry, human capital weaknesses, and the lack of updated operational doctrine. The PLA aspires to continue progress on these and other areas through 2035 and mid-century.
  • Chinese military operations in Asia in 2020 continued a careful balancing act of developing friendly relations with neighbors while pressing China’s territorial claims. However, notable departures from past practice included use of lethal force against Indian troops and escalating tensions with several rivals at the same time. This indicates an increasing propensity for risk-taking in China’s decision calculus, though Beijing ultimately de-escalated tensions with most of its regional rivals.
  • The PLA’s response to increased U.S. military operations in Asia includes deterrence signaling and steps to weaken U.S. alliances and partnerships. China’s coercive actions against a number of regional countries in 2020, however, undercut the latter approach. China committed a strategic blunder in antagonizing Japan and India, two states critical to the success of U.S. strategy.
  • PLA disaster relief operations in 2020 showcased a “reformed PLA” and marked the operational debut of the Joint Logistic Support Force and the Air Force’s Y-20s. These operations indicated progress in correcting weaknesses in the logistics and other support systems but were far less demanding than what would be required in wartime.
  • Congress and the USCC can promote more effective U.S. strategy towards China and the region in several ways: (1) commissioning new research on PLA weaknesses, (2) contributing to a better understanding of recent U.S. ally and partner perceptions of China, (3) mandating a new review of U.S.-China military relations, and (4) promoting increased access to open source materials on China. … … …

Joel Wuthnow, “Securing China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Dimensions and Implications,” Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Hearing on “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Five Years Later,” 25 January 2018.

Executive Summary

Although China’s official rhetoric casts it in solely economic terms, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) also has well-defined strategic and security aspects: it contributes to China’s overall national security, but is also subject to a variety of operational and strategic challenges. Chinese sources suggest that Beijing is using BRI investments as a means of stabilizing border regions, securing energy supply routes, and cultivating stronger diplomatic and economic influence with partner nations. However, those goals could be constrained by challenges ranging from the physical risks of operating in remote and unstable areas to the possibility of unilateral and coordinated opposition from other major powers. These are in addition to the inherent economic challenges associated with infrastructure development (such as the ability of developing and poorly governed states to repay debts).

Aware of the risks, Beijing is marshalling all forms of national power to create a safer and more strategically advantageous context for the BRI. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is improving its ability to carry out non-traditional security operations such as non-combatant evacuations and disaster relief missions at longer range and for longer periods. China is also developing other options, including host nation support, private security firms, and law enforcement initiatives, to secure BRI personnel and assets. At the strategic level, Beijing is using high-level engagements, public diplomacy, and economic inducements to reduce the potential for the BRI to aggravate competition with other major powers.

China’s success will depend in part on the reactions of other countries. From a U.S. perspective, the Trump administration will have to weigh competing factors as it designs a response: overt confrontation with Beijing may impose a cost on U.S. firms hoping to take advantage of new opportunities and harm U.S.-China relations, while accommodation could fuel Chinese ambitions, jeopardize U.S. interests in prudent lending and market access, and alienate U.S. partners such as Japan and India that have expressed serious concerns about China’s activities. The Department of Defense will also have to consider tradeoffs as it decides whether, and how, to collaborate with the PLA in ways that enhance security along BRI routes. At a minimum, the department will have to prepare for a greater PLA role outside of East Asia, and maintain contact with Chinese counterparts in order to better understand their goals and capabilities, de-conflict activities, and determine whether and where there may be opportunities for cooperation. … … …