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April 17, 2018

How the PLA Really Sees America

By: Ian Easton |

In December 2017, the U.S. Government published a new National Security Strategy. This remarkable document referred to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a “revisionist power” that sought “to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.” One month later, in January 2018, the Pentagon released the unclassified version of its National Defense Strategy, which stated that “China is a strategic competitor.” Thanks to these documents, we now know how the American military―and the broader national security community―officially views China.

Less clear has been how the Chinese military, as an institution, views America. Indeed, many of the messages emanating from uniformed officials in Beijing appear mixed and even self-contradictory. The overall message they appear to be conveying is that China’s armed forces have benign, peaceful intentions toward America, but they must sometimes react aggressively to destabilizing events created by others.

An initial assessment of authoritative Chinese sources indicates that Beijing is exploiting increased international attention to (and engagement with) its military to engage in a well-orchestrated strategic deception campaign. While the Chinese military’s external propaganda tends to deny or downplay strategic competition between the U.S. and China, its internal writings are often strident and anti-American. The reality is that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sees the U.S. as an adversary and acts accordingly―while at the same time working to lull American officials into a false sense of complacency.

Defining the Problem

China is not known for its transparency. In the most recent World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders described China as “the planet’s leading censor and press freedom predator,” and gave Beijing a score of 176 out of 180, ranking it fifth from the bottom. Yet while it might be difficult to assess the validity of specific pieces of information appearing in Chinese propaganda, it is relatively easy to spot broad narratives and themes. China’s state-run media might not tell its consumers everything that is going on at home and abroad, but it will tell them how they should interpret the events that are selected for coverage.Chinese military writings offer many insights. Unlike the United States, China does not have a professional national military. The PLA is the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a political organization that has exercised a monopoly on power in China since 1949. As such, PLA writings must pass through a rigid censorship process to make sure they are “correct” reflections of the CCP’s official position before they can be published. This process ensures that communist party officials speak with one voice on all important issues.

Like any military, the PLA produces field manuals, technical studies, and other written materials that are not intended for outside consumption. Compared to propaganda writings, internal PLA materials are often more candid and detailed. What is the official PLA view of America? Is there a difference between how Chinese military sources portray the U.S. in public statements and internal ones? If so, what does this imply about Beijing’s intentions?


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(PLA General Visits Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. Source: U.S. Air Force)

PLA Propaganda 

Authoritative PLA writings that are made available to external audiences will sometimes make unflattering remarks about the United States, but they avoid describing America as an adversary. They do not portray the U.S. as a strategic competitor, hostile force, or enemy. They generally use neutral or mild terms to describe U.S. actions. When they are critical, China’s military writings will often refer to the U.S. indirectly, and they will not suggest the possibility of armed confrontation.

For example, the most recent white paper made available by China’s defense ministry is entitled, “China’s Policy for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific.” Published in January 2017, this report hints that problems between the U.S. and PRC might exist, but stresses the stable and constructive nature of bilateral security relations. Prior to that, “China’s Military Strategy in 2014” made note of the U.S. rebalance to Asia strategy, but did not express any explicit concerns.

The 2012 iteration of China’s defense white paper was a bit more transparent about how the PLA felt. In an indirect criticism of the U.S., it stated that “there are signs of increasing hegemonism, power politics, and neo-interventionism…some country has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser.”

China’s 2010 defense white paper, again, without mentioning the U.S. by name, stated that: “International military competition remains fierce…Some powers have worked out strategies for outer space, cyber space and the polar regions, developed means for prompt global strikes, accelerated development of missile defense systems, enhanced cyber operations capabilities to occupy new strategic commanding heights.” China’s 2008 defense white paper expressed similar concerns about the U.S., using almost the exact same indirect language.

In contrast to official statements made by China’s defense ministry, retired or semi-retired PLA generals and admirals, many of whom have backgrounds in political warfare and intelligence, are openly hawkish and anti-American. A number of such individuals regularly appear as commentators on Chinese state-run television shows. [1] Many also frequently publish strident editorials in state-run media and PLA publications. However, when challenged, Chinese authorities can credibly (if disingenuously) claim these are non-authoritative individuals whom are only expressing their own personal views. [2]

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(Source: South China Morning Post)

The Internal View

Authoritative PLA writings show that the Chinese military’s institutional view of the U.S. has far more in common with the hawkish commentators than the authors of China’s defense white papers. A survey of PLA materials shows that internal Chinese military publications often refer to the U.S. as the “Strong Enemy” (强敌). This term is commonly used across a broad range of writings. Moreover, authoritative PLA publications take pains to paint America as a hostile force and frequently discuss the possibility of launching first strikes on the U.S. in wartime scenarios.

For example, the Liberation Army Press textbook Informatized Joint Operations, written by a team of officers at the Nanjing Army Command Academy in 2006, describes the “Strong Enemy’s” strategy as “provocative, offensive, and expansionistic in nature.” It states that America “ignores the rules of international relations…using gunboat diplomacy and relying on its own military power to serve as the world policeman, making up all kinds of rationales and excuses to push forward its hegemonic power politics all over the world.” [3]

The book goes one to assert that the American military’s wartime target list includes China’s major cities, nuclear power plants, chemical plants, and dams, targets which would cause mass civilian casualties and wreck havoc across Chinese society. [4] The book then describes in detail how the PLA would defend against such attacks and defeat the “Strong Enemy” in war. [5]

According to the PLA Academy of Military Sciences’ 2013 Course Book on Wartime Political Work, U.S. military intervention against China is “inevitable” (particularly in a local conflict against Taiwan) because “the Strong Enemy seeks world hegemony and works to contain China’s rise.” [6] To counter this, the book discusses the application of media, legal, and psychological warfare against the “Strong Enemy.” Should these operations fail to deter American intervention, the authors note the importance of conducting offensive strikes on U.S. aircraft carrier groups. [7]

In a similar vein, the 2014 PLA Air Force textbook Research on Air Force Strategy Problems dedicates over 60 pages to a discussion on the “threats” posed to China by the U.S. military. [8] Notably, many military capabilities considered defensive by Americans, such as early warning satellites, surveillance radars, and missile defense systems, are listed in the threat category. [9] The authors advocate dealing with the “American threat” by expanding China’s stockpiles of intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads, and theater missiles. The authors further advocate increasing the PLA’s ability to carry out first strikes on U.S. port facilities, airbases, and missile defense sites using a combination of theater missiles, electronic attacks, and saboteurs. [10]

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(Chinese Animation of Missile Attack on U.S. Carrier Group. Source: Defense News)


While unconfirmed, an initial assessment of Chinese military writings suggests that the PLA is engaged in a long-term, centrally-managed, strategic deception operation aimed at the United States’ government and military. While propaganda materials create an image of a relatively benign and friendly China, internal PLA writings espouse a doctrine that is fundamentally offensive and hostile to American values and interests. Irrespective of what is said by Chinese military propagandists in their defense white papers and public statements, the reality is that PLA officers are trained to view the U.S. as an enemy, and they will plan and act accordingly.

While the new U.S. national strategy reports are clear-eyed in their assessment of Beijing’s intentions, so far little has been done which would indicate that Washington has actually reached a consensus on its China policy and is prepared to execute a long-term strategic competition. Much hard work will be required to turn wise words into action. In that sense, the PLA has a significant head start. It decided to become America’s strategic competitor long ago ― and if the “Strong Enemy” didn’t realize what was going on, for them, so much the better.

Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia.

[1]For examples of various programs, see http://tv.cctv.com/lm/fwxgc/;http://tv.cctv.com/lm/jsbd/20180402.shtml; and http://tv.cctv.com/lm/jskj/.

[2] See Andrew Chubb, “Propaganda, Not Policy: Explaining the PLA’s ‘Hawkish Faction,'” Jamestown China Brief, July 25, 2013, at https://jamestown.org/program/propaganda-not-policy-explaining-the-plas-hawkish-faction-part-one/.

[3] Cao Zhengrong, Wu Runbo, and Sun Jianjun (eds.), Informatized Joint Operations [信息化联合作战] (Beijing: Liberation Army Press, 2008), p. 236. Note this is from the second edition of the book. It was first written and published in 2006.

[4] Ibid. p. 241.

[5] Ibid. p. 242-262.

[6] Wu Zhizhong (ed.), Course Book on Wartime Political Work [战时政治工作教程] (Beijing: Academy of Military Sciences Press, 2013), p. 194.

[7] Ibid. pp.195-196.

[8] Zhu Hui (ed.), Research on Air Force Strategy Problems [空军战略问题研究] (Beijing: Blue Sky Press, 2014), pp. 306-371.

[9] Ibid. p. 310-315.

[10] Ibid. p. 369-370. Note that similar anti-American terminology is seen across the spectrum of internal PLA books and field manuals, including authoritative works on topics as diverse as army operations, space warfare, and military medicine.