The 1990s ushered in a revolution in military affairs in China. Planners for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) started to talk about integrating digital technologies and to debate strategy, tactics, and operations in ways that drew on lessons from the Gulf War. PLA learning, debate, assimilation, and adaptation has continued over these subsequent decades—up to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In an online event, Carnegie Endowment Vice President for Studies Evan Feigenbaum discussed this question with several scholars, including Carnegie Endowment Nonresident Scholar Charles Hooper, a retired Army lieutenant general. Excerpts from the event, which have been edited and condensed for clarity, are below.
Evan Feigenbaum: Talk to us a little bit about how we should think about the role of learning in the Chinese armed forces. How important are foreign military engagements, doctrines, conflicts for them?
Charles Hooper: The PLA are careful and meticulous students of modern warfare, particularly the U.S. way of war. They are voracious consumers of publicly available information, as well as all of the information that their very aggressive intelligence efforts provide them. When I was the defense attaché at [Pacific Command] and in the Office of [the] Secretary of Defense, I used to say, “If it’s online, they’ve read it.” And I remember being in meetings where they would quote word for word any doctrine that we had posted online, or revisions to our doctrine, as well as the performance capabilities of U.S. weapon systems. . . .
But despite recent organizational reform efforts, the PLA remains essentially a political entity with a war-fighting mission. It is a party army, not a national army. And its approach to learning and leadership is heavily influenced by its own organization, as well as traditional Chinese culture and education. For example, one of the principal elements of the initial Russian military failures in Ukraine is a function of command and control, poor leadership development, internal corruption, inadequate training, and poor troop motivations. In the PLA system, development of these key capabilities is a Communist Party—not a strictly military—responsibility. And [Chinese President] Xi Jinping himself has acknowledged this. So the question becomes, and this is a historical issue with the PLA, how will the party address these military shortcomings?
Evan Feigenbaum: China is a Leninist system. Decisionmaking is centralized, but there is debate in the system. And historically within the PLA, there’s been debate in which some views prevail, and some views end up getting eclipsed, sometimes for political reasons, sometimes for operational reasons. . . . Are there views in the PLA that have basically become obsolete in the last five to ten years because of things that they have observed in foreign military situations?
Charles Hooper: There are two things that have fundamentally changed over the past forty years. The first of those is this concept among the PLA leadership that they had the advantage of defense in depth, and as a result, they didn’t necessarily need to develop even a limited power projection capability. I can remember years ago PLA generals telling me, “Well, if you attack Tianjin, we’ll fall back to Beijing. And if you attack Beijing, we’ll fall back to Chengdu.” And I remember thinking, “Why in the world would we do that?” That’s fundamentally changed. We see their defense modernization focused on giving them the ability to have a limited power projection capability, if only for anti-access area denial.
The second [fundamental change] is the concept that they have an overwhelming advantage in mass. But qualitative quantity has an even higher quality all its own. So there’s been an abandonment of this perception that [the PLA] have this overwhelming advantage in mass that’s sufficient to deter an enemy from attacking, and more of an emphasis on reducing the size of the PLA ground forces and increasing the quality of the strategic rocket forces and the support forces in the Navy, in an effort to ensure that their quality matches the qualitative advantage that the United States has always enjoyed.
Evan Feigenbaum: [Russian President] Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24. China, as we all know, has spent a couple of decades thinking about ways to coerce Taiwan. What’s happened since the 24th that might be relevant to Taiwan?
Charles Hooper: I think at the very strategic military level, one of the most fundamental tenets of PLA modernization has actually been validated by the Ukraine conflict, but it’s also paradoxical.
The nature of warfare never changes—the applications and violence to achieve a political end—but the character of warfare is constantly evolving. And that’s what we’re seeing now: an evolution of the character of warfare toward the defense, as opposed to the offense. The defense or the defending nation has an advantage here.
Russia clearly possessed an overwhelming advantage in combat power and just sheer throw weight when compared to Ukraine. But despite this, Ukraine has been able to offset this advantage by a skillful application of asymmetric military capabilities that have been supplied by its allies and partners. Now, what we need to understand is the PLA has always perceived themselves to be the defender and the United States to be the aggressor. We tend to look at it [through] the Taiwan element of it—as China being the aggressor and us being the defender—but that’s not how they see it. And indeed, their entire defense modernization emphasis . . . has been specifically focused on denying the United States the ability to project power into the Western Pacific and to prevent [it] from building “mountains of iron.”
Before we go to war anywhere in the world, we build a mountain of iron—in Kuwait, in Iraq, and in other places. And then we unleash this mountain of iron on whoever our foe is far from our shores.
The paradox here is that while the United States is clearly the aggressor and attacker, within this paradigm, Taiwan is clearly the defender. And the Ukraine conflict has demonstrated that a well-supplied, well-motivated defender can effectively disrupt or even defeat a clearly superior adversary. If nothing else, this defender can significantly increase the cost and length and duration of a military conflict to the detriment of the attacker. So, when you look at the overall lesson here, it’s the fact that this is far more complex than they might have imagined.
Evan Feigenbaum: Is there anything [the PLA has] done that they should feel better about as a result of what’s happened to the Russians in Ukraine?
Charles Hooper: Let me talk first about noncommissioned officer [NCO] corps—the issue of cultural evolution of a military force. Because what a lot of people don’t understand about leadership, battle command, and NCO corps is that the essence of the strength of these capabilities is cultural, not technical. It is the willingness of the senior officer to delegate authority and to accept the counsel of a subordinate in their command over their own judgment.
For example, as a general, I had a sergeant major. If I propose to do something and he says, “Sir, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” I have two choices. I can get angry about it or feel as if I’ve lost face, or I can modify my plans based upon the wise counsel that he’s given. In the U.S. system, I gain in stature with my forces by doing that. In some other cultures, that would produce a loss of face and a challenge to authority that could not be countenanced. That’s why you can form an NCO corps, but it may not be as effective in a Russian or a Chinese cultural context as it is in the U.S. context.
The second thing I’d raise is this issue of battle command. Russian officers keep getting killed because they don’t trust their junior subordinates to give them an accurate picture of the battlefield. They’re being hounded by Moscow to [share] what’s going on, and they only trust their own judgment. The success of [breaking up larger formations into smaller ones] is predicated on active, adaptive combat leaders who are willing to use their own initiative during the rapid evolution of combat operations. To illustrate that, we have a saying in the U.S. military that fundamentally describes the cultural difference between the Chinese and Russian militaries and the U.S. military. And every military officer learns it from the very beginning of his training: It’s easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.
[U.S. military officers] learn to use and trust their own judgment in a rapidly evolving combat situation and explain their actions later on. And they anticipate that their leadership will support their actions, particularly if there’s a favorable outcome. And these types of cultural tenets are not necessarily common to either Russian military culture or Chinese culture. Those types of capabilities are absolutely essential to the success in information warfare– and hybrid warfare–based environments. And as we see in the Russian military, they simply don’t exist.
Evan Feigenbaum: There are two questions from audience members that get at that question of false conclusions and false analogies: What are the risks attached to over-comparing Ukraine to Taiwan? Given that the Chinese Communist Party and the PLA have their own perspectives, what are the wrong or inaccurate lessons they may be drawing from the Ukraine conflict?
Charles Hooper: Two quick points. Number one: I think one of the flawed analogies here is if we do all of the things that the Russians didn’t do, we will be successful.
The second is something that I’ve not seen a lot of people talk about: the complete failure of strategic deterrent signaling and the reading of deterrence signaling on the part of both Russia and the United States as a prelude to the Ukrainian conflict. I was rereading John Toland’s The Rising Sun about the rise and fall of the Japanese Empire, and I was struck by the failure of strategic deterrence signaling between the United States and Japan before Pearl Harbor.
We saw a similar failure of strategic deterrent signaling between the United States and Russia and between NATO and Russia. Prior to the Ukrainian conflict, both sides seemed to misread signals. And I think that there should be some study given to the strategic signaling that could take place prior to Chinese military operations against Taiwan or against the United States, so that we have a much clearer understanding of what they are saying, which might both precede the conflict and hopefully help to avoid the conflict.
Evan Feigenbaum: Does that mean we’re headed for trouble?
Charles Hooper: That’s exactly what I mean by a failure of deterrent communication. We are talking past each other. We’re not really listening to each other, and we’re not considering the messages that are being sent in the context of our opposite number, as opposed to our own context.
Evan Feigenbaum: [What are your] headline takeaways from what you’ve observed since February?
Charles Hooper: There are no regional conflicts in the twenty-first century involving great powers. The Ukraine-Russia conflict has caused food shortages in Tunisia and vegetable oil shortages in Indonesia, and rising oil prices. If we think the global implications of a Russia-Ukraine conflict are significant, wait until you see the global implications of a China-U.S. conflict.