Military Strategy and Politics in the PRC: A Conversation with Taylor Fravel


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This week, Kaiser and Jeremy chat with Taylor Fravel, one of the world’s leading authorities on the People’s Liberation Army. Taylor has a brand-new book out called Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949, which examines the changes to the PLA’s strategy, why they happen, and why, just as importantly, in some moments when we’d expect major changes in strategy, they don’t happen. Join us for this deep dive into the drivers of strategic change in this emerging superpower.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

15:33: One of Taylor’s main findings from his research in writing the book was the internal decision-making structure within China’s military: “One thing that I really came away with after doing this research is how much, in some respects, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) functions like a Party organization and not just a military organization.”

28:21: Taylor discusses how the combat experiences of the PLA in the 40s and 50s have a legacy into the present. In 1956, the PLA shifted their strategies away from an emphasis on mobile warfare (opportunistic engagement) to positional warfare (defending a fixed position): “Mobile warfare was the dominant way of fighting in the Civil War and much of the Korean war…so this is important in the context of the 1956 strategy, because it was a strategy that clearly rejected the emphasis on mobile warfare from the Civil War and said, ‘Look, we have to try to defend our new country, and we don’t want to cede large tracts of land to an invading country if we don’t have to.’”

38:34: Taylor explains the history behind China’s shift to the strategy of active defense in 1980: “The concept of active defense is associated with the early period of the Civil War in the 1930s, and then Mao’s writings about the operations in the encirclement campaigns at that time. And so, it’s a strategic concept that flows through China’s approach to strategy after 1949, and every strategy is said to be consistent with the concept of active defense.”

So, what is it? “Strategically, China is defensive — it’s not offensive, it’s not an aggressor, it’s not a hegemon. But nevertheless, to achieve these defensive goals, it will, at the operational and tactical levels of warfare, use offensive operations and means.”

46:36: Yet another strategic change occurred in 1993, when military guidelines emphasized the need to “win local wars in conditions of high technology.” Taylor describes the key takeaways: “I think this is the point in time, in 1993, when China really decides it’s going to try to wage war in a completely different way than it had in the past. And it believed it could do so in part because it no longer faced an existential threat of invasion from the Soviet Union or, previously in the 1950s, from the Americans. And so, the national objectives in using military force had changed from ensuring the survival of a country to prevailing in territorial disputes, as well as Taiwan’s reunification.”


Jeremy: The Pl@ntNet app, which Jeremy is using extensively to identify the flora of Goldkorn Holler with “extraordinary accuracy”.

Taylor: Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms, published by the National Defense University Press; and Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping by Klaus Mühlhahn.

Kaiser: An interview with Peter Hessler by Jordan Schneider on the ChinaEconTalk podcast.

This podcast was edited and produced by Kaiser Kuo and Jason MacRonald.