2022 People’s Liberation Army Conference
PLA Decision-Making in an Era of Great-Power Competition and Crisis
On July 16 and 17, 2022, the National Bureau of Asian Research, the China Strategic Focus Group at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and the Foreign Language Department at the U.S. Military Academy convened the 2022 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Conference at West Point, New York. The conference brought together a hybrid audience of in-person and virtual participants representing the world’s leading PLA specialists from academia, government, military, and policy research organizations.
This year’s conference, “PLA Decision-Making in an Era of Great-Power Competition and Crisis,” evaluated how the actions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in crisis scenarios are evolving along with the PLA’s modernizing military capabilities and increasingly assertive international behavior. The conference provided insight into how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and PLA are thinking about and responding to ongoing and potential crises in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. Building on the 2021 PLA Conference, which addressed China’s approach to deterrence, the 2022 conference examined China’s decision-making behavior, emerging doctrinal and theoretical guidance, institutional control structures, and decision-making procedures, as well as case study–based analyses.
Participants agreed that the PRC is committed to realizing a “world-class” military through a comprehensive modernization campaign across its conventional, asymmetrical, and strategic services. This modernization campaign supports Xi Jinping’s objectives for China to realize the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” “build a world-class military,” and assume a global role commensurate with China’s comprehensive national power. Fundamental changes appear to be taking place in the PRC’s military strategy, capabilities, and crisis behavior.
These changes are apparent in each of the conventional, asymmetrical, and strategic domains. In the strategic nuclear domain, the PLA is undertaking rapid modernization of China’s nuclear forces and there is apparent construction of new ICBM silos. In conjunction, Beijing is enhancing asymmetrical capabilities in emerging areas such as cyber and outer space while deploying coercive economic and diplomatic measures against other countries. Most visibly, China’s conventional capabilities are becoming more modern and threatening operationally. The PLA’s joint exercises and impressive naval ship building have led the PRC to take more provocative actions in the region, including incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and harassment of key U.S. allies and partners over unsubstantiated territorial claims.
To address these realities and their implications, the 2022 PLA Conference featured three panels on the following themes: “The Doctrine and Theory behind China’s Crisis Response,” “PRC Institutional Control and Crisis Decision-Making under Xi Jinping,” and “Crisis Scenario Decision-Making Case Studies.”
The first panel, “The Doctrine and Theory behind China’s Crisis Response,” evaluated the doctrinal concepts that frame the PRC’s approach to crisis response and decision-making. The first presenter assessed how the PRC views escalation in crisis scenarios and argued that Beijing believes that conflicts, irrespective of scope and intensity, can be effectively managed and
controlled. The second presenter examined China’s approach to de-escalation in a crisis scenario by evaluating the PLA’s behavior in the Senkaku Islands dispute with Japan. This speaker argued that China’s crisis behavior broaches two potential responses: the first approach is to actively try to either alter the status quo through an offensive response or maintain the status quo through de-escalatory behavior, whereas the second approach posits that ideological and identity-based motivators such as nationalism influence Beijing’s actions. Participants agreed that despite the PLA’s focus on localized conflict and controlling escalation, China may be overestimating its ability to prevent a conflict from spiraling, especially considering the PLA’s lack of combat experience.
The second panel, “Institutional Control and Crisis Decision-Making under Xi Jinping,” examined control and decision-making procedures within the CCP and PLA bureaucracies, as well as how the use of emerging technologies could replace human-based decision-making with artificial intelligence-enabled (AI) technology. The first presenter discussed China’s institutional behavior during crisis scenarios by identifying several principles that dictate the PRC’s approach to crisis management and conflict resolution. The second presenter assessed the implications of China’s goal of becoming a world leader in AI for military decision-making, concluding that while AI-enabled technology is unlikely to replace human decision-making in the short-term, such capabilities are likely to be deployed at the tactical level in the next ten to fifteen years.
The third panel, “Crisis Scenario Decision-Making Case Studies,” used case studies to understand how crisis decision-making takes place through domain-based analyses. Presenters assessed the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff, the ongoing conflict at the Sino-Indian border between the Indian military and the PLA, and China’s approach to crisis management in cyberspace. Presenters identified and evaluated driving factors that influence the PLA’s behavior in these crises, including domestic political pressure, international responses, power imbalances, asymmetric capabilities, and others. The final presenter assessed how China’s nuclear expansion is impacting its crisis behavior in other domains. Among other implications, the presenters concluded that China might be using its nuclear modernization campaign to bolster its status as a global military power, and that an enhanced strategic nuclear deterrent might embolden the PLA to deploy conventional and asymmetric capabilities to achieve military objectives.
In addition to the three panels, the conference also featured keynote remarks from Catherine Johnston, deputy director of intelligence for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command J2, who drew on her experience and interactions with the PLA to supplement conference discussions and answer audience questions on PLA decision-making in crisis scenarios.
The 2022 conference concluded with a discussion session of key takeaways, followed by group break-out sessions on the implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for China’s crisis decision-making and behavior. The chance to debate and synthesize the ideas and policy options presented over the preceding two days allowed for direct, dynamic, and collegial interactions among the participants.
Conference proceedings are expected to be published in 2023 as a conference volume.