Jeremy Rausch
Assistant Director
Political and Security Affairs

[email protected]

2023 People’s Liberation Army Conference

Preparing for Conflict? The PLA's Strategy and Posture in a Complex Security Environment

On June 10–11, 2023, the National Bureau of Asian Research and the China Strategic Focus Group at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command convened the 2023 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Conference at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. The conference brought together an audience, primarily in-person, representing the world’s leading PLA specialists from academia, government, military, and policy research organizations. Participants included not only U.S.-based experts but also those representing U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

The conference took place against the backdrop of rising U.S. concerns over China’s increasing willingness to incur risks to advance its interests as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) grows more focused on the challenges facing its “China dream” of “national rejuvenation.” Despite efforts to stabilize the U.S.-China relationship in other areas, military competition continues to intensify as Beijing employs the PLA as an increasingly prominent instrument of national power. Nowhere has this situation become more intense than in the Taiwan Strait, as U.S. and regional unease increases over the potential for China to use force against Taiwan. Meanwhile, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dramatically altered global security dynamics and offered strategic, operational, and tactical lessons to Chinese strategists and planners.

The 2023 PLA Conference, titled “Preparing for Conflict? The PLA’s Strategy and Posture in a Complex Security Environment,” explored how the CCP is thinking about using military force in an increasingly complex security environment and assessed the efficacy of the CCP’s application of its military tool of power. The conference examined changes in China’s perceptions of its security environment and how these judgments affect party-military relations and drive whole-of-society preparations for intensifying strategic competition with the United States. The presentations explored how CCP threat assessments are shaping the PLA’s modernization efforts, strategy, and operational posture, including in the Taiwan Strait, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. The conference concluded by discussing the likelihood of the PRC initiating armed conflict around its periphery in the next decade.

The first panel, “Chinese Leaders Assess Their National Security Opportunities and Challenges,” examined how changes in China’s perception of its external security environment, new dynamics in party-army relations, and reforms to the National Defense Mobilization System shape how the CCP employs the PLA to achieve its goals. The first presenter analyzed how the CCP’s assessment of China’s external security environment shapes its decision-making process and concluded that party leaders’ assessment that the world is undergoing “changes unseen in a century” profoundly influences their perception of opportunities and threats. The second presenter examined party-military relations in Xi Jinping’s second decade in power and argued that Xi, contrary to conventional wisdom, has generally respected long-standing norms and practices in party-military dynamics in his bid to centralize and stabilize power and cultivate support for his ambitious military modernization agenda. The third presenter assessed the evolving role of the PRC’s National Defense Mobilization System and argued that the CCP has significantly increased its focus on supporting PLA operations in a major war in recent years.

The second panel, “The PLA’s Mandate Amid a Complex Security Environment,” assessed how the PLA’s missions, strategy, and operational posture are evolving in the context of China’s changing external security environment, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the PLA’s improving capabilities. The first presenter examined the CCP’s views on the military as a tool of national power and concluded that the PLA ultimately plays a secondary role—characterized by a focus on military modernization, deterrence, and non-war missions—to other tools of power in the party’s pursuit of national rejuvenation. The second presenter analyzed the implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for Beijing’s views on the use of force, concluding that the PRC is confident in its ability to diagnose the cause of Russian missteps and ensure that its political and military systems do not fall victim to the same errors, as well as that it is increasingly aware of the potential costs in a scenario involving Taiwan. The third presenter evaluated the PLA’s strengths and weaknesses for effectively carrying out its assigned missions and argued that, despite its notable strengths, the PLA continues to identify significant capability shortfalls, leading it to prefer a strategy of multigeneration military modernization to major wartime operations in the near term.

The third panel, “Is China Preparing for the Use of Force?” explored the PRC’s evolving use of the military tool of power and improving operational capabilities in the Taiwan Strait, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. The first presenter discussed the changing force posture and capabilities of the PLA regarding Taiwan and concluded that China is aiming to develop military capabilities that overwhelm both Taiwan’s defenses and potential U.S. and allied military intervention. The second presenter argued that the PLA’s role in Southeast Asia is designed to deter in peacetime, ensure enhanced combat effectiveness in times of crisis and possible conflict, and advance political objectives in the region through coercion or military diplomacy. The third presenter argued that China is expanding its military presence and influence in Oceania through security cooperation and attempts to establish access and even basing rights in the region.

The 2023 conference concluded with a fourth panel that examined changes in the PRC’s operational posture and intentions from the perspectives of U.S. allies and partners in the region, including Australia, Japan, India, and Taiwan. The experts remarked on important changes in the PLA’s operational posture and behavior, including during the continued standoff at the Line of Actual Control in the disputed Sino-Indian border region and through the intensification of coercive measures toward Taiwan. The panel ultimately revealed that a key factor in determining whether the PRC succeeds or fails in realizing its vision for the region and the world is the actions of the United States working alongside its allies and partners.

In addition to these four panels, the conference featured keynote remarks from Michael Chase, deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, and Catherine Johnston, former deputy director of intelligence for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. These two keynote speakers discussed the state of military-to-military relations between the United States and China as well as associated crisis management mechanisms and relationships with key allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

Conference proceedings are expected to be published in 2024 as an edited volume.