Introduction: China’s Evolving Thinking on Deterrence
Cover illustration by Nate Christenson

Introduction: China’s Evolving Thinking on Deterrence

by Roy D. Kamphausen and Jeremy Rausch
February 16, 2023

This is the introduction to Modernizing Deterrence: How China Coerces, Compels, and Deters, which features papers from the 2021 People’s Liberation Army Conference convened by NBR and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s China Strategic Focus Group.

The 2021 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Conference, cohosted by the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) and the China Strategic Focus Group at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, took place in the wake of fundamental changes for the PLA. After more than five years of unprecedented structural and operational reforms, the Central Military Commission of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) issued the “Guidelines on Joint Operations of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (Trial)” in November 2020.[1] The guidelines outlined the PLA’s central objective: building a force capable of conducting “integrating joint operations” by developing and deploying weapons and equipment “characterized by higher precision, intellectualization, stealth, and unmanned operation.” By declaring the essential completion of the “national defense and military reform of the leadership and command systems, scale, structure, and force composition” at the press conference introducing the new guidelines, the PLA appears confident and ready to work on achieving Chairman Xi Jinping’s centenary goal of building a “world-class military” by 2049.[2]

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) issued the new guidelines as it assumes a more active and assertive role in the Indo-Pacific region, while also looking to acquire a more prominent global role commensurate with its “comprehensive national power.” Those roles, and the ambitions that fuel them, are in many respects inimical to U.S. and allied interests and objectives. In recent years, PRC actions have threatened peace and stability in Asia in many ways. China has disregarded independent, international judicial rulings on the validity of its unsubstantiated territorial claims in the South China Sea. The PRC has continued to employ coercive measures across economic, diplomatic, and information domains against Taiwan, all the while refusing to rule out the use of force to unify the island with the PRC. In addition, the strengthening of China’s relationship with Russia even as Russia has invaded Ukraine has sparked concerns regarding the degree of coordination in the pair’s destabilizing regional and global behavior. While Russian president Vladimir Putin was forced to acknowledge China’s concerns over the ongoing quagmire in Ukraine at a meeting with Xi Jinping in September 2022, his enduring and congenial relationship with Xi, their similar personality-driven autocratic governance structures, and shared distrust and disdain for the Western-led international system are some of the factors that continue to drive the strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing.

At the same time, fundamental shifts in China’s thinking on deterrence appear to be underway. The new strategic guidelines have been accompanied by a broad evolution of China’s strategic deterrence concepts in which military and nonmilitary capabilities combine to create an “integrated strategic deterrence” posture aimed to protect China’s interests.[3] The rapid modernization of the country’s nuclear forces, as evidenced by the apparent construction of new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos in western China and the development of a maturing nuclear triad, reflect a prospective shift in its approach to strategic deterrence. The PRC has also enhanced and consolidated its nonconventional capabilities in cyberspace, outer space, and electronic warfare under the aegis of the PLA Strategic Support Force. It has similarly undertaken aggressive diplomatic, disinformation, and economic coercion campaigns to shape the decision-making and behavior of other countries while conditioning their future actions to be more aligned with China’s interests. Meanwhile, PLA writings indicate an ongoing effort to integrate capabilities and achieve a force capable of joint operations (as observed in the November 2020 joint strategic guidelines) across a broad spectrum of domains, from strategic to conventional to nonconventional.

The 2021 PLA Conference addressed these changes in doctrine, organization, operations, and capabilities to address whether a structural shift in the PLA’s approach to deterring adversaries in a contemporary context has begun. Utilizing a hybrid model combining in-person and virtual engagement, the conference brought together an audience of American and international participants to explore these pressing topics. The world’s leading specialists on the PLA from academia, government, the military, and policy think tanks, from eight countries and three continents, joined the conference proceedings. This introduction briefly reviews the scope and arguments of each of the volume’s chapters and summarizes key findings.


The volume’s opening section provides definitions of deterrence in the Chinese context, assesses long-held views on conventional and strategic deterrence, addresses China’s primary deterrence challenges, and examines the role of traditional approaches to conventional and strategic deterrence in PLA strategy today. Over the last two decades, the PRC’s approach to conventional deterrence has evolved to adapt to the PLA’s shifting conventional capabilities. The modernization of the PLA Navy and Air Force, the augmentation of conventional missile capabilities and centralization of command and control under the PLA Rocket Force, and Beijing’s efforts to exploit the dual-use nature of cutting-edge technology such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing have produced new organizational structures and operational capabilities previously not considered possible.

Andrew Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College and Nicola Leveringhaus of King’s College London begin the volume with chapters surveying how the PRC has traditionally considered and employed deterrence in the conventional and strategic domains.

In the first chapter, Erickson explores how Beijing poses unique conventional deterrence challenges through its advanced missile systems, opaque decision-making and signaling, and disregard for confidence building. Erickson argues that under Xi Jinping, the PRC is achieving increasingly potent tailored conventional capabilities that could be employed at virtually every rung of the escalation ladder, thereby offering leaders more options and leverage against potential adversaries. While China’s approach to “integrated strategic deterrence” historically has encompassed both nuclear and conventional deterrence, the conventional component is in some ways the more important, if not fully understood by Western observers. China’s rapid pursuit of a range of state-of-the-art systems is making its long-risky calculus concerning conventional deterrence still more destabilizing and dangerous in practice. For instance, Erickson notes that PRC researchers view ballistic missiles outfitted with hypersonic glide vehicles as a transformative technology that China must emphasize in response to similar U.S. (and Russian) developments. In view of Beijing’s increasing risk tolerance and assertiveness, coupled with the rapid development of the PLA’s capabilities to support such a posture, Erickson emphasizes that a comprehensive re- evaluation of PRC strategic thinking regarding conventional deterrence is required.

In the second chapter, Leveringhaus proposes supplementary methods for observers to assess China’s approach to strategic deterrence and the ideology underpinning PRC nuclear policy. She posits that traditional approaches include (1) a rigorous tracking and documenting of technological changes to the Chinese arsenal and (2) a focus on past and present statements by authoritative political and military figures in China regarding strategic deterrence. She then argues that these approaches risk overlooking prior domestic political considerations that have shaped long- term ideas and practices of Chinese nuclear deterrence. Leveringhaus thus introduces the “domestic political approach” as an additional way to understand China’s approach to strategic deterrence. This approach posits that domestic political considerations have an internal and external focus related to strategic deterrence: the internal focus is on the shifting dynamics of CCP ideology and how they have shaped Beijing’s approach to strategic deterrence over time, while external political considerations concern diplomacy, specifically how China’s nuclear deterrent serves diplomatic goals both in peacetime and at times of crisis. Leveringhaus concludes that the domestic political approach complements the two traditional approaches by providing a more comprehensive picture of Chinese attitudes and policies regarding nuclear deterrence.


The volume’s second section addresses new developments in the PRC’s approach to deterrence in existing and emerging domains. Rachel Esplin Odell of the U.S. Department of State discusses the range of nonmilitary and nonconventional tools Beijing is deploying to deter other states from taking actions that harm its interests and compel those already doing so to stop. Brandon Babin of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command explores the ongoing changes in Beijing’s approach to strategic nuclear deterrence, including the construction of new ICBM silos in western China and the PLA’s maturing nuclear triad. Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga of the RAND Corporation assesses Chinese military thinking on space and cyber deterrence and draws implications for the United States. Elsa Kania of Harvard University concludes the section by evaluating how the PLA’s approach to deterrence may adapt to emphasize new instruments and opportunities to gain advantages in fields such as “new concept weapons” and military biotechnology.

In the volume’s third chapter, Odell argues that the PRC has begun supplementing its long-standing suite of diplomatic and military deterrent signals with an increasingly diverse set of nonconventional tools for deterring or coercing other states and nonstate actors over the past decade. The PRC has used these tools to coerce multinational companies, international organizations, civil society organizations, and individuals, in addition to the governments of other states. Beijing has employed these tools to respond to perceived threats to its interests across a broad range of issues, including those that do not directly relate to military matters, such as criticisms over China’s human rights record or handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Odell calls for analysts to broaden their aperture when considering the actors in China that engage in deterrence or coercion operations. Especially in nonmilitary affairs, the PLA is not the primary actor in the PRC party-state responsible for exercising coercion. Accordingly, to understand the way that Beijing thinks about deterrence, it is necessary to look beyond PLA doctrine to the theory and writings of CCP leaders and institutions. Yet Odell finds that CCP political guidance does not use the explicit language of deterrence or compellence. Instead, CCP theory stresses the need for struggle and resolve in the face of challenges to China’s interests. This potentially explains why Beijing persists in coercive nonconventional campaigns that damage its international image, even while failing to change the behavior of the targets, and why CCP leaders may even judge such campaigns to be successful despite such consequences.

In the fourth chapter, Babin explores the drivers of China’s ongoing nuclear modernization efforts and the implications for the United States and its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. He argues that the principal reasons for China’s nuclear modernization campaign lie in its desire to achieve a “strategic counterbalance” against other great powers, namely the United States, and to prevent third-party intervention in a regional conflict (most likely Taiwan). Babin discusses how Xi’s directions to the PLA to achieve a high-level of “integrated strategic deterrence” have updated and shaped the mission of the PLA Rocket Force in the era of strategic competition with the United States. He also surveys several hypotheses regarding the recent discovery of three large-scale ICBM silo fields in western China. He argues that this development does not signal a return to the Cold War–styled “shell game” but rather is consistent with the PLA’s broader objectives to discard the traditional “minimal deterrent” approach and move toward a significant nuclear buildup of “counterbalance” (制衡) capabilities. Babin concludes that the principal objective driving the PLA’s nuclear modernization is to use a nuclear counterbalance capability to dissuade the United States from coming to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a conflict and thereby coerce Taipei to come to the negotiating table before conflict occurs.

In the fifth chapter, Beauchamp-Mustafaga argues that the space and cyber domains are viewed by China as two additional means of strategic deterrence, in addition to nuclear deterrence. A key commonality between these two domains is the perception that the United States dominates and seeks to further entrench its hegemony in these domains. Combined with the broader perception of U.S. hostility, this perception reinforces concerns that the PLA is weak, vulnerable, and is itself at risk of coercion by the United States, thereby requiring a strong deterrence response. Beauchamp- Mustafaga thus posits that Chinese thinking on space and cyber deterrence is evolving. For space, China’s deterrence requirements are likely increasing. Early strategy was focused solely on the United States, but current strategy must also account for an India with anti-satellite capabilities, for instance. For the cyber domain, recent updates to Chinese military teaching materials suggest that the PLA has come to believe that deterrence requires demonstrating an ability not only to penetrate an adversary’s networks but also to generate real strategic effects. Beauchamp-Mustafaga concludes that the space and cyber domains are thus key parts of China’s conceptualization of the highest level of deterrence—“integrated strategic deterrence.”

In the volume’s sixth chapter, Kania reviews the PLA’s efforts to leverage disrupting technologies and emerging capabilities to enhance its strategic deterrence system. She argues that while the PLA has pursued a range of advances on the frontier of military technology, China’s capacity to realize a truly integrated and innovative paradigm for strategic deterrence remains uncertain and will likely not be realized in the short term. Kania evaluates how emerging guidance for the PLA highlights the development and application of “new concept weapons” and the transition from “informatization” to “intelligentization” in modern warfare. Her discussion focuses on how this transition to “intelligentized” warfare is changing the means of China’s approach to strategic deterrence. In the technological domain, the PLA is seeking to leverage capabilities in “unmanned intelligent” combat equipment, hypersonic weapons, and swarm systems. Kania also considers how the “cognitive domain” plays an important role in the PLA’s approach to deterrence through activities such as “intelligent” psychological operations, cognitive confusion, and even “brain control weapons.” Kania argues that the PLA has also shown interest in conducting scientific experimentation within the emerging biological domain of deterrence to broadly improve its ability to leverage biological capabilities across the spectrum of conflict. She concludes that, though the PLA does not yet possess these capabilities, the mere possibility of novel weapons systems and capacities could enhance deterrence by increasing uncertainty and risking miscalculation.


The volume’s final section explores three potential Chinese responses to a failure of deterrence: conflict escalation, disengagement and de-escalation, and crisis management. Alison Kaufman of CNA, Stein Tønnesson of Peace Research Institute Oslo, and Mathieu Duchâtel of Institut Montaigne review and assess the doctrinal or practical guidance, organizational structures, and procedures that the PLA has employed in the past in each of these responses to a failure of deterrence. The chapters give high priority to the signaling Beijing uses to indicate a change in status and decision-making patterns, drawing on case studies such as the 2019 Sino-Indian border clash in eastern Ladakh and confrontations between the PLA Navy, Southeast Asian states, and the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, among others.

In the seventh chapter, Kaufman considers how specialists in the PLA as well as the broader PRC security community describe the dynamics and risks of controlling escalation during a military conflict. She argues that civilian and military writings over the last two decades display a shared confidence that conflict escalation can be controlled with the right tools and conditions. Effective escalation control is depicted as depending in large part on a country’s ability to manage uncertainty—suggesting that PLA planners are not risk averse so much as uncertainty averse. Kaufman further argues that the desire to reduce uncertainty rests on the belief that the progression from crisis emergence to actual conflict can be forecast, calculated, and managed using systematic and quantitative approaches that evaluate all possible courses of action and eliminate human error. She finds that PRC writings on controlling escalation exhibit several persistent blind spots with alarming implications. These include scant acknowledgment that operational principles and specific activities the PLA regards as de-escalatory may be interpreted differently by an adversary, thus introducing uncertainty regarding how PLA actors would handle a situation that they have not put through their elaborate evaluation process. Kaufman concludes that these blind spots could cause Beijing to become overly confident in the PLA’s ability to control escalation in a crisis or conflict, with risky consequences.

In the eighth chapter, Tønnesson demonstrates how a pattern of Chinese de-escalation has unfolded in several crises and discusses what it might take for China to move beyond this pattern and engage in riskier behavior. Since China’s war with Vietnam in 1979, he observes that none of China’s foreign policy crises have escalated to actual warfare. Tønnesson posits two reasons: the PRC’s maintenance of good working relations with all relevant great powers (the United States, Japan, and Russia) and a pattern of de-escalation when it has met with strong resistance. Since 2000, the Chinese economy has become the main driver of global industrial growth. China has used its new prosperity to build the world’s second-strongest military while shifting to a policy of assertiveness, building a strategic partnership with Russia, and engaging in a power rivalry with the United States. Tønnesson argues that these developments have precipitated several crises during which China has stuck to its pattern of de-escalation in the face of resistance. If a crisis escalates to a point where Beijing sees a risk of armed confrontation, it ceases to act offensively. Tønnesson identifies several characteristics of the PRC’s process of de-escalation, including holding talks with the adversary (which rarely involve any genuine concessions), pushing its position forward until it meets determined resistance, and refraining from further assertive moves while deploying heavy rhetorical attacks on the adversary. These behaviors raise questions about what might lead China to depart from this pattern and engage in riskier behavior during a crisis.

In the volume’s concluding chapter, Duchâtel examines China’s crisis management diplomacy following the 19th National Congress of the CCP. He argues that China has shown a strong preference for crisis management mechanisms when it is on the defensive or at a disadvantage, requires a tool to freeze a new status quo, or needs to consolidate gains. Conversely, when China is on the offensive, or when its goal is to change the status quo, crisis management regimes are neglected or regarded as an obstacle. Duchâtel concludes that a preference for crisis avoidance or prevention mechanisms to address the root causes of conflicts, often in the form of high-level strategic guidance provided by political leaders, is characteristic of China’s approach. Using case studies of China’s tensions with the United States, Japan, and India, Duchâtel recommends that building crisis management regimes is important to increase transparency and predictability and to reduce the possibility of collisions or other incidents that could trigger severe crises.


Taken together, the nine chapters in this volume reveal broad changes to the PRC’s deterrence strategy across conventional, strategic, asymmetric, and emerging domains. In some cases, such as conventional and nuclear deterrence, force modernization and operational testing are enabling the PLA to develop, deploy, and demonstrate next-generation capabilities such as the DF-21D “carrier killer” missile and a maturing nuclear triad in an effort to deter adversaries. In emerging areas, such as cyber, space, and biotechnology, the PLA is still exploring the prospects for utilizing these capabilities in a deterrence context. PLA writings, however, suggest that Chinese strategists understand the utility of such capabilities and aim to incorporate them into short-, medium-, and long-term strategic and operational planning exercises. Furthermore, the PRC employs a range of nonconventional coercive measures—from economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure to legal and information warfare—to supplement the PLA’s military power with actions below the threshold of armed conflict. This volume also provides insight into how Chinese strategists and planners assess the PLA’s ability to navigate conflict scenarios through escalation, de-escalation, and crisis management. Ultimately, the PRC embraces a belief that it possesses the analytical capacity, operational capability, and strategic foresight necessary to prevent uncontrolled escalation even while it secures its interests through the calculated and selective use of force across the spectrum of conflict. This highly risky PRC judgment requires ongoing interrogation by Western analysts and ought to be a topic of regular strategic dialogue between policymakers, lest the judgment be tested for the first time in the midst of a real crisis.

NBR is grateful for its sponsors and partners at the China Strategic Focus Group, Headquarters, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Without their support, the research published in this volume would not have been possible. Conference discussants, panel chairs, moderators, and keynote speakers, as well as NBR staff, including Alison Szalwinski, Audrey Mossberger, Rachel Bernstein, Eliot Roberts, and Kanghee Park, also deserve special thanks and acknowledgment for their contributions to the 2021 conference.

Roy D. Kamphausen is President of the National Bureau of Asian Research.

Jeremy Rausch is a Project Manager with the Political and Security Affairs group at the National Bureau of Asian Research.


[1] “Guidelines on PLA Joint Operations (Trial) Aim for Future Warfare: Defense Spokesperson,” China Military Online, November 26, 2020,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michael S. Chase and Arthur Chan, China’s Evolving Approach to “Integrated Strategic Deterrence” (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2016),