Essay from the People's Liberation Army Conference
The People's Liberation Army Conference
History, Highlights, and the Challenges Ahead
This essay by NBR president Roy Kamphausen offers a short history of the PLA Conference, examines the regional and strategic environment that has been the backdrop for the conference series, and concludes with key questions going forward.
The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) began its partnership with the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) on the PLA Conference in the spring of 2005, when retired U.S. Army colonel Larry Wortzel invited NBR to assume the role of SSI’s conference partner from the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. As an institution, NBR leaped at the opportunity, as the chance to work on the premier conference studying the People’s Liberation Army was one not to be missed. And for me, a retired U.S. Army China foreign area officer (FAO), the ensuing fifteen years would prove to be a professional privilege of the highest order.
The end of this partnership—and era—with the 2020 conference and accompanying edited volume Enabling a More Externally Focused and Operational PLA, published in July 2022, provides an opportunity to assess developments in the PLA and the field of PLA studies over that intervening period. This essay begins with a short history of the Carlisle PLA Conference, details the changes the conference has experienced over the past decade and a half, examines the regional and strategic environment that has been the backdrop for the conference series, underscores some of the highlights of the work, and concludes with key questions going forward as the PLA Conference enters a new era.
A SHORT HISTORY
The Carlisle PLA Conference was largely due to the vision of Ambassador Jim Lilley. From his perspective, the PLA—an organization that had forcibly cleared Tiananmen Square on June 3–4, 1989, while he was U.S. ambassador in Beijing, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese in the process—merited intensive study by Western observers. Lilley’s initiative was infused with his indefatigable drive and built on earlier and smaller-scale efforts in the Washington, D.C., area organized by PLA specialists from academia, the military, and intelligence organizations. In gratitude for his seminal role, we dedicated the 2010 volume, The PLA at Home and Abroad: Assessing the Operational Capabilities of China’s Military, to him after he passed away in 2009, with a foreword written by the president he served so well, George H. W. Bush.
Wortzel played a critical role in the early years after he became director of the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College and positioned SSI as the home of the Carlisle PLA Conference. His energy and insights, good humor, and deep network of contacts made an indelible imprint on the conference. Wortzel’s approach consisted of three essential components: emphasizing original, Chinese-language sources; seeking observers and analysts with deep, in-country experience to provide context for developments; and focusing on relevance for decision-makers. These principles have guided the work of conference organizers until today.
Two legends of PLA studies were indispensable to the success of the conference series. First, Paul Godwin, the towering Brit and former U.S. Marine, lent gravitas to our work based on his stature as the leading analyst of the PLA at the National Defense University. He held those seeking to understand the PLA to high standards, even as his gentle nature endeared him to those same rising analysts. Second, Ellis Joffe, for whom NBR named the Ellis Joffe Prize for PLA Studies, an award for rising specialists in Chinese security, also had a deep impact on the Carlisle PLA Conference. Cynthia Watson, recently retired provost at the National Defense University, captured the essence of Joffe in her remembrance of him in The People of the PLA 2.0 (2018), recounting that “Joffe was an extraordinarily perceptive analyst of Chinese intentions and the ways in which China intended to use the PLA to achieve its goals.” The wisdom, collegiality, and grace exemplified by Godwin and Joffe set the tone for all conference participants.
Over these last fifteen years, the distinguished Asia experts at SSI, including Andrew Scobell, David Lai, and most recently Roger Cliff, have been tremendous collaborative partners. Doug Lovelace, longtime director of SSI, gave strong support to our efforts, enabling us to do good work, unimpeded by bureaucratic concerns.
U.S. Pacific Command (now U.S. Indo-Pacific Command) joined the Carlisle PLA Conference in 2010 as a partner on the initiative of the inaugural head of the PACOM China Strategic Focus Group, David Dorman. Dorman was succeeded by retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general David Stilwell, Lukas Filler, and Brigadier General Brian Davis. For nearly a decade, Strategic Focus Group deputy director Chad Sbragia provided vision and practical guidance to the conference efforts.
With the arrival of Brigadier General Davis as head of the Strategic Focus Group in 2021, NBR’s relationship with INDOPACOM deepened as we together focused on the priorities of the combatant commander, giving a fresh sense of urgency to the work of the conference. New director, Erik Quam, brings deep expertise and a similar commitment to this critical work.
CHANGES IN THE CONFERENCE
The perspective of fifteen years’ hindsight yields several observations about the conference and its attendees. First, the number of participants grew significantly over this period. In 2011, recognizing both the demand for more specialists in the field and the imperative to broaden and diversify participants, we opened attendance to a larger group of experts while encouraging a “senior scholar/rising analyst” approach to the selection of chapter authors. Attendance nearly doubled from 60 participants in 2006 to more than 110 in 2018 at the last in-person conference before the Covid-19 pandemic. Moreover, we sought to open the conference to new participants. At the 2018 conference, more than 30% of participants were attending for the first time.
The composition of conference attendees has changed as well. U.S. Army China FAOs and intelligence community analysts had long been conference stalwarts, dating back to the earliest days of the conference series. They represented a generation with deep experience in China and direct exposure to the PLA. Over the years, a younger, civilian generation of attendees has emerged, one with exceptional language skills and enhanced research abilities along with research experience in China. And a new generation is emerging—one that is much more diverse and has even more advanced linguistic abilities.
The focus of the conference has evolved as well. We intentionally shifted from an analytical emphasis in the early years on a very detailed, bottom-up, nuts-and-bolts tactical approach to an approach that sought to understand the impact of PLA modernization at the operational and strategic levels. That process mirrored the PLA’s own evolution from a rudimentary garrison force that was very much focused on internal and border security into a modernizing, joint, and even “incipient” expeditionary force. This resulted in a natural shift toward examining the consequences of this modernization efforts for the United States and its allies. In short, we directed our efforts toward moving beyond the question, “What are the developments in the PLA?” to the question, “What do the developments in the PLA mean for the United States?”
This broader approach to studying the PLA was certainly consistent with the U.S. Army’s long-standing contribution on China work to the broader joint force—a contribution also reflected in the U.S. Army’s provision of many of the China FAOs that have filled critical joint duty positions at INDOPACOM, the Joint Staff, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Conference volumes also reflected the commitment to understanding the evolving nature of PLA modernization and its implications for the United States. Volume titles include Chinese Lessons from Other Peoples’ Wars (2011), Learning by Doing: The PLA Trains at Home and Abroad (2012), Assessing the People’s Liberation Army in the Hu Jintao Era (2014), The People’s Liberation Army in 2025 (2015), and Securing the China Dream: The PLA’s Role in a Time of Reform and Change (2020).
STRATEGIC AND REGIONAL BACKDROP
The strategic and regional environments provide an essential context for appreciating the developments in the conference. First, the twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dominated the United States’ national security priorities in the first two decades of the 21st century. Consumed as the U.S. national defense enterprise was by those wars—China, for example, was only named a “strategic competitor” in the 2018 National Defense Strategy—finding policy audiences that were receptive to the real and growing challenges to the United States and its allies from PLA modernization, and had the time and resources to do anything in response, was rare, especially in the early years. To be sure, policy efforts along the way, such as the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia, contributed to modest improvements in force structure and capabilities. Yet the oft-stated rhetorical commitment by successive U.S. administrations to a force structure for the Indo-Pacific region befitting the region’s importance has simply not been matched by reality.
Even now, with the PLA termed the “pacing threat” for the Department of Defense, the most recent Global Posture Review makes only very modest changes to force posture in the region. Moreover, the calls by senior U.S. military leaders for new bases to be established in Eastern Europe in light of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine seem likely to forestall future improvements in Indo-Pacific posture, resources being as limited as they are. Once again, the urgent threatens to supplant the strategically important.
The PLA’s own dramatic changes since 2006 are a second important development and also a critical part of the strategic context. Sharp increases in naval ship production, the construction of military facilities on reefs in the South China Sea, the enormously consequential impacts of the 2016–17 reforms and reorganization, and hypersonic capabilities and intercontinental ballistic missile silos are indicative of a military that seeks to achieve a self-proclaimed “world-class status” by midcentury, attain regional security dominance and deny U.S. access in a crisis, and use its power to shape, if not dictate, broad regional norms. These marked improvements in capabilities occurred during the period when U.S. attention was directed elsewhere, effectively granting the space for the PLA to modernize as it wished, unconstrained by any contemporary military challenge and without the desperate need to respond to operational environments in which soldiers were dying.
Third, the context of broader global dynamics—a global financial crisis, China’s economic miracle, and judgments in Beijing about the secular decline of the United States, among other factors—seemed to accelerate China’s rise and suggested an unfolding shift in the global balance of power. In the region, an emboldened PLA has been more assertive near China—through the militarization of the South China Sea, heightened pressure on Japan around the Senkaku Islands, and the coercion of Taiwan. These developments have hastened a debate about whether the PLA is already a global military, or even a near-peer of the United States. Despite the PLA’s obvious shortcomings—such as weak and untested command and control, still-evolving joint logistics, and questions about mission command—these developments nevertheless push and challenge the United States as has never before been the case.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE CONFERENCE VOLUMES
The conference volumes generated sophisticated analysis that took into account the strategic and regional analysis and offered insights to specialists and policymakers alike. Three chapters in particular stand out for their unique, impactful, and durable findings.
The first is David Finkelstein’s revelation in 2007 that the strategic guidelines for the PLA in 1993 detailed a reorientation from ground force–intensive preparations to defend China’s northwestern border from Soviet invasion to a focus on securing the maritime domain off China’s eastern littoral. The new priority reoriented the PLA toward the first island chain, and importantly Taiwan, and presaged the tensions in the East Asian littoral space that are now so prevalent.
Second, in 2007, Ellis Joffe asked and answered the question: “What type of military does China want?” “A military commensurate with China’s status and aspirations for itself” was his answer at the conference. Subsequently, he wrote a more formal answer: “The most basic, long-range, and unalterable objective of the Chinese leadership has been both to obtain recognition for China as a great power and to gain from the other great powers the respect and standing that come with this status.” This answer, both beguilingly imprecise and yet somehow exactly evocative of Chinese thinking, reflected Joffe’s unique ability to anticipate new developments in the PLA. The language became more widely used within PLA circles after Xi Jinping came to power—first in the defense white paper of 2013 and again in 2015 and 2019. Today, however, Joffe’s answer strains to explain the naked ambitions that characterize Xi’s China, as well as the much more assertive use of the PLA Navy in the Indo-Pacific and, increasingly, around the globe.
Third, in a summary for Chinese Lessons from Other Peoples’ Wars, Andrew Scobell, David Lai, and I concluded that in a four-decade era in which the PLA has not fought a foreign foe, the PLA’s analysts have prioritized the proxy effort to understand and learn lessons from how other militaries have prosecuted wars. Despite unsurprising constraints on how freely their judgments can range, a clear sense nevertheless emerges that “Chinese strategic planners place a high priority on an accurate pre-conflict strategic assessment.” This emphasis on understanding how the use of Chinese force might yield strategic outcomes before forces are committed may well both arise from and contribute to a risk aversion perspective on the part of the PLA, to be sure. But the emphasis also provides a useful counterpoint to arguments that the PLA is hellbent on preemptive war. This difference bears further attention.
THE CHALLENGES AHEAD
So what does fifteen years of conference work inform us about what lies ahead? I think several judgments are in order. First, it seems clear that the principal challenge in understanding the PLA is in reconciling the reality of a military that possesses some elite, high-end niche capabilities yet is still very much in the process of transition to a joint force capable of sustained, out-of-region operations. Some judge that the PLA must be a global power because China itself is one, especially economically. Pockets of excellence are easy to find: missiles, naval ship production, and cyber capabilities, to name a few. But the PLA is still very focused on security concerns in China’s near periphery, saddled with untested and overly complicated bureaucratic structures and command and control, and consumed with political work of various types (anticorruption, studying Xi Jinping Thought, and so on). Meanwhile, outdated equipment surely occupies many second-tier unit motor pools because upgrading the entire force is fiscally unfeasible. Moreover, the organization’s oft-cited lack of combat experience demands judgments about how PLA units might actually perform in a fight. And finally, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders have their own misgivings about the PLA, perhaps best captured by Xi’s discussion of the aspects of mission command that he judges the PLA incapable of performing (the “five incapables”) and the very real concern that the organization suffers from peace disease after 40-plus years without combat.
Second, the PLA is very much still a work in progress. Far-reaching changes in structure, operational concepts, and deployment patterns are underway simultaneously, raising questions about the trajectory of the process. Is there a grand design for PLA development that is discernible and predictable? If there is, will China and its modernizing military draw lessons from the historical patterns of previous rising regional powers and threaten the broader region once its capabilities are ready? Alternatively, does the road to modernization more accurately reflect the iron demands of five-year planning in which future activity builds iteratively on past success, with strategy only an occasional partner? And what roles do the CCP leadership and the general secretary play in either case, mitigating irregularities or underlining idiosyncrasies? The implications of these questions regarding future trajectories are enormous.
Third, the PLA faces a looming question regarding the use of force. One point of view suggests that the bloody altercations with the Indian Army on the Galwan Plain in June 2020 show that the PLA has crossed a decision threshold about the deadly use of force, belying past hesitancies. Another perspective suggests that the PLA will engage in “practice wars” so that it has combat experience under its belt before a face-off with the United States and its allies over Taiwan. In short, will the PLA become a warfighting military that achieves its aims through the overt use of force? The highly escalatory moves the Chinese national security system has taken in recent years suggest a greater willingness to use deadly force, enabled by newer and enhanced capabilities that increase the lethality of those potential efforts, and further suggesting that a fundamental conceptual shift is underway.
If it decides that warfighting is in its future, will the PLA fully abandon highly successful, and less escalatory, efforts to intimidate weaker neighbors to achieve its security goals, especially in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean, without resorting to the deadly use of force? Or might it continue to innovate, perhaps combining gray-zone activities with conventional forces and potentially even nonmilitary means? Yet other implications appear unaddressed. Is the PLA, and Chinese society writ large, ready for the prospect of significant military casualties from conflicts China chooses to fight? Perhaps more importantly, is there more sophisticated understanding about the escalatory risks of such a transition than appears to be the case among PLA thinkers? The urgency of understanding the implications of this transition looms large.
Finally, the available evidence suggests that these questions will take a long time to answer. Indeed, as with most things related to China, what the PLA will become poses a generational challenge. At the very least, the PLA’s own 2027/2035/2049 timeline and associated goals reveal a military that is thinking over the longer haul. Although China’s meteoric rise also contains the possibilities of catastrophic decline—demographic challenges unseen in human history, environmental depredation, and uneven development, among others—the system has nonetheless proved itself resilient and adaptive. It would seem imprudent to base future plans on the wishful thinking that these factors might conspire to fundamentally derail China’s development in ways that become fundamentally less challenging. Rather, it is incumbent that we take the firm, yet not escalatory, steps that resist PLA coercions at every turn and leverage traditional strengths of allies and partners so that China’s transition to a fully modern, even world-class, military is not accompanied by catastrophic impacts in the Indo-Pacific.
Roy D. Kamphausen is President of the National Bureau of Asian Research.
Note: This commentary is adapted from Roy Kamphausen, “Afterword,” in Enabling a More Externally Focused and Operational PLA, ed. Roger Cliff and Roy Kamphausen (Carlisle: U.S. Army War College Press, 2022), 175–84.
 David M. Finkelstein, “China’s National Military Strategy: An Overview of the ‘Military Strategic Guidelines,’” in Right Sizing the People’s Liberation Army: Exploring the Contours of China’s Military, ed. Roy Kamphausen and Andrew Scobell (Carlisle: U.S. Army War College Press, 2007), 97, 126.
 Andrew Scobell, David Lai, and Roy Kamphausen, “Introduction,” in Chinese Lessons from Other Peoples’ Wars, ed. Andrew Scobell, David Lai, and Roy Kamphausen (Carlisle: U.S. Army War College Press, 2011), 22–23.