When Active Defense Is Preemptive War: The 2021 US Defense Report on China

November 14, 2021 Updated: November 15, 2021


A new report released by the U.S. Department of Defense summarizes Chinese strategic thinking on active defense, but doesn’t recognize the new geography and communist strategic signature that suggests a preemptive, offensive strategy.

The 2021 DoD report on communist China covers a variety of categories and is a good summary that’s worth reading. But part of the analysis remains questionable. While the report is useful, the comments about the Chinese regime’s supposed “active defense” need further explanation. The term active defense unreliably relies on old doctrine from Mao Zedong and the Chinese civil war, ignores the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) record since it took power, and suggests a stark disconnect between the stated and actual current communist strategy.

The report claims the “PRC’s [People’s Republic of China] military strategy is based on ‘active defense’ concept that adopts the principles of strategic defense in combination with offensive action at the operational and tactical levels.” It further explains that the active defense encompasses offensive and preemptive aspects. The report says active defense is rooted in the principle of avoiding the initiation of armed conflict, but responding forcefully if challenged.

Mao and the communists exemplified this strategy during his insurgency against the Nationalist government. The communists would combine strategic defense with operational and tactical offense. The phrase most often used was “lure into the deep.” Upon receiving an attack from the nationalist forces, the communist troops would retreat into the deep interior of China. And when their enemies were stretched out, the communists would pounce upon the disorganized enemies and win.

But this only worked in a particular set of circumstances. Mao’s insurgency had the benefit of being in an area—the Jinggangshan mountain range and then the South East of Jiangxi Province—that were notoriously difficult to traverse and inaccessible. They had few roads, mountainous jungle terrain, and few avenues of approach to the key base areas. The communists also benefitted from both nationalist training and warlord armies. The nationalists were highly trained, but often outnumbered and had to win a quick decisive victory to then suppress another rebellion. This meant that the communists could count on the nationalists advancing quickly. The warlord armies were pressed into service out of nominal loyalty to the Nationalist party under Chiang Kai-shek. But the warlords were reluctant to risk the basis of their power, their armies, to make Chiang stronger. They had little coordination and effort with each other and Chiang’s loyal soldiers.

In short, the communists relied on a strategy that was uniquely favored based on terrain and the enemies they faced. This strategy worked very well when China could lure adversaries, potential Western imperialists during their period of disunion in the early 20th century, nationalist counter-insurgent forces in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Japanese invaders that all could be lured into the vast Chinese interior, like the Battle of Hengyang.

But it is different now. After World War II, the communists won the civil war, which changed the geography of conflicts and potential foes they faced, and required a new strategy. The DoD report on China’s active defense only repeats Chinese scholars, bureaucrats, and army officials who praise Mao and the communists, but don’t accurately reflect today’s strategic situation.

The concern over China is its projection of power. I don’t know of any country that even wants to invade mainland China. The Chinese regime is claiming contested islands in the East and South China Seas, and wants to adjust land borders such as the one with India. The geography of contested locations on its own suggests a strong China that is flexing its muscles and expanding, not one that is willing to retreat into the interior to buy time for a decisive counterattack.

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese leader Xi Jinping (L) speaks after reviewing the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy fleet in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. (Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)

This becomes even more apparent when one considers the CCP’s strategic signature since taking power. The Chinese regime has fought offensive preemptive wars with every one of its neighbors. In 1950, when many analysts believed China needed years of recovery, Mao launched an attack on American forces in Korea nearing the Chinese border. A few years later, the communists seized several islands controlled by Taiwan, and Mao signaled his intention to take the rest of the island’s territory. Only the timely intervention of American forces prevented that action. The CCP wanted to address the unequal treaties regarding Indian territory in 1962, and Outer Mongolian territory in the Ussuri River skirmish with the Soviet Union in 1969. And it found an inconclusive border war with Vietnam in 1979 that started with a preemptive seizure of disputed territory. Some conflicts were longer and more official, but they followed a pattern where the communists would preemptively seize contested territory, then defend it against counterattack, and negotiate while holding on to the territory it seized.

It’s only now the Chinese regime has the advantage of decades of economic growth and huge investment in the military. This means that we should read the reports of communist China’s “active defense” and really think preemptive attack. The report does mention this one time, but spends far more time on the active defense. That is an outdated concept that isn’t relevant to the geography and potential foes that China faces. In fact, the report obscures China’s strategic intent. You should read the report, but also understand this point.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Morgan Deane
Morgan Deane is a former U.S. Marine, a military historian, and a freelance author. He studied military history at Kings College London and Norwich University. Morgan works as a professor of military history at the American Public University. He is a prolific author whose writings include "Decisive Battles in Chinese History," "Dragon’s Claws with Feet of Clay: A Primer on Modern Chinese Strategy," and the forthcoming, "Beyond Sunzi: Classical Chinese Debates on War and Government." His military analysis has been published in Real Clear Defense and Strategy Bridge, among other publications.