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Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy since 1949, M. Taylor Fravel

Reviewed by Andrew Scobell



The topic of Chinese military strategy has been the purview of a tight-knit community of committed People’s Liberation Army (PLA) specialists whose work tended to be published in conference proceedings with relatively limited readership. Until now. Active Defense opens the arcane study of Chinese military doctrine to a wider audience informed by the broader security studies literature. M. Taylor Fravel is eminently qualified to write this book: a longtime PLA watcher trained as an international relations scholar, he strikes an authoritative and measured tone. He purposefully avoids the term “doctrine” because there is no commonly agreed-upon definition; moreover, the PLA has no such word in its vocabulary (p. 14). Instead, Fravel favors the word “strategy.”

Active Defense addresses the question of why the PLA contemplates major change in its strategy and when this change actually occurs. Fravel persuasively argues, “China has pursued major changes in military strategy in response to shifts in the conduct of warfare—but only when the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] is united and stable” (p. 4).

Fravel focuses on “strategic guidelines” because these are the PLA’s most important overarching doctrinal concepts. Of the four major changes in strategic guidelines that have occ

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