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168. National Intelligence Estimate1

NIE 13–76

[Omitted here is the Table of Contents.]



[1 paragraph (13 lines) not declassified]


This paper examines Chinese defense policy, strategy, and armed forces in the 1970s and makes some broad predictions for the early 1980s. Separate Annexes provide details on the economy and technology, PLA involvement in politics and the succession, trends in the armed forces, the conventional and nuclear warfighting capabilities of the military, and civil defense.


A. Peking considers the United States to be less of a direct military threat than the Soviet Union. The Chinese also view the US as a weakened power, gradually withdrawing from Asia, but nonetheless one of great strategic strength and a long-term ideological adversary (Para 8).3

—The main danger, from the Chinese vantage point, is that the US, lacking the political will to pursue its national interests vigorously and allowing itself to be put in a position of inferiority in conventional and strategic arms, will compromise with the USSR on disadvantageous terms, leaving China to face Soviet power alone (Para 8).

B. The Chinese will continue to see it in their best interests not to initiate the use of nuclear weapons, either at the strategic or tactical level. The Chinese aim clearly must be to confine the conflict to the conventional level, where they feel they can make maximum use of advan[Page 776]tages in manpower, knowledge of terrain, and defensive complexes (Para 44).

—The Chinese probably hope that their extensive dispersal and passive defense measures will help them ride out a strategic nuclear attack preserving enough force to deter or eventually defeat a follow-on invasion (Para 45).

—At the theater level, the Chinese would not initiate, but apparently envision retaliatory, employment of theater nuclear forces against an invading force (Para 46).

C. Contrary to the last NIE (13–3–72), we do not believe that the Chinese would rely on a “luring deep” strategy for defense against Soviet invasion, or exclusively employ a “positional defense” against an attack in coastal areas (Para 43).

—Judging from force developments and dispositions, we now believe that a combination of tactics would be used, with much depending upon the nature and location of the attacks as well as upon the kind of invading forces (Para 43).

—Current levels of manpower (4.3 million), weapons and equipment, and training suggest the forces are now generally in a high state of readiness (Annex D, Para 3).

D. The Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) is not organized, equipped, or trained to conduct operations successfully in a nuclear war environment (Annex D, Para 18).

—China’s minimal capability for strategic and theater nuclear war does, however, offer a modest deterrent to nuclear attack (Annex D, Para 18).

—If deterrence fails, China’s nuclear warfighting capability would be no match for that of the USSR and could not block a Soviet invasion (Annex D, Para 18).

E. Conversely, the PLA is best organized, equipped, and trained to fight a nonnuclear defensive war against the Soviet Union. It would have an even chance of stalemating a Soviet conventional offensive before it reached Peking and the North China Plain. Any attempt to occupy large areas of China would be unfeasible (Annex D, Paras 9 and 27).

F. China could not conduct major offensive military operations much beyond its Soviet border.

—Consequently it is highly unlikely that Peking would initiate such operations (Annex D, Para 8).

—Against Taiwan, the PLA probably would not have the capability to mount a successful nonnuclear invasion much before the 1980s without unacceptable losses (Annex D, Para 28).

—If the Chinese were to intervene in Korea, they could apply sufficient strength in a nonnuclear situation to overwhelm the forces presently there (Annex D, Para 23).

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—Against India, the PLA force in Tibet is suited to denial operations and for punitive expeditions against Indian incursions (Annex D, Para 30).

—The PRC probably could seize and occupy the Spratly Islands even against such opposition as Vietnam, the Philippines, or the Republic of China could mount at this time (Annex D, Para 28).

G. The PLA remains at once an instrument of party policy and a shaper of that policy (Annex B, Para 7).

—China’s overall military posture has not been weakened by the preoccupation of some political generals with the succession (Annex B, Para 9).

—[1 paragraph (8 lines) not declassified]

H. Peking’s material support for insurgency is modest, continuing, and confined to a handful of groups, primarily in Southeast Asia, as potential pressure points and as a means of precluding Soviet and limiting Vietnamese involvement with insurgency in the area (Para 21 and Annex B, Paras 22–23).

I. Chinese foreign military assistance will probably remain small in amount, limited in variety, and unsophisticated in nature (Para 22 and Annex B, Paras 24–28).

J. Economic and technical considerations appear to preclude any dramatic improvement in conventional and nuclear warfighting capabilities over the next five years (Para 58).

—Development of the PLA into a fighting force comparable in sophistication to that of the USSR or the US today will take at least 10 to 20 more years and would require the acquisition of more expensive and advanced technology than China now has (Annex C, Para 3).

—The Chinese will continue to be highly selective in weapons choice, and they are unlikely to come up with technological “surprises” in military weaponry (Paras 16–17).

K. The modernization of the armed forces will continue to be uneven and slow (Para 50).

—The army is in far better shape than it has ever been and will remain the backbone of the defense of the nation (Paras 50–51 and Annex C, Paras 4–12).

—The navy will remain principally an effective coastal defense force. It will, however, operate at greater distances from the coast over the next five years (Para 52 and Annex C, Paras 13–24).

—The air force will remain a limited air defense force with some ground attack capability, but its overall capabilities will improve over the next five years (Para 52 and Annex C, Paras 25–41).

L. There has been little change in the massive paramilitary program (Para 53 and Annex C, Paras 42–49).

M. The Chinese have a small nuclear force of missiles and bombers (Annex C, Paras 50–65).

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—A limited-range ICBM, possibly capable of reaching Moscow, is now operational (Para 54).

—More advanced missiles, such as an SLBM system and the first ICBM capable of reaching the United States, are now under development but will not be available for several years (Annex C, Paras 55–57)

N. If, as we believe, a “moderate” leadership is emerging from the overall succession process, these new Chinese leaders would continue to strengthen their military posture against the Soviets, even though there could well be some attempts to reduce the abrasiveness of the Sino-Soviet relationship. They would push ahead with the creation of their intercontinental nuclear forces (Paras 59–61).

O. Certain ongoing trends and defense policies have an enduring quality and will consequently survive the post-Mao transition period into the early 1980s (Para 63).

—The Soviets will remain the main threat (Para 63).

—The Chinese will not align themselves with other powers but pursue an independent stance (Para 63).

—Peking will prefer to use political and diplomatic means rather than military pressures to gain its ends (Para 63).

—The PLA will continue as a huge military force—but one more operationally competent than now. It will remain involved in a great variety of political and economic duties (Para 63).

—Though the PRC will probably begin to deploy a small force of ICBMs and SLBMs in the early 1980s, it could not successfully engage a superpower in a nuclear exchange (Para 63).

—The large discrepancy between strategic nuclear weapons available to the Chinese compared to those of the US and the USSR will continue to seriously constrain the development of any flexible Chinese strategy for responding to an enemy first strike (Para 49).

—China poses no direct military threat to the United States. It is a potential threat to US forces and Allies in Asia (Para 49).

P. In sum, we see a large conventional force being slowly modernized, supported by a massive paramilitary organization—all under the cover of a small nuclear force which is developing an intercontinental capability (Para 49).

[Omitted here is a map of the PRC, the discussion section of the estimate, and five annexes. For the full text of the estimate, see the companion CD-ROM to the National Intelligence Council’s Tracking the Dragon.]

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, National Intelligence Council, Job 91R00884R: Intelligence Publications Files, Box 4, NIE 13–76, PRC Defense Policy and Armed Forces Secret Version. Secret; [handling restriction not declassified]. The CIA and the intelligence organizations of the Departments of State and Defense, and the National Security Agency participated in the preparation of this estimate. The DCI submitted this estimate with the concurrence of all members of NFIB.
  2. Supersedes NIE 13–3–72, 20 July 1972, and NIE 13–8–74, 13 June 1974. [Footnote in the original. NIE 13–8–74 is Document 146. The summary of NIE 13–3–72, “China's Military Policy and General Purpose Forces,” is published in the National Intelligence Council's Tracking the Dragon: National Intelligence Estimates on China during the Era of Mao, 1948–1976 (Washington, DC: USGPO, 2004), pp. 601–611.]
  3. A cross-reference to paragraph 8 as it appears in the estimate's discussion section, which is not printed.