China’s Military Modernisation
Much of the PLA’S success over the next decade will be determined by how effectively it integrates emerging capabilities and platforms into the force. Over the past decade, China has benefited from robust investment in modern hardware and technology, whic
By most accounts, the PLA is on track to achieve its goal of building a modern, regionally-focused military by 2020.
T HE RELENTLESS DEBATE SURROUNDING the military rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) only seems to get more vociferous with each passing day. With exhibition of consistently higher stages of economic growth, the military spending power of China is only bound to increase, thereby implying rapid and expanding prowess and influence within Asia and beyond. The military modernisation programme initiated formally by the Chinese leadership in December 1978 has entered its 34th year. The Chinese leadership is prioritising on fostering a positive external environment to facilitate economic growth by virtue of expanding its diplomatic influence to gain greater access to markets and resources, and simultaneously maintain stability along its periphery.
Ever since the reign of Mao Zedong, maintaining the very existence of PRC and being led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has been the top objective of the national security strategy of China. Specifically, at that given point, the said strategic objective was that of the PRC being able to survive the coming war, irrespective of whether the war was conventional or nuclear. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chose military planning policy as its focal objective from 1949 onwards since ‘survival’ was no longer the primary pressing concern.
For almost half a century now, Asia’s tectonic plates of power shift have accepted the possibility of China returning to its traditional role as the central actor in Asia. To achieve this end, Beijing is diligently working towards attaining ‘comprehensive national power’ ( zonghe guoli) and accruing traditional attributes of power, resulting in perpetuating rule of the CCP, sustaining economic growth and development, maintaining domestic political stability, defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity and securing China’s status as a great power.
The most proverbial components of the Chinese way of war and diplomacy are bingyizha li (war is based on deception), chu-qi zhi-sheng (win through unexpected moves), yin-di zhi-sheng (gain victory by varying one’s strategy and tactics according to the enemy’s situation), hou-fazhi-ren (fight back and gain the upper hand only after the enemy has initiated fighting), sheng-dong ji-xi (make a feint to the east but attack in the west), in addition to many more.
China’s current military strategy continues to attach importance to the building of the Army; however, it has accorded priority to the building of the Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery Force in order to achieve a balanced combat force structure. This is aimed at strengthening the capabilities for winning both command of the sea and command of the air, as well as conducting strategic counter strikes.
A major component of Mao Zedong’s military thought centred on “active defence” ( jiji fangyu), is often referred to as China’s “military strategy” or “strategic guideline”. The fundamental rule of “active defence” asserts that China will strike only after the enemy has struck. However, the line between accepting the enemy’s first strike and the use of pre-emption to defend China from an immediate attack critically remains blurred.
In the March 2009 speech to military delegates of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), President Hu Jintao urged the military to concentrate not only in building core military capabilities, but also the ability to carry out military operations other than war ( fei
zhanzheng junshi xingdong). China’s long-term, comprehensive military modernisation is aimed at improving the PLA’s capacity to conduct high-intensity, regional military operations—anti-access and area denial (A2AD) operations. The PLA is giving priority to the development of tactical missiles, surface-toair missiles and special operations forces, to increase its capabilities for land-air integrated operations, long-distance manoeuvres, rapid assault and special operations.
The growing expanse of China’s military reach has firmly been demonstrated in 2011 with the successful testing of two weapon systems/facilitators in the realm of military hardware — the fifth generation J-20 radar-evading stealth fighter rolled out in January 2011, followed by Beijing’s first aircraft carrier, the Varyag, of Ukrainian origin in August 2011. Furthering this reference, the military capabilities being accentuated include advancement of cruise missiles including the groundlaunched CJ-10 land-attack cruise missile (LACM), and the ground- and ship-launched YJ-62 anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM). Besides, the focus on short- and mediumrange conventional ballistic missiles (SRBMs and MRBMs), continues unabated, and this can be read in correlation to creating military pressure against regional players, including India. The variants of China’s DF-21 (CSS-5) MRBM with a range of more than 1,750 km hold a potential to target India. Besides, China has also confirmed developing an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) based on a variant of the DF-21 MRBM.
China’s Second Artillery Corps—the strategic missile force which controls both nuclear ballistic and conventional missiles—is modernising the SRBMs by fielding advanced variants with improved ranges and payloads. The Pentagon has asserted that the PLA is fielding greater numbers of conventional MRBMs to conduct precision strikes against wider ranges on land targets, naval ships and aircraft carriers operating from beyond China’s first island chain. This chain is an invisible line stretching from the Japanese Archipelago, Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, and the Philippines; stretching till the South China Sea. China’s emphasis on its missile force capable of launching standoff precision strikes will get strengthened by 2015, when the PLA is expected to field additional road-mobile DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and enhanced silo-based DF-5 (CSS-4) ICBMs. China’s nuclear arsenal currently consists of about 50-75 silo-based, liquid-fuelled and road-mobile, solid-fuelled ICBMs.
According to the latest 2012 report submitted by the US Department of Defense to the US Congress, China is expected to display and press for a continuing pattern of military modernisation. The Pentagon’s report delves into assessing the current and potential future course of technological military advancement of the PLA. Terming the declassified report released by the Pentagon as a “Cold-war style practice”, China’s official Xinhua news agency rebuffed the findings by terming them as “speculative descriptions”. However, as a matter of fact, amidst wide speculation that inherent economic pressures could become a primary driver for a
China’s current military strategy continues to attach importance to the building of the Army. However, it has also accorded priority to the building of the Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery Force in order to achieve a balanced combat force structure.
slowdown of the PLA’s modernisation campaign, China chose to signal its intent to the world by announcing a plan to boost defence spending to 11.2 per cent in 2012. This implies that military spending shall cross the $100 billion mark officially for the first time to approximately 670 billion yuan ($106.4 billion). At this rate, it is estimated that China’s defence budgetary investments will race ahead at 18.75 per cent and is likely to touch $238.2 billion by 2015.
More significantly, the central premise in Chinese military thinking is that if the country ever has to defend itself, it should be prepared to conduct “warfare beyond all boundaries and limitations”. Perhaps the most crucial among the ‘beyond rules’ criteria is manifested in the form of Beijing’s attempts to sharpen its campaign of ‘informationisation’, and asymmetric capabilities are visible as it has unleashed its cyber war and space potential.
China’s resolve to “fight and win local wars on its borders” poses a challenge to regional stability. China’s conventional and strategic forces coupled with efforts at joint operational training and improvements in logistics are likely to continue, thus resulting in the enhancement of the military capabilities of China. An instance of Beijing’s long-term objective regarding the future of Tibet, which is read in correlation to the larger concept of Chinese national integration, can be seen in the rapid buildup of military infrastructure in the Tibet Autonomous Region. After conducting its first live military exercise in Tibet in 2010, the PLA recently rehearsed capture of mountain passes at heights beyond 5,000 metres, while conceding that “conduct of military operations on plateau with an elevation of more than 4,500 metres is an extreme challenge”. By means of an official report from the Chinese Defence Ministry, the exercise was described as the “first joint actual-troop drill of the PLA air and ground troops under information-based conditions in frigid area with a high altitude,” the joint drill involved the Chinese Air Force, ground troops, armoured columns and a range of support entities. PLA planning from thereon assumed that future military contingencies could erupt without much warning. Therefore, rapid reaction forces had to be ready at a moment’s notice.
Much of the PLA’s success over the next decade will be determined by how effectively it integrates emerging capabilities and platforms into the force. Over the past decade, China has benefited from robust investment in modern hardware and technology, which makes the decade from 2011 through 2020 even more crucial. By most accounts, the PLA is on track to achieve its goal of building a modern, regionally-focused military by 2020. Asia’s geostrategic paradigm would continue to get eclipsed by security dilemmas flowing out of lack of transparency and limited dissemination of military information by China. In light of the increased focus and investments in military capabilities by the PLA, interpretations of power projection capabilities that could depose any/all regional and global strategic calculations remain galore.