THE NEW RED ARMY
President-for-life Xi Jinping plans to turn the People’s Liberation Army into a modernised force by 2035 and a world-class army by 2050
When Xi Jinping last year announced two goals for the People’s Liberation Army’s transformation—completing its modernisation by 2035 and building a “world-class” force by 2050—it served as a reminder of how far the once bloated PLA has come.
Where once it wore with pride the tag of the world’s largest standing army of 2.3 million, Beijing’s strategists now view this accolade with embarrassment and are more than happy to let India claim that prize. Xi has already cut the PLA’s strength by 300,000, and once his reforms are through, the strength will be cut by more than half to 1 million.
LESS IS MORE
This was the message Xi, dressed in military fatigues, stressed when he toured the PLA’s Joint Command Headquarters in November, shortly after beginning his second term and crowning himself as China’s supreme leader at the party congress in March. China—and the PLA—were “at a crucial stage in the path toward being a world power”, Xi said, and to achieve national goals, he set three targets: for the PLA to by 2020 “achieve its mechanisation, make big strides in informatisation and gain substantial improvement in strategic capabilities”; become “a modernised force” by 2035; and emerge “a world-class military” by 2050.
Easier said than done. How realistic are the goals? China is still a long way off from its 2050 target—keeping the US as benchmark, the PLA lags on almost all counts. But analysts say it is, at the very least, laying the foundations in place. One indication is the PLA’s changing defence budget (more than three times India’s at $173 billion), which spends far less on the army (18 per cent compared with India’s 54 per cent), and devotes an increasing share to the navy and air force (48 per cent versus 36 per cent) and especially to research and development (28 per cent to the armaments department compared with the 5 per cent to India’s DRDO).
All this is to push what Xi calls the “modernisation” of the army. Song Zhongping, a military expert in Beijing, said in April that the aim was to increase automation of equipment in all fields. Especially, he noted, in border areas, where, for instance, the currently ongoing deployment of unmanned monitoring systems, from drones to satellite warning systems, will “overcome blind spots and bring border regions under continuous monitoring and control”.
THE HOLY GRAIL
That’s just one of many key sweeping reforms Xi has pushed, starting with the massive reorganisation of military regional commands
in 2016 into five larger, more integrated theatres, with the abiding aim of achieving what has been the holy grail for the Indian army too: an integrated force with joint commands, nimble, ready to rapidly deploy and win wars under high-tech conditions.
“The motive and goal is integrated joint operations and integration of commands,” notes Srikanth Kondapalli, an expert on the Chinese military at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Yes the reorganisation is ambitious, and a lot has been done, but it’s still not clear if it has achieved its goals. The proof of the pudding will be in military exercises or in warfare.”
The end-game, he says, is building a military like the US that will give China “the ability to intervene at quick notice in theatres anywhere around the world.” That is still a long way off, he notes, but the reforms are a step in the right direction. “The one big lesson the PLA learnt from the 1991 Gulf War is quality, not quantity, matters. The pruning of 300,000 troops is already ongoing, and there is a clear idea about building a smaller, more nimble army. In the Indian case, on cutting strength, there hasn’t even been a debate.”
As Kondapalli says, the Indian army will always have the advantage of being a far more professional and tested fighting force. But as the nature of war changes—along with Chinese capability—that may not be of solace for long.
MARITIME FOCUS XI Jinping with navy personnel onboard the missile destroyer Changsha after a naval display