The Chinese government is working to make its military stronger, more efficient, and more technologically advanced to become a top-tier force within thirty years. With a budget that has soared over the past decade, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) already ranks among the world’s leading militaries in areas including artificial intelligence and anti-ship ballistic missiles.
Experts warn that as China’s military modernizes, it could become more assertive in the Asia-Pacific region by intensifying pressure on Taiwan and continuing to militarize disputed islands in the East and South China Seas. U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s administration believes China is a great-power rival, though the PLA still has a way to go before it can challenge the United States, experts say.
What catalyzed the PLA’s modernization?
The modern Chinese military got its start during the civil war (1927–1949) between Chinese Communist Party (CCP) forces and nationalist Kuomintang forces. The guerrilla-style army relied on a mass mobilization of Chinese citizens, and the PLA largely preserved this organizational structure in the following decades to protect its borders.
A turning point came in the 1990s, when the CCP witnessed two demonstrations of U.S. military power in its hemisphere: the Gulf War and the Taiwan Strait Crisis. Struck by the sophistication of U.S. forces, Chinese leaders acknowledged that it lacked the technology to wage a modern war and prevent foreign powers from intervening in the region. Officials launched an effort to catch up to top-tier militaries by increasing defense spending, investing in new weapons to enhance anti-access area denial (A2/AD), and establishing programs to boost the Chinese defense industry.
Another shift began in 2012, when President Xi Jinping came to power. Championing what he calls the Chinese Dream, a vision to restore China’s great-power status, Xi has gone further to push military reforms than his predecessors. Xi leads the Central Military Commission, the PLA’s highest decision-making body, and he has committed to producing a “world-class force” [PDF] that can dominate the Asia-Pacific and “fight and win” global wars by 2049.
How are the services being reformed?
Xi has focused on making big, structural changes. Among his most significant reforms are new joint theater commands, deep personnel cuts, and improvements to military-civilian collaboration. He is pushing to transform the PLA from a largely territorial force into a major maritime power.
Army. The army is the largest service and was long considered the most important, but its prominence has waned as Beijing seeks to develop an integrated fighting force with first-rate naval and air capabilities. As the other services expanded, the army shrunk to around 975,000 troops, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Reforms have focused on streamlining its top-heavy command structure; creating smaller, more agile units; and empowering lower-level commanders. The army is also upgrading its weapons. Its lightweight Type 15 tank, for example, came into service in 2018 and allows for engagement in high-altitude areas, such as Tibet.
Navy. The navy has expanded at an impressive rate to become the world’s largest naval force in terms of ship numbers. In 2016, it commissioned eighteen ships, while the U.S. Navy commissioned five. The PLA’s ship quality has also improved: RAND Corporation found that more than 70 percent of the fleet [PDF] could be considered modern in 2017, up from less than 50 percent in 2010.
Experts say the navy, which has an estimated 250,000 active service members, has become the dominant force in China’s near seas and is conducting more operations at greater distances. Its modernization priorities include commissioning more nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. China has two aircraft carriers, compared to the United States’ eleven. A third carrier, which is being built domestically, is expected to be operational by 2022.
Air Force. The air force has also grown, with 395,000 active service members in 2018. It has acquired advanced equipment, some thought to be copied from stolen U.S. designs, including airborne warning and control systems, bombers, and unmanned aerial vehicles. The air force also has a collection of stealth aircraft, including J-20 fighters. In 2015, RAND Corporation estimated that half of China’s fighters and fighter-bombers were modern.
Rocket Force. Responsible for maintaining China’s conventional and nuclear missiles, the rocket force was elevated to an independent service during reforms in 2015. It has around 120,000 active troops. China has steadily increased its nuclear arsenal—it had an estimated 290 warheads [PDF] in 2019—and modernized its capabilities, including the development of anti-ship ballistic missiles that could target U.S. warships in the Western Pacific, as part of its A2/AD strategy. China reportedly has the most midrange ballistic and cruise missiles, weapons that until recently the United States and Russia were prohibited from producing.
The PLA is also developing hypersonic missiles, which can travel many times faster than the speed of sound and are therefore more difficult for adversaries to defend against. While Russia is the only country with a deployed hypersonic weapon, China’s medium-range DF-17 missile is expected to be operational in 2020. The Pentagon has said it will likely be several years before the United States has one.
Strategic Support Force. Established during the 2015 reforms, the Strategic Support Force manages the PLA’s electronic warfare, cyberwarfare, and psychological operations, among other high-tech missions. With an estimated 145,000 service members, it is also responsible for the military’s space operations, including those with satellites.
How much does China spend on its military?
China’s Ministry of Finance said the 2019 defense budget was $177 billion, however, analysts’ estimates are often higher than what Beijing reports. The PLA enjoyed a soaring budget as China’s economy boomed over the past few decades. Defense spending increased more than sevenfold, from $31 billion in 1998 to $239 billion in 2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), making it the second-largest spender in the world, behind the United States.
What’s the state of China’s defense industry?
For much of its history, the PLA relied on foreign military equipment, especially from Russia. But in recent decades, the Chinese government has invested heavily in state-owned and private-sector defense companies. Xi has pushed to reduce barriers between the two, emphasizing what he calls military-civil fusion. Many firms have forged relationships with foreign companies and universities, allowing them to acquire technologies and know-how with military applications. Experts say this has been especially helpful for developing the PLA’s automation and artificial intelligence capabilities.
Much of the PLA’s equipment is now built domestically. In fact, China is estimated to be the world’s second-largest arms producer, trailing the United States and ahead of Russia, according to a 2020 report by SIPRI. Most of its exports go to developing countries, such as Pakistan. China still imports some specialized equipment, such as jet engines, and has been accused of copying Russia’s, the United States’, and other countries’ designs without permission.
How does the military serve China’s defense and foreign policy interests?
The PLA is the armed wing of the CCP, and its main objective is to protect the party’s rule, which it fears rival countries, particularly the United States, aim to undermine. It plays a critical role in achieving Xi’s objective of becoming the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific, and its overarching strategic objective is to safeguard China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests. Its top priorities are deploying military infrastructure on disputed islands in the South China Sea, particularly the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands; preventing Taiwanese independence; and securing its land borders with fourteen countries, including India and North Korea. The PLA, however, is not responsible for internal security, which falls on the People’s Armed Police.
Some experts have said that Taiwan is the main catalyst for the PLA’s modernization. The island has been governed independently for decades, but Beijing views it as a part of China. The Xi government has taken an aggressive approach, saying in a 2019 defense white paper that the PLA would “resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China.” While many analysts don’t expect Beijing to use force against Taiwan soon, it could use its military to discourage independence movements and deter U.S. involvement in future conflicts.
Does China want to project military power globally?
Many analysts believe China wants to be the dominant military power in the Asia-Pacific, capable of deterring and, if needed, defeating the United States in a future conflict. But it’s unclear whether China’s ultimate ambition is to project power throughout the world, much like the United States does today.
The Chinese government said in its 2019 white paper that it will “never threaten any other country or seek any sphere of influence.” It maintains a no-first-use nuclear policy, has no military alliances, and claims to oppose interference in other countries’ affairs.
Joel Wuthnow, a China expert at the U.S. National Defense University, told CFR that, at least in the near term, the PLA will be kept busy close to home. “China is still a long way from becoming a global force like the U.S. military because their attention is confined to the region,” he says.
Yet, as Beijing’s economic interests expand through Central Asia and Europe—part of its Belt and Road Initiative—the military could increasingly be called to operate abroad. Some U.S. officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, warn that the colossal development project could eventually be used for military purposes. However, Beijing claims this is untrue, with most projects currently protected by Chinese private security companies.
China opened its first overseas base in Djibouti in 2017, despite swearing off bases in one of its first white papers nearly two decades earlier. There were reports in 2019, which Chinese officials denied, that China was constructing another base in Cambodia. China has conducted an increasing number of joint military exercises, including with Pakistan, Russia, and members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. PLA service members also participate in UN peacekeeping missions, with more than 2,500 active peacekeepers as of 2019.
What are the PLA’s major challenges?
Acknowledging in its 2019 defense white paper that the PLA “still lags far behind the world’s leading militaries,” the Chinese government believes it must invest more in new technologies and improve logistics. But many analysts say the military’s main challenge is personnel, in that it has struggled to recruit, train, and retain a professional fighting force. “The skills are the most difficult things to teach and teach quickly,” says IISS’s Meia Nouwens. “And with the Chinese military, the scale is enormous.”
Part of this stems from a lack of experience: the PLA hasn’t fought a major military conflict in the forty years since it invaded Vietnam (it had a brief confrontation with Vietnam in 1988). Additionally, some experts have found that recent reforms have increased pressure and stress on service members.
Another challenge has been corruption and what Chinese leaders perceive as weakening loyalty to the CCP. During Xi’s first six years in office, as part of a wider anticorruption campaign, he oversaw the punishment of more than thirteen thousand PLA officers, including one hundred generals, for giving and accepting bribes, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
How are countries responding to China’s military rise?
The U.S. military maintains a strong presence in the Asia-Pacific region, with bases in Australia, Guam, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. But as China’s military approaches parity with U.S. forces, the United States could have a harder time deterring Chinese assertiveness [PDF]. The Trump administration has increasingly treated Beijing as an adversary, characterizing both China and Russia [PDF] as “revisionist powers” intent on “trying to change the international order in their favor.” Through its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, the United States has sought to strengthen its regional alliances, including with Japan and South Korea, protect freedom of navigation at sea, and maintain peace and rule of law.
China’s neighbors are also on alert. In 2019, Japan’s defense ministry identified China as the country’s greatest national security threat. Tokyo plans to boost defense spending and purchase U.S. weapons, and it has reinterpreted its pacifist constitution to give the military greater latitude. At the same time, though, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has tried to avoid confrontation and even strengthen ties with Beijing, in an effort to defuse the threat from North Korea. Another U.S. treaty ally, the Philippines, has also tilted toward Beijing. President Rodrigo Duterte has visited China multiple times, signed agreements to strengthen cooperation, and courted Chinese investors. However, tensions between Manila and Beijing persist over their competing claims in the South China Sea. Other Southeast Asian nations with claims, including Vietnam, have relatively small defense budgets, and they have not yet been able to coordinate joint military actions through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Taiwan, which has increased its purchases of U.S. weapons, including F-16 fighters, assumes that the United States will defend it in the case of a Chinese attack. However, as China has enhanced its military capabilities, some Taiwanese officials have reportedly questioned whether Washington would do so.
CFR’s Mira Rapp-Hooper points out that many governments face the same challenge of having to respond to China’s military modernization while preserving close economic ties with Beijing. “They’re grappling with the reality that China is their closest trading partner, and the United States is their closest defense ally,” she says. “Most likely, U.S. allies will not make a single choice between the two, but they may shift toward China if they come to doubt American staying power in the Pacific.”