Modernizing the People’s Liberation Army of China

Modernizing the People’s Liberation Army of China

China is transforming its People’s Liberation Army into a leaner, modernized force, raising U.S. concerns over Beijing’s long-term military goals.

December 5, 2006 1:42 pm (EST)

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As the commander in chief of the massive People’s Liberation Army (PLA), President Hu Jintao plans to reinforce his leadership with his mandate to stamp out corruption among the force’s ranks. The PLA has already undergone major changes, becoming a more professional, modern force—despite its continued allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party. Beijing now seeks to modernize outdated weapons systems and structures and bring the PLA up to speed with the militaries of other major world powers. But the transformation of the PLA from a large ground force to a multifaceted military capable of projecting power beyond China’s border and coastline prompts concern about Beijing’s strategic ambitions.

What is the People’s Liberation Army of China?

The People’s Liberation Army is the main arm of China’s military and the largest force in the world, with more than 2.3 million active duty troops. Although called an “army” because it originally consisted only of ground forces, the PLA also encompasses the Chinese navy, air force, and strategic missile forces commonly known as the Second Artillery Corps. A conscript force, the PLA is organized into seven military regions and the Chinese Communist Party sets its policy. The other two arms of the Chinese military are the People’s Armed Police and the People’s militia.

Who leads the PLA?

Since its inception in 1927, when it was known as the Red Army, the PLA has served as the military wing of the Chinese Communist Party, and the party’s Central Military Commission exercises authority over the armed forces. The Chinese constitution of 1982 created a state Central Military Commission to increase civilian control over the military and create another layer of oversight. However, the two commissions have the same leadership and the party retains its traditional leadership role. “The military is still loyal to the party, not to the administrative state,” says Adam Segal, CFR senior fellow for China studies. As chairman of the party, President Hu Jintao heads both commissions. Three vice chairmen serve under him: Guo Boxiong, Cao Gangchuan, and Xu Caihou. Hu took over the commission chairmanship in 2004 and recently began strengthening his control over the PLA through a crackdown on corruption among Chinese military officers, as Hong Kong-based China expert Willy Lam explains in an article for the Jamestown Foundation.

How serious is corruption in the PLA?

The PLA experiences corruption problems, although not to the same degree as in the 1980s and 1990s. “Corruption continues to be a problem but not nearly the debilitating problem it once was,” says Chinese military expert James Mulvenon, deputy director at the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis. One reason is the turn toward professionalizing the PLA in recent years, but the most important step toward combating corruption was the decision by former President Jiang Zemin to force the military to divest from commercial operations in 1998—a process which Hu oversaw. Beijing acknowledged that by the time the Divestment Act was passed, the PLA owned about 15,000 commercial enterprises. The 1990s rise in PLA business operations coincided with cutbacks in government budget support, pushing the military to spend some of the profits from PLA commercial entities on expenses such as troop uniforms, medicine, and food. However, during the divestment process the PLA’s reputation suffered—as did the relationship between military and civilian officials (FEER)—when revelations about the involvement of military enterprises in smuggling, gunrunning, embezzlement, and counterfeiting came to light. The military transferred large numbers of businesses to local governments, closed others, and, in some cases, handed them over to families of PLA officers. Thousands more, typically small and local enterprises, remained in military control.

The government continues to expose corruption scandals, as it did this summer when the Central Military Commission dismissed the deputy commander of the Chinese navy, Admiral Wang Shouye, for taking about $15 million in bribes. Mulvenon says such outings are usually connected with sheer audacity, the loss of power by a particular individual, and the government’s need to “scratch this public itch” of corruption. “There aren’t elders doing all kinds of nefarious things,” he says, to the same degree as in the past. Since divestiture, the PLA has undergone a large-scale combat modernization that coincided with the development of a more professional military force.

How has the PLA modernized?

Several phases of modernization mark the PLA’s history from the time it became a five-million-strong national armed force in 1949. During the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet assistance in the form of weapons and equipment bolstered the PLA. In the mid-1970s, modernization took the form of disengaging the PLA from involvement in the civilian government. By the 1980s, efforts were underway to streamline and reorganize the PLA with the goal of preparing a mobile force readied for threats beyond its borders and coasts. Since the 1998 Divestment Act, military spending has increased annually and, according to official Chinese information, more than doubled from $14.6 billion in 2000 to $29.9 billion in 2005. Modernization trends (PDF) in recent years include:

  • Reduced and restructured troops. In 1987, the PLA had about three million troops. Nearly twenty years later, the number is closer to 2.3 million, with the army shrinking by some 500,000 since 1995 to current levels of 1.6 million. Meanwhile, troop counts rose in other services. The navy has roughly 225,000 troops, the air force 400,000, and the strategic missile forces 100,000.
  • New equipment influx. The PLA has benefited from a large number of new Chinese weapons and equipment, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, and tactical systems. China imports helicopters and precision-guided munitions from Russia. Advanced technologies including computers, satellite communications, and battlefield surveillance equipment also advance the PLA’s capabilities. The PLA recognizes its limitations compared to other military forces, and training thus involves how to use inferior equipment against a more technologically-advanced enemy.
  • Increased naval power. In addition to revving up naval troop counts, the PLA has sought to increase its capabilities at sea to transform the navy from a “green water” force to a “blue water” force able to engage in larger operations. Equipment enhancement includes renewal of its force of nuclear-powered submarines and surface warships, and the construction of a class of amphibious assault and support craft that would be able to mount a campaign across the Taiwan Straits.
  • Enlarged space program. China’s space program and laser-based weapons development also fall under PLA control. The PLA has launched military communication satellites and is reportedly developing a global satellite navigation and positioning system. China already conducted two manned space flight trips, and plans a third flight mission in 2007. U.S. officials have expressed concerns about Chinese “dazzling” capabilities, which involve the use of ground-based lasers to blind or destroy American satellites during times of crisis.
  • Enhanced military training and education. The military training program sets education standards to conduct combat operations as military technology improves and changes at a rapid pace. Since the mid-1990s, the main training focus involves amphibious operations, with the building of training centers along the coast. Military education now includes subjects corresponding to U.S. military schools such as international relations, management, strategic budget development, and military theory.
  • Improved living standards for soldiers. A large portion of China’s increased military budget aims to boost troop morale by covering pay raises and benefits, better uniforms and equipment, and a more varied diet.

What are the goals behind PLA modernization?

During the Cold War, the threat of an invasion by the Soviet Union drove China’s military policy of maintaining a massive ground force. Since then China has turned attention toward developing its naval capabilities and views a potential Taiwanese declaration of independence, with possible U.S. support, as the most immediate danger to Chinese sovereignty. To this end, China maintains all of its short-range ballistic missiles in preparation for an attack on Taiwan. Other concerns include the South China Sea’s disputed Spratly Islands—where China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia claim territory—as well as Japanese aggression. “They are definitely prepared for the eventuality that a Taiwan or a Japan scenario will bring them into conflict with the United States,” says Mulvenon.

Jonathan D. Pollack, an East Asia expert at the Naval War College, says China’s military strategy continues to have a defensive approach. Part of this strategy involves having a military strong enough to act as a deterrent in the region. Beijing realizes countries such as the United States and Russia have superior militaries and is “trying to see how it can narrow that gap.” The PLA, which experts place twenty years behind the U.S. military, learns from other armed forced by examining how they carry out operations, ranging from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2004 tsunami-rescue efforts.

What role does the United States play in China’s military strategy?

The annual Pentagon report to Congress on China’s military power eyes the modernization of Chinese forces with suspicion, claiming Beijing’s military budget lacks transparency. The Department of Defense estimates the Chinese defense budget for 2006 to be two to three times greater than the $35 billion announced by Beijing. In comparison, the U.S. defense budget for 2006 requested $419.3 billion. “This argument about transparency or a lack thereof is really quite contrived,” says Pollack, who explains the PLA has made a voluminous quantity of materials available on military matters.

A report by the Federation of American Scientists, a watchdog group, reports the United States and China use each others’ military advances as a means for “ locking the two nations in a dangerous action-and-reaction competition reminiscent of the Cold War.” However, many strategists identify China as the primary military rival for the United States. The Quadrennial Defense Review Report says, “Of the major emerging powers, China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States.”

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