Author : Manoj Joshi

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Mar 01, 2017
The China Dream of a strong military "with Chinese characteristics" will give it a great power status by 2049.
China's military modernisation and its implications

This is the fourth part in the series The China Chronicles.

Read the first three parts here.

China's current phase of military modernisation began in the 1990s. But from 1990, when the PLA was overwhelmingly equipped with reverse engineered Soviet-era weapons, till the beginning of this decade, the focus was on enhancing the quality of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) weapons and systems. We are now witnessing the latest phase as of 2015 with China launching a comprehensive reform of its military organisation.

The goal is to provide China the ability to fight high-intensity, short duration "informationised" regional wars with an emphasis on "maritime military struggle." Which means the ability to fight "in a complex electromagnetic environment" at greater distances from the mainland than the PLA had planned for in the past. At the same time, the Chinese are looking to reduce third party, most prominently the United States' (US) ability to intervene against China in regional crises, which means developing Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities, as well as capabilities for cyber and space based operations.

The Chinese are looking to reduce third party, most prominently the United States' (US) ability to intervene against China in regional crises.

The goals of the organisation are domestic-political, as well as external military. So at one level, the reform has led to a tightening of the role of the Communist Party of China and its Chairman over the military high command, the Central Military Commission (CMC). From the military point of view, they seek to enhance a) the ability to conduct joint operations b) to be able to do so in what the Chinese call, informationised conditions and c) to do so further from its mainland. Both these aims segue into the China Dream of a strong military "with Chinese characteristics" that will give it a great power status by 2049, which can provide China diplomatic payoff, enhance its regional pre-eminence and protect its interests across the globe.

The main focus of the Chinese military remains a possible conflict over the Taiwan Straits and newer contingencies in South China Sea and the seas of Japan and Korea. China is seeking to create a buffer zone of friendly states along land borders in Central Asia aimed at shoring up its rule in Xinjiang even while pushing to control the waters upto the first island chain. As China's global footprint grows with its growing economic interests, China is also creating a global infrastructure to support these interests with bases in Djibouti and Gwadar and port call rights in Sri Lanka and Maldives.


Nuclear: The principal goal of China's modernisation efforts in the nuclear field is to achieve assured second strike capability against the US. In 2016, the PLA Second Artillery Force was renamed PLA Rocket Force and upgraded to a full service. Till 1980s it dealt with only nuclear missiles, but since mid 1990s it also got conventional missiles. The force is directly under CMC and is around 130,000 strong, operating from six main missile bases equivalent of PLA Group Armies. Chinese nuclear arsenals estimated at 260 in 2015 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), this is double what it was in 2006, so it is a growing arsenal. The PLARF has continued to deploy the TEL-based Dong Feng (DF)-31 and DF-31 A, deploy the DF-5 B&C Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV) tipped missiles and develop the the DF-41.

The Science of Military Strategy 2015 suggests that the conventional and nuclear interface in the Peoples Liberation Army Rocket Forces (PLARFs) is a deliberate strategy. China also fields a variety of conventional Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) and Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACMs). The DF-26 or the 'Guam Killer' is both a conventional and nuclear capable ballistic missile, while the DF-21D is an anti-ship ballistic missile. China deploys four or five Jin (094) class SSBN submarines and is set to deploy JL-2 missiles on them to get assured second strike capability. In the future, China aims to field an advanced (096) SSBN and one capable of launching cruise missiles.

China has conducted a total of four tests of hypersonic glide vehicle beginning in January 2014. This is aimed at providing the Chinese the ability to evade US missile defences.

The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has evolved from coastal or inshore defence which focused on preventing infiltration from sea and supporting land engagements in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1980s, China began to look at defence of its crucial offshore waters of the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and the South China Sea in terms of Lines Of Communications (LoC) defence, possible Taiwan contingency, as well as preventing an invasion and protecting maritime rights and interests.

In this millennium, the shift has moved from offshore defence to open waters protection. This means strengthening offshore defence, even while having the ability to protect Chinese Sea Lines Of Communication (SLOCs). China's goal is to be the premier navy within the first island chain in the short term and to develop similar capabilities for the Indian Ocean in, say, 20 years from now.

The goals of Chinese naval modernisation can be discerned from its various, increasingly sophisticated, naval exercises. These feature action beyond the second island chain and island recapture exercises focused on the South China Sea. There has been a sharp accretion in the strength of the PLAN with the acquisition of the Luhu (052), Luhai (051B), Sovremenny, Luyang (052) and Luzhou (051C) class destroyers, Jiangwei (053) and Jiangkai(054) class frigates, the Song, Yuan and Kilo class subs, the Jin and Shang nuclear powered attack subs, Liaoning and 100 fourth generation fighters which include J-10, J-11, Su 30s and 30 H-6 bombers with air to ship missiles. China commissioned 18 ships in 2016, and in January 2017 it commissioned an electronic reconnaissance vessel.

The People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) stagnated for a long time when its Soviet derived technology became obsolete. It then sought western technology, but even that was blocked post Tiananmen in 1989.

The modernisation of the PLAAF has been encouraged by Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) issues as well as the balance of power with Taiwan and greater PLA presence in the sea. Gulf War II brought out the value of long-range precision strike using integrated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance network.

The PLAAF emphasises integrated aerospace operations with simultaneous offensive and defensive operations. This means an air force marrying the Information Technology (IT) component of China's space satellite system with the PLAAF and developing command and control systems for integrated aerospace operations for an air offensive campaign, air and missile defence and strategic force projection.

Currently, the PLAAF is developing the J-10B follow on to its indigenous < style="font-size: 13.3333px">fourth generation fighter and acquiring 24 Su-35 with its advanced radar. By the end of the decade we may see the first Chinese fifth generation fighters like the J-20 entering service. In 2015, it tested the fifth and sixth prototypes of the fighter. In addition, China is modernising its bomber fleet by upgrading the H-6K bomber to be able to carry six LACMs each.

Organisational modernisation of the PLA

The Communist Party's third plenum called for optimising the size and structure of army, adjusting the inter-service balance and reducing the non-combat institution and personnel. At present the personnel distribution is the following — People's Liberation Army Artillery (PLAA) has 73 percent, People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) 10 percent, PLAAF 17 percent . Also announced at the plenum was a "joint operation command authority under the CMC and a theatre joint operation command system." After two years the details of this have become clearer. In September 2015, Xi called for 300,000 reduction to bring force down to two million.

In the ensuing months China announced a series of major changes in the way the PLA would be organised and led. In November 2015, Xi declared that the current Military Area Commands (MACs) would be regrouped into new battle zone commands, supervised by the CMC. A three tier system would be created, and a separate administrative chain of command would link the four service HQs to units. These would be responsible for organisation, manning and equipping units. All of this is expected to take place in the next five years.

In January 2016, the four General Departments that had hitherto led the PLA — the General Staff, General Political Department, General Logistics Department and General Armament Department have been replaced by 15 functional units. The powerful General Staff Department has been replaced by a Joint Staff Department, but has lost oversight over training and education, mobilisation, strategic planning and possibly cyberwar and EW units.

In this way, Xi has flattened the higher command structure and enhanced the authority of CMC. The new system is called the "CMC Chairman responsibility system" which has developed two clear lines of authority under the CMC — the various services manage their respective forces, while the theater commands fight the wars. Both report to the CMC and in that sense, the Communist Party. The organisational reforms that began in 2015, are, however, scheduled to be fully operationalised by 2020, in time to be presented as an achievement of the first centenary of the founding of the CPC in 2021.

China is reforming its military at a rapid pace and its firepower is growing faster than many had anticipated even a few years back. The implications of these changes for China's rise as credible global military force, however, remain far from clear at this juncture.

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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