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Thursday, September 21, 2023

China’s People Liberation Army still going strong

By Jing-dong YuanLast week marked the 80th birthday of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s 2.3-million-strong armed forces. From a peasant army when it was established, it has experienced victories and weathered setbacks to become an increasingly professional military today. The week-long ceremonies were attended by all the top Chinese leaders – current and retired – including the joint appearances by President Hu Jintao and former president Jiang Zemin in the GreatHall of the People.The celebrations, accompanied by exhibits of PLA achievements over the past eight decades, emphasized the essential role and the undisputable leadership of the Chinese Communist Party over the military. But there is more that deserves close attention and scrutiny. The Chinese military is undergoing five major transformations: doctrine and military planning, organization and force structure, equipment procurement, training and operations, and foreign military relations.When and to what extent the PLA will become a world-class military will depend how successful these transformations are. The PLA’s doctrine has undergone drastic changes over the past 20 years. Gone are the days when the military was guided by Mao Zedong’s romantic “People’s War” dogma. As China’s 2006 Defense White Paper makes clear, the doctrine today is active defense with the ability to fight and win local wars under high-tech conditions.This doctrine sets the target of building the PLA by mid-century into a modern, information-age military force, with a strong emphasis on the importance of maintaining an effective and reliable strategic force composed of both nuclear and conventional weapons capabilities. The PLA’s organization and force structure have also gone through major transformation. From an infantry-heavy and conscript-based military of the 1980s, the PLA has significantly reduced its total manpower, increased the proportion of non-commissioned officers, and formed combined army groups with more specialized units. The educational level of the officer corps has also been elevated.The most noticeable transformation has taken place in the area of equipment, where the PLA has acquired major new weapons systems since the early 1990s. These include fourth-generation Russian fighter aircraft and transporters such as Su-27, Su-30, MiG-29 and Il-76, Sovremenny-class destroyers and Kilo-class diesel submarines, and modern air-defense systems. China recently inducted its domestically produced new fleet of fighter aircraft (J-10) and Shang-class 092 nuclear-powered attack submarines.China is also undergoing important modernization in its conventional and nuclear ballistic-missile forces, and new-generation nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines. The introduction and deployment of these new weapons systems have helped close the equipment gap in selected areas between the PLA and the world’s most advanced militaries and strengthened China’s aerial and maritime capabilities in its vicinity. They also help ensure credibility and effectiveness of the country’s limited counter-coercion and counter-strike nuclear deterrence.Military training and operations are becoming more realistic, regular, and contingency-based, a major departure from the past practice of exercises whose outcomes were predetermined to ensure that the “Red” always won. There is also growing emphasis on the concept of jointness that combines different services and branches in command, planning, operation, and logistic coordination. Finally, the PLA has been more receptive to and active in interactions with its foreign counterparts. It has established military-to-military relations with more than a hundred countries whereby regular visits between high-ranking military officers, educational exchanges, port visits, and joint military exercises are taking place in increasing numbers.China has also contributed to and participated in United Nations peacekeeping operations, with more than 7,500 troops in 17 missions since 1990. The PLA is continuing to transform itself into a modern fighting force. But it also faces key challenges ahead. These include its ability to adapt and adopt changes as necessitated by the revolution in military affairs; to integrate new weapons systems to elevate its overall combat capabilities; and to implement reforms in organization, training and personnel. Significant mission-capabilities gaps exist, and many of the military reforms remain aspirations. Finally, civil-military relations and party-army symbiosis could also hamper development of professionalism in the Chinese military.Perhaps the most daunting challenge of all is how the PLA can successfully carry out its missions while at the same time reassuring the rest of the region and the world that its modernization will not be a threat. From Beijing’s perspective, explanation and promotion of its new security concept, active participation in multilateral security institutions, and military diplomacy could help alleviate some of the concerns over China’s military buildup.The regular publications of the country’s defense white papers, participation in the annual International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue (Asia Security Summit), and the PLA’s engagement with the US military reflect specific Chinese efforts to demonstrate its peaceful and non-threatening intentions and goodwill. But the extent and consequences of China’s military modernization can also be assessed through careful evaluations of its strategic priorities and near-term goals; the PLA’s current force structure and order of battle; its principal current and emerging missions and existing deficiencies; China’s domestic defense industrial base and its ability to deliver the necessary equipment; and China’s available foreign arms suppliers and the costs of weapons imports. These may lead to a better understanding of the progress, problems, and prospects of the PLA at 80.Dr Jing-dong Yuan is director of education program at the James Martin Center for non-proliferation studies and an associate professor of international policy studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.Note: This article was first published on Asia Times online.

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