Think Again: China’s Military

It's not time to panic. Yet.

Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers get ready for the march past Tiananmen Square during the National Day parade in Beijing on October 1, 2009. China celebrated 60 years of communist rule with a massive military parade and elaborate pageantry on Beijing's Tiananmen Square showcasing the nation's revival as a global power. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

“China’s Military Is a Growing Threat.”

Not yet. After two decades of massive military spending to modernize its armed forces, amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars, China increasingly has the ability to challenge the United States in its region, if not yet outside it. But the ability to project force tells us very little about China’s willingness to use it.

Certainly, China has made moves over the last few years that have stoked the China-is-a-dangerous-threat crowd in Washington. In 2007, for instance, Beijing launched a missile that obliterated a communications satellite — a dramatic and unexpected display of capability — and then kept mum for 12 days before a Foreign Ministry spokesperson finally admitted it took place, stating: “This test was not directed at any country and does not constitute a threat to any country.” In May 2008, satellite imagery revealed that China had constructed a massive subterranean naval base on the southern island of Hainan, presumably a staging point to launch naval operations into the Pacific. This January, China conducted another anti-missile test, shortly after the United States announced arms sales to Taiwan.

Similar developments have reliably shown up in annual Pentagon reports on China’s military expansion, not to mention in articles such as Robert Kaplan’s alarmist 2005 essay: “How We Would Fight China.” Even Robert Gates, the mild-mannered U.S. defense secretary, warned last year that China’s military modernization “could threaten America’s primary means of projecting power and helping allies in the Pacific: our bases, air and sea assets, and the networks that support them.” Last fall, Adm. Robert Willard, the new head of the U.S. Pacific Command, noted that “in the past decade or so, China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability,” implying that maybe the alarmists are onto something.

At the same time, China’s leaders vehemently denounce any suggestion that they are embarked on anything other than what they have referred to as a “peaceful rise” and haven’t engaged in major external hostilities since the 1979 war with Vietnam. But they also don’t explain why they are investing so heavily in this new arms race. Beijing’s official line is that it wants to be able to defend itself against foreign aggression and catch up with the West, as it was famously unable to do in the 19th century.

When the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping began the process of reform and opening in 1979, he decided that bolstering the civilian economy would take precedence over military investments. But a dozen years later, the first Gulf War served as a wake-up call in Beijing, raising concerns about how quickly an inferior army could be demolished by better-equipped Western forces. In 1991, the Pentagon unleashed some of its most advanced weapons — including stealth technology and precision-guided munitions — against the Iraqi Army, the world’s fourth largest at the time. U.S. and allied forces made short work of Iraq’s Warsaw Pact military hardware, and the Chinese were duly shocked and awed.

It became immediately clear that Mao Zedong’s doctrine of “human wave attacks” — having more soldiers than your enemy has bullets — would not meet China’s defense needs in the 21st century. From the early 1990s, China’s defense planners began intensively studying doctrine and sought to acquire superior foreign technologies for their People’s Liberation Army (PLA). They also made a major strategic shift by cutting the size of their force to emphasize new technologies that would enable them to catch up with the United States and other possible foes.

Should the rest of the world be worried? Taiwan, long claimed as Chinese territory and well within range of Chinese ballistic missiles and conventional forces, certainly has cause to feel threatened. Even as cross-strait relations have warmed in recent years, Beijing has positioned more medium-range missiles facing Taiwan than ever. When asked why, Beijing demurs. India, Asia’s other would-be superpower, also seems increasingly on edge. Last September, Indian analysts and media loudly worried over the publication of an article by Chinese analyst Li Qiulin in a prominent Communist Party organ that urged the PLA to bolster its ability to project force in South Asia.

But it’s probably too soon for Americans to panic. Many experts who’ve looked closely at the matter agree that China today simply does not have the military capability to challenge the United States in the Pacific, though its modernization program has increased its ability to engage the United States close to Chinese shores. And the U.S. military is still, for all its troubles in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most capable fighting force on the planet. 

STR/AFP/Getty Images

“China’s Armed Forces Are the Biggest in the World.”

Yes,but it depends on how you count. The PLA has the most people on its payroll — 2.2 million active personnel (though between 1985 and 2005, it shrank by 1.7 million soldiers and is still shrinking today). That’s still far more than the 1.4 million active service members in the U.S. military.

Then again, the United States also has more than 700,000 civilian Defense Department employees and significant uncounted numbers of contractors. (In Iraq and Afghanistan, there are roughly equal numbers of contractors and uniformed personnel — about 250,000 contractors to 180,000 soldiers.) But in China, uniformed PLA soldiers carry out many of the same duties that contractors perform for the U.S. military.

Arguably, the more significant figure for comparison is defense spending. Here the PLA lags far behind the Pentagon. In 2009, the U.S. military spent $738 billion on defense and homeland security. Estimates for China’s annual military budget vary considerably, ranging from $69.5 billion to $150 billion, but it’s clear that U.S. military spending is still several times higher than China’s, the world’s second highest.

And the PLA’s global range is much more limited. As of last June, the United States had 285,773 active-duty personnel deployed around the world. But China operates no overseas bases and has only a handful of PLA personnel stationed abroad in embassies, on fellowships, and in U.N. peacekeeping operations.


“The PLA Is Slow, Conservative, and Backward.”

Not anymore. Although it is still no match for the mighty U.S. military, the PLA has come a long way since Mao’s ragtag army defeated the Nationalists in 1949. Over the last two decades in particular, China has improved the quality, technical capabilities, and effectiveness of its enlistees and officers, even as it has shrunk the total number of military personnel.

No longer are PLA soldiers rudimentarily equipped with second-rate Soviet technology, such as the outmoded Soviet T-55 tanks from the 1950s and 1960s that they used to have and that Iraqis fielded during the Gulf War. Although not every PLA unit has cutting-edge equipment, Chinese forces are continually integrating new weapons, doctrine, training, and command-and-control systems.

China’s military today is, if not a near rival to that of the United States, at least a “fast-learning organization,” in the view of many close foreign observers. It is deploying weapons that neutralize key U.S. advantages, such as ballistic missiles and supersonic sea-skimming missiles that can target U.S. aircraft carriers in the region; an enlarged submarine fleet; homegrown satellite reconnaissance and communications capabilities; and recently, the demonstrated capability to eliminate satellites and intercept ballistic missiles.

That said, not all technologies have proven easy to integrate. For instance, when China first bought Russian-made Kilo-class submarines, some were reportedly out of service for extended periods and in 2002 were even shipped back to Russia for repairs. China also reportedly experienced problems servicing imported fighter planes and engines.

Since those initial stumbles, China watchers think the PLA has made significant improvements in mastering the maintenance and operation of these imported platforms. Late in 2008, China dispatched a three-ship task force to the African coast to conduct anti-piracy missions and escort vessels through pirate-infested waters off the coast of Somalia. It was the first time in modern history that Chinese military vessels — in this case, two destroyers and a supply ship — had deployed outside local waters, armed and ready for combat. Using helicopters and special operations units, the PLA Navy successfully engaged pirates and escorted hundreds of civilian ships. It has now deployed its fourth task force, demonstrating its ability to maintain a presence for an extended time.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

“China’s One-Child Generation
Will Weaken Its Military.”

Probably. The PLA’s hardware is improving, but what about its recruits? China’s one-child policy is widely perceived as creating a generation of spoiled, overweight boys, dubbed “little emperors,” who are doted on by four grandparents while their parents toil to support them in fields, factories, and offices. Although accounts are sometimes exaggerated (in practice, many families, particularly in rural areas, have managed to have more than one child), the dramatic demographic shifts brought about by this policy, started in 1979, certainly impact the PLA. By 2006, “only-child soldiers” made up more than half of the force, up from just 20 percent a decade earlier, giving China the largest-ever military with a majority of only-children.

In a nod to the fact that enlistees are often the sole support for aging parents and grandparents, the PLA has shortened service commitments. In 1998, China reduced the time conscripts must serve to two years, lessening the economic and social burdens on rural families dependent on an only son. With a significantly shortened time to train conscripts and participate in exercises, many units will likely maintain low levels of readiness. Only-child officers are also more likely to leave the PLA to enter the private sector, where they are better able to support their parents and families.

Of course, it’s difficult to really assess whether an army made up of only-child soldiers will be an effective fighting force, as the PLA has not been tested in combat since the late 1970s. The PLA has found that such soldiers have better communication and computer skills than their peers with siblings. However, they haven’t performed as well in other ways. Only-child recruits are not as tough; they don’t like to go through the pain of intense training; they call in sick more frequently; and they struggle to perform some simple chores like doing their own laundry. If too much hand-holding is required for these recruits, the PLA could well find itself all suited up for modern warfare — but without the soldiers ready to fight it.

Feng Li/Getty Images

“China Needs Its Army to Stamp Out Domestic Unrest.”

No. That’s the job of the People’s Armed Police. While the world watched in horror as armored personnel carriers and camouflaged soldiers suppressed riots in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in 2008 and Uighur-dominated Urumqi in 2009, many assumed it was the Chinese army marching in the streets behind Plexiglas shields. But they were mistaken. A careful look at their insignia revealed that the units were part of the People’s Armed Police, not the PLA.

The People’s Armed Police is a paramilitary force with a wide range of responsibilities for public security. After June 1989, when the PLA was called upon to mobilize its tanks and clear protesters from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the military sought guarantees from the Chinese leadership that it would no longer be tasked with suppressing domestic “incidents” that it was neither trained nor equipped to handle. The People’s Armed Police was then given this specific job as well as significant increases in resources, personnel, and specialized training.

It is subject to many of the same military laws and regulations issued by the central government as its PLA counterpart. However, much of the armed police is under the command of the Public Security Ministry — China’s civilian police force — and its bureaus, the largest unit of which is responsible for ensuring “internal security,” including crowd control and riot response. When domestic disturbances arise, the armed police is called out to control crowds and put down riots, not the PLA. While China’s 2008 defense white paper claims that 260,000 armed police are on daily guard duty, other official sources claim a total force of 660,000 officers. And though the armed police is tasked primarily with domestic security, it is also expected to support the PLA in a time of war.


“China’s War Plans Are All About Invading Taiwan.”

That was then. Chinese military leaders in the recent past did place intense focus on preparing their armed forces to fight a “limited war” over Taiwan, fully expecting that the United States would enter the conflict. Many weapons systems the PLA acquired or developed, as well as the exercises it trained for, were largely aimed at fighting a technologically superior enemy — with particular emphasis on developing tactics to keep the United States from bringing naval assets to China’s shores, a strategy known as “access denial.” In the past, massive annual amphibious-assault exercises, known derisively as the “million-man swim,” defined the military experiences of hundreds of thousands of conscripts.

Although simulating a Chinese D-Day on Taiwan might be a tidy demonstration of the PLA’s core mission, the armed forces today are developing capabilities and doctrine that will eventually enable them to protect China’s expanding global interests. The PLA’s Second Artillery Corps and science-and-technology units are increasingly capable in space and cyberspace operations, and they have honed the ability to launch and operate satellites to improve communications and intelligence collection. New air and naval platforms and capabilities, such as aerial refueling and new classes of ships, also increase the PLA’s ability to deploy abroad.

Official Chinese military writings now pay increasing attention to a greater range of military missions, focusing not only on China’s territorial integrity, but on its global interests. From oil rigs in Nigeria to a crude-oil pipeline under construction that will connect Yunnan’s capital city to Burma’s port of Sittwe on the Bay of Bengal, Beijing thinks it must be able to defend its people, infrastructure, and investments in some of the world’s most volatile places — much as the British did in the 1800s.

“China’s Military Has Global Aspirations.”

Perhaps someday. At the height of the Cold War, Soviet military vessels prowled the world’s oceans, and its aircraft patrolled international airspace. By contrast, China’s navy rarely leaves its home waters; when it does patrol farther afield, it still does not cross the Pacific.

But there is little doubt that China is steadily building its ability to project power beyond its shores. Milestones such as the PLA Navy’s around-the-world cruise in 2002 and its anti-piracy mission off the African coast indicate that China is looking to operate more globally.

Although Beijing has not yet sought to deploy combat-capable military units to the sites of international natural disasters, in the not-too-distant future Chinese military aircraft might be delivering Chinese-made disaster-relief supplies. Having recently commissioned a hospital ship, Chinese naval strategists have already identified disaster relief as a key mission for a future Chinese aircraft carrier, while military writers discuss how to conduct regional missions to protect China’s interests outside its territorial waters.

Undoubtedly, Chinese war planners see a future in which China will be able to defend itself offshore and its navy will operate beyond what is sometimes referred to as the “first island chain” (an imaginary line stretching from Japan, through Okinawa and Taiwan, and south to the Philippines and the South China Sea), eventually encompassing much of the Western Pacific up to the “second island chain” that runs from Japan southward past Guam to Australia. But whether Beijing envisions one day establishing overseas bases, or simply having the capability to project power globally when needed, is unclear.

Some wonder whether China and the United States are on a collision course. Kaplan raised the ominous possibility in the Atlantic that when the Chinese navy does push out into the Pacific, “it will very quickly encounter a U.S. Navy and Air Force unwilling to budge from the coastal shelf of the Asian mainland,” resulting in a “replay of the decades-long Cold War, with a center of gravity not in the heart of Europe but, rather, among Pacific atolls.” Unquestionably, there is deep strategic mistrust between the two countries. China’s rapid economic growth, steady military modernization, and relentless nationalistic propaganda at home are shaping Chinese public expectations and limiting possibilities for compromise with other powers.

This does not make conflict inevitable, but it is cause for long-term concern and will shape U.S. efforts to avoid hostilities with China. Military-to-military contacts lag far behind the rest of the U.S.-China relationship. Taiwan is an obvious point of disagreement and the one place where the two powers could conceivably come into direct conflict. U.S. maritime surveillance activities inside China’s exclusive economic zone are another contentious point. There is, however, a growing recognition that the United States and China should engage one another and seek to avoid a conflict that would almost certainly be destructive to both sides.

Despite the goose-stepping soldiers at Chinese military parades, the PLA is far from a carbon copy of the Soviet threat. For all the jargon-laden, prideful articles about China’s inevitable rise in the world, Chinese strategists are cautious not to openly verbalize aspirations to conquer the globe or establish distant bases, outposts, or supply stations.

Perhaps a generation from now, Chinese military planners might be strategizing more openly about how to acquire overseas basing rights and agreements with allies where they might station their forces abroad, just as the French and British have done since the Napoleonic wars and the Americans have done more recently. But with China, that process has not begun in earnest. At least, not for now.

Drew Thompson is a former US Defence Department official responsible for managing bilateral relations with China, Taiwan and Mongolia. He is currently a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

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