The Future of the PLA

How China will use its military might.

Soldiers stand on the deck of the Yimen Shan as the vessel participates in a naval parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy in the sea near Qingdao, in China’s eastern Shandong province, on April 23.
Soldiers stand on the deck of the Yimen Shan as the vessel participates in a naval parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy in the sea near Qingdao, in China’s eastern Shandong province, on April 23. Mark Schiefelbein/AFP/Getty Images

In October 2017, at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party, Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled an ambitious road map for the future of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the largest armed force in the world. According to his report, the PLA is to become mechanized by 2020, modernized by 2035, and world-class by the mid-21st century.

By some measures, the PLA already is one of the world’s strongest militaries. Despite Western prohibitions on trading arms and military technology with China, the Chinese defense industry has been able to produce some of the world’s most sophisticated weapons systems and platforms. According to a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “[s]ince 2000, China has built more submarines, destroyers, frigates and corvettes than Japan, South Korea and India combined.” China’s first domestically designed aircraft carrier took a mere five years to be built. And when finished in 2020, the restructuring of the PLA, including downsizing by 300,000 service members, will make the 2 million-strong PLA leaner but mightier. Meanwhile, the application of artificial intelligence, which China vows to lead by 2030, will speed up the development of “intelligent military.”

How China uses its military strength matters, all the more so because it is widely expected to overtake the United States to become the largest economy within the next two decades. Yes, China still has territorial disputes with some countries, but a major power looks beyond its borders into the horizon. And a strong PLA will be more ready than ever to protect China’s overseas interests and shoulder international obligations.

One doesn’t need to see “Made in China” on the bottom of every product to know that China’s interests are already global. As the world’s largest trading nation and exporter, its overseas interests include, among other things, the safety and security of more than 1 million Chinese nationals working overseas, 140 million Chinese traveling abroad every year, some 40,000 Chinese enterprises around the globe, and overseas property and investment of $7 trillion. Needless to say, it is impossible to protect all these interests through military means, but a forward military presence is useful. For example, in February 2011, the Chinese frigate Xuzhou was sent from the Gulf of Aden into the waters off Libya to stand on guard while 35,860 Chinese nationals and 2,103 foreign contract workers and citizens were evacuated as violence spread in that country.

Further, there is no better way for China to demonstrate its peaceful rise than by helping with global governance as a responsible power. Unlike in the past when Beijing talked about “establishing a fair and reasonable new international political and economic order,” which was a thinly veiled dismissal of the current order, Chinese leaders now admit that the country benefits from the existing international order and vows to be a “builder of world peace, a contributor to global development, and a guardian of international order.”

To that end, ever since the dawn of the 21st century, China has gradually given up some time-honored defense policies—such as prohibitions on joining military exercises with foreign countries, on stationing of troops overseas, and on establishing military bases overseas—to meet the changed situation. In 2002, China held a joint military drill with Kyrgyzstan. In 2017, China built a logistics supply station in Djibouti. Currently, 2,519 Chinese peacekeepers are working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lebanon, Mali, South Sudan, and Sudan. The PLA Navy has been patrolling and escorting vessels in the Gulf of Aden and the Somali Basin for the last 10 years.

The PLA has also demonstrated openness through frequent visits, consultations and dialogues, joint military exercises, and humanitarian missions. In 2010, a PLA medical team of uniformed service members landed in earthquake-torn Haiti, a country with which China has no diplomatic ties, to help with search and rescue. From 2014 to 2015, around 500 military medical personnel were sent to Liberia and Sierra Leone to assist in fighting against Ebola. The PLA is also a regular participant in regional security-related forums, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the ASEAN Regional Forum, ADMM-Plus, and the Shangri-La Dialogue, to name just a few.

Wherever possible, the PLA has been trying to blend China’s national interests with its international responsibilities. For example, the PLA Navy did not just protect the Chinese ships transiting the Gulf of Aden and Somali Basin but also the ships of the U.N. World Food Program. Among the over 6,600 ships that the Chinese naval task forces have escorted since January 2009, over half of them were foreign ships. When three Chinese naval ships evacuated 613 Chinese nationals from war-torn Yemen, they also helped in withdrawing almost 280 foreigners from 15 countries.

China has demonstrated its potential in leading peacekeeping missions. For one, it is the largest troop-contributing country among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and the second-largest financial contributor to peacekeeping. Beyond that, China could become a consistent source of so-called “enabling units”—the engineering, transport, communications, and aviation troops that the U.N. most needs—and also a consistent provider of equipment to many troop-contributing countries that can afford to buy only Chinese-made equipment.

In short, China has set a pattern for global security governance that places primacy on addressing nontraditional threats, such as piracy, terrorism, and natural disasters, and exercises restraint in the use of force and adherence to international cooperation. The U.N. mandates provide the PLA legitimacy as well as moral grounds for its operations. They also highlight the authority of China as one of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. In so doing, the PLA clearly draws a line in the sand, helping rather than policing the world.

The benefit of restraint in the use of force is obvious, especially for the protection of civilians in armed conflicts. According to the U.N., 65 million people were displaced from their homes in 2015. In the Middle East, the seemingly uninterrupted humanitarian disasters and exodus of refugees since the Iraq War in 2003 were in no small way spurred by outside invasions and military strikes. It is difficult to imagine that the PLA would be involved in such a debacle.

Rather, it will more likely engage in multilateral efforts that will bring it closer to its partners. The progress in Chinese-NATO military relations illustrates how common tasks can bind unlike partners together. The relationship was once frosty. China saw NATO as a relic of the Cold War, and NATO’s bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, which the United States described as “mistaken,” only made the relationship worse. But things started to change after a historic handshake between the PLA naval task force commander and a NATO commander in the waters off Somalia in 2009. This heralded the PLA and NATO’s regular exchanges of visits since 2010. In 2015, the 21st task force of the PLA Navy and NATO’s Combined Task Force 508 even had a joint drill in the Gulf of Aden.

Should China play a bigger role in global security governance, its leaders have to think carefully about how to deal with the United States. The Trump administration has labeled China as its primary strategic competitor. It remains to be seen how Chinese-U.S. relations might change over the next few years, but it is premature—even irresponsible—to conclude that the relationship is bound to become hostile. China’s economic success could be attractive to other developing countries, but there is no indication that the Chinese government is trying to sell its success story as a way to spread its ideology and challenge the international order.

Can China and the United States leave behind their differences and make the world safer? If the two most powerful countries on Earth can manage not to sleepwalk into war, then the world is already much safer. Former U.S. President Barack Obama described China as “free riding” on the U.S.-backed global order. However wrong he was, his statement at least indicated that his administration wanted China to share some responsibility, say, in Afghanistan. So far, given U.S. regulations, the United States and China are most easily able to cooperate on humanitarian issues such as counterpiracy and disaster relief.

China today has two dilemmas: It doesn’t harbor any ambition of policing the world, but it does have major overseas interests; China wishes to shoulder more international obligations, but the PLA has yet to build sufficient capabilities to fulfill them. As a result, Beijing’s involvement in global security governance is selective, but it is incremental and most certainly irreversible. Contrary to U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat in 2017 to cut U.N. funding, China set up a 10-year China-U.N. peace and development fund of $1 billion in 2015.

When China celebrates the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic in 2049, it will presumably be prosperous, cosmopolitan, and enlightened. It will also be much more connected with the rest of the world and shouldering greater responsibility for the well-being of others. Chinese leaders used to say that China would fulfill its due international obligations in line with its national strength; since China’s national strength is bound to grow, it can certainly contribute more to the world.

Zhou Bo is the director of the Center for Security Cooperation in the Chinese Ministry of National Defense’s Office for International Military Cooperation. He is also an honorary fellow of the Chinese Academy of Military Science. The views expressed here are his own.

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