The clock is ticking for the People’s Liberation Army: the world’s largest army is under pressure to deliver on Chinese president Xi Jinping’s most sweeping military reforms in 30 years, intended to match the technological capabilities of the US, its main adversary.
After more than two decades of steady increases in defence spending that have left the Chinese military better equipped, Beijing is restructuring its army so it can extract the maximum benefits from its new high-tech gear.
Mr Xi’s goal to see the reforms’ “initial results” by next year sits alongside economic, political and technological benchmarks China’s Communist party wants to hit before its 100th anniversary in 2021. The Chinese leader wants to see the PLA’s modernisation completed by 2035 and make it a “world-class” force capable of fighting and winning wars anywhere by 2050.
Such ambitions are unnerving western powers and neighbouring countries including Taiwan, which Beijing claims as part of its territory. China has not ruled out the use of force against its neighbour. Over the past three years, Beijing has ramped up military operations near Taiwan-controlled territories and blocked Taipei’s diplomatic and trade initiatives.
In a report released earlier this month, the US Defense Intelligence Agency noted progress in Beijing’s military modernisation across the board. DIA officials said the PLA’s confidence in its capabilities was on the rise, a trend that they warned could make Beijing more willing to risk military conflict.
The expectation for the PLA next year is “to get all the institutional changes set up”, said Ou Si-fu, an expert on the PLA at the Institute for National Defence and Security Research, a think-tank backed by Taiwan’s National Security Council and defence ministry.
But that task is Herculean: the balance between the army’s traditionally dominant ground forces and its other services is being overhauled and the PLA plans to cut 300,000 of its 2m soldiers.
The Rocket Force, in charge of strategic and conventional missiles, has been elevated to a normal service alongside the army, navy and air force. Separately, Beijing has added the Strategic Support Force, mainly to focus on electronic warfare, reducing the relative weight of the ground forces, as Beijing is increasingly focused on security on its maritime periphery.
Beijing is also creating a permanent command and control structure for the first time by replacing seven military regions, which had been intended for command in wartime, with five so-called Theatre Commands. Other measures include replacing bigger military units with more compact ones and ridding of senior officers reluctant to the changes. The training regime is also being revamped.
The overarching goal is to make the PLA’s different services operate together seamlessly, a capability that the US mastered decades ago and which is indispensable in technology-intensive modern warfare.
Xinhua, the Chinese state-run agency, has been reporting significant progress. The number of soldiers in the ground forces have already been reduced to less than half of the PLA’s total headcount, it said.
Foreign military analysts remain sceptical. You Ji, an expert on the Chinese military at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, wrote in a paper released last year that it “would remain unknown how much Mr Xi’s reforms would improve the PLA’s combat efficiency”. The structural and personnel disruptions were likely to “adversely affect the PLA’s routine administration and operations”, he cautioned.
And yet, there are signs the PLA is addressing long-running weaknesses.
“They have been constantly modernising their training regime and assessment mechanisms for officers,” says Hsu Yen-chi, a researcher at the Council on Strategic and Wargaming Studies in Taipei.
From June last year, Beijing introduced regular tests where commanders compete publicly in war games, as part of assessment for promotions.
And on New Year’s Day, the Central Military Commission ordered officers be given more leeway to make mistakes in training on new equipment to encourage them to learn, take responsibility and try unconventional approaches.
The document stresses the importance of “seriously correcting the ‘sit, wait and rely on [others] phenomenon’, vigorously rectifying the ills of peace and rouse the passion of the fighters in the new era.”
Such steps result from a long-running quest for change. “The 1991 (US led) Gulf war came as a shock to the PLA,” says Alexander Huang, director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at Tamkang University in Taipei. “It was unconceivable to them that a ground operation could be successfully completed so rapidly, and they learned from that the value of joint operations, which they have been pursuing ever since.”
In Taiwan, military officers argue that despite increasing PLA posturing towards their country, China still lacks the capabilities needed to follow through on its threat to invade their country.
On the air patrols into the west Pacific, glorified in the Xinhua report, only bombers are capable of flying a full circle around Taiwan, while fighter jets have to turn back when they reach the outer end of the Bashi Channel or the Miyako Strait because the air force’s refuelling capabilities are still limited.
But Taipei is mindful Beijing is pressing ahead. Said Mr Ou: “We are in a race against time.”