Author: Joel Wuthnow, National Defense University
China’s military modernisation began long before Xi Jinping became chairman of the Central Military Commission in November 2012. But the pace and scope of that effort has greatly accelerated under him. Key changes include the introduction of advanced weapons and equipment, structural reforms to make the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a more effective force and a campaign to root out corruption and improve Xi’s control.
The PLA was once a poorly outfitted force that aimed to win land battles through guerrilla tactics and attrition. Chairman Deng Xiaoping, focused on reviving the economy, famously relegated the military to the last of the ‘four modernisations’. Beginning with Jiang Zemin (1989–2004), the PLA pivoted towards deterrence and preparations for ‘local wars’ against regional opponents. This implied a need for more capable air and naval forces as well as expanded conventional missile forces, accompanied by changes in training, doctrine, recruitment and education.
The limited political influence of Jiang and his successor Hu Jintao (2004–2012) over the military meant that the PLA was able to resist certain aspects of reform. One problem was that the PLA held on to a ‘big army’ mentality: ground force officers held most PLA senior positions and the other services were poorly integrated into the command structure. Another problem was that top party officials were unable to rein in prolific corruption, a product of PLA autonomy granted by Deng in return for its willingness to accept low budgets in the 1980s.
Xi’s arrival heralded an acceleration of modernisation and solutions to problems that had confounded his predecessors. While many had their origins under Jiang and Hu, a number of key systems came online in the Xi era, including the indigenous aircraft carrier Shandong, the Type-055 guided missile destroyer, the J-20 stealth fighter, the Y-20 long-range transport aircraft, the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile and the DF-17 ballistic missile fitted with a hypersonic glide vehicle.
Through stronger collaboration with the civilian science and technology community, the PLA also put greater emphasis on new capabilities: artificial intelligence, quantum computing and big data. This reflected a shift to what the PLA terms the ‘intelligentisation’ of the modern battlefield.
While Xi took credit for programs begun under his predecessors, his careful political manoeuvring allowed him to push through innovative organisational changes that eluded Jiang and Hu. From the beginning, Xi was a far more visible presence in the PLA, often visiting units and giving speeches on military affairs canonised in ‘little red book’-style required readings for troops. He also intervened in promotions down to the level of corps commander, ensuring that those with his vision would occupy key positions.
A key part of Xi’s political strategy was expanding an anti-corruption campaign that had begun under Hu, netting several thousand ‘tigers and flies’ — senior and lower-level officers accused of graft. This campaign ostensibly served to encourage professionalism, but also targeted officials appointed by Jiang, including former Central Military Commission vice chairmen Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong. Their removal led Xi to selectively eliminate opponents of reform, cementing his personal authority and allowing him to push through controversial restructuring.
Xi used his influence to push through controversial changes that ultimately benefited the PLA’s operational effectiveness. The top-heavy command arrangement modelled on the Soviet military of the 1950s was replaced by a modern structure more like the current US joint command system. A Joint Staff Department oversees five regional theatre commands, each having authority to plan, train for and conduct operations tailored to specific regional missions. The Eastern Theatre Command handles operations against Taiwan, for instance, while the Southern Theatre Command oversees the South China Sea. Signalling a deeper ‘joint’ mentality, more naval and air force officers now occupy senior positions in the theatres.
The creation of two support forces complemented these new arrangements. The Strategic Support Force consolidated PLA capabilities in the space, cyber, electronic warfare and psychological warfare arenas. This development gives the PLA a powerful tool to pursue operations in the information domain. A new Joint Logistic Support Force created a more centralised and efficient structure for logistics support for operational commanders.
There were also a variety of ‘below-the-neck’ changes, including the shift from army and air force divisions to brigades, designed to increase the PLA’s manoeuvrability and interoperability. From 2015–2019, the PLA’s attention turned inwards. Large-scale exercises were postponed as the PLA focused on getting the new system right, and China was cautious in provoking dangerous incidents with its neighbours.
The result was a military better manned, organised and equipped to implement Chinese policy domestically and in the region.
In 2020, Chinese officials designated 2027 — the centennial anniversary of the PLA — as the year in which China will field a ‘fully modern military’.
This involves the introduction of big-ticket items, including additional aircraft carriers and a redesigned long-range bomber. China will also continue to research, develop and incorporate innovative technology into the PLA’s force structure, and to recruit personnel with the know-how to operate them.
All this implies growing confidence operating in the region and even farther afield as the PLA’s ability to project power expands. Whether it includes a shift to armed conflict depends not only on the PLA’s progress in meeting its modernisation goals, but also the ability of the United States and those in the region to keep ahead of the curve through new capabilities and doctrine. It equally depends on the political resolve of leaders on all sides to avoid escalation.
Joel Wuthnow is a Senior Research Fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University, Washington DC.
The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of the NDU, Department of Defense or the US Government.
An extended version of this article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘How China is changing’, Vol. 12, No. 4.