Chinese Army Modernization: An Overview

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THE CHINESE People's Liberation Army (PLA) is in the third decade of a comprehensive program of modernization and transformation that began in 1979 after the PLA's last major campaign against a foreign enemy, its "self-defensive counterattack" against Vietnam. The program continues with renewed vigor into the new century.

Chinese military modernization encompasses all four services with priority of effort directed toward the PLA Navy (PLAN), the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), and the strategic missile force (known as the Second Artillery). (1) The ground army, which previously had been the center of gravity of the Chinese Armed Forces, remains the largest service and still provides the bulk of senior leadership for the military, but it has felt the brunt of force reductions as the PLA's mission emphasis has shifted. U.S. Army personnel who served in the post-Vietnam and post-Gulf War military should be able to appreciate the scope of what the Chinese are attempting and understand the time period required to achieve their goals.

The strategic underpinning for a long-term military modernization process was set in 1985 when China's supreme military command, the Central Military Commission (CMC), headed by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, declared the most likely military contingency China faced to be "local, limited war" (replacing the threat of the "early, major, and nuclear war" foreseen by Mao Tse-tung). (2) Because the threat of major war was deemed low, senior Chinese leaders made the critical strategic decision to subordinate military modernization to other aspects of national economic development, such as agriculture, industry, and science and technology. Thus, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Chinese Government did not spend vast sums of money and national resources to rapidly modernize the PLA. The "bloated" PLA could take its time to reform, focusing first on downsizing its 4-million-plus force.

For the first 10 years of modernization, China perceived its major potential foe to be the Soviet Union. Using force to reunify Taiwan with the mainland was low on the list of China's military priorities. By the mid-1990s, the situation between the mainland and Taiwan had changed considerably. A multiparty democratic form of government was taking hold on the island, and voices for independence had risen. After the 1995-1996 crisis in the Taiwan Strait, China's leaders decided they needed to develop military capabilities more rapidly to prevent what Beijing perceived as further steps toward Taiwanese independence. Although Chinese leaders preferred peaceful reunification of the island with the mainland, they knew Taiwan and its supporters in the United States had to see China's military power as credible. As a result, after 1999 the intensity of the PLA's modernization process increased, focusing principally on the goal of deterring Taiwan's independence and, if necessary, on imposing the will of Chinese leaders by force. Although the Taiwanese scenario became the top planning priority, training for a variety of military missions continued throughout the country and in all PLA units.

The acceleration of PLA modernization after 1999 became possible to a large extent because of the confluence of a more specifically defined mission, the availability of increased resources, a smaller force, and 20 years of previous effort that had laid the groundwork for what was to follow. In particular, many advances in the PLA since 1999 have taken advantage of the Nation's impressive economic growth during the 1990s, especially developments in the Chinese electronics industry. The end of the Soviet threat, along with the availability of advanced military weapons from a cash-strapped Russian Government, also contributed to changes in China's strategic posture in the late 1990s. Still, despite some marked improvements in China's military capabilities, the effectiveness of PLA modernization has yet to be proven in battle against a hostile force. …