China as a Military Power

By Montaperto, Ron | Strategic Forum, December 1995 | Go to article overview

China as a Military Power

Montaperto, Ron, Strategic Forum


The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) is a force of slowly improving, but still limited capabilities. Doctrinal and financial deficiencies will delay the PLA's ability to conduct sustained force projection for at least a decade.

PLA leaders have been forced to pursue selective modernization. Specific improvements in naval, air, and ground force capabilities will enable the PLA to maintain the credibility of Chinese claims in the South China Sea and influence the decisions of Taiwan's leaders.

But the PLA cannot seize and hold territories in the South China Sea. If China were to unch a war of attrition against Taiwan, China could eventually prevail, at a very high cost. A blockade might enable China to gain a political settlement on its terms. However, either action could fail if Taiwan were to receive significant external assistance.

Economic development imperatives will motivate civilian and military leaders to avoid conflict unless China's sovereignty is directly challenged.

Substantive relations between the U.S. military and the PLA are essential. PLA leaders need to make critical professional, technical, and political decisions about the future. It is important that the United States engage the PLA while it is possible to affect outcomes.

Military Modernization and Regional Uncertainties

Among the many uncertainties of the Asian security environment, none is more compelling than that surrounding the modernization program of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. For some observers, the combination of economic growth and force improvement signals Beijing's intention to establish regional hegemony.

Others acknowledge that the PLA can "spoil" United States' interests. But, citing the selective nature of PLA force improvements, Beijing's interest in regional stability, and the growing conventional capabilities of other regional powers, they tend to discount a PLA military threat. Chinese secrecy compounds the difficulty.

China has greater military power today than it did a decade ago. If Beijing were willing to pay the price, the PLA could wreak great damage. However, in assessing China's future threat potential, it is essential to consider the economic, political, and strategic constraints on PLA modernization. Such considerations suggest that the PLA is years away from achieving the capability to project military force in a sustained manner.

Strategic Intentions:

National Objectives and National Strategy

PLA officers enthusiastically support the defining objective of Beijing's national strategy, which is to see China assume the status of a great power. Nationalism and the weight of the past are important factors. A strong China will never again be subject to the humiliations of the past.

China's leaders believe that the key to great power status is to build a world-class economy and military. This requires maintaining a stable external environment to support high levels of economic growth. Conflict is to be avoided. Obvious exceptions involve sovereignty issues such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, or the South China Sea.

PLA leaders actively support China's present economic policies. Military leaders feel that, in addition to serving national strategic objectives, the policies provide the best means of acquiring the capabilities required in high-technology warfare. Reconstituting the PLA into a modern military force has been the goal of the military modernization program the PLA has pursued since the early 1980s. Lack of information about the military modernization program, in turn, is also the source of much of the uncertainty about China's future intentions.

Uncertain Progress

During the last decade, the military reduced its numbers by more than one million, introduced ranks, reformed education and training systems, implemented a reserve system, began to modernize its doctrine, and entered upon a modest program of weapons and equipment modernization. …

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