Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Modernizing China's Military: A High-Stakes Gamble?

Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Modernizing China's Military: A High-Stakes Gamble?

Article excerpt

Key Points

China is committed to modernizing almost every aspect of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). But military modernization may be more of a high-stakes gamble than Beijing realizes. Politics and professionalism may not mix well.

No matter how carefully crafted, modernization inevitably will alter the PLA sense of identity and change its relationship over time with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Modernization may foment friction between military and civilian authorities competing for political primacy and limited resources or create within the PLA divisive social issues similar to those dogging Chinese civil society generally.

The CCP struggle to define its future in a changing society makes the problem more complex. The PLA could become a truly national army, unwilling to be a tool for enforcing party dicta or policing internal security. Or PLA factions could end up vying for power. The resulting instability, if not outright anarchy, could threaten all of Asia.

The final nature of an empowered, modernized PLA is anyone's guess. In one worst-case scenario, the PLA is an aggressive, nationalistic entity fueled by radical Chinese militarism. In a positive scenario, a more professional PLA with enhanced capability and self-confidence might become a safer, less insular military that is cognizant of the need for disciplined action and measured responses, bound by well-understood rules of engagement and, overall, a more potent force for preserving regional stability.

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China's accelerated push to modernize the People's Liberation Army (PLA) raises two important questions: What impact will such change have upon the PLA image, status, and role in Chinese society? And how will Chinese military modernization affect the strategic interests and security concerns of the United States and China's neighbors in the region?

Making the PLA into a more professional, technologically proficient force would certainly strengthen its capability to perform national defense, regional security, and other externally oriented missions more effectively. But modernization could also significantly change internal PLA demographics, resulting in a drastic alteration of the social contract that has traditionally existed between China's military and civilian society.

The aftereffects of major changes in the historic social contract remain a large and potentially dangerous unknown. Conceivably, substantive change could create conditions leading to political competition between civilian and military authorities or wrangling over limited resources. It might promote within the PLA itself a rise in divisive issues similar to those now plaguing Chinese society in general as a result of two decades of uneven economic reform: intensified urban-rural distinctions, rifts between haves and have-nots, and increasing divisions between the educated and uneducated, the privileged and unprivileged.

For the PLA parent entity, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), modernization represents a double-edged sword. It promises the party a more effective mechanism for maintaining domestic primacy and enhancing international prestige. Conversely, the modernization process could equally well create a military increasingly unwilling to be seen as a tool for enforcing party dicta or policing internal security--in effect, working against party interests. The PLA could evolve into a national military with loyalties to the state as a whole rather than to one specific political element within the state (the CCP), as is the case today. Or the PLA itself could even develop into a distinct political element, brokering power and seeking organizational advantage at other political entities' expense.

Changes wrought through PLA attempts to carry out a revolution in military affairs have potentially far-reaching implications for the Asia-Pacific region and especially for U.S. security interests. …

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