The Power of the PLA

By Dreyer, June Teufel | The World and I, October 1998 | Go to article overview

The Power of the PLA


Dreyer, June Teufel, The World and I


China's military has used its formidable resources to threaten Taiwan, buy nuclear weaponry, and expand a commercial empire.

In July 1998, China became the world's tenth-largest trading nation, a meteoric rise from insignificance two decades before. Since 1996, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has supplanted Japan as the source of America's largest trade deficit; China also sells more to the European Union and most of its Asian neighbors, including Japan, than it buys.

Since 1989, this rising economic prosperity has been accompanied by double-digit increases in the size of the PRC's defense budget. What this means is a matter of debate. Beijing defends its military budgets by saying that they have barely kept pace with the country's inflation rate. This would be more plausible if the actual defense budget were the same as the official defense budget.

How large is the military budget

No foreign analysts of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) believe this to be so; they differ only on the size of the discrepancy between actual and published budgets. Some estimate the variance as tenfold; most say the real figures are three to four times greater. In any case, this would not account for the 1998 defense budget, a 12.8 percent increase that was announced as the Chinese economy was in deflation. Even a massive stimulus package was not expected to yield an inflation rate above 3 percent.

An increasingly assertive international attitude became noticeable as well. In 1992, for example, the PRC'S National People's Congress unilaterally declared China's sovereignty over territories--including Taiwan and the islands of the Diaoyu/ Senkaku, Penghu, Dongsha, Xisha (Paracel), and Nansha (Spratly) groups--it disputed with at least a half-dozen neighbors. The law furthermore claimed that the Chinese military (PLA) had the right to "take all necessary measures to prevent and stop the harmful passage of vessels through its territorial waters."

Since the waters surrounding these islands are busy shipping lanes, these actions aroused considerable international apprehension. After quiet pressure from one of its major investors, Japan, with whom the PRC disputes sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, Beijing softened its public stand. But the law has never been rescinded.

In the early 1990s, China began to procure advanced weaponry from the former Soviet Union. Its purchase of such high-profile weapons as Sukhoi-27 fighter planes, Ilyushin-76 transport planes, Kilo-class submarines with advanced radar systems, and Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyers equipped with Sunburn SS-N-22 cruise missiles received press attention around the world. Less publicized but also important is the help China has received from Israel in its weapons development. According to statistics compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the PRC was the world's third-largest arms importer in 1997.

Importing and exporting arms

China is not only a major importer of arms but a major exporter as well. Many exports have been to "rogue states," countries that are either politically and culturally unstable or possess considerable potential to disrupt the stability of their regions. Chided by the United States, Beijing points out that America is the world's leading arms exporter and that, as a sovereign state, the PRC has the right to sell arms wherever it deems appropriate.

China has been reluctant to participate in arms forums, feeling that its voice will be overwhelmed by a clique of wealthy industrialized states that believe they can arrogantly dictate to developing areas. It has also objected to being asked to abide by rules, such as those governing the sale of missiles, which China had no part in formulating.

A leading cause of concern is the PRC's nuclear exports to Pakistan and Iran. The tension escalated in May 1998, when India detonated a series of nuclear explosions. …

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