China’s military modernization matures – Analysis – Eurasia Review


In November, the US Congress received its annual report of the Ministry of Defense describing military and security developments in China in accordance with the 2000 National Defense Authorization Act 2000. The report mainly focuses on the technological aspects of the ongoing expansion and modernization of the People’s Army liberation, although areas of engagement and cooperation are also highlighted. However, such examples are rare in this most recent iteration, which broadly paints the picture of a military balance that is rapidly evolving towards parity between the two world powers.


Strategy and foreign policy

The report does not pull any punches in describing China’s long-term goals and foreign policy. Beijing’s goals are openly called “revisionist” as they seek to overthrow the current rules-based international order under the pretext of enacting “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. Interestingly, and unlike previous reports, the 2021 iteration notes that China views the international system not only as a competition between powerful nation-states, but also as opposing ideological systems.

One section of the report is devoted to China’s Military-Civil Fusion Development Strategy, which is a broad plan to ensure that the social and economic spheres also serve the goal of national rejuvenation. More specifically, this strategy consists of: 1) merging the defense industrial complex with the civilian industrial base; 2) integrate technological developments in military-civilian fields; 3) cultivate talents between the two fields; 4) take advantage of civilian construction for military purposes; 5) take advantage of civilian logistics for military purposes; and 6) expand the national defense mobilization system.

In terms of defense strategy, China pursues a concept of “active defense” and seeks to create a “world-class” army by 2049. Active defense, as defined by the CCP and the PLA, is something little paradoxical insofar as it can involve pre- preventive attacks if they are ultimately judged in the interest of China; the ‘defense’ aspect is the preference to avoid conflict whenever possible. Overall, efforts to modernize and plan the armed forces remain squarely focused on area denial along the periphery of China, which seeks to repel a “powerful enemy”, presumably the United States, in the event of conflict over Taiwan.

PLA military bases abroad

In an effort to expand its global power projection capabilities, Beijing is seeking new military bases in Asia and beyond, in addition to its pre-existing facilities in Djibouti. Such bases would support a variety of capabilities, including the projection of naval, air, land, cybernetic and space power. Some countries cited as possible locations include Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan.

PRC’s influence operations

A section of the report is devoted to the PRC’s influence operations, which “target cultural institutions, media organizations, business, academia and politics in the United States, other countries and international institutions, to obtain results favorable to [China’s] strategic targets.’ Such operations are predominantly aimed at massaging public opinion in a way that synergizes with Beijing’s favorite narratives, and is arguably facilitated by the open nature of democracies. The report also notes the long-held concept of the PLA’s “three wars”, comprising psychological warfare, public opinion warfare and legal warfare.

Developments of the PLA army

The report notes that the PLA has accelerated its training and commissioning of new equipment until 2020, despite the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The main developments include:

  • Commissioning of the self-propelled PCL-171 120 mm and PCL-181 155 155 mm howitzers, as well as field testing of the Z-8L heavy transport helicopter.
  • Organize in-depth joint training exercises until 2020, mainly focused on improving the realism of the training conditions.
  • Tanks lag behind in terms of military modernization; about 40% of the PLA army’s tanks are between 20 and 40 years old. Infantry brigades also still use obsolete equipment.

PLA Navy Developments

The PLA Navy continues to feature prominently in China’s overall military modernization. This is due to the importance of the PLA navy in two of China’s territorial disputes – in the East China Sea and the South China Sea – and its central role in the event of a hypothetical clash with United States.

The main developments include:

  • Unlike the PLA army, 2020 saw the PLA navy equip itself with largely modern multi-purpose platforms.
  • The PLA Navy now numbers 355 ships and submarines, of which 145 are major surface combatants. Plans are currently in place to achieve a force structure of 460 ships by 2030, with the growth mainly coming from major new surface fighters. The United States, for comparison, will deploy 305 ships by the end of 2021, and waits increase the size of its fleet to 355 by 2049.
  • The PRC commissioned its first nationally-built aircraft carrier at the end of 2019 and its first Renhai-class cruiser in early 2020. A second nation-built aircraft carrier is expected to follow in 2024. When deployed, the Renhai-class (Type 055) bolster China’s anti-aircraft and anti-ship capabilities on the periphery; four of these ships are expected to be deployed by the end of the 2020s.
  • The PLA Navy deployed its second Yushen-class amphibious assault ship (Type 075 LHA) in 2020, and a third is currently under construction. While these ships do not tip the balance of power in a Taiwan-related conflict per se, they would hypothetically be used to transport large amounts of PLA troops to occupy the island.
  • The PLA Navy appears to be on the cusp of being able to launch long-range cruise missiles from submarines and surface fighters, improving long-range power projection capabilities.
  • Anti-submarine warfare has been identified as a short-term priority in order to improve the protection of aircraft carriers and submarines launching ballistic missiles.
  • The submarines have also been a priority for modernization; the PLA navy now operates six nuclear powered missile submarines, six nuclear powered attack submarines and 45 diesel powered attack submarines. The plan is to maintain 65-70 submarines until 2020. By comparison, the US Navy currently operates 68 submarines.

PLA Air Force Developments

Together, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the aviation wing of the PLA Navy constitute the largest air force in the Indo-Pacific region. The PLAAF specifically modernized and expanded in such a way that it is now considered a formidable counterpart to the Western Air Force.

The main developments include:

  • The PRC has unveiled an airborne element of its nuclear deterrent in the form of the H-6N bomber, a long-range aircraft with nuclear capability and capable of receiving in-flight refueling.
  • The PLAAF and PLA Navy now have a combined total of 2,800 aircraft (not including UAVs), of which 2,250 are combat aircraft.
  • The report notes that the PLAAF modernization program “is gradually eroding the long-standing and significant US military technical advantages vis-à-vis the PRC in the air sector.”
  • PLAAF’s UAV program quickly expanded, and the 2018 Zhuhai Air Show revealed a wide variety of new offensive and surveillance platforms.
  • PLAAF now has one of the largest long-range SAM systems in the world, consisting of Russian S-300 battalions and domestically produced HQ-9s. Recently, the Air Force acquired a new S-400 system from Russia.

PLA Rocket Force developments

The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) is the wing responsible for the nuclear and conventional conventional missile forces of the PRC. It has long been a priority in modernization programs because of the importance of a first ballistic missile fire in the event of a hypothetical attack on Taiwan.

The main developments include:

  • PLARF’s inventory of DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles continues to grow. The platform is capable of conventional and nuclear strikes on land and sea targets at ranges of up to 5,000 km.
  • New ICBMs are being tested that will quantitatively and qualitatively improve China’s nuclear deterrence. Three new ICBM silo fields are currently under construction, and the number of land-based ICBMs that could strike the United States is expected to reach 200 over the next five years.

This article was published by Monitor


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