Perspectives on China’s Evolving Military: Part 2


SLD Coverage of Jamestown’s PLA Conference (Part 2)

by Richard Weitz

The conference’s second panel reviewed trends in China’s conventional force modernization. Moderator  RADM Michael McDevitt, USN (Ret.), a Senior Fellow at the CNA Corporation and former head of their China program, said that how the PLA had gone about its modernization since 1979 testified that it had become a “learning organizing.” McDevitt observed that, when reviewing the major PLA modernization effort during the past two decades, he was impressed how systematically China has been in building up its capabilities, first developing new concepts and doctrines, and then testing and experimenting with them. But McDevitt noted that the PLA has yet to test many of its capabilities in new operations.

Dennis Blasko, Former Army Attaché in Beijing from 1992-1995 and in Hong Kong from 1995-1996, spoke about “PLA Self-Assessments and the Direction of Modernization.” He spent some time explaining how the PLA and other Chinese leaders use terms, stressing that their meaning differs from what might be understood on the West. More generally, Blasko argued that how PLA members view themselves differs from what is often described outside China.

The Chinese military is evolving from a land-based force to a regional and global force. The trend is clear, the full up capabilities are in development. Credit Image: Bigstorck

For example, when the PLA uses the term, “Army Building,” this concept refers to long-term modernization program, which includes force structure, personnel development, and the writing of new concepts and doctrine. The PLA leadership sees this process as beginning three decades ago and lasting for several more decades, out to at least 2049. Sometimes this process is also referred to as the “Revolution in Military Affairs with Chinese Characteristics,” which typically involves the two processes of “mechanization” (using more sophisticated hardware) and “Informization” (increased use of information technologies for military purposes).

In contrast, “Preparation for Military struggle” refers to what Western militaries call short-term operational or combat readiness, which entails, for example, training with new equipment. According to Blasko, Chinese writers often note the reluctance and even fear of PLA units to adopt new equipment that requires them to abandon truied and tested ways of doing things and adopt new tactics, techniques, and procedures. So when Chinese leaders call on their forces to “prepare for military struggle,” they want the PLA units to improve their combat readiness, not prepare for an imminent war, as was recently misunderstood in some Western publications.

Blasko reviewed the various “Historic Missions” and “Diversified Tasks” of the PLA. The most important of these was to maintain the PRC’s rule. The PLA still refers to itself as a party army. Other tasks include deterrence, warfighting, and newer non-security missions, which is what the United States used to call military operations other than war. It also emphasizes “active defense” but does not mention a “String of Pearl” strategy, which was a term coined in the United States to describe China’s policies of acquiring military assets in the Indian Ocean region.

The PLA also uses the term “System of System Operational Capabilities” to describe joint operations. PLA leaders describe this effort as at an experimental and training stage. The PLA is still learning how to do the command and control for joint operations. When the PLA say they are engaged in “joint” operations, they can often simply refer to when, for example, their three navy fleets operate together, which they are just beginning to do. Thsi is not what Western analysts mean when they refer to joint operations at a deeply integrated level among multiple services. Another example would be when the Navy sends a ship and the Chinese air force tries to attack it, what we would call “oppositional force exercises.” Another misuse of the term is for when the PLA Air Force or PLA Navy moves the army with some air or maritime protection. This is not like when the U.S. Army has forward air controllers able to call in air support.

Blasko relates how the PRC authorities speak about “incompatibities” between the PLA’s goals and its capabilities. They acknowledge that the PLA is still not ready to do all the historic missions that the leadership lays before it and certainly cannot conduct effective large joint operations in combat situations yet. These assessments are in the Chinese language and do not appear in the government’s published White Papers, so they are not for foreign consumption and likely designed to get PLA people to make efforts to do better.

According to Blasko, the PLA leadership assesses that they are two to three decades behind the United States. PLA analysts understands that it is a lot more than “shiny new equipment” that makes an effective force. They have not engaged in large-scale combat operations since the war with Vietnam in 1979. Chinese military writings often describe aspirations rather than already existing capabilities. For instance, a PLA colonel might note the U.S. dependence on space and cyber support and propose that the PLA must attack these vulnerabilities, but the PLA would still need to develop the capabilities to do so.

Bernard “Bud” Cole, Professor of International History at the U.S. National War College, discussed “China’s Evolving Naval Strategy.” Cole described other inconsistencies betwen PLA aspirations and capabilities. He also noted evidence of vicious budget battles among PLA Navy leaders, and argued that they resembled those you might find in foreign militaries. In his view, Chinese government statements confirm that the PRC political leadership supports the PLA Navy in principle, but has not clearly committed to providing the expensive resources China would need to have a blue-water navy capacity.

Cole said that the fact that the PLA had only built two replenishment ships during the past decade (in 2005) shows that China has not decided yet to seek a “blue-water” navy. Rather, the PLA Navy still seems focused on winning a war regarding Taiwan (hence their focus on acquiring conventionally powered submarines) and on protecting the PRC’s large coast and its many coastal islands. If they started building such replenishment ships, then Cold believed this would provide a good indication that the PLA Navy was seeking a genuine blue-water capacity. Cole thought such a transformation might occur if the Taiwan situation were ever resolved satisfactorily for Beijing, which he said, without explanation, might occur soon.

Until then, the PLA Navy has focused on improving its maintenance and training to avoid accidents and make better use of its new equipment. These new systems include both indigenously produced weapons as well as imported systems from Russia, which has declined in recent years and now consists mostly of engines and other key parts. China also purchased some advanced engines from Germany and other foreign suppliers. Cold also found evidence that the PLA has evinced growing interest in military operations other than war, such as humanitarian operations.

Cole believes that the PLA Navy has not (yet?) developed an explicit maritime strategy. He notes that no foreign or PLA analyst has identified a document that might serve that purpose. He argues that even Singapore has a more developed maritime strategy. Instead, the PLA Navy just has strong mission statements. Cold downplayed the famous “Three Islands Chains” strategy as designed for internal lobbying—seeking to secure more resources for the PLA Navy—rather than as a clear strategic objective. PLA Navy strategists now speak more sincerely about being able to control the three seas surrounding the PRC: the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Yellow Sea. And often it is the PRC Coast Guard, the fisheries patrol, etc., rather than PLA Navy that enforces China’s daily maritime claims in these areas.

Kenneth Allen, a Senior Research Analyst at the DGI’s Center for Intelligence Research, spoke on “The PLA Air Force Foreign Relations Program: Implications for Modernization.”

Much of Allen’s presentation focused on how little the PLA Air Force participates in the PLA’s major campaign to develop contacts with foreign militaries. PLA Air Force officers occupy few foreign attaché billets, while only few foreign militaries have established their own Air Force attaches in Beijing, a sign that foreign military establishments consider that means not especially useful for engaging with the PLA. The PLA Air Force also participates in few functional exchanges or leadership visits.

According to Allen, the PLA Air Force is clearly uninterested in promoting transparency with the U.S. Air Force. The last time the PLA Air Force Commander came to the United States was in 1995, and his trip was cut short after the Clinton administration allowed the President of Taiwan to visit the United States. A trip was planned for 2008, but did not occur due to the major earthquake in China. PLA officers cite “Three Obstacles” to their developing closing military ties with the United States: U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, Congressional restrictions on bilateral military exchanges, and the recurring U.S. military exercises along China’s coast.

In terms of capabilities, Allen argued that the PLA Air Force suffers from major logistical constraints. It lacks strategic airlift and has had to divert Il-76 long-distance transport and refueling planes originally purchased for use by the PLA airborne forces to now support the Air Force. These planes have now flown to Libya and other distant locations.

Still, the PLA Air Force engages in only a few combined exercises with even nearby foreign air forces, including those of Pakistan, Central Asia, and Turkey (in 2010). Allen finds it hard to obtain information on these exercises in the Chinese press. These drills seem designed to help the PLA Air Force improve its limited logistics capabilities.

According to Allen, the PLA Air Force also suffers from other problems. These include inadequate maintenance for some overused planes (and pilots) as well as inferior Chinese-made engines (so the PLA must acquire its highest-performing airplane engines from foreign countries such as Russia).

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