Evolving Chinese Military Capabilities: The PLA as Part of the Chinese Approach to Globalization


2013-04-14 The Chinese military or the PLA is often looked at as the odd man out of Chinese decision-making.

But a recent Japanese study of Chinese decision-making suggests that the PLA is a key player in shaping evolving Chinese thinking and approaches to global reach.

In effect, the PLA is a key player in both shaping and participating in the next phase of the Chinese approach to globalization.

We had a chance to discuss with a leading expert on the Chinese military the nature of the evolution of Chinese military exports and their potential global role.

Rick Fisher, with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, has worked for many years on the analysis of PRC military trends, and we have posted a summary briefing of his look at recent trends as a baseline for this discussion as well as the accompanying piece on the PRC military.

We have gone through a series of Fisher’s briefings and are providing for our readers, a condensed version of Fisher’s assessment of trends and capabilities.

It was clear from his analyses in the briefings that Fisher highlighted the building out of Chinese military power to solidify regional reach in the decade ahead and based on such a foundation would seek to expand that reach in the decade after.

SLD: What kinds of capabilities are the Chinese building to shape greater regional reach?

Fisher:  Through the end of this decade their goal is to modernize toward what we would call a fourth and fifth generation level of military capability aimed at ensuring Taiwan does not become independent.  These capabilities are also designed to ensure that the American alliances with Korea, Japan and Australia continue to wobble so that China becomes viewed increasingly as the dominant power in that region from the 2020s onward.

Simultaneously, the PLA will use its growing regional power base to develop global military projection capabilities .  

SLD: The regional build out is clearly not based on a silver bullet technology, but investing in and developing a range of technologies and then sorting out later how best to use them, which to prioritize and how to integrate them.  For now, much of this appears to be a policy of military technology Topsey approach, with the clear message that capability is growing and emerging.

Fisher: Agreed, their regional build out phase will lay the basis for global military reach.  A key case in point is their investment in space.  Their space investments and capabilities are designed to be dual use and to contribute to military-space capabilities to enable dominance of the Earth-Moon system.  Some Chinese sources suggest that dual use missions will start with the Change-3 Moon lander scheduled for later this year.  We can expect China’s first manned Moon mission in the mid-2020s and a Moon base that could follow by 2050 also to stress military missions.

It must be remembered that everything which enters low earth orbit or beyond is controlled by the PLA. The intention and focus is quite clear.

The Chinese competition with the United States is heating up in the Pacific. The Chinese approach to competition with the United States really is based on the game of go, where presence and eroding the adversary’s strength is the objective, not blowing them up. Credit Image: Bigstock 

SLD: In contrast, the West has prioritized commercial space and greater leveraging of commercial space.  For example, the Administration is focused on using Space-X to provide space transportation, rather than the government to certain space destinations.  This is fine, as long as one keeps in mind the military agenda in space is a significant and growing one for the multi-polar space competition.

Fisher: The danger is that China might have the ability then to control the space between the moon and the earth, which is truly fundamental to the American way of war, of operating in support of our global forces.

In addition, the Chinese invest a great deal of effort in trying to convince us that none of this has military implications.  But every single bit of it does.

SLD: What was the meaning of the Chinese ASAT test?

Fisher: It was a demonstration to their people and to us of a brute capability.  And the American response, leveraging Aegis to demonstrate a more targeted capability, has been a one-off.  There has been no follow through, and certainly no response to a significant Chinese space effort to populate low and higher level orbits with new military space systems.

SLD: The Chinese are already participating in some global operations and demonstrating some initial capability to operate further from their own shores, whether in peacekeeping missions or counter-piracy missions.

Fisher: They are and are building new platforms to support global reach and they are even offering such platforms for sale. For example, the LPD that was launched at the end of 2006 was marketed to Malaysia in the middle of 2006.  China’s first LHD design is being offered today to Turkey in a competition for Turkey’s first LHD.  The Chinese LHD might turn out to be twice as big, that’s at least what some Chinese sources say.  But if they build an LHD for Turkey, then that’s where the first one will go.

Their new C-17 class airlifter will soon be offered for sale.  And they could develop an indigenous turbo fan for that aircraft  quickly to be able to be able to offer it as a Chinese system.

SLD: We will ask a final question.  In your research on the evolution of Chinese technologies and military systems, which are you most concerned might emerge as game changing technologies?

Fisher:  My top two candidates are high energy systems and global detection systems.  The Chinese could surprise us with an early deployment of effective energy weapons.  And secondly, they could rollout a strategic anti-submarine warfare capabilities to include space, air, surface surveillance systems.

For a book-length study by Fisher on Chinese military modernization see the following:



For our look at how to analyze the Chinese military puzzle, please see the following brief: