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Modernizing China's Military Progress, Problems, and Prospects

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1   Introduction


In early February 1991, China's High Command was stunned to realize just how far behind modern militaries the People's Liberation Army had fallen. The opening days of the Gulf War convinced PLA analysts that they were witnessing a revolution in military affairs (RMA). American stealth bombers penetrated Iraqi airspace undetected to strike their targets in Baghdad and elsewhere with impunity, while the allied naval armada sat comfortably offshore in the Persian Gulf, well outside the range of Iraqi defenses, launching wave after wave of air strikes and cruise missile attacks. The surgical bombing substantially degraded Iraqi air defenses, while electromagnetic warfare attacks blinded command and control networks. Allied information warfare experts spread viruses into Iraqi computers, scrambling software programs and causing confusion.

With its intelligence eyes and ears incapacitated and its air defenses knocked out, Iraq had no effective defenses against carrier-based air strikes or the saturation bombing of the elite Republican Guards by B-52 and B-1 bombers (which flew round-the-clock missions). Once the allied ground invasion began, Iraqi tanks (ironically, many of them of Chinese origin) became easy fodder for the far more advanced allied tanks, which could target them with laser rangefinders and used night vision equipment to illuminate the desert battlefield. In the infantry offensive that followed, allied units (which were linked to each other by means of global positioning systems, or GPS) quickly decimated Iraqi ground forces. Finally, when Saddam Hussein was forced to play his trump card—Scud missiles potentially armed with biological and chemical weapons—American antimissile defenses were able to intercept many of them in flight after calculating trajectory and targeting coordinates and relaying them to Patriot missile battery commanders via satellite within minutes of the Scud launches.

The Gulf War, with its awesome display of firepower, stealth, electronics, computers, and satellites, revealed that warfare had made a quantum leap into a new era. It was a profound shock to the PLA, but it was not the first time that the Chinese brass had been forced to acknowledge their military shortcomings. Twelve years earlier, during China's punitive attack on Vietnam, the PLA found it difficult to carry out a modest cross-border incursion to subdue a few small cities and suffered enormous casualties against smaller, albeit experienced, opposition.1 The Chinese army had proven incapable of carrying out a coordinated ground assault from three directions. Command and communications were disjointed, and Chinese forces fell victim to their own "friendly fire." Nor did the PLA bring any air power to bear on their adversaries. As a result, battle-hardened Vietnamese troops were the ones who "taught lessons" to the PLA.2

The weaponry that the allied forces threw at Iraq, which was generations ahead of what China had encountered on the Vietnam border in 1979, forced China's generals to the harsh realizations that a new, high-technology era of warfare had dawned and that the Chinese military was unprepared to deal with it. The shock of the Gulf War was all the more traumatic because, since the Vietnam fiasco, China's military had begun a fairly comprehensive modernization and reform program. Deng Xiaoping, who chaired the Central Military Commission, Marshall Ye Jianying, and General Yang Shangkun all harshly criticized the PLA's bloated size, disorganization, political factionalism, lax discipline, and combat ineffectiveness.3 Deng, Ye, Yang, and others accordingly set in motion a series of initiatives intended to truly "modernize" the military (although military modernization came distinctly last in the "Four Modernizations"). Throughout the 1980s, the PLA was restructured to prepare, first, for "people's war under modern conditions," and then for "limited war." The changes reconfigured ground forces, consolidated military regions, began combined arms and joint service exercises, undertook a new recruitment drive along with the demobilization of redundant and incompetent personnel, and pursued new weapons procurement programs. The PLA had been implementing reforms for more than a decade when the Gulf War starkly demonstrated that it was still operating in terms of a bygone era of warfare.


The Catalysts for Reform

The Gulf War stimulated deep introspection and analysis in the PLA about the nature of contemporary warfare and the reforms necessary to ready the Chinese armed forces to wage it. In the wake of the Gulf War, PLA strategy was revised to focus on "limited wars under high-technology conditions." Evidence of new defense policy and doctrinal initiatives, structural changes, altered training regimen, new weapons procurement programs, and other changes became noticeable during 1995-96. These reforms had some continuity with previous programs and reforms undertaken in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but others were entirely new and could be traced to the lessons learned from the Gulf War.

Then, in March 1996, another event jarred the PLA, provoking further reflection, rethinking, and readjustment. The PLA's strategic rocket forces, the Second Artillery, began to practice coercive "missile diplomacy" in the Taiwan Strait—firing M-9 missiles within miles of the entrances to Kaohsiung and Chi'lung harbors—and the United States dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups, centered on the USS Independence and Nimitz, to the vicinity.4 With their deployment, the powerful American task forces displayed the greatest show of strength directed at China since the Sino-American rapprochement of 1971. From positions in the waters east and north of Taiwan, the small armada flew combat exercises and monitored the PLA's own live-fire "exercises" in the Strait. Washington, Beijing, and Taipei all drew different lessons from the U.S. deployment, but for the PLA it meant only one thing: to expect American military involvement should the PLA use force against Taiwan. PLA leaders had long wondered whether they would have to confront the vaunted U.S. military in a Taiwan crisis—now they could assume so.

The 1996 "Taiwan Crisis" added new urgency to China's military modernization and reform program, focusing some of the lessons of the Gulf War. But it also diverted broader efforts to create a more comprehensive force structure and a balanced military modernization program. Since then many elements of PLA planning, training, and procurement have become contingency-driven, dominated by the specter of a military conflict with the United States over Taiwan. Exercises, force deployments, and weapons procurement (particularly from Russia) are preparing the PLA for such a conflict. Hard allocation choices channeled resources into services, programs, and weapons thought necessary to fight not only Taiwan's military but the United States as well.

Resources that might have contributed to a broad-based and systematic military modernization have instead gone into the purchase of expensive Sovremmeny-class destroyers from Russia, built principally to counter Aegis-equipped destroyers and cruisers (which escort aircraft carriers) and the on-board defenses of American carriers, as well into the procurement of Su-27 and Su-30 fighters, Kilo-class submarines, and other equipment intended to plug critical gaps in PLA capabilities against Taiwanese and U.S. forces. China pursued the acquisition of Israel's Phalcon airborne early-warning and control systems—a sale aborted by the Israeli government in July 2000 under considerable pressure from Washington—as a key to controlling the skies in the Taiwan theater. (Chinese pilots currently only have ground control links and no aerial multiple-tracking capability). PLA marines and ground forces practice beach assaults and amphibious landings in mock invasions of Taiwan or the offshore islands and increasingly train with air and naval units in joint-force exercises. Knowing that Taiwan currently has no effective defenses against short-range ballistic missiles, the PLA is embarked on a major and rapid buildup of these weapons opposite the island (approximately 300 by 2000 and increasing by about 50 per year). Also, the steady program to modernize and deploy more nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles is in large part driven by the need to have a bona fide second-strike minimum deterrent against the United States.

Just as the PLA was adapting to the new military challenges posed by the Taiwan situation, the third rude shock of the 1990s struck: the Kosovo crisis and NATO's war against Serbia in 1999. This time the jarring effect on the PLA was both political and military.

On the political level, Beijing perceived NATO's actions as illustrating a new propensity on the part of the United States (which China's media always dubbed "U.S.-led NATO") to intervene in regional conflicts, under the pretext of "humanitarian intervention," for the purpose of extending and consolidating American global "hegemony" and domination. During and after the war, the Chinese media (including the military media) unleashed a barrage of invective against the United States unequaled since the Cultural Revolution and the Vietnam War. NATO and American actions forced Chinese analysts to question the core assumptions about international relations and the global strategic landscape that had guided their worldview since the late Deng Xiaoping's 1985 pronouncement, that the threat of war was on the decline, that the global system of power relations was inexorably moving toward multipolarity, and that all countries sought "peace and development."5 Instead of sinking into relative, if not absolute, decline, as Chinese analysts had predicted just a few years earlier, the unrivaled strength and unipolar power of the United States now seemed to be growing significantly. Furthermore, contrary to the touted thesis of "peace and development," regional conflicts, and the American propensity to intervene in them, were seen as increasing. Moreover, American military deployment around the world remained at high, even expanded, levels. Although Chinese strategic theology predicted, and the Chinese government had officially called for, the abrogation of alliances and withdrawal of forces from foreign soil, Washington had in fact strengthened and broadened its network of global alliances in the aftermath of the Cold War.

Thus the U.S. role in the Balkan war had a profoundly disturbing and dissonant effect on Chinese military and strategic thinkers as well as on national leaders. When the NATO intervention was considered in the context of the 1991 Gulf War and 1996 Taiwan crisis, China perceived itself to be facing a United States bent on global dominance and the permanent separation of Taiwan from China. The possibility of U.S. intervention in China's ethnic troubles in Xinjiang and Tibet as a result of the "Clinton Doctrine" of humanitarian intervention added to Beijing's sense of urgency.6

On a military level, too, the Yugoslav campaign jolted PLA analysts, who paid close attention to how NATO prosecuted the war. They set up two 24-hour centers to monitor the military dimensions of the conflict—one in the General Staff Department's intelligence "Watch Center" and the other at the Academy of Military Sciences.7 They witnessed tactics, technology, and weaponry similar to those used in the Gulf War eight years earlier, but they also observed a number of new features. Information and electronic warfare appeared to play a more important role in disabling enemy command infrastructure and defenses. Cruise missiles had improved accuracy. NATO suppressed Serbian air defenses in the early stages of the conflict and gained complete command of the skies; aerial bombardment was significantly more intense (in operational tempo, if not in tonnage of ordnance). With the use of in-flight refueling, bombing raids using the newly deployed B-2 strategic bomber were initiated half a world away instead of within theater. One such bombing raid tragically and mistakenly targeted the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. The bombs themselves were equipped with new satellite and laser guidance systems. Perhaps most important, PLA analysts watched a war prosecuted from great distances—where the Serbs could not see, hear, or reach their attackers. With all of the high-tech weaponry deployed, not a single allied soldier was lost to hostile fire.

The 2001-2 U.S. military campaign against the Taliban regime and al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan was also carefully studied by PLA analysts, although the lessons derived remain unclear at this time. As in the case of the war against the Serbs in Bosnia, PLA analysts were alarmed on both the political and military levels.

Politically, they were quite uncomfortable with the prospect of U.S. and allied military forces deployed in Pakistan and particularly in Central Asian countries on China's northwestern periphery. The prospect of a long-term American military presence in the Central Asian republics is particularly unsettling to Chinese national security planners, as it represents (in their somewhat paranoid view) a major new step in what is perceived as an American strategy of encircling China. From this perspective, only the direct northern frontier, where China borders Russia, is free from a U.S. military presence.

At the outset of the Afghanistan conflict in October 2001, PLA officers at the PLA National Defense University in Beijing warned, mistakenly, that like the British in the nineteenth century and the Soviet Union, the United States would become bogged down in an Afghan quagmire.8 They warned that this was a different kind of enemy, which could not be subdued by aerial bombing, and doubted whether America was prepared to insert ground troops and risk casualties (arguing that the United States continued to suffer from a "Somalia syndrome").9 If the United States did deploy ground troops, PLA analysts warned, they would be consumed in a quagmire of guerrilla war, which they were not prepared to fight, and U.S. helicopters and aircraft would be shot down by Stinger missiles in possession of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Similar prognoses had been offered by PLA analysts at the outset of the Gulf War and the Bosnian bombing. They were proven wrong each time, reflecting fundamental misunderstandings of U.S. military strategy and tactics.

Militarily, in Afghanistan, PLA analysts witnessed displays of high-technology warfare similar to those seen in the Gulf War and the Serbian conflict, as well as some new techniques and ordnance. Long-range strategic bombing with extremely sophisticated precision-guided munitions (PGMs) played a key role. During ninety days of bombing, the United States dropped a total of nearly 13,000 bombs on Afghanistan, of which 9,000 were PGMs. The accuracy and lethality of these weapons proved far more advanced than had been witnessed in Iraq or Bosnia. In addition to sustained precision bombing, and early suppression of Afghan defenses, PLA analysts also noted the key role played by real-time allied intelligence. In addition to the kinds of sensors and satellites previously seen, two new elements appeared in Afghanistan that did much to provide instantaneous intelligence: special operations forces on the ground and aerial unmanned drones. Other new factors noted by PLA analysts included AH-64 attack helicopters and A-130 airborne gunships. These and other new capabilities attracted the attention of PLA analysts.10 As was the case with the Iraq, Taiwan, and Bosnian conflicts, the Afghan war will be intensively studied for some time in the PLA, with alternations in doctrine, tactics, and training subsequently becoming apparent over time.

The lessons the PLA drew from these conflicts are discussed at much greater length in chapters 3 and 7; suffice it to note here that it increased the Chinese leaders' sense of the urgent need for military modernization, and, particularly, of a looming threat from the United States. Funds for the military continued to rise, on average by 15 percent, in fiscal years 1999-2002. Certainly, popular sentiment against the United States peaked following the Chinese embassy bombing, and there were public calls in China for a reordering of modernization priorities with increased emphasis on the military.

Throughout the 1990s, the PLA was reading and hearing about the "revolution in military affairs" (xin junshi geming) that was evolving in the United States. As if the Chinese military was not humbled enough by the impressive display of firepower and electronic wizardry on display in the 1991, 1996, and 1999 and 2001-2 conflicts, PLA strategists were led to believe that the U.S. military was entering one of those periods of technological advance that come along every few generations, when there is a quantum leap in a family of technologies and operational concepts that push warfare into completely new realms. Such technological advances stimulate concomitant changes in the way forces are structured and deployed, how logistics are managed, and how force is used. Not only was the PLA High Command thus obliged to witness a series of powerful demonstrations of modern military prowess, but it also had to reflect on the prospect that, while it was trying to upgrade its equipment from the 1960s to the 1970s, and its doctrine from the 1980s to the 1990s, the already impressive American military of the late twentieth century was on the verge of a significant leap forward into the twenty-first century.


The Elements of Modernization

Despite a decade of extensive reform during the 1980s, the Gulf War graphically demonstrated just how far behind modern militaries the PLA had fallen and how much still needed to be done to close the gap. There is little doubt that the Chinese military leadership has now grasped the totality of the problems and challenges it confronts and has begun to implement sweeping reforms across the spectrum of all services and functional areas. Most services and units are experiencing several transformations simultaneously. In fact, a major challenge is that too much is being thrust on the PLA too quickly. Large, complex organizations, especially militaries, are instinctively resistant to change. Many of these reforms are profound and fundamental in their nature, inasmuch as they are intended to change long-standing practices, regimens, and norms. Naturally, many are being resisted. As is the case with reform in other sectors of Chinese society, there is also a tendency to feign compliance with directives while persisting in entrenched practices. Difficulties of assimilation and adjustment are profound in many areas. Yet the PLA needed reform from top to bottom. The incremental reforms of the late 1980s had proven insufficient, and bolder steps were warranted. Now such reform has truly begun. Just as the rest of China is making the transition to modernity, so too now is the military.


Organization of the Study

This book details these reforms and discusses both the progress achieved and the problems associated with implementing them. Five functional chapters (chapters 2-6) seek to integrate diverse subject areas as naturally as possible while still attempting to be comprehensive in the study's coverage. For example, how militaries exercise and train on the battlefield (and indeed perform in real combat) depends on a number of factors, but clearly the operational doctrine of a military is the starting point for determining the structure and deployment of forces, the strategy for deploying them, and their fighting tactics. Chapter 3 thus treats the PLA's defense doctrine along with its military strategy and training regimen. Chapter 4 considers both the organizational dimensions of the PLA's command and control hierarchy and its force structure at lower levels. Chapter 5 discusses both the formal military budget process and the PLA's less formal (and now greatly reduced) commercial involvement. And chapter 6 combines analysis of China's military-industrial system with cataloguing the weapons currently in the PLA inventory.

The book's remaining three chapters provide historical and comparative perspective. Chapter 2 is an assessment of China's civil-military relations, focusing particularly on the post-1989 evolution of the military elite and the impact of the military suppression in Beijing on June 4, 1989, as well as the broader impact of, and lessons learned from, the roles played by militaries in the collapse of other communist party-states. These events affected the civilian and military elite in China profoundly and triggered considerable factional struggle, purges, and courts-martial, as well as promotions of many new officers. During the 1990s, virtually the entire PLA High Command was replaced. Toward the end of the decade, some interesting legal developments suggested that interactions among the military, the Communist Party, and the state (or government) were changing and possibly evolving in a direction similar to that taken in other East Asian and developing nations.

Chapter 7 assesses China's national security environment as seen through the eyes of PLA analysts. While foreign specialists on Chinese security would observe that China's security has never been better, at least in the fifty years since the Communist Party came to power (if not the 160 years since the Opium Wars), PLA analysts do not necessarily see it that way. The evidence presented in chapter 7, drawn from extensive interviews and published PLA materials, indicates that Chinese military analysts believe they live in a dangerous world, with many uncertainties and potential challenges to China's sovereignty and security. The principal threat they identify comes from the United States, while the principal challenge arises from Taiwan. These twin problems are fused together in the PLA mindset, but it is most likely that they would continue to view the United States as a threat to national security irrespective of American support for Taiwan. The chapter details PLA analyses of the nature of the U.S. threat, which is seen as both global in nature and specific to China's peripheral security. It also brings to light previously opaque PLA assessments of the military dimension of the Taiwan problem—assessing Taiwan's defenses and possible strategies for the use of force against the island. The chapter also considers five scenarios in which a war might evolve should conflict erupt. Aside from the United States and Taiwan, PLA analysts also view Japan and India as potential threats to China's security and national interests. While tensions have abated somewhat on the Korean peninsula, PLA analysts still see the Northeast Asian region, too, as unstable and potentially threatening to China's national security. Even Russia is seen by PLA analysts in a less sanguine light than the vaunted Sino-Russian "strategic partnership" and military assistance to China might indicate. The chapter also considers PLA assessments of global strategic trends, multilateral regional security, and China's "New Security Concept."

Chapter 8 attempts to relate the analysis of preceding chapters to the interests of the United States and focuses on its policy implications for Washington's future dealings with the PLA. Specifically, it discusses the strategic implications of the modernization and reforms of the Chinese military for the United States and its Asia-Pacific security allies and partners. After examining past and future military relations between the two countries, it concludes with recommendations as to how future American exchanges with the PLA should be managed.

As befits a study of such a comprehensive nature, this book makes multiple arguments and subarguments. It has, however, one overarching thesis—namely, that although the PLA has embarked on a systematic and extensive modernization program, entailing reforms in all sectors and services, and although there is a comprehensive vision for pursuing that program, a combination of domestic handicaps and foreign constraints severely limits both the pace and the scope of China's military progress.




1. Hanoi claimed that Vietnamese forces had killed or wounded 42,000 Chinese soldiers in three weeks of combat, while Beijing claimed 50,000 Vietnamese dead or wounded, compared with 20,000 on the Chinese side. See King C. Chen, China's War with Vietnam: Issues, Decisions, Implications (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1987), p. 114.

2. Among the assessments of this conflict, other than ibid., see esp. Harlan Jencks, "China's 'Punitive' War on Vietnam," Asian Survey 19, no. 8 (August 1979); Daniel Tretiak, "China's Vietnam War and Its Consequences," China Quarterly, no. 80 (December 1979); and Man Kim Lin, The Sino-Vietnamese War (Hong Kong: Kingsway International Publications, 1981).

3. See, e.g., Deng Xiaoping, "Zai Junwei Zuotanhui shang de Jianghua" (Speech to the Discussion Meeting of the Central Military Commission), in Deng Xiaoping Wenxuan, 1975-1982 (Collected Works of Deng Xiaoping, 1975-1982) (Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe; Hong Kong: San Lian Publishers, 1983), pp. 363-67.

4. For excellent analyses of this crisis, see Robert S. Ross, "The 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Confrontation: Coercion, Credibility, and the Use of Force," International Security 25, no. 2 (Fall 2000): 87-123; James R. Lilley and Chuck Downs, eds., Crisis in the Taiwan Strait (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press and AEI Press, 1997); John Garver, Face Off: China, the United States, and Taiwan's Democratization (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997).

5. For further analysis of the post-Kosovo strategic debate, see David Finkelstein, China Reconsiders Its National Security: The Great Peace and Development Debate of 1999 (Alexandria, Va.: CNA Corporation, 2000).

6. In fact, this "doctrine" was the pronouncement of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but the Chinese associate it with President Clinton.

7. Interview with participant, April 13, 1999.

8. Interviews at National Defense University, October 16, 2001.

9. Ibid.

10. Interview with Academy of Military Sciences senior analyst, March 4, 2002. Also see Tian Xin, "Afghan War Assaults Chinese Military Theory," Wen Hui Bao, February 4, 2002, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service Daily Report-China (hereafter cited as FBIS-CHI), February 4, 2002.