Whither China?

PLA–the Rising Military Machine

By a Correspondent

China effectively uses state-controlled media to artificially pump up the presumed capabilities of the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) as part of an orchestrated campaign to dominate neighbours and would-be opponents. However, is the PLA as a magnificent fighting force as it first appears?

The last war that China fought was its emasculated invasion of Vietnam in 1979. Incidentally, that war immediately exposes the lie that China likes to promulgate that it has never once invaded an inch of foreign soil. On that occasion, the PLA was soundly defeated and withdrew with its tail between its legs.

Of course, the PLA is a very different entity now compared to 1979. It benefits from the second-largest defense budget in the world, and it has been re-equipping at an astonishing rate as its trajectory moves from a continental military to a maritime power.

The effective combat power of the PLA is an important question for Asia and for others around the world, especially as Beijing displays a greater willingness to warmonger and to threaten.

David Stilwell, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the US State Department, testified on 17 September, "Today we are engaging with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as it is, not as we wish it to be, or as it seeks to present itself rhetorically ... The CCP is now using any and all means to undermine the international rules-based order and project power across the world, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. All nations should worry how this outcome would negatively affect the global community and the values we share."

In the past few months alone, the world has witnessed Chinese violent advances along the Indian border, the splashdown of ballistic missiles in the South China Sea, continued bullying of South China Sea claimant nations, acute verbal and military threats against Taiwan, and boat swarms at the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands. Stilwell warned,

One expert who has examined the combat effectiveness of the PLA is Dr. Bates Gill, a professor at the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University in Australia. This year he delivered an assessment for the Royal United Services Institute containing his conclusions.

Gill believes the current make-up of the PLA is 2 million active-duty personnel, of which the ground force comprises just over 50%, the PLA Navy (PLAN) and Marine Corps some 12.5%, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) 20%, the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) 6%, the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) 9%, and the remaining 4% is the Joint Logistics Support Force.

In addition, there are some 500,000 reserves, up to 40,000 contracted civilians and approximately 500,000 members of the People's Armed Police (including the China Coast Guard). Thus, China can field well over 3 million armed personnel.

The PLA is certainly ambitious. Under orders from Chairman Xi Jinping, it restructured heavily at the end of 2015 in the "most sweeping and potentially transformative reorganization in its history". China has helpfully given the world some milestones, as the process will "comprehensively enhance the modernisation of military theory, organisation, personnel and weapons and equipment" by 2035, and subsequently build the PLA into a "world-class military" by 2049. Of course, 2049 has enormous symbolism since it represents the 100th anniversary of modern China's founding.

Such generalised and sweeping goals are difficult to imagine, so it is helpful to break them down into more bite-sized morsels. What will the PLA look like in 2035, then?

Gill expects the PLA could do the following: extend its anti-access/area-denial envelope farther beyond the First Island Chain; enhance its long-range strike capabilities, including hypersonic weapons; possess advanced undersea and amphibious war fighting capacities; and significantly improve its capabilities in cyberspace and outer-space operations.

The Australian-based academic added, "We expect that, over the next 5-15 years, with a strengthened PLA Navy, Chinese military activity will expand beyond the First Island Chain up to the Second Island Chain and beyond, increasing its footprint in the Southwest Pacific and the Indian Oceans. This longer-term strategic requirement for the PLA to project power beyond the First and Second Island Chains and into the Pacific and Indian Oceans raises serious questions and concerns about China's defense posture and strategic objectives."

One reason for PLA reforms relates to its primary role as the armed wing of the CCP. Gill wrote, "It should provide the power of the gun to ensure the CCP's legitimacy and survival. However, when Xi Jinping came to power as China's paramount leader in 2012, he considered the PLA had become too independent and corrupt under the former national leadership, so the reform program was introduced to reassert and strengthen the CCP's control over the Chinese armed forces."

Xi recognises the PLA's ability to obfuscate and hide corruption. Furthermore, it has previously given Xi bad advice, such as when the PLAAF assured him that creating an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea would not garner negative attention. Total trust between Xi and the PLA does not exist, and this crack could easily widen in a conflict.

Xi's regular calls for greater party fealty demonstrate that the PLA is not yet what Xi wants it to be. Indeed, the military's political zeal, total subservience and ideological purity are far from satisfactory in Xi's eyes.

Chinese military leaders themselves admit difficulties in areas such as combat leadership, war fighting capability and party loyalty. To motivate the troops, they regularly come up with pithy slogans such the "two incompatibles", the "five incapables" and "peace disease" to drum up and sustain the pace of transformation.

The only way to overcome an absence of combat experience is to conduct evermore-realistic exercises, and this is certainly the case in the PLA. The Chinese military is working both from the bottom up (small-unit tactics) and from the top down (theatre level) to exercise troops in realistic settings. Since 2016, in particular, there have been more large-scale exercises that allow headquarters and units to war game together. However, COVID-19 has impacted these exercises in 2020, delaying plans by a year or so.

If China did go to war, questionable will be the individual quality of its soldiers. It is one thing to induct serried ranks of new hardware, but what of the quality of soldiers to operate it all? High-tech equipment relies on well-educated operators, and so the PLA has been seeking better-educated and qualified recruits who can operate hardware in a joint war fighting environment.

Nonetheless, weaknesses continue. For example, little rotation of troops occurs around theaters except at the most senior levels. This means soldiers have limited exposure to new challenges and they are at risk of developing "myopia".

The PLA created five new joint theatre commands in 2015 to engrain joint operation doctrine, something that was hitherto an alien concept. Despite basic restructuring, there is much to learn in this area, particularly in headquarters staff that must plan and control complex military operations. "Jointness" is further complicated by inter-service and theatre rivalries.

Military forces are distributed mostly along China's periphery, with a heavy focus opposite Taiwan, and they are not postured to prosecute a major overseas conflict.

Additionally, in a large-scale conflict China would face serious difficulties controlling cross-theater forces. Although there is strong national command and control, there is a convoluted system for multi-theater operations. Furthermore, the CCP ensures excessive centralization and a reluctance to give decision-making powers to those lower on the totem pole. And which theater would be responsible for controlling forces beyond their geographical zones of responsibility, in the Indian Ocean, for example?

The PLASSF is newest force, and it will be one of the most critical for the PLA of the future since it consolidates cyber, electronic, space and information war fighting capabilities under one umbrella. It provides operational and tactical support to the other PLA forces, as well as being able to independently conduct strategic information operations in the cyber or space domains.

Gill noted of the PLASSF, "So, this is a very modern, arguably the most advanced, part of the PLA and is at the forefront of the development of joint operations - through the integration of deterrence and war fighting capabilities across multiple domains. It will be 'the pointy end of the spear' in any future operations that the PLA undertakes."

The Sydney-based professor concluded, "The PLA is working to transform from a bloated, corrupt and outdated force with a continental, defensive mindset to a world-class, 21st-century expeditionary force able to project power up to and beyond the Second Island Chain into the Pacific and Indian Oceans ... It is a very ambitious undertaking with many obstacles to overcome, but, if achieved, will pose a complex set of challenges to the United States and its allies, especially within the Asia-Pacific region."

China repeatedly accuses the USA of a "Cold War mindset", but the world is merely reacting to a trajectory mapped out by Xi's authoritarian rule.

The PLA is formidable, especially to its smaller neighbours, but potential foes can greatly complicate China's strategic calculus by creating their own threats in multiple theatres. Ironically, China has partially done this all by itself through its violent miscalculations along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India.

Vol. 53, No. 19, Nov 8 - 14, 2020