Friday February 21, 2020


September 10, 2018

PLAN Training Ship Zheng He (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

PLAN Training Ship Zheng He (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The “Chinese Dream,” a comprehensive plan of national reform and development, represents Xi Jinping’s efforts to transform China into a fully developed nation. One focus of this plan is the restructuring and modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in order for China to develop a strong military presence. President Xi, in a 2017 speech commemorating the 90th anniversary of the PLA, made his aspirations for China’s armed forces clear—”to achieve the dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, we must quicken the pace of building the people’s army into a world-class army.” While leaders have tried to reform China’s armed forces in the past, Xi Jinping—as the President of China, Chairman of the Communist Party, and Chairman of the Central Military Committee (CMC)—has the necessary power and authority to make effective changes. An aggressive policy of military reformation, reorganization, and modernization is on track to be realized by 2035. While that deadline is still far into the future, changes to China’s military are already apparent.

Xi’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign, another of his reforms intended to improve China, has led to the removal of several powerful military leaders since 2013. Two retired Vice Chairmen of the CMC, the highest echelon of leadership within the People’s Liberation Army, were ousted after being accused of accepting bribes. While the removal of these powerful military leaders proved the Communist Party’s (and Xi’s) hold over the military, their removal also stemmed from concerns that corruption was affecting the PLA’s preparedness and ability to function properly. More recently, two prominent generals—General Fang Fenghui, Chief of the Joint Staff Department of the PLA, and General Zhang Yang, director of the PLA’s political department—were removed in October 2017. Prior to his removal General Fang seemed to be in President Xi’s good graces and even accompanied Xi to his first meeting with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago. President Xi replaced both of these generals shortly before the 19th Party Congress, further demonstrating the strength of his power.

In addition to the investigation and removal of officers who have abused their power, President Xi has directed the PLA to move away from the pursuit of non-military activities. From the time of the economic opening in the 1970s, the PLA had been involved in a wide variety of commercial services—including kindergartens and real estate rentals—in order to be self-sufficient and use less of the national budget. Due to the growth of China’s economy over the past few decades, this cost-cutting measure is no longer required. The commercial activities of the PLA and other armed police forces have been winding down since a directive from the CMC in early 2016. This year, as the Chairman of the CMC, Xi commanded the armed services cease all commercial activities by 2019. The push away from commercial activities is intended to reduce corruption and prevent the military from focusing on financial gain.

Reducing corruption in the armed forces was only the first step of the PLA’s transformation into an effective fighting force. The restructuring of the PLA has been necessary for decades, but President Xi is the first leader with the power and influence required to make meaningful progress. The PLA’s transition to a joint operational command structure, a goal they have been working towards since the late 1990s, should be complete by 2020. Along with technological advancements, the PLA has improved communication structures and information sharing to facilitate operations between the five branches (Ground Force, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force, and the Strategic Support Force). To that end, a Joint Logistics Support Force was established in 2016 to better coordinate efforts. The command structure was also simplified by recombining the previous seven military regions into five theater commands (Eastern, Southern, Western, Northern, and Central). Along with the reorganization of the CMC to strengthen their administrative control of the PLA, it is clear that President Xi and the Communist Party are intent on simplifying and centralizing control of China’s armed forces.

Another necessary reform has been the rebalancing of the armed forces. In 2017, the PLA completed efforts to reduce personnel by 300,000 (mostly non-combat ground forces). This was an effort to rebalance the historically army-centric PLA, in favor of the PLA Navy (PLAN) and PLA Air Force (PLAAF). As part of the shift away from land-based forces, the Strategic Support Force (SSF) was created on December 31, 2015 and the Rocket Force was created on January 1, 2016. The SSF pulled together cyberspace, electronic warfare, and space functions. The Rocket Force was created from the existing Second Artillery Corps and controls the PLA’s extensive land-based missile arsenal, which consists of both nuclear and conventional ballistic weapons. This branch would be the beneficiary of newly developed hypersonic weapons technology, something both the U.S. and Russia are also developing. On August 6, The Chinese Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics announced a successful test of this technology, but it may be years before it is developed enough to be used to deliver nuclear weapons.

The most notable advancements in the modernization of the armed forces can be seen in the PLAN. China has been designing and building their naval fleet at unprecedented rates. The PLAN currently operates 317 warships and submarines, 100 of which have been built in the last decade. The most significant developments have occurred with the construction of their aircraft carriers, destroyers, and submarines.

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was commissioned in 2012 after being rebuilt from the stripped hull of a Soviet carrier that had never finished construction. This ship is considered a training craft, allowing Chinese sailors to gain experience with aircraft carriers. China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier (the Type 001A) was launched in 2017 and is reportedly undergoing its last trials before commissioning. The Type 001A does not currently have an assisted launch system, instead aircraft take off with the assistance of a “ski-jump” incline. While this design doesn’t have the high energy requirements of launch systems, weight restrictions limit the type of aircraft the ship can support. It is likely that future designs of Chinese aircraft carriers will have launch systems, either steam-powered or electromagnetic catapults. In preparation for this, the Chinese Navy is developing carrier-based fighter aircraft from Russian designs.

In order to support the development of carrier fleets, the PLAN has been improving its other classes of ships. In July 2018, the PLAN launched two Type 055 missile destroyers, the third and fourth of their class. Some have referred to these ships as “super destroyers,” as they are more powerful than most destroyers and are closer in size to cruisers. Type 055’s firepower is second only to the U.S. Navy’s newest destroyers, the Zumwalt class. However, China is producing the Type 055s at a rate much higher than the U.S.  Designed to escort aircraft carriers, these new destroyers are a huge step forward in China’s development of a “blue water” navy. China is well on its way to being capable of projecting their military power globally.

China’s submarine capabilities have increased dramatically since the beginning of the 21st century. Their fleet has grown from 3 submarines in 1996, to about 60 in 2018. China currently operates 9 nuclear submarines and 47 diesel submarines with plans to increase the fleet to more than 70 over the next few years. However, there have been some issues with China’s stealth technology. In January 2018, a Shang-class submarine (China’s Type 093 nuclear powered attack submarine) surfaced in the East China Sea after being followed by the Japanese Navy for several days. Experts said the submarine was discovered as it was “too noisy,” and because Japan’s Navy is supported with American anti-submarine technology. While China’s advancements over the last few decades are impressive, this was a reminder that China is playing catch up against countries that have spent the better part of the last century perfecting their naval technology.

Over the last few years, the PLA has been testing its advancements and improved structure as it begins to conduct operations abroad. The PLAN Marine Corps, under the command of PLAN, will increase the number of personnel from 10,000 in two brigades to 30,000 in seven brigades by 2020. This expansion in personnel will support the PLA’s operations abroad. The first overseas Chinese naval base, located in Djibouti, began operating in 2017. This base allows China to more easily project their naval power and supports their anti-piracy operations throughout the Horn of Africa and Indian Ocean, areas where they have substantial amounts of trade activity. While this base is strictly military, many commercial ports, ostensibly intended for trade, have been built throughout Southeast Asia as a part of China’s One Belt and Road (OBR) initiative. After Sri Lanka was forced to sell their stake in such a port to a Chinese company due to their inability to pay back the Chinese loan, some fear that these ports could become Chinese military bases in the future. Taiwan, in particular, is leery of what a stronger, more organized PLAN means for the security situation in the region.

China and Taiwan’s relationship has been particularly fraught since 2016, when Taiwan elected President Tsai Ing-wen, head of the independence leaning Democratic Progressive Party. Since Tsai’s election, Taiwan has lost five diplomatic allies to China (São Tomé and Príncipe, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, and El Salvador), leaving only seventeen countries that recognize Taiwan as an independent state. In 2017, China began limiting tourism to the island, a method often used by the Chinese government to apply economic pressure. China also began pressuring international corporations to stop recognizing Taiwan as an entity separate from China. Most notably, in July 2018 China began requiring airlines to refer to Taiwan as a part of China in order to continue business with the mainland. The Chinese government has become more aggressive in isolating Taiwan in recent years and is willing to use a variety of tools to achieve their goals.

While all sides are wary of an armed conflict, China is more than willing to flex their growing naval power to intimidate Taiwan. In January 2018, the Liaoning’s carrier group entered Taiwan’s ADIZ as it sailed through the Taiwan Strait, carefully keeping to the western side (closer to China) of the strait. The situation was repeated in March 2018 after the Liaoning finished conducting exercises in the East China Sea. In August 2018, China conducted several naval exercises in the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea that experts believe were a show of force intended to rattle the U.S. and Taiwan. These routine operations may become even more contentious as constructive relationships decline.

Taiwan and the U.S. have become closer over the last few years, complicating their already tense situation with China. Although the U.S. government does not officially recognize Taiwan, the U.S. has continued to find ways to work around this in support of Taiwan. The Taiwan Travel Act, which allows high-level American and Taiwanese officials to visit their counterparts, was passed in early 2018. The new compound of the American Institute in Taiwan  (considered the U.S.’s defacto embassy) was open in June 2018 and, as a result of the Taiwan Travel Act, will allow for high-level exchanges and cooperation with Taiwan. In August 2018, President Tsai visited the U.S. on a stop-over trip on her way to meet with allies in South America. Tsai met with several U.S. Congressmen during her visit, some of whom called on the White House to arrange an official meeting between Tsai and Trump. While the Taiwan Travel Act allowed Tsai’s visit, Chinese officials were enraged and submitted an official complaint to the White House.

China’s improved military capabilities come at an uneasy time in the U.S.-China relationship. As this relationship breaks down and tit-for-tat tariffs spiral into a trade war, issues the two countries were previously willing to overlook or ignore have taken on new importance. The next few decades will be difficult as leaders from both countries seek to mitigate circumstances surrounding the South China Sea, Taiwan, and China’s expanding military operations.


Additional Sources and Commentary:

U.S. Department of DefenseAnnual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018
Congressional Research ServiceChina Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress

New York Times With Ships and Missiles, China Is Ready to Challenge U.S. Navy in Pacific
South China Morning PostWhat’s driving Chinese President Xi Jinping’s military modernisation push?

Compiled and Edited by Emily Bulkeley