China’s Military Revolution: Smarter, Better, Faster, Smaller

Bottom Line: With the stated national goal of achieving ‘great power status,’ China’s military modernization efforts have contributed to rising tension in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as between China and the United States. China’s growing ability to project military force – buttressed by the opening of its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, its artificial islands in the South China Sea and rapid naval advancements – is a worrying development from the perspective of the U.S. and its allies, as China seeks to reshape the existing international order.

Background: China began modernizing its military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), after the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War. The former ushered in a period of global peace and prosperity that allowed China to grow wealthy and invest in its security, and the latter demonstrated the power of advanced technology and information on the battlefield.

  • In 2004, former Chinese President Hu Jintao issued an order for the PLA to focus on “winning local wars under ‘informatized’ conditions,” similar to the U.S. military concept of network-centric warfare, using information and communications technology to coordinate and accelerate military operations. This concept has influenced many Chinese decisions regarding the reorganization of its military and the incorporation of new capabilities into its forces.
  • In 2015, President XI Jinping announced a set of comprehensive reforms that would create elite units, expand maritime capabilities, and enable joint operations among the service branches of the PLA. China is also continuing to shift its priorities from emphasizing quantity to quality. According to state media, it has now “basically completed” the latest reduction of armed forces by 300,000 troops. This is a continuation of a downsizing trend begun in the 1980s, when the PLA’s size was cut by one million troops.

Jeffrey Engstrom and Michael S. Chase, RAND Corporation

“The PLA has very little experience with real joint operations. Indeed, PLA officers point to the 1955 Yijiangshan Island campaign as the PLA’s first and only real joint war-fighting experience, but the PLA is working hard to improve in this area because Chinese strategists see the ability to conduct joint operations as one of the keys to winning future wars.”

  • Chinese civilian and military leaders have repeatedly espoused the idea of “revitalizing the military through technology,” and President Xi Jinping—now set to rule without term limits—has continued to emphasize the importance of technological innovation. In a speech given March 2017 to military delegates to the National People’s Congress, he said, “We must have a greater sense of urgency to push for science and technology innovation and advancement with greater determination and efforts.”
  • China’s defense budget continues to grow rapidly. Official figures for 2018, released in early March, show a budget of $174.6 billion—an increase of 8.1% over the previous year, and the largest increase in three years. However, China is not transparent about how this money is apportioned, and outside estimates often peg China’s defense budget as significantly higher than official estimates. Chinese officials continue to state that its burgeoning military capabilities are solely for self-defense, but its increasing emphasis on military might and force projection (the ability to deploy its military in strength far from its shores) are alarming to neighboring countries as well as the United States.
  • Source: The Cypher Brief