China's Military Modernisation: Some Perspectives

-M.V. Rappai, Research Fellow, IDSA


"War is a game of deception. Therefore, feign incapability when in fact capable; feign inactivity when ready to strike; appear to be far away when actually nearby, and vice versa."

-- Sun Zi

The efforts of China's military modernisation can be traced back to the early Seventies. The military modernisation is very closely linked with China's general modernisation efforts, hence it will be useful to take a broader look at the related issues. In 1974, Zhou Enlai first proposed the modernisation programme. This was formalised as a Party canon by the 12th Congress in 1982. The General Programme of the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) adopted at this Congress stated that, "the general task of the Communist Party of China at the present stage is to unite the people of all nationalities in working hard and self-reliantly to achieve, step by step, the modernisation of our industry, agriculture, national defence and science and technology and make China a culturally advanced and highly democratic socialist country." Later on this order was revised and defence was pushed into fourth position. Even though "defence" was placed fourth in the list, the underlying linkages were very clear. If we take a close look at the way China carried out her economic modernisation, these linkages will become clearer. In the economic field China followed neither the set conventional pattern of the erstwhile socialist nations of East Europe nor paid much heed to the prescriptions handed down by the Brettonwoods institutional scholars sitting in their cozy environs of developed nations. Rather, China preferred the rustic wisdom of its millions of villagers laced with ample scoops of pragmatic thinking by its leaders.

One of Mao Zedong's favourite fables was a story called Yugong Yi Shan(The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains). The story of this old man named Yugong is taken from an ancient work of the Warring States period: it depicts how he decided to shift two huge mountains that blocked his doorway. According to the story the "Wise Old Man" of the same period tried to explain to the "Old Fool" about the futility of his work at his late age of ninety plus. Then the Foolish Old Man replied, "When I die my sons will carry on; when they die, there will be my grandsons; and then their sons and grandsons; and so on, forever. High as they are, the mountains cannot grow any higher, and with every bit we dig, they will be that much lower. Why can't we clear them away?"

Mao interpreted this fable and exhorted the Chinese people to follow "the foolish old man to encourage the nation to work doggedly for the overthrow of imperialism and feudalism, which were two big mountains lying like a dead weight on the Chinese people. The spirit of the foolish old man, i.e., that of perseverance and fortitude, should still be a source of inspiration to keep Chinese people forging ahead in the modernisation of their economy." The post-Mao modernisation efforts started by Deng and others saw the flourishing of these efforts and China now is set on a path of steady growth.

The linkage between economy and national defence comes very clearly in the thinking of the Chinese leadership. While discussing this issue, Premier Li Peng stated in his report to the Fifth Session of the Eighth National People's Congress (NPC) that, "strengthening national defence modernisation is an important guarantee for economic construction and our country's long lasting stability and tranquillity." On the other hand, they are also well aware of the fact that the defence build-up is subservient to the economic potential of their nation. Therefore, economic building up is a necessary pre-requisite for defence building and modernisation.

If we look back, the sustained growth attained by China ever since its reform and opening to the outside world in the early Eighties has helped it tremendously in improving the defence modernisation efforts also. In the mid-Eighties, the Chinese leadership implemented a bold modernisation programme by implementing a reduction of one million personnel of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). This reduction, together with the PLA's doctrinal shifts from concepts like "people's war" to "to fight a major war and to fight a prolonged war," etc., to the strategic policy of "active defence" has enabled it to pursue the modernisation goals in a more vigorous manner. Currently China's effort is to prepare itself for a limited war under hi-tech conditions. If one observes even casually the current structure of the PLA's force formation, it gives a very confusing scenario. It can be described as an amalgam of a variety of post-World War II military hardware. On the one end, it possesses a number of fighters and naval vessels, almost all of vintage variety; on the other, the PLA arsenal also includes some of the very sophisticated missiles and other command and control equipment. Further, China is a declared nuclear weapon power with a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.

This being the scenario, here I intend to take a broad look at the emerging trends in China's defence modernisation efforts. And basing on these trends, try to make some broad conclusions about its future course. China being our immediate neighbour, we have to keenly watch these developments for our own future security concerns. The reduction in force (RIF) planned by China in the Eighties was almost attained by 1987-88. A quarter of its existing strength was reduced, 11 Military Regions (MRs) were reorganised into 7, and 36 Field Armies were reconstructed into 24 Group Armies. The latter half of the Eighties was a critical period for China in many ways. The sudden collapse of Communism and the overwhelming Soviet influence in Eastern Europe gave rise to many cascading changes in the world strategic scenario.

According to the Chinese strategists, throughout the Seventies and Eighties, the major threat to their nation emanated from the erstwhile Soviet Union, the "socialist imperialist." Therefore, a large majority of China's ground forces were tied down along its northern borders. This, of course, put a heavy strain on China's resources and defence outlays. The sudden collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union and the 1991 Gulf War exerted a profound impact on the thinking of defence planners in China. If we look at the studies conducted by the PLA in its various open fora, the strategic and operational impact of the Gulf War is profound.

The number of studies published in Chinese newspapers including the Jiefang Junbao (The Liberation Army Daily) regarding the lessons of the Gulf War is tremendous, and this has resulted in a whole range of new thinking in the PLA. This has not only widened their vision about the new developments in the military field, if I may use the modern American parlance, the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) factor has bitten them very strongly. Some of the PLA strategists are even visualising future cyber warriors for them. One may admit that the Chinese may not have the technical capability and industrial capacity to achieve all these immediately. But if we go by the assessment of Gen Richard Macke, former Commander-in-Chief of the US Pacific Command, things will fall in a better perspective. According to him, "I don't think they want to go to war with anybody. I think they want to amass the capabilities that we have in order to earn respect...showing force without using it."

Before going into further details about the broader aspects of military modernisation and its impact on their strategic thinking, let me briefly take stock of the different arms of the PLA.

PLA Navy

The Chinese Navy, better known as the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), has a complement of over 1,000 various types of naval vessels and 265,000 personnel. The PLAN comprises a queer mixture of vessels and weapons in its arsenal. Towards the end of the Eighties, China's strategic focus shifted from land borders to the South China Sea and surrounding regions. The reported abundance of oil and other natural resources, the return of Hong Kong as well as the expected return of Macao has further speeded this shift.

Apart from this, Taiwan is likely to remain as the born of contention for many years to come. Due to the increasing politicking around this issue, the Chinese cannot avoid this matter. The US policy towards China remains a complicated jig-saw puzzle--their long-term wish is to "contain" China through "engagement." But if we look at the economic interaction between these two great powers, things may not be that easy. Therefore, Taiwan can still be a useful tool in this whole puzzle. Hence, China's attention is likely to be remain focussed on Taiwan, a renegade province in their official parlance, for quite some time to come.

Over and above this, China has further reassessed the importance of its sea territory covering an area of 3.5 million sq km as a potential source for its developmental schemes. Recent studies regarding foodgrain availability also underscored the necessity to shift people's attitude towards seafood in order to meet the future food requirements.

The PLAN has about 65 submarines in its active service, and probably it also has some 50 Romeo class non-operational submarines kept as potential reserve which makes China the number one sea-power among Asian nations. As of now, the PLAN possesses five to eight nuclear-powered submarines. Out of these, one Xia class nuclear submarine is capable of carrying SLBMs. The remaining vessels include 56 principal surface combatants, two minesweepers, 120 mine counter-measure vessels and 55 amphibious vessels.

The procurement of four Kilo class subs from Russia has drastically changed China's submarine operation capability in this region. Apart from this, it also recently procured three Sovremenny class destroyers. This primarily is a strike combatant ship normally armed with eight launchers for the sea-skimming SS-N-22 "Sunburn" surface-to-surface missiles (SSM) which has a range extending to 150 km, two SA-N-17 "Grizzly" surface-to-air missile (SAM) launchers, and two twin 130mm/70 guns. The Chinese vessels are likely to be an improved version of the original design. China's future naval development plans are quite significant. By the turn of this century, it intends to have an offshore naval force and by the year 2020, China plans to have a full-fledged "blue water Navy" which will be compatible with any naval power of that time. Its immediate plans include procurement of an aircraft carrier. Though till date no firm agreement has been reached, discussions are seriously underway. A plan to produce an indigenous carrier is also making good progress. One recent development in this regard is notable: during the Zhuhai Airshow (November 1996), a senior official revealed that China is trying to procure the production rights of the naval version of SU-27 fighter planes. This further points to the PLAN's possible future direction.

The Second Artillery

China's strategic missile forces are better known by the acronym "the Second Artillery". Faced with threats from two of world's most formidable nuclear powers in the late Sixties and early Seventies, China took a firm decision to develop its own strategic missile force. This force now has an inventory of 17 ICBMs, 70 IRBMs and a number of assorted short-range missiles. The Second Artillery has also developed an impressive range of defensive capability like tracking and early warning facilities. It has a strength of 90,000 highly motivated personnel.

A lot of re-thinking is going on in China regarding its use of nuclear power. Since the Fifties, the Chinese were well aware of the politico-strategic dimension of nuclear power. This may be one reason why the late Chairman Mao always called the atom bomb a "paper tiger." But of late, some strategic thinkers have even started thinking in terms of revising the "no first use" doctrine. On the other hand, due to realpolitik advantages China may not come out openly in this regard, as China deliberately tries to portray itself as "defensively oriented, a non-traditional major power that defended the interests of the military have-nots in the international system." Recently China has started articulating more the cause of developing nations. Its posture on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) might have been more out of some unwritten quid-pro-quo and its eagerness to join the select P5 club.

If we look into the future, the real problem may emerge when both the USA and Russia agree to bring down their nuclear arsenals to the level of 1,000 warheads each. A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences of the USA viz, The Future of US Nuclear Weapons Policy states that "the nuclear arsenals of the other declared nuclear powers--China, France, and the United Kingdom--provide a third rationale for the proposed level of about 1,000 warheads. Given their policies...would seem to pose no impediment to an otherwise desirable reduction of US and Russian holdings to about 1,000 total warheads each." This may definitely add to the diplomatic clout of China in the future; on the other hand, it makes the Indian position vis-a-vis our undeclared deterrence that much weaker.

One major aim of Chinese sabre rattling across the Taiwanese Straits during the period July 1995 to March 1996 was to test their missile strike capability. Various studies have taken note of this fact. The improvement achieved by China in the guidance systems of its missiles, especially the cruise missiles, are noteworthy.

Air Force

The People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), with its repertoire of about 5,800 aircraft of different types (including 485 transport planes) and a few armed helicopters forms a comparatively bloated fighting force. To make it a lean-and-mean fighting machine, China has to take further steps. The recent procurement of SU-27 UB fighters and China's decision to licence manufacture the same at home is a part of this drive. With this, the PLAAF has made a quantum jump into the era of multi-role fighters. The Chinese Air Force has already got two early warning aircraft. Talks are on with Israel for procuring the avionics for two more such aircraft. This and its reported capability for air-to air refuelling makes the efforts of the PLAAF's force modernisation drive more meaningful.

Another strategy of its defence planners is to recompense its comparative backwardness with an augmented array of sophisticated and fairly accurate range of missiles.

Ground Forces

Immediately after the establishment of new China in 1949, the Army enjoyed prime importance in China's scheme of things. But with the shift in its strategic priority towards the south and south-eastern parts and in view of the realities of the post-Gulf War scenario, the focus of military build-up shifted drastically. At present the 2.2 million-strong Chinese Army consists of sophisticated airborne "fist units" and "rapid reaction units" (RRU) as well as a large number of units with obsolete weaponry. China has selectively trained and stationed airborne units in almost all Military Regions. As of now it is in a position to deploy the "fist" and "RRU" units anywhere in China within 24 hours. Keeping in view the importance of the South China Sea, the PLA has revived its marine corps of a brigade size (5,000-6,000) for amphibious operations.

Impact on Strategic Thinking

Immediately after the liberation and till the end of the Seventies, the strategic thinking in the PLA and concerned fora in the CCP was heavily influenced by its formation and development under Mao. During the revolutionary period, the PLA was groomed as the armed revolutionary vanguard to protect the interests of the Party. The majority of the operations for which this vanguard was prepared and it fought were primarily of guerilla nature and against the Chinese people who did not conform with the Party line of thinking. The only exception to this general pattern was at the time of their "war against the Japanese." Due to this prolonged influence the basic psyche of PLA strategists remained as one of a land based defensive operation. For this purpose, the theory of "people's war" developed by Mao and other revolutionary leaders suited well. Under this concept, the enemy was to be lured into one's area of convenience and annihilated by surprise or through a "protracted war." In a conventional war, when China enjoyed its numerical superiority with comparative backwardness in technology, this method worked well.

Under the emerging RMA regime, the effective use of gaining first the "command and control" positions for one's own favour and denying the same to the opponent and the extensive use of smart weapons and precision guided munitions opened the eyes of PLA strategists. This further invigorated their shift to the pursuance of "active defence" strategy. Basically the active defence strategy aims to take care of the "enemy" beyond one's own territory. This concept is not at all new to Chinese military thinking. In the 1930s, Mao had discussed this problem, but then he preferred the "people's war" concept as better suited for Chinese conditions. Further, a majority of Chinese strategists are aware of the fact that they cannot copy the Gulf War scenario blindly, due to China's complicated terrain and comparative low levels of technical and industrial developments. Therefore, they are working on a military style suitable for China. Premier Li Peng states, "All levels of government should support and cooperate with the Chinese People's Liberation Army in carrying out the strategic policy of active defence and adopting the Chinese style of training crack troops. We should further strengthen our national devence capability, pay attention to border and coastal defence construction, safeguard the country's territorial integrity and sovereignty as well as maritime rights and interests, take serious account of national defence technology and the development and manufacture of its products, adhere to the principle of post-war army-civilian combination, support military industrial enterprises in developing marketable civilian products, and help loss-incurring military industrial enterprises to get out of their difficult situation."

If we look at China's military modernisation effort, it has many a striking similarity with its effort in economic modernisation. Deng Xiaoping's capability as a pragmatic leader is quite well known; when he embarked on the path of economic modernisation, he tried to experiment with many concepts now in vogue in China on a very low key, smaller scale. This can be seen in the development of the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and in many rural economic experiments too. This reality has been recently admitted by the World Bank in its latest study, China 2020: Development Challenges in the New Century, which claims China "has telescoped into one generation what other countries took centuries to achieve...No country has tried to accomplish so much in so short a time. China's unique attempt to complete two transitions at once--from a command to a market economy and from a rural to an urban society--is without historical precedent." Similarly, the PLA also seems not to be in a hurry to procure sophisticated items from abroad and declare itself as an advanced force. Rather it has followed a very gradual approach. But its future intentions are clear and many of them may be described as over ambitious. For example, the Defense News weekly published an article about the PLA's desire for futuristic arms--the array of these arms was quite fascinating: According to Chang and Navy Capt Shen Zhongchang, Director of the Research and Development Department of the PLA's Navy Research Institute in Beijing, China must acquire:

* High performance microwave weapons to "destroy the opponent's electronic equipment."

* Robot sentries, engineers and infantrymen, and unmanned smart tanks.

* Arsenal ships and undersea mine-laying robots.

* Tactical laser weapons for anti-ship defence.

* Submarine-launched air defence weapons.

* Lasers, particle beams and microwave beams for precision strikes.

* Plasma weaponry, electromagnetic pulse systems, among other capabilities.

Some sceptics may rightfully think this is a highly ambitious gambit in view of China's existing scientific and technological wherewithal. But the Chinese economic growth pattern has revealed that with a right approach they may be in a position to attain many of these goals. Further, there are several other indicators which prove this point. A cover story in Newsweek in last April gave vivid details about China's intentions in procuring hi-tech knowhow and equipment. Out of these details, two items are particularly useful for future purposes--one, China has already signed a contract with Japan's NEC Corp for manufacturing "silicon wafers, the key technology in the computer chips" and, secondly, the involvement of the Chinese in the US information technology industry. "Today Silicon Valley has become Beijing's East Berlin, its gateway to the best Western technology. About half of the 900 tech-transfer cases investigated annually on the West Coast involve the Chinese," says Nicholas Eftimiades, a Defence Intelligence Agency analyst. "They have hundreds of front companies," says a Western military attache in Beijing. "They have hundreds of people in those companies."

These revelations clearly indicate the direction of China's military modernisation. They are aiming very high. As Gen Richard Macke put it, China's future power projection capacity is definitely to prove the point that they mean business in the international power game. Therefore, even though these may not be targetted against the Americans, since China is our immediate neighbour, we have to take note of these developments. At present we may not worry about China militarily, but its modernisation efforts together with its willingness to play a larger role in the international arena needs to be taken note of. And we have to meet these challenges by strengthening our own efforts in building a strong India both economically and militarily.


Some observers like to describe today's PLA as a "few islands of excellence," by which they mean that China has advanced tremendously in certain fields of weaponry. One important area which needs our attention is its improvement in missile capabilities. It has not only improved its targetting ability and accuracy, it also has made strides in the doctrinal aspects of the use of missiles. "Chinese military thinkers have been contemplating how best to defeat a technologically superior opponent with technologically inferior equipment." With regard to the use of ballistic missiles, Chinese defence analyst Sun Zian in an article titled "Strategies to Minimize High-tech Edge of Enemy," recommended "...saturation (ballistic missiles) strikes to destroy most of the enemy's high priced air defence missile systems...thereby undermining its combat capability...since surface-to-surface tactical ballistic missiles are less expensive than anti-ballistic missiles, air defence missiles, we should deploy them en masse."

One important feature of China's military exercises in the Taiwan Straits during last year is that it was a joint operation by all the three wings; this also proves China's quest for learning new operational tactics. In views of its "learning curve," this has tremendously helped it. In the last round of exercises in March 1996, it amassed a total force of 150,000 soldiers from different services in its Fujian province, opposite Taiwan. The use of RRUs and joint operations also provides enough clues as to where China is heading.

As mentioned earlier, another important area which concerns us is the developments in its nuclear field. China is not only contemplating a doctrinal change but is also engaged in improving and innovating its warheads both overtly and covertly. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, especially during the last few years, it has improved its strategic relations with Russia tremendously. Further, there are a lot of reports which suggest that China has hired many key personnel in the fields of nuclear and missile technology from the erstwhile highly secretive nuclear establishments of Russia, which are facing a serious resource crunch.

Another area of worry will be China's increasing military expenditure--according to the given conditions there is not much scope to expect China will be more transparent in the near future. For example, according to IDSA calculations, this year's real defence expenditure of China is close to Yuan 291.73 billion ($34.73 billion) as against Yuan 80.57 billion, the official figure. Therefore, it is imperative on our part to believe that there will be a lot of grey areas in its defence expenditure. This together with its growing economic clout and burgeoning forex reserve position can help it to achieve its desired goals of procuring new hardware.

Finally, the recently concluded 15th Party Congress has officially annouced its decision to reduce its force strength by half a million by the end of this century. This also can be taken as a further step towards its desired goal of military modernisation.