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China’s People’s Liberation Army Celebrates 90 Years: Reform And Expansion – Analysis

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The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was founded ninety years ago and a military parade was held at a training base in Inner Mongolia to mark this historic occasion. This is quite significant because this is the first time in over four decades that the PLA had a military parade outside of Beijing and it did mark President Xi’s promises to reform and modernize the military from a regional force into a global force.

In his speech on Tuesday, President Xi reiterated that in order to “build a strong army, we must unswervingly adhere to the party’s absolute leadership over the army.”i The modernization of the Chinese military also marked the rejuvenation of China as a nation that has had a history of being humiliated by imperialism before 1949. China’s agenda of reforming the PLA has included a combination of “national rejuvenation, military modernisation, ideological purity and a crackdown on graft in a potent mix of appeals designed to boost the army’s fighting spirit.”ii

China has also come a long way from 1949. It has the world’s second largest economy, and one of the world’s largest militaries behind the U.S. The PLA’s modernization reforms are also significant because these reforms call for China to continue to defend its sovereignty and to make sure that the message of peace is being received by the Chinese people. The five-year plan proposed by President Xi has successfully remodeled the PLA’s organizational power structures as well as its public image in China itself.

UN Peacekeeping Operations

China has now become an international military force. It just opened a new military base in Djibouti, and it does have some of the highest number of UN peacekeeping troops in the world, along with the likes of India, Pakistan, and other African nations like Ethiopia and Rwanda.

According to a United Nations Report, China currently has 2,515 UN Peacekeeping troops which is ranked 12th out of 127 nations in the world.iii China also has more UN peacekeeping troops than the four other members of the UN Security Council combined! In addition, China has spent around 10% of financial UN peacekeeping contributions only behind the United States with 28%.iv

China is in a very unique position and this is very well-documented by their commitments to resolving many global issues through humanitarian and diplomatic means. China has been a provider for mandates as a member of the UN Security Council, a financial contributor to providing natural resources to third world countries, and providing not only military officers, but police officers as well.

China’s peacekeeping operations around the world have contributed to humanitarian and security efforts in South Sudan, Mali, Lebanon, as well as with the Western Sahara and Cyprus.

The PLA and the Chinese government have had a remarkable perspective on the UN goals of peace and security. Chinese peacekeeping troops are not just combat soldiers, but they are also doctors, engineers, civilians, and police staff. Secretary General Guterres even pointed out that the UN has been responsive in a slow manner to global crises, but China does provide a rapid-reaction force to respond to these types of problems. China has also trained African peacekeeping troops with modern technology and logistics, as well as training troops from African countries to counter terrorism in the Sahel region, especially since Africa has become the largest region for UN peacekeeping missions.

Chinese soldiers have a lot of qualities when it comes to UN peacekeeping missions. They are professional, discipline, and well-trained. China has a full range of equipment which is required under the statement of unit requirements. This is important because we are facing many challenges where countries have good soldiers, but they are not well-equipped with armed personal carriers or helicopters.

What Are the PLA Reforms Designed to Do?

As we all know, China has some very ambitious, strategic goals that have contributed to its rise on the global stage. According to the DoD report, some of these goals include the following:

  • Perpetuate CCP rule;
  • Maintain domestic stability;
  • Sustain economic growth and development;
  • Defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity;
  • Secure China’s status as a great power and, ultimately, reacquire regional preeminence; and
  • Safeguard China’s interests abroad.v

All of these goals have been a part of President Xi’s China Dream which was established in 2012 to achieve a prosperous society that is “stronger, [more] democratic, culturally advanced, and harmonious”.vi President Xi is calling for a more transformative China that can be socialist, but also more liberal in the free market system. What makes President Xi’s China Dream different from our American Dream is the fact that China wants to be independent again, and it can contribute to international centrality through its modernization, its participation in international organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the United Nations (UN) to name a few examples.

The American Dream has focused more on the goals of individuals and families that want to get ahead and accomplish their dreams, but the differences between the Chinese and American dreams leaves room for another topic. In 2013, China launched the One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR), to connect China with the world and put aside the humiliation it faced throughout the mid-19th century into the Second World War where Japanese imperialism took a huge hit on the Chinese mainland. The historical memories of many Chinese are still in their minds, but China feels that their rise as an economic power that invests heavily in not only the private sector where there are many state-owned enterprises (SOE’s), but its ever- growing middle class and infrastructure reforms have domestically and internationally transformed itself into a global powerhouse that is a reliable partner for the world including less developed countries.

The Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has two centennial goals that they hope to achieve by 2020. According to the report, these two goals include; “China’s military leaders want to achieve mechanization and to make “major progress” toward informatization by 2020, ahead of the first centenary goal. They also seek to reach a goal of “modernization,” an unclear objective possibly tied to a peer capability with the U.S. military, by the second centenary goal in the middle of this century.”vii

In addition, China’s coercive approach in the South China Sea is seen by the United States and many of the regional players as worrisome, but the regional players like the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan want to maintain a balance that relies on U.S security while at the same time, still relying on Chinese economic trade. However, many are worried that China’s claims undermine the claims of other countries that share the South China Sea with Beijing; “China’s construction in the Spratly Islands demonstrates China’s capacity—and a newfound willingness to exercise that capacity—to strengthen China’s control over disputed areas, enhance China’s presence, and challenge other claimants.”viii

China would be too clever to use its coercive approach to carry out an attack, and historically, its foreign policy is not structured on carrying out any type of aggression. Some can also argue that China’s claims in the South China Sea go beyond its borders and this could be viewed by some as aggression.

The South China Sea is significantly important because it contains most of the world’s oil and gas reserves, but East Asia is so reliant on the flow of oil and commerce flowing through the region, and the United States can be a balancing power that prevents one country, in this case China, from becoming too dominant in having their say over the natural resources in some of these islands including the Paracels and the Spratlys. China, however, claims that it has ““indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof”.ix One example of this came in 2016, with the arbitration case against China that they had no legal authorization over the islands over historical rights and convention laws.

China’s foreign policy overall is not designed to carry out an attack, but if an adversary were to attack, it would respond. China also uses a coercive approach to advance its national interests in economic activities, and strengthen its influence in the Asia-Pacific region when it comes to the South China Sea. According to the DoD report, China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea “fall below the threshold of provoking the United States, its allies and partners, or others in the Asia-Pacific region into open conflict.”x In addition, China has also been expanding its capacity in the Spratly Islands, where it challenges other claimants and enhances it presence as the main power in the Asia-Pacific.

China’s Modern Militarization Goals

According to the DoD report, some of China’s military goals include improving “its ability to conduct anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), power projection operations, and nuclear deterrence. It also continues to develop capabilities for what PLA writings call “non-war” missions, as well as operations in emerging domains such as cyberspace, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum.”xi China’s armed missile programs have modernized quite rapidly. In addition, the PLA objectives of expanding peaceful operations may contest U.S hegemony as a security mediator in the South China Sea. The PLA’s development into a global force has expanded beyond China’s waters and into the far seas through sovereignty enforcement, enhancing ISR capabilities, and improving targeting to reduce any potential threats.

Another aspect of China’s militarization goals has been its ‘no first use policy’ in relevance to its nuclear program. This policy is a policy that China will only react if another actor uses nuclear weapons against it. In addition, there are two pledges that China has committed to under the ‘no first use policy’. First, “China will never use nuclear weapons first at any time and under any circumstances, and it unconditionally undertakes not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapon state or in nuclear-weapon-free zones.”xii However, some critics argue that there could be a time where China would be pressured to use nuclear weapons first.

One example would include; “if an enemy’s conventional attack threatened the survival of China’s nuclear force or of the regime itself.”xiii If this were to happen, which seems unlikely, then China would probably react with force. China claims that their nuclear program is used for peaceful purposes and nuclear deterrence.

Beijing’s deterrence strategy is designed to survive a first strike by any actor and respond by using force if were attacked, to inflict damage to an enemy. There are two prongs to China’s developments in nuclear deterrence. The first prong consists of a Nuclear Triad, which delivers intelligence systems by land, air, and sea, and the other prong is the launch on warning, which enables China to respond more rapidly to an attack. China’s nuclear triad is similar in size to that of Russia and the United States, but its nuclear force is much smaller compared to the U.S, Russia, and European powers like Britain and France.

Unlike the U.S and Russia, China stores most of its nuclear weapons underground through a network of tunnels or as the Chinese call it ‘the underground great wall of China’. The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Forces and the People’s Liberation Army Navy are responsible for land and sea based capabilities and there is no clear nuclear mission coming out of Beijing. China’s nuclear capabilities are used for self-defense to deter an attack and it is not designed to carry out an aggressive offensive. The Launch on Warning is basically a nuclear posturing by Beijing to use “heightened readiness, improved surveillance, and streamlined decision-making processes to enable a more rapid response to enemy attack.”xiv China is also working on a space-based capability that supports this tactic in the future.

China’s ability to become a dominant sea power has enabled them to conduct naval operations beyond their periphery and extend its air defense umbrellas beyond coastal areas where there is Chinese influence. Also, the Chinese have extended its modernization of ship, submarine, and aircraft ASCM’s.

Beijing is also preparing its More Operations Other Than War (MOOTW) initiative, which includes international rescues, counterterrorism, emergency responses, and other security tasks. The MOOTW also includes groups where Beijing has played more non-traditional roles besides military power. These groups include food/disaster relief forces, post-earthquake forces, international peacekeeping, emergency relief for transportation, and emergency rescue for biological/chemical disasters.

U.S Strategic Engagement

U.S engagement with China is crucial for the future of U.S-China relations. In order to improve these relations, the DoD report highlighted three main aspects to engage with China strategically, “(1) building sustained and substantive dialogue through policy dialogues and senior leader engagements; (2) building concrete, practical cooperation in areas of mutual interest; and (3) enhancing risk management efforts that diminish the potential for misunderstanding or miscalculation.”xv

China’s military capabilities are a reliability for countering terrorism, piracy, and providing humanitarian assistance to peacemaking in all corners of the globe. However, with China’s expanding global influence, there is a worry about a miscalculation, especially in highly contested areas like the South China Sea and even in South Asia. A strong relationship with China that maintains a balance in the Asia-Pacific region is vital for U.S interests and it is also vital for continuing cooperation with Beijing and our allies in the region. The U.S objective is not only about strong engagement, but it is diplomatically committed to ensuring that China be a stable player for all countries in the Asia-Pacific. The United States will also continue to diplomatically engage with China on a position of strength that enhances regional cooperation, and deepens partnerships with China and our allies.

Notes:
i. Minnie Chan, “What’s driving Chinese President Xi Jingping’s military modernisation push?” August 1, 2017 South China Morning Post http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2104915/whats-driving-chinese-president-xi-jinpings-military
ii. Minnie Chan, “What’s driving Chinese President Xi Jingping’s military modernisation push?” August 1, 2017 South China Morning Post http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2104915/whats-driving-chinese-president-xi-jinpings-military
iii. Summary of Troop Contributing Countries by Ranking” June 30, 2017 United Nations http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/contributors/2017/jun17_2.pdf
iv. “Financing Peacekeeping” 2016-2018 United Nations http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/70/331/Add.1
“Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” Generated May 15, 2017 Department of Defense https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2017_China_Military_Power_Report.PDF
v. “Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” Generated May 15, 2017 Department of Defense https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2017_China_Military_Power_Report.PDF
vi. “Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” Generated May 15, 2017 Department of Defense https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2017_China_Military_Power_Report.PDF
vii. “Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” Generated May 15, 2017 Department of Defense https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2017_China_Military_Power_Report.PDF
viii. “Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” Generated May 15, 2017 Department of Defense https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2017_China_Military_Power_Report.PDF
ix. Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” Generated May 15, 2017 Department of Defense https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2017_China_Military_Power_Report.PDF
x. “Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” Generated May 15, 2017 Department of Defense https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2017_China_Military_Power_Report.PDF
xi. “Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” Generated May 15, 2017 Department of Defense https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2017_China_Military_Power_Report.PDF
xii. “Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” Generated May 15, 2017 Department of Defense https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2017_China_Military_Power_Report.PDF
xiii. “Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” Generated May 15, 2017 Department of Defense https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2017_China_Military_Power_Report.PDF
xiv. “Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” Generated May 15, 2017 Department of Defense https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2017_China_Military_Power_Report.PDF
xv. “Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” Generated May 15, 2017 Department of Defense https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2017_China_Military_Power_Report.PDF


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Vincent Lofaso

Vincent Lofaso

Vincent Lofaso is a recent graduate of Manhattan College with a Political Science major with a focus in international affairs. Most of his research is related on geopolitical and security issues.

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