Friday, August 22, 2014

Chinese PLA Modernisation: Perspectives and Issues

Lt Gen (Retd) JS Bajwa

“Build strong National Defence and powerful Armed Forces that are commensurate with China’s international standing and meet the need of its security and development interests is a strategic task of China’s modernisation drive.
-President Hu Jintao At the 18th National Congress of CPC March 2013.

Armed forces of a nation constitute an element of National Power in synergy with diplomacy, economic development, education, technological base and Research and Development (R&D), industry and others. A distinguishing feature of China’s modernisation mission has been the national pursuit of “Comprehensive Power”. They wisely learnt that one key lesson from studying the experience of other previous powers - genuine global powers possess multidimensional strengths.

Chinese scholars and officials have used the term “Peaceful Rise” to describe China’s foreign policy to counter fears about its growing economic and political might. However, the ‘Rise’ has proved controversial as it has fuelled a perception that China is a threat to the existing established world order. Also, ‘Rise’ implies that others will decline in a relative sense. In the 2004 session of BFA (Boao Forum for Asia), President Hu Jintao used the phrase “Peaceful Development” which since has been the preferred term. ‘Development’ suggests that China’s advance can bring others along. The normative aspect of power being equally important as it is about projecting ‘soft power’ and relies primarily on resources of non-military nature. Recently Joseph Nye and Ernest Wilson developed the concept of ‘Smart Power’ which combines elements of soft and hard power to achieve foreign policy goals.

The past three decades of China’s economic rise has witnessed a similar and parallel rise of the Defence Budget translating into a phenomenal modernisation of the Armed Forces. The Defence Budget has risen at par and over a period at a higher rate than the economic growth rate. It has also remained steady at over five percent of total Central Government spending. The 2014 Government released data on Defence Budget indicates a 12.2 percent rise over the previous year (2014 - $131.6 billion; 2013 - $112.2 billion). There, thus, remains a concern of China’s potential for violent conflict with other states especially over territory.

In this context, it may be worthwhile to historically understand the circumstances when governments have exercised the option of war as an instrument of its foreign policy:-


(a) War is chosen even though no specific conflict of interest with another state or cacus belli may exist, only uncertainty about the future.
(b) Preventive Wars: Such a war is defined as ‘a war fought in order to avoid the risks of war under worsening circumstances later’.
(c) Territorial conflicts are dynamic contests. States actively compete to strengthen their claims in a dispute usually by improving their position in the local military balance.
(d) In territorial disputes, states will be able to match each other’s moves and maintain their relative balance and positions. Inaction could be more costly in the long run than using force in the short run.

The political, diplomatic and military moves initiated by China along India’s northern boundary reflect in substantive terms the possibility of China resorting to exercising the aforementioned options. China has used military force more often over territory than over any other type of foreign policy issue. A state may use military force in a territorial dispute not because of the importance of the land being contested but because of the need to invest in a general reputation for toughness. Such an option with respect to China should not be considered hypothetical or a mere figment of imagination.

However, it may appear contradictory that China’s historical record of dealing with territorial disputes has been of cooperation and compromise. From 1960-1964, out of eight disputes, China concluded boundary treaties with six of its neighbours. Similarly, from 1990-1999, nine additional boundary agreements were signed. Interestingly, the compromise periods correspond closely with the periods of ‘acute regime insecurity for China’s leadership. China is very sensitive to any eruption of ethnic revolt and this constitutes the first type of internal threat linked with compromise. Chinese military publications link the defence of its frontiers against external threats with internal political stability. The uncertainty of Tibet and the possibility of ethnic unrest will always be held against India by the Chinese government.

While China has not explicitly enunciated a grand strategic design, certain key elements of its national strategy are seminal. First, safeguard national security. Second, promote national development. Third, secure strategic objectives of China’s national rejuvenation and development. China undertook to build and cultivate power comprehensively across a variety of spheres: economic, science, technology, education, culture, values, military, governance, diplomacy and other sectors. The Chinese grasped the idea that power is comprehensive and integrative and not atomistic or indivisible.

Keeping this as the backdrop, China took on the modernisation of its armed forces in a phased manner. The stage was set by diplomatically creating an environment of peace and tranquillity along the borders thus freeing the Forces for modernisation. The first major downsizing was undertaken with the surplus manpower diverted to form the PAPF (People’s Armed Police Force) and Border Guards. The modernisation drive was planned and executed to lay a solid foundation by 2010, thereafter make major progress around 2020 and finally reach the goal of building armed forces capable of winning informationised wars by the mid-21st Century – 2050. Herein, priority was accorded for the expansion and modernisation of the PLAN. The PLAAF, Second Artillery Corps, and Ground Forces came in subsequent order. An RMA with Chinese characteristics was conceptualised as follows:-


(a) Coordinated development of firepower, mobility and information capability.
(b) Strong military through science and technology.
(c) Strategic project for talented people.
(d) Improve levels of scientific management.
(e) Develop military theories in an innovative spirit.
(f) Downsize and restructure forces.
(g) Military exchange and cooperation in line with foreign policy.


The PLA Ground Forces are focused on speeding informationisation of its active main battle equipment to build a new type of ground combat force which is lean, combined, agile and multi-functional. Priority is given to building ‘Pockets of Excellence’ (POE’s) by equipping and restructuring Rapid Reaction Forces/Units, Army Aviation, light mechanised units and information countermeasure units. The inclusion of conventional role capability with the Second Artillery corps has been a significant development in PLA modernisation. With the induction of agile and efficient launch systems, precision strike capability by conventional missiles and cruise missiles the potential of this force at the operational level is now significant. The concurrent technological trends which include terminal guidance for enhanced accuracy, payload variation viz. fragmentation, penetrating, thermo baric, EMP and sub-munitions enable target specific configuration. Along with the well developed infrastructure and its extensive network in Tibet, the reach of this force across India’s northern frontline has serious operational implications for India.

PLA’s doctrine has evolved along with its modernisation. It has been the principle ‘driver’ for force structure, personnel recruitment, military education, training regimes, hardware needs, research and development, weapon procurement and operational strategy. Doctrine, technology and threat have interacted in shaping PLA’s posture over time. The doctrinal thinking and planning enunciates operational principles which includes such concepts as mobility, attrition, annihilation, close or deep-depth defence, layered defence, pre-emptive strikes, asymmetrical warfare, trans-regional operations, offensive operations and other general concepts. The War Zone Concept (WZC) has emerged as an operational-based doctrine and involves all services of the PLA. WZC, simplified, is the doctrine for conducting a limited war under high-tech informationalised conditions. The major characteristic of WZC doctrine is what is referred to as Trans-Regional Support Operations (TRSO) which involves deployment and employment POE’s from other Military Area Commands (MAC) into a possible conflict zone. The mobile nature of the RRU’s and their effectiveness would constitute an indirect forward presence and thus contribute to creation of local and temporary superiority in psychological terms. This, in itself, is presumed, would deter provocation and hence prevent any situation from escalating into a conflict.

China has made no secret of its ambitious space goals. In 2003, it independently launched a man into orbit. In November 2011, it successfully docked two robotic spacecraft in Earth orbit. The quest for manned space station is planned to be put up and made running by 2020. Plans for landing man on the moon remains on its space programme agenda. Currently China has 10 Beidou (Big Dipper) satellites providing a home grown satellite navigation system. By 2020, it will have 35 satellites for the same. In January 2007, China stunned the strategic community when it shot to pieces its own weather satellite with a missile demonstrating an unexpected lethal capability acquired to dominate space. It is now developing jammers and directed-energy weapons for ASAT missions. China’s ability to track and identify satellites is enhanced by technologies from China’s manned and lunar programmes as well as technologies and methods developed to detect and track space debris. A report dated May 3, 2014 stated that China had destroyed the ‘control chip’ of a Japanese spy satellite with a secret weapon (probably an EMP of several megawatts strength fired for one minute at the satellite). It was reported that this satellite was tracking the trial flight of a J-20 stealth fighter over mainland China. The space programme has enabled China to setup advanced space-based C4ISR (Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) and Targeting capability. Presently, China has eight surveillance satellites in orbit besides earth resource satellites and remote sensing satellites.

The PLA is investing heavily in Computer Network Operations (CNO). China’s CNO concept includes computer network attack, computer network exploitation and computer network defence. In addition, PLA has established Information Warfare units to develop viruses to attack enemy computer systems and networks as well as devised tactics and defence measures to protect friendly computers systems and networks. Since 2002, PLA has been creating militia units comprising personnel from commercial Information Technology sector and academia.

Cyber operations are planned to be launched as psychological warfare tools. In 2005, PLA began to incorporate CNO into its military exercises primarily as first strikes against enemy networks. It recently established a new information support and safeguarding base in July 2010 indicating its emphasis on cyber operations. Its cyber espionage and warfare includes:-

(a) Denying and limiting use of space based assets by adversaries in times of crisis or conflict.
(b) Built capability of deploying direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon.
(c) Counter space measures including jamming, laser and microwave.
(d) Employing CNO as a tool to gain strategic intelligence.


As China’s rise continues and capabilities of its Armed Forces increases manifold, China is likely to be less tolerant to impediments or perceived hindrances of any sort in its single minded pursuit of its goals and in securing its national interests. China as a gargantuan economic and military power may continue to deny hegemony but it will inevitably employ some form of economic and diplomatic coercion against its smaller neighbours and military coercion in other cases when it perceives its interests threatened. Consequently its smaller neighbours will seek to hedge in order to maintain an element of independence and balance the power equation. Otherwise these countries will end “paying tribute” to the seat of power in Beijing as of yore. Does India need to bandwagon with likeminded nations? Making a choice will be a major strategic decision.

India needs to define its strategic goals it seeks to achieve along with clearly pronounced time lines. The ‘Financial Year’ syndrome is certainly not suited to long term strategic planning. Future wars will be more than just bullets and bombs – these can be said to be the ‘hard element’ of hard power. Surveillance, IW, CNO and space domination are the new and critical ‘soft elements’ of hard power which will have a decisive role in the outcome of any future conflict. While India makes progress in the accumulation of assets in the category of hard elements of hard power, it is woefully lacking in the research and development of critical soft elements of hard power, making India strategically vulnerable. Infrastructure along the Northern boundary of India is a serious deficiency. India has been extremely cautious in its approach to building roads in the border areas. Tunnelling, which would have been much more economical in the long run has not been undertaken in any sector.

In addition, there is a weakness in institutionalised future planning, both nationally and within the Armed Forces. The Perspective Planning in the Army needs to look at war fighting doctrine, future logistics, harnessing technology with equipment profile and organisational structures coordinated under one directorate. There is need to focus on comprehensive National Security Strategy which should be the main feeder to NSAB (National Security Advisory Board) / NSA (National Security Adviser). Once the National Defence University is set up, the institutions dealing with defence and strategic affairs, including those dealing with economy, foreign affairs and industry, should be incorporated. Intelligence, surveillance including electronic surveillance (National Intelligence Agency) are loosely related in their functioning. CERT-IN (Indian Computer Emergency Response Team) presently under the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology is not a satisfactory arrangement as it functions like any other office while it requires being vigilant and responsive 24x7x365. Therefore, these elements have to be coordinated under one agency to report to NSCB/NSA.

India needs to plan as a future power and exit out of the slumbering mould of merely reacting to situations that seem to take the Government by surprise ever so often.

(The article is an updated version of the paper presented at the Seminar on Engaging China: Opportunity and Challenges, organised by the VIF on June 26, 2014)
(The authors is a Delhi-based Defence Analyst)

Published Date: 7th August 2014, Image source: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/

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