In just the past several weeks, China has sent troops to its first overseas base in Djibouti, intercepted a U.S. surveillance plane over the East China Sea, reinforced its border with North Korea, and declared it will not back down from a border dispute with India. Beyond that, its militarization of man-made islands in the South China Sea continues. The fact that China can simultaneously conduct all of these operations is the result of its ongoing military modernization programs and its expanding ability to project power globally.
China’s new capabilities and their application towards its national goals of great power status and domestic security have serious implications for the United States and China’s neighbors, according to the Pentagon’s 2017 report on Chinese military power. Specifically, China is working towards comprehensive reforms that will expand maritime capabilities, joint operations among the service branches of the People’s Liberation Army, and new elite units. These capabilities are the results of decades of planning and reorganization within the PLA.
The first modern reforms began after the end of the Cold War and the 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 displayed the decisive power of advanced technology and information on the battlefield. In 2004, former Chinese President Hu Jintao ordered the PLA to focus on “winning local wars under informatized conditions”—a concept analogous to the U.S. military concept of network-centric warfare—the use of information and communications technologies to coordinate, accelerate, and improve military operations. This concept has influenced many of China’s decisions to reorganize its military and incorporate new capabilities into its forces.
In addition to advancing its version of network-centric warfare, what China calls “infomationization,” the government has centralized and expanded its authority to address domestic and external security issues with an increasing amount of power residing with Chinese President Xi Jinping. In 2015, the government issued the National Security Law which centralized the government’s power to act on domestic security issues related to counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and others.
Also in 2015, China established the National Security Commission, an advisory body led by Xi that according to Xi is tasked to “establish a centralized and unified, highly authoritative state security system.” The commission has a similar role to the United States’ National Security Council, though its broad mission over domestic and external affairs and “sprawling definition of national security” give it a wider scope, and one that may grow more powerful over time, according to Pentagon experts.
Today, the Chinese military continues to pursue informationization and mechanization with the goal of making “major progress” by 2020, although the Chinese have not elaborated on what that progress would be. However, the Pentagon report states this could “possibly [be] tied to a peer capability with the U.S. military” by mid-century. Broadly, this means creating a force based on quality, not quantity, something Xi emphasized in recent comments addressed to members of the politburo.
Xi has increasingly become the standard-bearer for China’s pursuit of national power and holds many positions that centralize his power over the military. He has led the Central Military Commission—the highest decision making body on military affairs—since 2012 in addition to leading groups on defense reform. In 2016, he took the title of commander-in-chief of the PLA’s Joint Battle Command, a new operations center meant to improve the efficiency and speed of coordinating China’s armed forces. The accumulation of titles is meant to demonstrate Xi’s ultimate control over the PLA.
Xi’s power is expected to increase in the coming years as all indications suggest he will be selected for a second term as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and will retain his other titles. Additionally, Xi will have a strong influence over new members selected to different Committees, including the Central Military Commission where five of the ten members are due to retire. Experts believe the Congress will further consolidate Xi’s power and therefore his ability to reform. This will likely be true for his military reform agenda as well.
China’s expanding military power and national ambitions present several areas of friction with the United States, most notably in the South and East China seas. While both countries remain committed to areas of cooperation—they have found limited common ground on security issues such as anti-piracy, counterterrorism, and nuclear non-proliferation—improving security dialogue, and avoiding conflict, there is no denying that much of the military preparation on both sides is meant to respond to one another.
To address this, the Pentagon report states the U.S. “will continue to monitor China’s military modernization, and it will continue to adapt its forces, posture, investments, and operational concepts to ensure the United States retains the ability to defend the homeland, deter aggression, protect our allies and partners, and preserve regional peace, prosperity, and freedom.”
China’s structural reforms to its military and its pursuit of advanced technologies are creating a military that can conduct operations with greater speed and complexity. It is a qualitatively superior force over its predecessor, and this trend will continue well into the 21st century. China’s military spending has increased by 8.5 percent per year for the last ten years, even as GDP growth has decreased to 6.7 percent, meaning it remains a top spending priority for the government.
China’s reformed military has already bolstered its assertiveness in global affairs, and this is likely to continue as it modernizes further. For the U.S. and other nations affected by China’s growing power, the question of when to accommodate and when to confront could become an increasingly difficult one to answer.
Will Edwards is an Asia-Pacific and defense analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @_wedwards.