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

Photo: Keith Tsuji/Getty Images

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.

Bonnie S. Glaser, Director, China Power Project, CSIS

“China does not publicize the breakdown of its defense budget by services nor does it reveal how much it spends on weapons procurement. Defense outlays not covered may include government subsidies for military production, funds for strategic and nuclear forces, and paramilitary organizations. Modernization of China’s military is one of Xi Jinping’s top priorities that he set at the 19th Party Congress last October. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that the defense budget is marginally higher than last year.”

Dennis Wilder, former Senior Director for East Asian Affairs, National Security Council

“The Chinese military, under the orders of President Xi Jinping, is undergoing its most profound and widespread organization reforms since the founding of modern China in 1949. Traditionally, the PLA has been dominated by the ground forces and organized with large infantry armies to defend against invasion along its long land borders, as well as serve as the ultimate guarantor of internal stability. China’s military regions were structured to maximize the power and authority of regional commanders, who were always ground force generals.”

Issue: China’s expanding military power creates areas of friction with the United States, and there is no denying that much of the military preparation on both sides is meant to respond to the other. Both nations remain committed to finding areas of common ground—on issues such as anti-piracy, counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation—but they have found limited success, and the military ramp-up continues, with China’s capabilities presenting an increasing threat to U.S. and allied forces.

  • The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy, published in January, states the following: “China is leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage. As China continues its economic and military ascendance, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future. The most far-reaching objective of this defense strategy is to set the military relationship between our two countries on a path of transparency and non-aggression.”
  • A 2017 Pentagon report on Chinese military developments interprets the goal of military “modernization” as “possibly tied to a peer capability with the U.S. military,” and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, during a speech at the 19th Communist Party Congress in October, set an abstract but aggressive goal for the military: be “first class in every way” by mid-century. Xi also referred to China’s building of artificial islands in the South China Sea—a move that has created significant tensions with the United States, Japan, the Philippines, and other neighbors—a “highlight” of his first five years.
  • China is swiftly pursuing civil-military partnerships to more rapidly drive defense innovation. In March 2017, over 3,000 patents relating to Chinese air, space, and missile technologies were released, and in May 2017, the Chinese government established the Military Science Research Steering Committee, modeled on the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Last month, images emerged purporting to show an electromagnetic railgun mounted on a Chinese warship—something the rest of the world, including the U.S., has yet to do.

Adm. (ret.) Sandy Winnefeld, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

“It is no secret that China has taken great strides in developing its military over the past two decades. Through observation, purchase, development and outright theft, the People’s Liberation Army has evolved faster than perhaps any nation’s military in history. Knowing their inherent advantages and disadvantages, they have invested wisely in systems designed to counter ours. They realize that any contest in Asia between China and any adversary will first be a naval and air contest, and it has prepared accordingly by developing sophisticated counter-space, counter-air, and counter-maritime capabilities.”

  • China now has two operational aircraft carriers, and its third—under construction since 2015—is expected to be substantially different, with several technological improvements. Perhaps most notably, Chinese engineers are working to fit the ship with an electromagnetic aircraft launching system, or EMALS, rather than the ski-ramp launching system used on the first two vessels. EMALS, which the U.S. military uses on its newest carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, removes weight limitations on launch, thereby increasing the effectiveness and range of aircraft. China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) also recently announced it plans to have a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the water by 2025, which may prove necessary to power EMALS and other systems with large energy requirements.
  • In August 2017, China set up its first overseas military base in Djibouti, where six other nations have a military presence nearby. A report by the Center for Naval Analyses concludes this base will have the capacity to support at least five mission areas: counterpiracy, intelligence collection, non-combat evacuation operations, peacekeeping operations and counterterrorism. China has denied recent reports that it is working to establish a second military base in Pakistan.

Bonnie S. Glaser, Director, China Power Project, CSIS

“As the CSIS Asia Transparency Maritime Initiative has documented, China’s construction of outposts in the Spratly Islands has enabled it to significantly enhance its ability to monitor air and sea activity as well as project power throughout the South China Sea. These dual-use civilian-military facilities will increase China’s ability to exercise greater control over resources in disputed waters and to intimidate its neighbors in peacetime. If China deploys fighter jets and missiles on the artificial islands, which is likely, this will increase the threat to US ships and aircraft, especially in wartime. Nevertheless, the U.S. Navy will not likely be deterred from operating in the South China Sea as a result.”

Adm. (ret.) Sandy Winnefeld, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

“Sophisticated Chinese citizens do not view themselves as part of a rising nation. Rather, they see China as restoring its previous and proper place in the world as being the dominant nation in Asia. Further, in a more open world, they see themselves as extending that influence across the globe such as it enhances Chinese (primarily economic) interests. As they rejoined the international community after many dark years, including the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, they discovered a global system designed by others that does not exactly match the Chinese cultural model. The lion’s share of the work on this system was done after World War II, just as China was in its most isolated state. China wishes to bend that system wherever possible to reflect its own views and power. They do so using the same instruments of power we use to maintain the system: diplomatic, economic, information, legal, and, in some cases, military power.”

Response: As Chinese military capabilities continue to expand, the U.S. is working quickly to develop counters to these threats, both in terms of technology and policy.

  • The Pentagon is reportedly expanding its missile defense policy to address threats from Russia and China, departing from a previous focus exclusively on rogue nations like Iran and North Korea. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, Gen. John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, called China’s ballistic missile development program the world’s “most active and diverse.”
  • In addition to policy, the Pentagon is working to improve U.S. ability to detect and destroy incoming missile threats through better sensors and defensive capabilities. Electromagnetic railguns and directed-energy weapons (lasers) may prove to be cost-effective solutions in the medium and long term, as each round fired by both systems would be orders of magnitude cheaper than interceptor missiles, but numerous obstacles remain to the deployment of these systems. In the short-term, the Navy—and Army—have found that Hyper Velocity Projectiles (HVP) being developed for eventual use with railguns can actually be used with existing naval guns and artillery pieces to great effect.
  • The U.S. continues to carry out freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) in the South China Sea to challenge excessive Chinese maritime claims. Total numbers of FONOPs are not publicly available, but reported figures—with four FONOPs in the South China Sea in five months during 2017—suggest the Trump administration has increased the operational tempo.

Adm. (ret.) Sandy Winnefeld, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

“While China’s array of anti-ship capability is worrisome, there is no single system that creates more concern than others; rather, it is the broad aggregate of asymmetric Chinese capabilities that presents the greater challenge. Over time, this will require the U.S. military to shift from ‘doing the same thing, but incrementally better all the time’ to ‘present new dilemmas to the Chinese by bringing new combinations of concepts and technologies to bear on the true Chinese centers of gravity.’”

Looking Ahead: Though the United States maintains a significant military advantage, China will almost certainly continue to close to gap in terms of power and force projection capabilities, in the process forcing both countries to engage in a costly arms race. Some scholars argue that China’s rise will inevitably lead to conflict with the U.S. as the existing hegemonic power. To prevent this outcome, the two nations must continue to find ways to engage constructively and clarify their respective strategic intentions.

  • Other analysts maintain that the threat of nuclear escalation is deterrent enough to prevent the U.S. and China from engaging in even low-level military conflict, or—should it occur—will lead to immediate de-escalatory efforts. In 2001, when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. spy plane, forcing the U.S. plane to make an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island, the incident was resolved in under two weeks, following an official expression of regret by the U.S. government for the loss of the Chinese pilot’s life.

Jeffrey Engstrom and Michael S. Chase, RAND Corporation

“Chinese global military interaction, enabled by its growing power projection capabilities, is a fairly new phenomenon. The reality is that these capabilities can be used, from the U.S. perspective, in ways that are alternately beneficial, indifferent, and even adverse to U.S. regional goals. Providing global public goods, such as peacekeeping or anti-piracy patrols, benefits the global community and beneficially burden-shares in ways that may minimize the scale or possibly even the need for a U.S. response. China is already using its bases on its man-made islands and power projection capabilities in the South China Sea in ways that seek to exert control over international waters, intimidate other claimants, and challenge U.S. freedom of navigation, all of which are inimical to U.S. regional goals.”

Adm. (ret.) Sandy Winnefeld, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

“China is trying to protect its economic interests by expanding militarily into the Indian Ocean, including establishing several naval bases, but have thus far not committed any acts that would be out of the ordinary. They also participated in counter-piracy operations off the coast of Yemen. While it is certainly not in the U.S. interest for China to be expanding in this way, there is little that can be done about it. One can only hope that China acts responsibly in these areas, to include being prepared to provide humanitarian assistance when necessary.                                                                                                                                                                              The one area that is, of course, an exception, is China’s aggressive expansion into the South China Sea through building ‘islands’ where none previously existed in an attempt, largely rejected by the international community, to establish hegemony over the area. If a nation owns an island, it can claim an exclusive economic zone around that island that covers fishing, drilling, and other economic activity within 200 nautical miles except as it overlaps other nations’ claims. Without getting into the legal complexities (or the enormous environmental damage cause by their dredging activity), China has very much overstepped its bounds in the resource-rich South China Sea, and everyone knows it.”

Brian Garrett-Glaser is the content manager for The Cipher Brief. Some material from this article was originally published on August 1, 2017.


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5 Replies to “China’s Military Revolution: Smarter, Better, Faster, Smaller”
  1. These kind of articles brings me back to the heyday of the cold war were periodic articles were published about the latest uber Soviet weapon system and the Soviet military was the most effective in the history of the world.

    Is China improving their military? Yup, but that’s a rather low bar.
    Does the new weapon systems that China have work as advertised? Dunno, but most likely not.
    Does China have any experience running a ‘western’ style military in a conflict? Zero, zip, nada.
    Has China military overcome it’s historical corruption and incompetence? Maybe, most likely not.

    The threat of China isn’t it’s improved military, the threat of China is that it believes it’s press clippings and tries to kick someone’s @ss to get back some ‘face’ it’s lost over the last couple of centuries or so.

  2. China emerging out of the dark ages, building overseas naval bases, modernizing its military, investing in technology, expanding its influence, the pot calling the kettle black. While the think tanks employ the “experts”, professing they know all, what do they really know? One could easily conclude that the U.S. should be doing the same, instead of wasting the resources on being “the bully on the beach”, that has only one option, to maintain its “nuclear” inventory. Oh,but were the good guys and China & Russia are the bad guys, because then we can spend spend spend our resources on war material. Perhaps that part of the plan would make sense, if the $$$$ generated, ended up in the treasury of the U.S.A., instead of in the arms merchants treasury. But that would require a radical rethinking, creating an unemployment mess for the denizens of the think tanks, power brokers, indeed, members of the U.S. Military elite. Why not just blow the world up and be done with it?

    1. Russia and China are the bad guys because they’ve killed millions of their own citizens along with threats to the world at large. It’s amazing how Russian and Chinese apologists forget these little facts.

  3. China is also surrounded by enemies. Russians, Indians, Vietnamese, Japanese, South Koreans. Russia has the same problems. So any increase in budget needs to address two thing upgrading really lousy stuff held over from the 60s, and two, addressing all the different fronts the Chinese have. It will take China 50 years with this budget to get to under 50% of the capability of the US and Europe.

  4. In my 2015 title, “The Twilight of America’s Omnipresence:China’s Aggrandizement in a New Era of Multipolarity,” i made a compelling argument case that notwithstanding the P.R.C.’s ambitious military modernization program, there were three criteria that placed the United States ahead of China. The first was its ideological apparatus that was globally dispersed that included its formidable military industrial complex buttressed by basing footprints, the mass media, the intelligence machinery, the monetary system, foundations and think tanks. The second was technology; and the third was its cultural allure around the world. This, of course preceded the emergence of new leadership among the great powers- the election of President Trump and Xi Jinping’s emergence and his ambitions to “rejuvenate” the Middle Kingdom. Plans to propagate Chinese political (i.e. Communist) systems are a drastic departure from the accustomed non- doctrinaire approach in Beijing’s widening orbit and ought not to be taken lightly. The export of a” new type of political party system” as touted by the President to all the world, that could possibly eclipse the Western ideal, is a clarion call and equally threatening as any military expansion.

    It is an all-out challenge given expression to in the realm of ideas and ideology. America is still ahead.