On March 3, Ryan Haas published an article in Foreign Affairs cautioning analysts and policymakers against adopting an exclusively alarmist attitude toward China. Such an alarmist attitude leads to increased anxiety among analysts and policymakers but is not based on the totality of the evidence. Haas speaks directly to how successful authoritarian regimes project strength while concealing weakness by controlling information leaving their borders. He argues that “policymakers in Washington must be able to distinguish between the image Beijing presents and the realities it confronts.”
By developing a clear and comprehensive picture of both Chinese strengths and weaknesses policymakers can better inform decision-makers on key competition questions. Analyses that focus exclusively on the projected images of strength are only incorporating half of the evidence. To avoid creating the anxiety Haas describes, analysts and policymakers must ensure that assessments of Chinese military power are equally informed by its projected strengths and current shortfalls. In this piece I will highlight imbalances that exist across current analyses of China’s military and provide complementary evaluations of existing weaknesses that analysts should incorporate into military power assessments.
The Two Halves of Assessing PLA Military Power and Advancements
Alarmist analysis that lacks balance between the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) strengths and weaknesses is exemplified in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) commander’s March 2021 testimony in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee regarding how his command plans to keep pace with Chinese technological modernization. This includes focusing on U.S. technology advances that increase joint force lethality, as well as the expansion of long-range precision fire capabilities. As evidence of the rising PLA threat, Admiral Philip Davidson highlighted in his written testimony the commissioning of new and advanced air and naval platforms such as China’s “first aerial-refuelable bomber, the H-6N” and “the LUYANG III MOD guided-missile destroyer [which] provides the PLA Navy greater maneuverability and flexibility.” He continued his assessment of the growing PLA threat, emphasizing its “pursuing [of] a range of advanced weaponry, including electromagnetic railguns, hypersonic glide vehicles, and land-attack and anti-ship supersonic cruise missiles.”
New missiles and advanced platforms represent only a small part of the PLA’s endeavor to achieve parity with its adversaries. I categorize this technological advancement as “military modernization,” defined by the development of exquisite weapon systems and improvements of warfare materiel to meet military requirements. There is, however, a second bin of advancements I label as “military reform,” which is defined less by hardware and more by institutional evolutions such as a restructuring of PLA hierarchy and a reprioritization of realistic training in integrated joint operations. While the military modernization bin represents the PLA’s image of strength and tends to garner the majority of attention in press reports, the military reform bin receives less fanfare but highlights current PLA weaknesses. High-tech new weapons are useful for enabling a military’s lethality, but current military reform shortfalls hinder the PLA’s ability to employ such hardware to achieve China’s strategic political goals. To best provide a balanced analysis of the PLA’s strengths and weaknesses, analysts and policymakers should focus on assessing not only military modernization strengths, but also military reform weaknesses.
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The Current Focus on PLA Military Modernization
The most recent example of PLA modernization and reform stems from a series of endeavors enacted by chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi Jinping, targeting what he termed the “Five Incapables.” These incapables highlight current PLA weaknesses that would prevent it from achieving military modernization by 2035 and becoming a world class military by 2049. A key component of these efforts is the development and deployment of combat credible weapons systems capable of holding key adversary assets at risk, and enabling the PLA to expand their areas of influence outside of mainland China.
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Military modernization looks to arm the PLA with weapon systems required to effectively execute the Chinese strategy of “active defense” of core national interests. These efforts include new intermediate range ballistic missiles capable of reaching U.S. bases on Guam, as well as new space capabilities that enhance PLA intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance over longer distances. Military modernization also seeks to build a PLA capable of conducting global military activities that project Chinese power to protect its foreign interests and citizens residing overseas. As Chinese scholars view growing international economic clout as a key enabler of national power, the ability to defend those international interests has become a critical task to the PLA.
But Military Reform Is the Other Half of the Campaign to Transform the PLA
Even with new hardware, Xi recognized the need to execute comprehensive reforms to support a competent and capable force. In late 2015, Xi first codified his campaign of military reform, after identifying an army struggling to meet the requirements of conducting local warfare under informationized conditions. This concept of networked warfare is based on persistent surveillance and reconnaissance coupled with precision guided munitions that mitigate both collateral damage as well as the risk of inadvertent military escalation. Xi also observed a PLA critically hindered by outdated command structures and rampant corruption, failing to effectively conduct joint operations that integrated multiple service branches into one military effort. The country was split into military regions that often acted as their own fiefdoms, practicing few inter-regional joint exercises. Furthermore, these regions lacked sufficient logistical resources to sustain a major campaign. Finally, the PLA suffered from a manpower system rife with bribery, and labored to develop an educated force writ large.
It was under these conditions that Xi announced sweeping reforms meant to professionalize the PLA over the subsequent five years. These reforms were designed to bring the force closer to achieving the status of a world class military. One of the first major changes was the transition of the military regions into “theater commands” structured similarly to U.S. geographic combatant commands. In this structure, each military branch (the PLA Army, Navy, and Air Force) provides a component organization subordinate to the theater commander, thus fostering better integrated joint PLA military operations. These changes have provided the Chinese military with additional skills necessary to execute more complex missions and campaigns, such as a hypothetical amphibious landing on Taiwan.
Xi’s reforms also targeted PLA shortfalls in conducting realistic combat training under informationized conditions. The PLA lacks modern combat experience, as its most recent war occurred against Vietnam in 1979. The PLA has therefore relied on military exercises as its primary means to test and evaluate combat readiness across the force. Efforts to improve the realism in red-blue exercises include a more dynamic and unscripted adversary, as well as more complex scenarios such as night operations and the integration of multi-service concurrent objectives.
The reforms also created three new services within the PLA: the Rocket Force (PLARF) born out of the former Second Artillery Corps, which manages long range precision fires and the country’s rocket nuclear arsenal; the Strategic Support Force (SSF), which manages information operations, space operations, and cyber operations; and the Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF), which manages the movement of materiel across the country, as well as ensuring civil military integration of logistical support to the PLA. Through these three new organizations, Beijing has centralized command of its strategic kinetic and non-kinetic arsenal. This centralization ensures both effective control and political loyalty of those forces, while addressing critical PLA weakness surrounding integrated joint operations across all warfighting functions.
However, these new organizations have had their share of growing pains since their establishment. The SSF has struggled with cohesion since it was compiled in a “bricks not clay” manner from formerly disparate organizations. The JLSF remains in the most nascent stages of developing a logistical capability supporting expeditionary operations. The PLARF has been forced to reconcile Beijing’s centralized control with a requirement to integrate into theater-commanded joint operations.
The Unfinished Mission of PLA Reform
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While Xi’s 2015 military reform campaign concluded in 2020, his efforts continue to improve identified PLA shortfalls, such as cultivating quality personnel, promoting integrated joint operations, and emphasizing realistic combat training. At the Fifth Plenum of China’s 19th Party Congress in October 2020, the Chinese Communist Party established a new milestone date of 2027 for Xi’s Three-Step Development Strategy for Defense Modernization. By the new milestone, the PLA is tasked to reach military advancement targets, such the acceleration of doctrine and organizational reforms. The PLA maintained 2035 as the second milestone date by which the PLA will have incorporated mechanized (able to mobilize quickly over vast distance), informationized (operations driven by comprehensive reconnaissance and precision strike weaponry), and intelligentized (campaigns executed through combat systems enabled by artificial intelligence to compress decision loops) warfare. The final milestone of Xi’s three-step plan is 2049 when the PLA is set to attain the status of a world class military. To achieve these goals, Xi will likely continue his anti-corruption campaigns, improve talent management and retention programs, and demand complex integrated joint operations in both training and exercises.
As the PLA approaches its milestones of 2027 and 2035, it will likely feel increased pressure from CCP leadership to demonstrate progress in these areas. The PLA will also likely continue to pay close attention to U.S. military modernization, specifically in the INDOPACOM area of operations, to ensure that Beijing’s own advancement efforts and reform campaigns continue to put the PLA on the path toward parity with, and eventual superiority to, U.S. military capabilities.
Why We Can’t Forget About the Other Half of PLA Development
Xi Jinping and the Central Military Commission recognize that the introduction of advanced weaponry to a military force that is ill-trained and ill-managed will not result in a PLA that can achieve the party’s strategic objectives. However, new hardware enables Beijing to perpetuate its projected images of military strength while concealing continued shortfalls related to military reform.
U.S. defense analysts and policymakers should watch for indications of improvements across Xi’s identified critical PLA shortfall areas to generate clear and comprehensive assessments of progress within both PLA modernization and reform campaigns. Indications of continued progress can provide critical insight into party leaders’ confidence in the PLA’s ability to compete, fight, and win wars, while also highlighting areas of continued shortfall throughout the force. If military analysts and policymakers focus solely on the procurement of new hardware, longer range missiles, more capable ships, and stealthier aircraft, they risk only seeing half the picture and risk making the PLA out to be 10 feet tall.