It is a common refrain in a section of policy-makers and sinologists reflecting on the military capabilities of China that while China's military intentions are not crystal clear and transparent, its military capabilities are limited to execute such intentions. While such views were in vogue and dominant until the mid-1990s, concerted military modernization drives and weapon procurement patterns have been altering the situation. This paper attempts to address issues related to the strategic orientation of the armed forces of the PRC, the hardware modernization and training programmes in brief for the current decade.
A country's military capability depends mainly, if not exclusively, on the software and hardware aspects. Military software portions like the trends in defence strategy, operational principles and tactical considerations along with the quality of troops, and hardware segments of the military - ground, air, naval forces and strategic weapons could be taken as tools in identifying such capabilities in their broader outline.
Three broad stages of defence strategy can be identified in China. They include 'People's War' proponents, 'People's War under modern conditions' adherents and the latest 'local war' advocates. Besides, the 'Revolution in Military Affairs' proponents and 'Asymmetric Warfare' supporters could also be found in China. In the current decade, one could witness a distinct school of thought emerging in terms of strategic orientation of the armed forces of China.1 Following global military changes ushered by the Gulf War in 1991, the Kosovo bombings of 1999, and also taking into consideration the new concerns of the PRC, the strategic directions of the PLA are governed largely by the policy of 'local war under high-technology conditions'.
Towards winning the local war, China has enunciated several principles including a 'strategic frontier' that encompasses not only land, sea, air, space and oceans but also of the nation's economic trade and comprehensive national strength, strategic deterrence, 'active defence', fighting with decisive force and tactics to win 'a quick military solution' of a conflict before other powers could intervene.2
The campaigns in a local war would henceforth focus on rapid reaction, concentration of overwhelming strong forces against selected weak forces, launch of surprise pre-emptive attacks on the adversary's key strategic, transportation and C3I assets in order to paralyze the enemy. It was stipulated that in conducting these campaigns, flexible tactics need to be adopted so as to gain combat efficiency. Foolproof preparations, rapid mobilization, enhanced capabilities and directions of the operations are emphasized in this warfare.
According to two PLA colonels,3 what is more important is not the destructive capability of a weapon but whether it fits into the overall war aims, operational objectives and security environment. They argued that future wars will have no restrictions of military/non-military means, no limits in the use of methods, information or battlefields.
Another school of thought that emerged in China is 'Asymmetric Warfare'. The following methods of an inferior side waging a successful hi-tech war against a superior adversary could be implemented: fighting a 'righteous war'; rely on China's strategic depth; depend on the Chinese economic and technological base; banking on the rich experience of similar warfare of yore; timely subjective decisions by the leadership; strive for partial superiority by using crack troops; and targeting key weaknesses of the adversary's weapon systems.
Specific Chinese efforts include developments in war preparations, flexibility, from strategic surprise attack to operational, tactical and technological surprise attack, paralyzing the enemy's will to fight, to aim at a quick war with overwhelming force, modernization of C3I operations, the importance of precision-guided munitions, air-strikes, improvements in logistics support, information warfare, digitization of the battlefield.
To execute war preparations, China has been specifically stressing the building of elite troops. Currently it is engaged in the training of forty Rapid Response Force (RRF) units, twenty of which have already reportedly been commissioned in different regions and units of the PLA with varying levels of development and capabilities. These RRFs are to be developed in each of the seven Military Regions, in each of the twenty-one Group Armies and also by the service arms of the military in this decade.4
Concrete aspects of the military capabilities could be found in the changes brought about in the inventory. China started reorganizing its defence industry in the last two decades and has been introducing gradually market principles of competition. From 1998, reorganization of the five defense industrial divisions - nuclear, space, aviation, shipping and arms - into companies began. A transition from corporations to that of forming enterprises with guiding principles of market-oriented competition, improving management and macrocontrol was attempted. The PRC intended to develop weaponry by changing from 'high-cost, lowefficiency and backward system suited to total war' to that of 'low cost, highefficiency system suited to high-tech local war'.5 The high-technology nature of the Kosovo war had repercussions in PRC with the then top military leaders arguing that the 'period from now to the early twenty-first century is an important period in which armaments of the Chinese armed force will become increasingly mechanized and information-based'.6 To pursue this objective, the Fourth Plenum of the 15th Party Congress reportedly proposed a five-year plan and a ten-year target for army building including development of 'three generations' - 'upgrade a generation of weaponry, develop a generation of weaponry, and test a generation of weaponry'.7
Strengthening conventional and strategic deterrence capability through modernization of equipment became one of the watchwords for China. As a part of this effort, China began modernizing the equipment of its three services and strategic weapons. Modernization of the army equipment included improving the battlefield survivability of the armour, enhancing firepower, targeting systems, crosswind sensors, third-generation night sights, computerized fire control systems, mobility of the vehicles, provision of the Global Positioning Systems and others, though a complete transformation is expected to take several decades and with higher defence outlays.
With oceans becoming an important arena for economic and military expansion in the recent period, China has been paying considerable attention in this field. China in the last fifty years has produced a veritable list of naval vessels and equipment, including conventional and strategic submarines, surface ships and auxiliary vessels. China also has plans to acquire aircraft carriers in the medium term.
Over a period of time, the Chinese navy (PLAN) made progress in quantity and quality of vessels in its inventory. The numbers of surface combatants of China increased in the last three decades in comparison to their ratio with that of the subsurface naval vessels. While several obsolete submarines were either decommissioned or put into reserves, the number of destroyers and frigates increased over a period of time. Currently, even though the percentage of the surface vessels to the total fleet is relatively less, the trend in the increase in the numbers of surface vessels is unmistakable. Another significant feature is the increase in the number of amphibious vessels, thus indicating importance given to PLAN's Marine Corps landing operations in the future.
Qualitative improvements like enhanced firepower, endurance capabilities and reach of the naval vessels and weapon systems, training programmes of the naval troops have been made. The mobility of the ships has also increased noticeably, thanks to the gradual transition into gas turbines and nuclear propulsion. The endurance capability of the submarines was also enhanced. Acquisition of a large number of Kilo-class submarines, and possibly some of the Amur-class with air independent propulsion, could definitely alter naval capabilities of China in the future. The firepower of the destroyers, frigates and submarines show substantial improvement, though still not up to the level of a full-fledged blue navy. Automation of SAM launchers is another significant advance.
Today, China is perhaps the only country in the world believed to be undertaking the development of six different types of aircraft, besides strengthening its other arms of the air force (PLAAF). Major innovations attempted in these programmes are related to multi-functional air superiority with advanced fire control systems, electronics, beyond-vision air-to- air missile systems, and air-to-ground assault systems. Other areas in which China has shown keen interest are AWACS, in-flight refuelling, antimissile defences, ECMs, automatic command and control facilities.
Tipped to be the most modern aircraft to be developed by China, the Xinjian-1 (XJ-1) would be in the same class as that of the American F-22 aircraft. According to the US Office of Naval Intelligence, the XJ-1 project would come to fruition in about 2015. According to some reports, this aircraft would have stealth features, like the F-22.
China has shown keen interest in the development of the AWACS aircraft. The reasons for undertaking the project are obvious: With AWACS, according to You Ji, the efficiency of the PLAAF combat operations would increase phenomenally from about 15-55 per cent, interception rate from 35 to 150 per cent and prevent the enemy's deep strike sorties by 15-55 per cent.8
Another area of interest for the Chinese air force is air refuelling for long-range missions. Progress in securing Beech refuelling pods and bolt-on probes from Iran, equipment from Bedek Aviation of Israel, conversion of its H-6 bombers into refuelling tankers and adaptation to the J-8II aircraft as receivers have been advertised by China.
China's strategic weapons programme and its recent modernization have attracted considerable attention. While China cites slow progress in US and Russian dialogues on arms control on the one hand, and the possible US deployment of a ballistic missile defence (BMD) system in northeast Asia as some of the reasons for enhancing its nuclear capabilities, it may be noted that such progress in China started in the mid-1980s and is linked to its long-term objectives. Cumulatively, the number of nuclear weapons could increase gradually in the current decade. By the end of the decade, China will be enhancing its nuclear and long-range missile arsenal with MIRV capabilities.9 China is also believed to be developing its own Ballistic Missile Defence system, including the development of a global surface monitoring net.
Trends in Training Programmes
The crux of the military capabilities lay in the quality of training programmes. As China enters into a period of 'revolution in military training at deeper levels', there has been a concerted effort at reviewing the previous training programmes, policies, methods, content and their application on the troops.10 In this context, the chief of the general staff, Fu Quanyou called for 'creating four new aspects' in training the PLA forces: military theory; training content; training method; and training system.11
Training of personnel, generally speaking, refers to innumerable day-today routine training activities. This was imparted in academia by theoretical exposure or practically at the bases or on equipment. Recently, online training and simulation exercises have also been introduced. However, manoeuvres, which have recently become frequent, employ military operations with either imaginary enemy forces or a contest between 'blue' and 'red' forces. These have only become common recently, and represent a higher level of preparation in the training system.
Training through joint operations between different service arms as practiced in China differs from that of the US and other countries. According to a recent Chinese critique, US Joint Operations suffer from structural contradictions of competing interests among the services and wide gaps with allies in terms of operational capabilities.12 On the contrary, in the Chinese joint operational training, which is still in its infancy, officers of various armed services were urged to 'widen' their field of vision about other services and develop joint formation, joint tactics and joint training.13 To overcome problems in training, President Jiang Zemin reportedly issued 'Essentials of Combined Operations of the first generation' in 1999.14 These regulations are being implemented throughout the armed forces. However, the main problem in Chinese joint training is 'integration' of various aspects and 'departmental barriers' between various units of armed services. To elaborate Chinese 'specificities', the combined-arms exercises are intended to enhance the role of 'combat operation, joint operation' of the troops. According to the Chinese, the concept of combined operation 'refers to an operation participated in by multiple arms of the service in which one of the arms carries out the primary combat mission with the support of the other arms. The result is a single coordinated and integrated military action wherein a combat mission is carried out within a certain geographical and temporal scope. "Joint operation" refers to a combat mission undertaken by two or more arms of the service having independent combat capabilities and acting separately yet in tandem in the same overall combat zone.'15
These developments in the conventional and strategic forces of China and efforts at joint operational training, along with improvements in logistics, are expected to be carried forward and enhance the military capabilities of China in this decade. Such capabilities could be displayed on perhaps four different scenarios in the coming years. These include the Taiwan Straits with possible military action by China in six different ways against Taiwan (SRBM pre-emptive strikes; attacks to paralyse electronic and C4I systems; air strikes; deployment by airborne forces; conducting submarine blockades; and amphibious landing operations)16; in the South China Sea with Vietnam (on the Paracel Islands) or Vietnam/Philippines (on the Paracels/Spratly's Islands); on the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands with Japan; and with India on the unresolved boundary issue and regarding the sea lines of communications in the Indian Ocean and Malacca Straits.
Dr Srikanth Kondapalli
Research Fellow, Institute for Defence
Studies & Analyses, New Delhi
1 See Michael Pillsbury ed. Chinese Views of Future Warfare(New Delhi: Lancer Publishers, 1998); Pillsbury ed. China Debates the Future Security Environment(National Defense University, 2000); and Wang Wenmo ed. Zhanlue Xue(Science of Strategy) (Beijing: NDU, 1999).
2 See Nan Li, 'The PLA's Evolving Warfighting Doctrine, Strategy and Tactics, 1985-95: A Chinese Perspective' The China Quarterlyno.146 June 1996 pp. 447-48; Jianxiang Bi, 'The PRC's active defense strategy: New wars, old concepts' Issues & Studiesvol. 31 no. 11 November 1995 pp. 59- 97; Paul H.B. Godwin, 'From Continent to Periphery: PLA Doctrine, Strategy and Capabilities Towards 2000' The China Quarterlyno. 146 June 1996 pp.464-87; Paul HB Godwin, 'Chinese Defense Policy and Military Strategy in the 1990s' in Joint Economic Committee of the United States, China's Economic Dilemmas in the 1990s: The Problems of Reforms, Modernization, and Interdependence(Armonk, NY: M.E.Sharpe, 1991) pp.648-62.
3 See Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare(Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, 1999).
4 See 'China's Rapid Reaction Force and Rapid Deployment Force' at http://www.ndu.edu/inss/China_Center/chinacam f.htm (September 6, 2001).
5 Ming Pao14 October 1999 in SWB FE/3673 G/1123 October 1999.
6 Zhang cited in Army prioritizes training in high-tech weapons' Xinhua22 October 1999 in SWB FE/3674 G/725 October 1999.
7 See for the Plenum's proposals, Tai Yang Pao29 September 1999 in SWB FE/3652 G/1029 September 1999.
8 You Ji, The Armed Forces of China(London: I.B.Tauris, 1999).
9 James Lamson and Wyn Bowen, 'One arrow, three stars': China's MIRV programme' Jane's Intelligence ReviewMay and June 1997 2 parts.
10 Chao Qing, ' Zhongguo luhaikong sanjun lianbing yanxi' [An account of troop training in China's army, navy and air force] Xiandai Junshi [ Contemporary Military] (Beijing) vol. 17 no. 10 Issue 206 March 1994 pp. 9-11.
11 See for details about these plans, 'Deepening military reform-Third comment on implementing Chairman Jiang's important instructions, strengthening military training with aid of science and technology' Liberation Army Daily26 March 2001 p.1 in FBIS-CHI-2001-032629 March 2001.
12 See Lu Dehong and Zhu Haitao, 'Analysis of US Military Joint Operations' Liberation Army Daily3 April 2001 p.6 in FBIS-CHI-2001-040410 April 2001.
13 [See for these proposals, He Jiasheng, 'New train of thought vital to joint operations' Liberation Army Daily8 May 2001 p.6 in FBISCHI- 2001-050810 May 2001].
14 'Military chief stresses need for joint forces' Xinhua17 February 2000 in SWB FE/3773 G/6-7 25 February 2000.
15 See Editorial Committee of the Inside China Mainland Monthly A Lexicon of Chinese Communist Terminology2 vols. (Taipei: Institute of Current China Studies, 1997) (Bilingual edition) vol.2 p.238 for this definition.
16 This is based on the statement of former defence minister of Taiwan, Gen Tang Fei. (Interactions with Taiwanese scholars in Washington DC on June 29, 2001).