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The PLA's leap into the 21st Century
Implications for the U.S.
Paul H.B. Godwin
5/18/2004

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Sino-American relations present a paradox. Secretary of State Colin Powell has declared that relations between China and the United States are now the best they have been since the rapprochement of 1972. Yet, even as they view this relationship as pragmatically serving their interests, Beijing and Washington are preparing for a potential military confrontation over Taiwan and are apprehensive over possible future strategic competition. Consequently, China and the United States carefully assess each other's military capabilities and operational doctrines in two realms. First as they bear upon various Taiwan military scenarios and, second, as a possible reflection of each other's long term strategic objectives.

For the United States, the implications of the broader parameters of China's defense modernization programs are a major concern. Beijing's long term objective is to build a defense establishment capable of sustaining China's armed forces with doctrine, personnel, weapons, equipment, and supporting systems that respond to the changing technological demands of war unfettered by dependence on foreign technologies. This is not a new goal. The same objective was set for the defense modernization programs initiated in the mid-1950s with Soviet assistance. Then as now, China sought ultimately to be self-reliant in the most advanced military technologies. In the 1950s and 1960s, these included atomic weapons, nuclear-powered submarines, and ballistic and cruise missiles. The potential military utility of space systems was at the heart of China's 1963 decision to undertake its own space program. When the Sino-Soviet dispute emerged in the late 1950s, leading to Moscow's cancellation of all of its assistance programs, China was forced into the era of unanticipated and unwanted self-reliance. Severed from Soviet support and disrupted for fifteen years by Mao Zedong's political obsessions, with the exception of favored projects such as the nuclear weapons programs, China's defense establishment eroded into obsolescence.

Today, twenty-six years into its second and longest sustained effort to modernize its defense establishment, China's focus on the most advanced military technologies remains. Space systems for communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, laser weapons, precision strike munitions, and information war technologies are but part of the lengthening list of capabilities sought. In short, China seeks again to be self-reliant in the military technologies and capabilities that distinguish a major military power.

This quest for self-reliance is strategic. Although now in the most favorable security environment China has experienced for 160 years, Beijing is uncertain about what the future will hold. Security environments can dramatically change, as China's did with the USSR beginning in the late 1950s, and the twists and turns of the past thirty years suggest that the future of Sino-American relations is unpredictable. Moreover, Beijing believes that if China is to be accepted as a major world power, it must have the indigenous military, scientific, technological and economic foundation of a modern state. Remaining shackled to imported technologies will undermine this objective.

Whereas Beijing's aspirations are clear, China's progress toward achieving them is not. Primarily because China's defense establishment is far from transparent with much of the defense programs shrouded in secrecy. In most areas of military technology, however, it is likely that China lags one or two decades behind the United States. Nonetheless, the past twenty-six years have seen a dramatic transformation of China's defense establishment.

Despite some internal disagreement and several false starts, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the defense industrial base and R&D infrastructure are significantly improved beyond where they were in the late 1970s. The number of military personnel has been significantly reduced, and the ground, air and naval forces have been reorganized to support the transition to the joint warfare operations sought by PLA doctrinal changes over the past decade. Joint logistics are being developed to support the joint warfare objectives of the revised doctrine; acquisitions, primarily from Russia, slowly add advanced weaponry to the PLA Navy (PLAN) and Air Force (PLAAF). Since the late 1990s, acquisitions from Russia have accelerated, accompanied by a higher tempo of more realistic training exercises.

Although often employing imported technologies and components, the acquisition of advanced combat aircraft, surface combatants and submarines from Russia is complemented by the construction of more sophisticated weaponry, ships and aircraft by China's indigenous defense industries, including the development of new classes of nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines. China's strategic forces are being enhanced by tactically mobile solid-fueled weapons embracing both long and shorter-range systems.

These hardware improvements have been accompanied by major changes in the selection, training and professional military education of the officer corps and the beginnings of a non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps. The intent is to improve the PLA's leadership at all levels to make it more competent in the command, planning, and training for the complexities of modern warfare.

Although unintentional, the United States has influenced the direction taken by the modernization of China's defense establishment in two ways. The quick, decisive defeat of Iraq's armed forces in the 1991 Gulf War first informed the PLA leadership how far their forces lagged behind a modern military. They learned that the PLA's operational concepts were as antiquated as their weaponry. The employment of advanced military technologies in joint operations designed to exploit their capabilities grabbed the PLA's attention. It was then that the concept of a battlespace incorporating land, sea, air and space operations into a single, integrated campaign entered PLA thinking about the new face of battle.

Secondly, as China's military research centers dissected the Gulf War, their analyses turned to determining what potential vulnerabilities in U.S. military operations had been exposed. The same exercise was conducted in assessments of the NATO operations against Serbia in 1999 and presumably the recent war with Iraq. When the operational concepts discussed in China's military journals over the past decade are linked with the acquisitions from Russia and the priorities suggested by China's indigenous military R&D programs, it is evident that a primary objective of the PLA is to exploit perceived U.S. vulnerabilities. Among those identified are U.S. reliance on space systems for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and command and control, and dependence on foreign-hosted bases and aircraft carrier battle groups for sustained force projection to the West Pacific. China's progress in long-range precision strike munitions, space-based ISR, anti-satellite capabilities, information warfare, improved surface naval combatants and submarines, and air power are all applicable to PLA operations designed to attack such vulnerabilities.

Taiwan scenarios involving the U.S. military no doubt drive much of what Beijing acquires from Russia. They also motivate China's military R&D and directly influence PLA planning and training objectives. Nonetheless, the consequences of these preparations are fungible and the capabilities being developed are applicable in other military confrontations. China's development of tactically mobile strategic forces is an example. The number of these weapons deployed will reflect two concerns. The uncertainty presented by India's nuclear weapons and Russia's arsenal comprise one consideration. However, assuring a reliable second-strike capability in the shadow of U.S. ballistic missile defense programs is unquestionably China's highest priority. A reliable second-strike force will be seen by Beijing as a deterrent to an American escalation threat in a Taiwan confrontation, but serves equally as a deterrent in other possible scenarios.

The coming decades will likely see the United States living cheek by jowl with a China that is Asia's major military power with strategic forces complemented by conventional forces equipped and trained to offset U.S. strengths. Primarily armed by China's own defense industrial base, these forces will not be shackled by dependence on foreign sources of supply. Although far from matching the overall capabilities of U.S. forces, power projection by the United States as a maritime power into China's periphery will become increasingly hazardous.

The implications for the United States of China's defense modernization programs are complex. The policies pursued by Beijing and Washington will determine whether China's rising military power will result in confrontation or cooperation. Neither seeks war with the other, so confrontation and conflict are not inevitable. Nevertheless, the underlying mutual apprehension with which China and the United States view each other makes the danger of such an outcome distinctly possible. Managing Sino-American relations over the next decade or two will be critical. Will the United States view China as a peer competitor challenging U.S. maritime preeminence on the rim of Asia? Will China use its increasing military power and growing regional economic and political influence to compete with the United States for preponderance in shaping Asia's future security architecture? If it does, how will the U.S. respond? One possible outcome is Sino-American cooperation in shaping this architecture. This, however, would require the United States to accept China as an equal player in the region. Can the United States be realistically expected to grant this equality, especially if the Taiwan dilemma is not resolved and China's political system is unreformed? These uncertainties argue that East Asia's strategic future is now bounded by how the United States and China view each other's proper place in the region - as strategic competitors or potential partners.

Dr. Paul H.B. Godwin retired as professor of international affairs at the National War College in the summer of 1998, where his teaching and research concentrated on Chinese defense and security policy. Professor Godwin is currently a consultant and serves as a non-resident scholar in the Atlantic Council's Asia-Pacific Program. His most recent publication is "China's Defense Establishment: The Hard Lessons of Incomplete Modernization" in Laurie Burkitt, Andrew Scobell and Larry Wortzel (eds.).

This article appears on AFAR with permission from Jamestown Foundation, China Brief.

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