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The Russian origins of China's Revolution in Military Affairs (Part I)
Alexandr Nemets

[Note: What follows is Part I of a two-part article.]

The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) refers to a wide range of innovations in U.S. military thinking following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Included in this complex of ideas are new perspectives on tactics, strategy, and technology, as well as concepts such as informational warfare and asymmetrical warfare.

The Gulf War (1991) amply demonstrated to the world the military superiority of RMA-based U.S. forces, particularly, the American Navy and Air Force. This demonstration became a shocking lesson for the leaders of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) and Beijing's political establishment. In April 1991, little more than a month after the war ended, Jiang Zemin, then General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), visited the Chinese Defense Ministry and insisted that no effort be spared in closing the gap between the PLA and the American military. Thus began PLA research on RMA.

At that stage, Beijing decided to accelerate its PLA "modernization building," mostly through massive weapons imports from the Soviet Union. The structure, thinking, and military theory of the PLA, however, faced no serious reform.

In May 1991, Jiang Zemin visited for talks with Mikhail Gorbachov. The two signed a series of important agreements at that time. While in Moscow, Jiang also held a grand reception for several hundred Soviet comrades who had worked in China in the 1950s, so-called veterans of Soviet-Chinese friendship. Each veteran former and acting ministers, directors of large enterprises and research institutes received a valuable gift and a booklet entitled "Chinese-Russian Friendship in the 21st century." [1] All this created a new atmosphere of Sino-Soviet cooperation, especially with regard to military-technological relations.

Remarkably, in 1991, major Chinese defense companies established offices in Moscow and other large Soviet cities. NORINCO, the PLA Ground Forces' monopolist weapons provider, occupied the entire floor of one of Moscow's academic institutes. [2] Already in 1991, Chinese weapons import from the USSR reached several hundreds of millions of dollars. At the same time, China's defense industry undertook initial attempts at the reverse engineering of newly obtained Soviet equipment.

After the USSR's disintegration in the fall/winter of 1991, Russia inherited and preserved this expanded military-technological relationship with China. Yeltsin's visit to Beijing in November 1992, along with Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachov's to visit Beijing in November 1993 and Ziang Zemin's visit to Moscow and other centers of the Russian defense industry in September 1994 and May 1995, played a crucial role in maintaining the Sino-Russian partnership. PLA arms imports from Russia between 1992-95 approached an estimated $3 billion. In this way, the PLA managed to improve its weapons inventory to some extent. By the beginning of 1996, China had a definite quantity of SU-27 fighters, S-300 and TOR-M1 air-defense missile systems, Kilo-class submarines, and new generation Russian-made tanks and artillery units.

In March 1996, the PLA undertook its famous "missile maneuvers" around Taiwan, aimed at scaring the Taiwanese electorate and influencing the local presidential elections in Beijing favor. However, Beijing failed to achieve its goals: Taiwanese voted for Beijing's archrival, Lee Tenghui. It appeared that the PLA's newly amassed combat potential was of no great significance even from Taiwan's point of view, let alone from the United States'. Two U.S. aircraft carriers, the Enterprise and the Independence, transited the Strait as if there were no PLA naval presence in the area at all. This was the second bitter lesson for PLA leaders: they finally understood the necessity of introducing deep corrections into their military "modernization building" strategy. It took some 18 months for the PLA top brass to work out the main directions of the forthcoming reforms. But in 1997, along with further expansions in weapons deliveries from Russia, Beijing initiated the "great military reform" based on RMA.

It is possible to track the PLA strategists approach to "junshi geming" (RMA) in such journals as Zhongguo Junshi Kexue (China Military Science) and Junshi Xueshun (Military Art). The number of RMA-related articles in these and other journals grew steadily between 1996-97.

It is worth noting that in June 1997, the Russian Army proclaimed its own "RMA-based military reform" which failed due to lack of funding. [3] The Russian Army's reforms reduced the number of servicemen and sold much of its existing weaponry. Some of these weapons, particularly transport helicopters located in the Russian Far East, made their way into the hands of the North Korean Army and the PLA. [4]

Dr. Alexandr Nemets is a specialist in PLA development and Sino-Russian relations.

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

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