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

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

In September 1997, the CPC's 15th Congress proclaimed comprehensive RMA-based reform of the army as one of the urgent tasks for the 1998-2002 period. Jiang Zemin informed the Congress on September 12, that the PLA would cut its personnel by 500,000 by the year 2000. While calling for the reform and modernization of the PLA, Jiang assured delegates that, even though the military faced new conditions in the world, its character and goals would not change. What would change was PLA strategy, which necessitated an upgrade of PLA combat readiness. "We should strengthen the Army by relying on science and technology, by putting greater effort into research in defense-related science and technology, and by gradually upgrading weapons and other equipment," Jiang exhorted. [5]

Between 1997 and 2000, the number of PLA service men was reduced by 16 percent (from 3 to 2.5 million). PLA Ground Forces were particularly targeted, dropping 20 percent, while the Navy and Air Force reductions were limited to between five and seven percent. Concomitantly, there was a qualitative upgrading of PLA servicemen. The number of PLA officers with a university-equivalent education increased dramatically, as did the share of petty officers and privates with a 12-year high school education.

This period also saw a massive introduction of modern weaponry of all kinds (mostly of Russian origin or based on Russian weapons technology), dramatically decreasing the PLA's weapons inventory gap with regard to the levels of the advanced world. Computers, telecom devices, and network technology in the military area were also added. These reforms were considered the basic condition for transforming the PLA into a "system of military sub-systems" or "network of weapon platforms."

The PLA's annual weapons imports from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine approached $2 billion between 1996-99, accounting for over 30 percent of all of China's technology for weapons production. This figure reflects just how much China's defense industry and science and technology base were maturing. Particularly between 1998 and 1999, PLA modernization progressed by quantum leaps, with a special emphasis on science and technology. Jiang Zemin and top PLA leaders used to repeat the phrase "Keji qiang jun" (science and technology strengthens the Army) at every available opportunity, while the Beijing media eagerly reproduced it for the public. Another favorite slogan of the time was "Meige fuuren yinggai chengwei kexueren" (each serviceman should transform into the scientist). In tandem with these changes came the introduction of new strategic concepts, including "the future limited war in high-tech environment," "asymmetric warfare," and "informational superiority as the key to overall superiority."

However, 1999 brought home the third lesson for PLA reformers. Between March and June of that year, U.S.-led NATO Forces destroyed the Yugoslav Army, and with it the last anti-Western regime in Europe. Most significantly, this momentous task had been carried out with almost no loss of NATO life. In April 1999, Jiang Zemin issued the following warning: "We must take efforts to educate a large group of highly qualified military personnel…and raise the state of readiness of our armaments" [6]. From March to December, Chinese military journals such as China Military Science Art, Bingqi Zhishi (Armaments Knowledge), and Xiandai Junshi (Modern Military) devoted most of their pages to answering two critical questions: Would it be possible for the PLA to withstand a massive, high-tech air raid, similar NATO's Yugoslav operations? What should be done to dramatically upgrade the PLA in the short-term?

This became the final impetus for launching overall RMA-based reform. "The PLA should learn from NATO and America" might well have been the official PLA slogan following 1999. Articles such as "Origins and history of the present RMA," "Establishment of the information-based society and the present information-based RMA," "Psychological aspects of the RMA," and "Combining traditional Chinese tactics with RMA" filled the pages of Chinese military journals. Thus, by December 1999, the PLA's RMA project was progressing rapidly, continuing to the present day.

1. (In Russian) "Kitaisko-Sovetskaya Druzhba v 21-om veke"
2. The author had a chance to visit this NORINCO center in Blagonravov Institute of Machine Engineering, Russian Academy of Sciences, in October 1992, and was literally astonished by the scales of NORINCO activity: they managed to establish stable ties with hundreds of Russian defense enterprises.
3. Moscow-based Segodnya paper (25 June 1997), p.3; Moscow-based Izvestiya paper (18 July 1997, pp.1,2)
4. Moscow-based Izvestiya paper (20 January 1999), pp.4,5 "Armeiskiy kolkhoz"
5. China News Service (12 Sep 1997)
6. Beijing-based Guangming ribao, (7 Apr 1999), p.1

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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