The military of the People’s Republic of China has undergone significant investment and modernisation over the last two decades, resulting in an increasingly sophisticated and technologically advanced military force. Together, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) constitute the largest military in the world, with 2.3 million active personnel and a further 500,000 estimated in reserves. To a large degree, the modernisation of China’s armed forces has been fuelled by its rapid economic growth over the last quarter century, with spending on the military increasing every year since 1994. In 2014 China announced a 12.2% increase in military spending to US$131.57 billion. Recently, Chinese armed forces have been expanding their role, undertaking humanitarian, anti-piracy and civilian evacuation operations.
The Red Army and the origins of the PLA
Modern Chinese military forces find their roots in the ‘Red Army of Workers and Peasants’ established in 1927. Primarily a guerrilla force at first, the Red Army’s first years were dominated by its conflict with the army of the Kuomintang or Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek, initially larger and better equipped. In 1934 under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the Red Army undertook its historic ‘Long March’ to the Chinese province of Shannxi, which would become the primary area of operations for Communist forces over the next several years. After a period of intermittent cooperation with Nationalist forces against the Japanese, civil war broke out between the Communists and Nationalists in 1946. During this period the Red Army renamed itself the People’s Liberation Army and conducted both guerrilla and conventional campaigns against the Nationalist Army, eventually resulting in Chiang Kai-shek and his government fleeing to Taiwan. The PLA became the official armed forces of the People’s Republic of China when it was established by Mao Zedong in October 1949.
In a series of wars and local conflicts following the founding of modern China, the PLA began to transform from its guerrilla roots into a more conventional standing military force. The first phase of modernisation came during the Korean War from 1950-53, where PLA volunteers fighting in Korea were supplied with modern weapons from the Soviet Union and the PLAN and PLAAF were added to the Chinese military force structure. After a series of border clashes with the Soviet Union and India in the 1960s and 1970s, the Chinese government of Deng Xiaoping launched a short-lived campaign against Vietnam in February 1979, the last significant campaign executed by PLA forces. Additionally, Chinese military forces, specifically the PLA, were involved in supressing protestors in Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989, an act that significantly harmed its reputation and confirmed the political control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over China’s armed forces.
Several events as well as political and economic developments precipitated China’s recent military reorganisation and modernisation. The fall of the Soviet Union, the mastery of guided weapons by the United States as revealed in the 1991 Gulf War, and the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis demonstrated to the Chinese leadership the need for significant overhaul of the Chinese military. The rate of this change was also aided by the rapidly expanding Chinese economy, allowing for year-on-year increases in defence spending. Much of the modernisation has been generally geared towards the PLA being able to conduct ‘local wars under modern high technology conditions’, preventing ‘Taiwan independence incidents’ and more recently, deterring outside interference in any such incident. The Chinese military has made sustained efforts to improve its organisation and structure as a whole. Specifically, this has included revising doctrine, force structure, personnel training and education. Additionally, new units have been established and advances made in the sophistication of PLA equipment, platforms and technology.
Since the early 1990s, the Chinese military has been focused on investing in a variety of new technologies and combat capabilities, namely ‘anti-access/area denial’ (A2/AD) platforms and more recently in power projection capacity. Specifically, the PLA as well as the PLAN and PLAAF have invested in new sophisticated weapons and systems geared towards preventing the movement of enemy forces into a contested theatre, as well as the disruption of enemy forces' freedom to manoeuvre once there. For example, advancements in short- and medium-range land-attack ballistic missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles as well as air-launched cruise missiles have increased the Chinese military’s capability of denying force projection close to its coastal waters. New platforms such as the diesel-powered Type 041 submarine and new surface ships like the Type 052 destroyers bolster this strategy. Recently, investments in platforms such as China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and the testing of a new stealth fighter aircraft, the J-20, suggest new capabilities in power projection are being developed. China’s military, however, still has significant gaps in its ability to conduct long-range and sustained power projection operations, and there are still weaknesses in its anti-submarine warfare ability and command and control networking.
What the Lowy Institute does
The Lowy Institute has a strong record of analysis, publication and research on Chinese military forces, and their modernisation, growth and strategic relations in Asia. Research has been primarily conducted by the International Security and East Asia programs, with contributions from Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Rory Medcalf, Research Associate Brendan Thomas-Noone and Editor of The Interpreter Sam Roggeveen, among others. Regular commentary and analysis on the implications of China’s growing military capabilities for regional and global security have been published on The Interpreter. Additionally, the Lowy Institute has published two major research publications, Power and Choice: Asian Security Futures and Crisis and Confidence: Major Powers and Maritime Security in Indo-Pacific Asia. Both of these assess the effects of a stronger Chinese military presence on regional security.