Today’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is an institution of great consequence to the United States and our allies. As China emerges as a regional and global power, the PLA will be an important force that shapes events in virtually any imaginable future — but of particular concern should be the role the PLA would play if the United States faces a China that continues trending hostile to our global interests.
China has already reached a position of influence in our world that demands a more sophisticated understanding of both the challenges and opportunities being presented by an evolving defense institution. Unfortunately, current discussions of China’s military development often miss the mark. The PLA today is not “10 feet tall,” but nor is it the gang that can’t shoot straight. It is a military with niche areas of excellence (e.g., ballistic and cruise missiles), as well as glaring Achilles heels (continuing difficulties with modern command, control and communications).
But most notable about today’s PLA is the aggressive pursuit of modernization. The modernization efforts are paying off and offer us observable trend lines that are worth our time and attention to better understand.
Which trend lines should we watch closely? The first unfolding trend line is the professionalization of the PLA. Central authorities embarked on a course to professionalize the PLA a decade and a half ago, and the results of those policies are coming to fruition in the form of a more competent and capable military. PLA business enterprises have closed so military officers no longer have to choose between running a business and professional training.
Corruption is being exposed, and merit-based promotions are now the norm. A streamlined PLA has also transferred domestic security missions to the People’s Armed Police, so the PLA can focus more intensely on traditional military missions. And perhaps most important, the quality of PLA training has improved toward greater joint force cooperation as well as more realistic scenarios across a wide range of contingencies.
The second trend to note is China’s continuing advances in defense-industrial capability. After decades of reverse engineering from foreign technologies and experimentation through domestic research and development, the PLA is moving closer to a sustainable modern indigenous defense-industrial system. The PLA of the near future will be less vulnerable to potential supply disruptions in time of conflict, and will be better positioned to acquire the specific capabilities required for China’s unique circumstances.
The third trend line relates to China’s acquisition strategy. It is a priority for China to acquire capabilities specifically oriented toward countering U.S. military strengths. China’s aerospace programs in anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) and anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons are potential “game-changers” for U.S. operations. A successful ASBM program could expand the threat envelope for U.S. aircraft carriers to a distance where traditional carrier-based flight operations become impractical. Likewise, the ASAT program threatens satellites that the U.S. military relies on for intelligence, communication and navigation.
A fourth trend line also relates to PLA acquisitions, but it also speaks to evolving doctrine, strategy and tactics. China is investing heavily in the next generation of asymmetric warfare capabilities. This is most evident in Chinese cyberwarfare capabilities. China’s increasingly sophisticated and aggressive cyberespionage has undoubtedly already compromised sensitive information.
Yet of even greater concern is China’s ambition to acquire the capability to lethally cripple civilian and military information infrastructures, and to weave such capabilities into PLA doctrine for war fighting.
Two other trend lines of concern relate to activities outside China’s borders. The first of these is the evolving nature of China’s proliferation behavior. China’s advancing defense industrial capabilities has put a new tool in its political-military tool kit — use of foreign military sales and provision of defense technologies to support broader strategic and military goals.
And China is making policy choices that present growing challenges to U.S. interests. Despite formal commitments, China supplies missiles to Iran and conventional weapons and small arms to Sudan. A U.N. investigation in 2006 found China to be the primary supplier of ammunitions used in Darfur. China’s military sales increasingly complicate U.S. interests.
Finally, China’s burgeoning foreign military diplomacy presents a new and difficult set of challenges for the United States and our allies. The PLA is actively pursuing the objective of extended its global reach and influence through securing strategic access to key ports and bases. Though China has yet to develop a blue-water navy, it is able to expand its naval power in the Indian Ocean and beyond through access to facilities in Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. This threatens to alter the strategic balance, not only by expanding PLA reach, but also by potentially limiting or denying access for the United States and others in the same areas.
There are wise policy solutions for the United States and our allies to all the challenges the PLA may have in store. But many potential solutions that may be available to us are longer-term pursuits themselves. Thus, proper focus and orientation in Washington is needed now.
Randy Schriver is a founding partner of Armitage International LLC and president of the Project 2049 Institute. He is a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, and a former senior country director for China in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.