Council on Foreign Relations: China’s Modernizing Military

The Chinese government is working to make its military stronger, more efficient, and more technologically advanced to become a top-tier force within thirty years. With a budget that has soared over the past decade, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) already ranks among the world’s leading militaries in areas including artificial intelligence and anti-ship ballistic missiles.

Experts warn that as China’s military modernizes, it could become more assertive in the Asia-Pacific region by intensifying pressure on Taiwan and continuing to militarize disputed islands in the East and South China Seas. U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s administration believes China is a great-power rival, though the PLA still has a way to go before it can challenge the United States, experts say.

Xi has focused on making big, structural changes. Among his most significant reforms are new joint theater commands, deep personnel cuts, and improvements to military-civilian collaboration. He is pushing to transform the PLA from a largely territorial force into a major maritime power.

China’s Ministry of Finance said the 2019 defense budget was $177 billion, however, analysts’ estimates are often higher than what Beijing reports. The PLA enjoyed a soaring budget as China’s economy boomed over the past few decades. Defense spending increased more than sevenfold, from $31 billion in 1998 to $239 billion in 2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), making it the second-largest spender in the world, behind the United States.

The PLA is the armed wing of the CCP, and its main objective is to protect the party’s rule, which it fears rival countries, particularly the United States, aim to undermine. It plays a critical role in achieving Xi’s objective of becoming the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific, and its overarching strategic objective is to safeguard China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests. Its top priorities are deploying military infrastructure on disputed islands in the South China Sea, particularly the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands; preventing Taiwanese independence; and securing its land borders with fourteen countries, including India and North Korea. The PLA, however, is not responsible for internal security, which falls on the People’s Armed Police.

Some experts have said that Taiwan is the main catalyst for the PLA’s modernization. The island has been governed independently for decades, but Beijing views it as a part of China. The Xi government has taken an aggressive approach, saying in a 2019 defense white paper that the PLA would “resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China.” While many analysts don’t expect Beijing to use force against Taiwan soon, it could use its military to discourage independence movements and deter U.S. involvement in future conflicts.

Acknowledging in its 2019 defense white paper that the PLA “still lags far behind the world’s leading militaries,” the Chinese government believes it must invest more in new technologies and improve logistics. But many analysts say the military’s main challenge is personnel, in that it has struggled to recruit, train, and retain a professional fighting force. “The skills are the most difficult things to teach and teach quickly,” says IISS’s Meia Nouwens. “And with the Chinese military, the scale is enormous.”

Part of this stems from a lack of experience: the PLA hasn’t fought a major military conflict in the forty years since it invaded Vietnam (it had a brief confrontation with Vietnam in 1988). Additionally, some experts have found that recent reforms have increased pressure and stress on service members.

Another challenge has been corruption and what Chinese leaders perceive as weakening loyalty to the CCP. During Xi’s first six years in office, as part of a wider anticorruption campaign, he oversaw the punishment of more than thirteen thousand PLA officers, including one hundred generals, for giving and accepting bribes, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

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