Speaking in 2009, Liang Guanglie, China's minister of defense, laid out a hugely ambitious plan to modernize the People's Liberation Army, committing China to forging a navy that would push past the islands that ring China's coasts, an air force capable of "a combination of offensive and defensive operations," and rocket forces of both "nuclear and conventional striking power." [Source: John Pomfret, Washington Post, Saturday, December 25, 2010]

The Pentagon, in a report to Congress this year, said that that the pace and scale of China's military reform "are broad and sweeping." But, the report noted, "the PLA remains untested in modern combat," thus making transformation difficult to assess.

2011 Pentagon Report on China

In August 2011, the Pentagon said China was on track to forge a modern military by 2020, a rapid buildup that could be potentially destabilizing to the Asia-Pacific region. "Despite continued gaps in some key areas, large quantities of antiquated hardware and a lack of operational experience, the PLA (China's People's Liberation Army) is steadily closing the technological gap with modern armed forces," the report said. [Source: Reuters, August 24, 2011]

Here are details from the report: TAIWAN: 1) Says that China-Taiwan balance of military force "continues to shift in Beijing's favor." 2) Taiwan's relatively modest defense spending has failed to keep pace with "ambitious military developments" on the mainland. 3) "Despite a reduction in tensions following the March 2008 election of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, the possibility of a military conflict with Taiwan, including U.S. military intervention, remains a pressing, long-term focus for the PLA." 4) By December 2010, the People's Liberation Army had deployed between 1,000 and 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles to units opposite Taiwan. 5) Report says China's People's Liberation Army is likely to steadily expand its military options for Taiwan through 2020, including those to deter, delay or deny "third party" intervention — a veiled reference to potential U.S. involvement in any conflict.

MISSILE CAPABILITIES: 1) The People's Liberation Army is acquiring large numbers of highly accurate cruise missiles, many of which have ranges in excess of 115 miles. 2) China is developing an anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D, which has a range exceeding 930 miles and is armed with a maneuverable warhead. 3) China also may be developing a new road-mobile inter-continental ballistic missile. 4) China's program to develop JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile, which has an estimated range of some 4,600 miles, has faced repeated delays. The Pentagon had forecast it would achieve initial operating capability by 2010.

AIRCRAFT CARRIERS: 1) China launched its first carrier for a maiden run earlier this month, a refitted former Soviet craft, but the Pentagon said it still will take several additional years for China to achieve a minimal level of combat capability on an aircraft carrier, given the level of training for carrier pilots. 2) The report acknowledged China could begin construction of a fully indigenous carrier in 2011, which could achieve operational capability after 2015. "China likely will build multiple aircraft carriers with support ships over the next decade."

STEALTH FIGHTER JET: 1) Report says the January test flight of China's stealth fighter jet, the J-20, "highlights Chian's ambition to produce a fighter aircraft that incorporates stealth attributes, advanced avionics and super-cruise capable engines over the next several years." 2) It says the U.S. Defense Department does not expect the J-20 to achieve an effective operational capability prior to 2018. 3) It says the J-20 eventually will give the PLA Air Force a platform capable of long-range, penetrating strikes into complex air defense environments.

REGIONAL REACTION: 1) "China's growing economic, diplomatic and military presence and influence in Asia and globally is raising concern among many countries about China's ultimate aims — and the threats this could present to them. These regional concerns could catalyze regional or global balancing efforts." 2) "China is fielding an array of conventionally armed ballistic missiles, modern aircraft, UAVs, ground- and air-launched land-attack cruise missiles, special operations forces and cyber-warfare capabilities to hold targets at risk throughout the region."

SPACE WARFARE: 1) China conducted a record 15 space launches in 2010 and expanded its space-based satellite network for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, communications and meteorological operations. 2) The PLA is acquiring technologies to improve China's space and counterspace capabilities. China's military strategists "regard the ability to utilize space and deny adversaries access to space as central to enabling modern, informatized warfare."

CYBER WARFARE: 1) Some major intrusions in 2010 that targeted U.S. and other computer systems appeared to originate in China and aimed at pilfering information. Those same hacking skills are similar to those needed to conduct cyber attacks. 2) Cyberwarfare capabilities would help China's military gather information, slow down an adversary's response time by crippling networks and serve as a force multiplier to kinetic attacks during a conflict. 3) The PLA has set up "information warfare units" to attack enemy computer systems and protect Chinese networks.

TERRITORIAL DISPUTES AND CHINA AS A GLOBAL POWER: 1) Says China is unlikely to be able to project and sustain large forces in high-intensity combat operations far from China prior to 2020. 2) Still, it says by most accounts China is on track to achieve its goal of building a modern, regionally focused military by 2020. 2) China's territorial claim to virtually the entire South China Sea "remains a source of regional contention" and is contested by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei. In the East China Sea, China also claims the Senkaku islands, which are controlled by Japan, in a long-standing dispute that caused tensions to flare in 2010.

Websites, Submarines and Greater Openness in the Chinese Military

In August 2009, China’s secretive military open up a website. ( The home page is topped by a photograph of the Great Wall and features numerous links to military news, video and photographs. There are Chinese and English versions of the site. In recent years the defense ministry has began using press spokesman and bused journalists to watch soldiers fire mortars and conduct mock counterterrorism operations. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, August 20, 2009]

“A notice about the Web site said it was intended to give outsiders a better understanding of China’s defense policies, improve cooperation with foreigners and display before the world the fine image of the P.L.A. as a mighty, civilized and peaceful force.The contents range from ordinary news (Chinese Navy fights pirates) to background material (Thirty years of reform and development) to carefully phrased opinion (Sino-foreign military exchange and co-op boosts regional stability).”

In April 2009, the Chinese navy unveiled its nuclear submarines to the public, in the northeastern port city of Qingdao, marking the first time that China had publicly shown the vessels. They are among the most powerful ships in the Chinese Navy. The vessel review in Qingdao was part of a ceremony to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Chinese Navy.[Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, April 21, 2009]

The naval show, and particularly the unveiling of the nuclear submarines, could be intended to send a signal to Asian countries that are engaged with China in territorial disputes over islands and potential oil fields in the seas of East and Southeast Asia. China has had recent disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines over territorial claims in those seas.

Military Cooperation with Other Countries

See the United States, Russia, India, Central Asia, Britain, United Nations Peacekeepers Under International

Chinese Military Abroad

China it seems wants to expand its military presence as it expands its investments and economic presence abroad. When China sent a ship to assist in the anti piracy mission off Somalia it was the first time in modern history that Chinese navy ships were sent outside of China.

Between 2002 and 2007 the Chinese military joined ta least 14 search-and-rescue missions at sea and was involved in 10 emergency relief missions in 14 countries.

In July 2009, China and Russian held joint military exercises in Jilin Province that consisted focused primarily of drills addressing threats from terrorism and ethnic insurgencies.

As its military and economy get stronger and more power powerful, China is attempting to show that has a softer side, engaging in humanitarian missions abroad and contributing peacekeepers to different places. As of late 2009 there were 2,150 Chinese military and police personnel supporting the United Nations in 10 countries, including Sudan and Haiti. There are more than 800 in Sudan alone.

China has sent small PLA mine-clearing operations to Iraq and Afghanistan but otherwise has tried stay clear of military operations in those countries while positioning itself to take advantage of resources and economic benefits offered there. China has been reluctant to join in any NATO operation since the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by NATO forces in 1999.

Morale and Logistical Problems of the Chinese Military

John Pomfret wrote in the Washington Post, The deployment of a naval task force to the Gulf of Aden last year as part of the international operation against pirates was seen as a huge step forward for China. The implication was that China's military doctrine had shifted from defending China's borders to protecting China's interests, which span the globe. But the expeditionary force has also provided a window into weaknesses of the People's Liberation Army, according to a new report by Christopher Yung, a former Pentagon official now at the National Defense University. [Source: John Pomfret, Washington Post, Saturday, December 25, 2010]

China's lack of foreign military bases - it has insisted that it won't station troops abroad - limits its capacity to maintain its ships on long-term missions. A shortage of helicopters - the workhorses of a naval expeditionary force - makes it hard for the ships to operate with one another. China's tiny fleet of replenishment ships - it has only three - doesn't give it enough capacity to do more than one such operation at a time.

China's navy, according to Yung, also has difficulty maintaining a fresh water supply for its sailors. And poor refrigeration on its ships makes it hard to preserve fruit and vegetables, something that makes for griping on board. "The sailors during the first deployment had a real morale problem," Yung said, adding that following their mission, they were taken on a beach vacation "to get morale back up."

Empowering local commanders, considered key to a successful fighting force, is something that Beijing clearly has yet to embrace. British Royal Navy Commodore Tim Lowe, who commanded the Gulf of Aden operation for the U.S. 5th Fleet up until May, noted that while other navies would send operations officers to multinational meetings to discuss how to fight pirates, China would dispatch a political officer who often lacked expertise. The concept of sharing intelligence among partner countries was also tough for the Chinese to fathom. To the Chinese, he said, "that was an unusual point."

China Warns of Escalating Arms Race in Asia

Praveen Swami wrote in The Telegraph: “China is warning that it will be forced to stoke up a dangerously escalating arms race in Asia in response to Japanese plans to build a missile-defense system designed to protect the country from North Korean attacks. Japan said last week that it planned to purchase Patriot PAC3 interceptors, which are meant to shoot down incoming short and medium-range ballistic missiles, and to step up work on Aegis — a US-led sea-based system to protect ships and troops from ballistic missile attack. [Source: Praveen Swami, The Telegraph, December 2010]

Beijing fears that these acquisitions, though targeted at North Korea's rogue nuclear programme, will threaten the balance of power. "Japan's new military investments are going to transform the military balance in the region," a Chinese diplomat said. "China will have no choice but to respond by enhancing its own capabilities." Jiang Yu, China's foreign ministry spokesperson, described Japan's plans as "irresponsible".

Experts fear that other countries will respond as well as China. India, for example, could grow its own missile arsenal in response to a Chinese move and Pakistan would soon follow. "China depends heavily on both conventional and nuclear-armed ballistic missiles to offset the technological weaknesses of its armed forces," said Ashley Tellis, a US strategic expert, "so a more robust Japanese missile defense system is a real threat to its clout."

Japan is the second Chinese adversary to invest in US missile defense systems. In January, the US administration said anti-ballistic missile defense equipment would form part of an $6.4 billion (£4.1 billion) arms sale to Taiwan. Much of the expansion has been driven by fears that new US ballistic missile defenses could undermine the deterrent value of Beijing's nuclear forces.

Harsh tone of China's Military

In October 2010, Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met his Chinese counterpart, Liang Guanglie, in Vietnam for the first time since the two militaries suspended talks about eight months, calling for the two countries to prevent “mistrust, miscalculations and mistakes.” His message seemed directed mainly at officers like Lt. Cmdr. Tony Cao of the Chinese Navy. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, October 2010]

“The Pentagon is worried that its increasingly tense relationship with the Chinese military owes itself in part to the rising leaders of Commander Cao’s generation, who, much more than the country’s military elders, view the United States as the enemy. Older Chinese officers remember a time, before the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 set relations back, when American and Chinese forces made common cause against the Soviet Union. The younger officers have known only an anti-American ideology, which casts the United States as bent on thwarting China’s rise.”

“All militaries need a straw man, a perceived enemy, for solidarity,” said Huang Jing, a scholar of China’s military and leadership at the National University of Singapore. “And as a young officer or soldier, you always take the strongest of straw men to maximize the effect. Chinese military men, from the soldiers and platoon captains all the way up to the army commanders, were always taught that America would be their enemy.”

“The stakes have increased as China’s armed forces, once a fairly ragtag group, have become more capable and have taken on bigger tasks. The navy, the centerpiece of China’s military expansion, has added dozens of surface ships and submarines, and is widely reported to be building its first aircraft carrier.

Even improved Chinese forces do not have capacity or, analysts say, the intention, to fight a more able United States military. But their increasing range and ability, and the certainty that they will only become stronger, have prompted China to assert itself regionally and challenge American dominance in the Pacific.

See China’s Assertiveness

China and the U.S. Military

U.S. officials have repeatedly asked China to embrace a permanent dialogue between military leaders regardless of political disputes but, analysts, say this has not happened in part because the Chinese military tends to view defense relations as bargaining chips.

A Chinese military expert complained that military exercises conducted by the United States and South Korea in the summer of 2010 in the Yellow Sea between South Korea and China were a “confrontive” provocation and were an example of “chaotic” American policy putting of an “increasingly tight encirclement” around China. Shen Dingli of Fudan University compared the exercises to the 1962 deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba, sparking the Cuban missile crisis. Around the same time U.S. and South Korea forces were conducting training exercises in the Yellow Sea near South Korea, China was carrying out live ammunition drills in the Yellow Sea near the Chinese coastal city of Qingdao.

The Pentagon said that China could start building an aircraft carrier as early as 2010 and it now possesses powerful land-based anti-ship missiles capable of sinking an aircraft carrier, which can be used to challenge to U.S. naval power.

China’s Military Threat and the United States

In May 2011, AP reported: “Seeking to counter U.S. worries about his country’s rapid military growth, a top Chinese general said China’s defense clout lags decades behind the U.S., and that China wants warmer relations. Gen. Chen Bingde, whose position in Beijing is roughly the equivalent of chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a speech at the National Defense University, “Although China’s defense and military development has come a long way in recent years, a gaping gap between you and us remains...China never intends to challenge the U.S.” Later at a Pentagon news conference with his American counterpart, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, Chen said, “I can tell you that China does not have the capability to challenge the United States,” he said, adding that China’s wealth and military strength pales in comparison with that of the U.S. He said China’s navy is 20 years behind the U.S. Navy. [Source: Robert Burns, The Associated Press, May 18, 2011]

Francis Fukuyama wrote in Yomiuri Shimbun, The United States for the past decade has been bogged down in two grinding wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. military has shifted its training and tactics away from high-tech warfare to counterinsurgency, which it does better than any other nation now. But in the meantime, Chinese capabilities in East Asia have surged ahead. Chinese medium-range conventional missiles now have the capability to deny U.S. access to much of the Western Pacific. While the United States worries about incompetent Muslim car bombers in Times Square, China is testing antisatellite missiles and Chinese hackers are breaking into Google. [Source: Francis Fukuyama, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 28, 2011]

“China does not today present an imminent military threat. But its ambitions are expanding with its perceived power — quite understandably — and in a future confrontation, it is likely to surprise the United States, Japan and other neighbors with its newfound capabilities. The challenge it poses can be met with a combination of leadership and collective action, both of which have been lacking.”

“The reason for this is that the United States has taken itself out of the game of world leadership. The other side of China's rise is America's decline. The latter's problem is not primarily economic, for all of the damage that the recession has done. The problem is political: The U.S. system, like that of Japan, has become dysfunctional, with polarization preventing action on the serious issues confronting it.”

Reasons for Tensions Between Chinese and U.S. Militaries

“The P.L.A. combines an odd combination of deep admiration for the U.S. armed forces as a military, but equally harbors a deep suspicion of U.S. military deployments and intentions towards China,” David Shambaugh, a leading expert on the Chinese military at George Washington University, told the New York Times. “Unfortunately, the two militaries are locked in a classic security dilemma, whereby each side’s supposedly defensive measures are taken as aggressive action by the other, triggering similar countermeasures in an inexorable cycle,” he wrote. “This is very dangerous, and unnecessary.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, October 2010]

“The Chinese effectively suspended official military relations early this year after President Obama met with the Dalai Lama, Wines wrote, the Tibetan religious leader, and approved a $6.7 billion arms sale to Taiwan, which China regards as its territory. Since then, the Chinese military has bristled as the State Department has offered to mediate disputes between China and its neighbors over ownership of Pacific islands and valuable seabed mineral rights. And when the American Navy conducted war games with South Korea last month in the Yellow Sea, less than 400 miles from Beijing, younger Chinese officers detected an encroaching threat.

The Chinese were upset by the presence of the aircraft carrier the USS George Washington Post in the Yellow Sea in November 2010 when it took part in a U.S.-South Korean military drill following the North Korean attack of a South Korean island. Four months before Beijing had warned Washington about sending a carrier to the Yellow Sea and the aircfat carrier was bit sent but this time the act by North Korea was considered serious engh that the George Washinton was sent (it had participated in many other drills in the Yellow Sea in the past).

The United States “is engaging in an increasingly tight encirclement of China and constantly challenging China’s core interests,” Rear Adm. Yang Yi, former head of strategic studies at the Chinese Army’s National Defense University, wrote in August in the People’s Liberation Army Daily, the military newspaper. “Washington will inevitably pay a costly price for its muddled decision.”

In truth, little in the American actions is new. Mr. Obama’s predecessors also hosted the Dalai Lama. American arms sales to Taiwan were mandated by Congress in 1979, and have occurred regularly since then. American warships regularly ply the waters off China’s coast and practice with South Korean ships.

But Chinese military leaders seem less inclined to tolerate such old practices now that they have the resources and the confidence to say no. “Why do you sell arms to Taiwan? We don’t sell arms to Hawaii,” said Col. Liu Mingfu, a China National Defense University professor and author of “The China Dream,” a nationalistic call to succeed the United States as the world’s leading power.

Some experts see increased contact as critical. A leading Chinese expert on international security, Zhu Feng of Peking University, says that the Chinese military’s hostility toward the United States is not new, just more open. And that, he says, is not only the result of China’s new assertiveness, but its military’s inexperience on the world stage. “Chinese officers’ international exposure remains very limited,” Mr. Zhu said. “Over time, things will improve very, very significantly. Unfortunately, right now they are less skillful.”

Image Sources: Landsberger Posters; Weapons: Defense Talk

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2011

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