Chinese People’s Liberation Army at 80

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August 1st was a momentous day for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as it celebrates its 80th Anniversary. While 80 years may be a short span for armies of nations, as Britain or India where legacy of some of the regiments goes back to over 200 years, in the case of the PLA tectonic shifts in its history may deem this a significant watermark.

Mustered as a guerrilla force on August 1, 1927, the Red Army then lacked requisite arms and soldiers were uneducated country folk who had joined in the hope of earning a decent living. The primary conflict of the Red Army then was the war waged by Communists against Kuomintang and through this period of constant strife, it continued to expand in the early 1930’s. Yet it could not stave off the resounding setback suffered in 1934 leading to the now famous, “Long March”. The strategic retreat took its toll and the Red Army all but vanished. However, an external enemy was set to turn its fortunes leading to a rapprochement with the Kuomintang.

China’s great rivalry with Japan combined the two forces that now faced a common enemy. PLA historians refer to it as the National Revolutionary Army. Once again equipment was short and the Army relied on guerrilla warfare and scavenging from the Japanese front line to survive. Bitter memories of the war years still irk Chinese leadership. While today China and Japan are the best trading partners, there is unlikely to be any compromise between the two Asian giants on the sad legacy of the war years.

The defeat of Japan in 1945, led to a split in the Chinese forces and the Red Army now renamed as the People’s Liberation Army entered into the second phase of a bloody civil war in which the PLA routed the Kuomintang forces and emerged victorious in October 1949. The cause for this reversal in the fortunes of Chiang Kai Sheik’s forces remains a subject of debate; some blame it on lack of support by the United States. The PLA’s first war foray as a national army was in Korea in the north. Here it faced a severe test of modern war fighting against an enemy who was vastly superior in air and firepower. However the Chinese soldier through tactics such as, ‘human wave’ overcame these disadvantages and succeeded in the stalemate that now rests at 38th Parallel. Russia or Soviet Union then was PLA’s greatest support and soon with aircraft, guns and tanks from Moscow, the PLA expanded at a rapid pace.

In the 1960, the Liberation army replicated the gigantic force, which had invaded Korea relying on numbers to attain what others did with firepower. Nevertheless, the Chinese also developed the atomic bomb. In 1962, China chastened India with a punitive expedition in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh once again using massed manpower to attain its objectives. While only a small Indian force of about a division was engaged, the Chinese having attained their objectives fell back North of the McMahon Line. The real impetus of PLA’s growth came in 1964, when Zhou en Lai launched the four modernizations with military being one of the core areas identified for development.

With a rapprochement with the United States in the 1970’s, the Chinese were secure to pursue their goal of peaceful national development and the PLA went on to develop in all spheres. A series of missiles called as the Dong Feng or East Wind have been developed making China the primary missile power in Asia. The Chinese however continued to espouse the concept of People’s war only reluctantly changing it to People’s War under modern conditions and people’s war under high tech conditions recently carrying a unique historical baggage. The Chinese also maintained high troop levels and at 2.2 million, the Chinese Army can be counted as the largest in the World today. The Chinese spend $ 21,000 per capita on their soldier, which is a fraction of what is expended by the modern armed forces of the United States or Britain.

China has always justified its large army and increase in Defense budget from time to time. Thus Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao said recently, “Given the fact China has 1.3 billion people, 9.6 million square kilometers of territory, 22,000 kilometers of borders and 18,000 kilometers of oceanic boundaries, China’s military spending, either in absolute value or proportion, still lags behind many countries in the world.” China purportedly plans to spend maximum portion of its defense budget on the PLA soldier, upgrading his uniform, pay and living conditions. Certainly, pictures of Chinese soldiers indicate a smart and spruced up fighter putting the best foot forward. A new digital uniform is also being introduced which will give a new look to the PLA soldier enabling him to merge easily into the background. So do we have a new PLA in the decade ahead? We shall see that next week.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.