China’s New Look People’s Liberation Army

The Ground Forces of the PLA or the Army are not the most feared today and may not be so in the future. The PLA Navy and the PLAAF have also undergone a bevy of modernisations with the Navy fielding 69 submarines including a number of nuclear powered ones; it is increasingly being seen as a threat in the neighbourhood. With an aircraft carrier on the drawing board, PLAN could develop a blue water capability, which could dominate the Western Pacific and certainly the South China Sea. The PLAAF on the other hand is developing its own fighters and with accretions from Russia will be a truly formidable air force of the future and then there are the Second Artillery Forces or the Missile forces, which are highly potent, with many analysts indicating that over 1000 missiles are directed towards Taiwan.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is also becoming less of an enigma over the years. Thus a Defence White Paper is published every second year, the latest being in December 2006. The Chinese have been welcoming a number of defence delegations from across the world. A five-day exercise with the Indian Navy was held in April 2007; at Qingdao, the PLA will be holding a training exercise with the Indian Army in September 2007. While it has extended training arrangements with members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and even now is carrying out exercises with the Russian Army.

Nonetheless many question marks on the PLA’s operational capability remain. The Chinese have not participated in a modern war for the past 50 years. The shifts in war fighting have thus left them without actual experience on the battlefield perhaps lacking the ability of fully integrating large sized air, land, naval and missile forces. While the PLA has been studying recent campaigns including the American way of war in the Gulf, imbibing these lessons has been slow. A few years’ back two Air Force colonels published an intriguing book, “Unrestricted Warfare” which propagated asymmetric strategies to defeat a superior enemy. In many ways, it perhaps denoted the Chinese way of mixing a people’s war, with asymmetric means in an informationized environment. However, there have been many changes thereafter and today the Chinese talk of a high tech local war as an historic leap in development of current wars. These concepts when matched with modern equipment will fructify China’s long-term vision for the PLA, a solid foundation by 2010; make major progress by 2020 and the ability to win informationized wars by the mid 21st Century.

A wide array of missiles enhanced capabilities of a Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) and anti satellite capability are some of the investments evident today. Therefore, is the change in uniform with a digitally created camouflage pattern applied using pixel matrix technology blurring the PLA soldier with the background by 2009? Perhaps the PLA is talking about this foundation. The PLA is also increasingly participating in United Nations peacekeeping operations with over 7,500 peacekeepers since 1990 and over 1600 deployed presently in Congo, Liberia, Lebanon and Sudan. While these numbers may appear less compared with other contributing nations as India, for China the numbers are significant. Chinese sources claim that the criteria for selection is stringent to include proficiency in English and physical endurance. China also leverages its engineering skills, thus Chinese peacekeepers have built more than 7,300 kilometres roads and 200 bridges in peacekeeping operations as per a report by Xinhua. These and other measures as joint training with other armies of the world may provide the impetus for China to join an alliance of militaries in enhancing global peace. Another issue is the unifying role of the PLA as an organ of the Communist party. Many feel that the PLA has more an internal than an external role.

Above all the PLA has not forgotten its veterans. Thus, Chinese President Hu Jintao at a meeting of Central Military Commission for army veterans praised them, “We are in profound memory of” the older-generation proletarian revolutionaries and militarists and numerous revolutionary martyrs whose “historic contribution will stay with mountains and rivers, and shine with the Sun and the Moon,” said the President. Marching in the footsteps of its veteran, the PLA will have to rapidly transform to wars under, ‘high tech’ conditions if it wants to remain relevant in the years ahead.

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