China Military Power

May 25, 2005

China’s widely reported economic boom has spawned a widely under-reported military boom.

The breakneck speed at which China is becoming a global economic powerhouse is leaving the world in awe. With all the hoopla surrounding Beijing’s economic revival, most are oblivious to the fundamental and foreboding changes unfolding inside China’s military establishment. A widely unrecognized and under-reported military revolution is underway in China.

China’s military reconfiguration and expansion is a direct result of Beijing’s recent economic development. Generally speaking, a nation’s military capability reflects its economic condition: the higher its gross domestic product (GDP), the more it can spend on its military.

China’s recent economic revival has fueled its military acquisitions and development. In fact, it has long been China’s grand strategy to build a strong military on the back of a strong economy. In the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping deliberately purposed to achieve military greatness through economic reform. Deng believed that the foundation to a strong military was a solid and stable economy, so he strategically prioritized economic reform above military modernization.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, this meant that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was forced to operate with few resources and little growth. In just two decades, however, Deng’s grand strategy has paid off: China is quickly becoming a global powerhouse wielding the mighty two-edged sword of a powerful economy and an increasingly advanced military.

China’s GDP has increased an average of about 8.5 percent per year for the past 10 years. Matching pace, China’s military budget has increased by more than 10 percent nearly every year during the same period. Today, China’s defense budget is estimated at $80 billion, making it the third-biggest after the U.S. and Russia, and almost double that of Asia’s next-largest defense spender, Japan.

China, as would any other nation, claims that its military expansion is being undertaken for peaceful purposes securing and protecting the nation’s interests. Are these its real motives? Or is China preparing to protect its interests through war?

Personnel Changes 

Vast manpower, not technological innovation or intelligence and administrative capabilities, has historically defined the Chinese military. This trend, however, is being reversed under China’s new strategy. Thousands of Chinese soldiers are being dropped from the Army, while officers are rapidly being recruited. Between 1997 and 2000, the number of PLA servicemen was reduced by 16 percent (from 3 to 2.5 million).

Concomitantly, there was a qualitative upgrading of PLA servicemen. The number of PLA officers with a university-equivalent education increased dramatically, as did the share of petty officers and privates with a 12-year high school education. Don’t think that the Chinese Army will miss a few hundred thousand foot soldiers. The leadership of the PLA is what really matters, and it is improving in both quality and numbers.

Gen. George Patten Jr. noted the importance of quality military staff when he stated, “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men.” A nation’s military is only as great as the men that comprise it. Quality soldiers are a product of quality leadership. China is refining and restructuring its entire military leadership right up to the highest offices and decision-making bodies.

The appointment of new commanders to China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) in September last year expanded the nation’s top military decision-making body from 8 to 11. These men were appointed by the new chairman of the CMC, Chinese President Hu Jintao, who the same month replaced Jiang Zemin. Hu’s appointment places, for the first time in history, the leadership of the Chinese government and military under the same man. The CMC is in command of the PLA, which includes the armed forces, Navy, Air Force and artillery forces. Thus, the highest decision-making body in the Chinese military has been expanded and empowered.

The reorganization of Chinese military personnel paves the path to speedier, more efficient management of the nation’s 2 million man army. Major changes are occurring at every level of the Chinese Army. The ratio of officers and men is being re-balanced. Command chains are being tightened. Logistical support systems are being refined and updated. Military educational institutions are being reorganized and expanded. President Hu’s government has placed the entire structure of the Chinese military under a microscope and is rapidly reforming it to be a stronger, more efficient, combat-ready, technologically advanced force.


The most significant and ominous changes in the Chinese military have occurred within the nation’s navy and coast guard.

In July 2004, two experienced and respected commanders became deputy chiefs of staff for the PLA General Staff Department. Because of the commanders’ expertise and previous experience, the appointments are alarming. The point to note about the appointment of these men is that both specialize in naval warfare. Given China’s overt moves throughout the past decade to exert control over the world’s major sea gates, this move is alarming indeed!

China is embarking on a $10 billion submarine acquisition and upgrade program and is buying destroyers and frigates and equipping them with modern anti-ship cruise missiles. China has purchased eight diesel-electric submarines from Russia and plans to buy more. Concurrent with these purchases, Beijing is constructing a number of its own diesel-electric and nuclear-powered submarines. The number of submarines in China’s navy has increased massively, and it is set to increase by more than a third over the next few years.

Developments in China’s naval forces are raising eyebrows and catching headlines. Citing a Washington Times article, it went on to reveal that U.S. defense and intelligence officials did not realize the new Type 094 submarine was under construction. The fact that China has constructed a highly sophisticated nuclear submarine is alarming. Even more alarming, however, is the fact that America’s intelligence departments, reputedly the best in the world, had no clue that this submarine was even under construction. How many other secret weapons might China be constructing?

China’s new 094-class nuclear-powered submarine was released last year and is the first to carry the nation’s new DF-31 missile. The Type 094 is China’s first intercontinental strategic nuclear submarine. More are under construction. The 094 also gives the Chinese Navy the ability to silently traverse the oceans of the world.

Around the same time, China also launched the 093 attack submarine. Adding to this, according to a recent Washington Times article, U.S. agencies were surprised again last year when China disclosed a third new type of submarine, a diesel-electric attack submarine. At the rate that China is constructing submarines, one would think China is already involved in a war!

Commenting on China’s warship-building capabilities, the Japan Times wrote, “China, which has become the world’s third-largest shipbuilder, has produced about 100 amphibious ships, and four tank-landing ships are under construction thus belying the U.S. Navy joke that, because the Chinese lacked amphibious ships, the only way they could invade Taiwan is by swimming.””The sheer pace at which China is updating and expanding its naval capacity is virtually unprecedented.

The purpose of tank-landing ships is to transport tanks and other military hardware across the ocean to the shores of other nations. Where could China be planning to transport its increasing number of tanks?

Note the tone of alarm behind the following comment by retired U.S. Navy Adm. Eric McVadon. “The Chinese are converting their surface Navy into a truly modern anti-ship cruise-missile surface navy” the East Asia security consultant said. The modernization of their Navy has taken a great leap forward. Their nuclear sub program has taken off like wildfire. A quote from the Washington Post stated it more simply: “These people are building ships like nobody’s business, a military attaché in Beijing said. It’s mind-boggling.”

It’s clear that China is empowering its fleets like no nation on Earth, but why is that so critical? Because a nation builds up its Navy when it is switching its foreign policy from defensive to offensive! China’s naval developments are clearly motivated by a number of factors. These include protecting the sea lanes along which Beijing’s oil travels, protecting the nation’s globe-girdling economic interests, ensuring Taiwan does not gain total independence, and building its reputation as a military powerhouse.

China is building strategic relationships along the sea lanes from the Middle East to the South China Sea in ways that suggest defensive and offensive positioning to protect China’s energy interests, but also to serve broad security objectives. China is not only building and acquiring vessels to travel the great oceans of the world; it is systematically gaining control of the world’s most strategic sea lanes. He who controls the seas can hold the world to ransom! Most of the world’s most vital energy asset, oil, is transported by sea. China is moving toward strategic control of the world’s seaways.

China now has significant influence or controls over the seas around Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Pakistan, Panama, and the Caribbean islands some of the most important sea lanes in the world. The Pentagon report said China, by militarily controlling oil-shipping sea lanes, could threaten ships, thereby creating a climate of uncertainty about the safety of all ships on the high seas. Lasting peace cannot exist in a climate of uncertainty!

Air Force and Artillery

China is also updating and expanding its artillery and air force. Note the developments taking place within these facets of the Chinese military. In recent years, China has acquired state-of-the-art Russian-made surface-to-air missiles and is developing anti-radiation surface-to-air missiles. It has four types of anti-ship cruise missiles.

China’s missile force, called the Second Artillery, had been deploying 50 to 75 short-range missiles a year; that has increased to more than 100 and, in 2006, Second Artillery will have 800 aimed at Taiwan. Accuracy has been doubled so that most missiles would hit within 60 to 90 feet of their targets. Moreover, the missiles have been made mobile to make them less of a target. … Land-based and air-launched cruise missiles, which are flying torpedoes with stubby wings and advanced navigational devices, have been added to the Chinese inventory to add to their ability to stand off and fire at targets on Taiwan or at U.S. warships at sea.”

China has purchased numerous fighter planes from Russia, including more than 100 SU-27 fighters, and S-300 and tor-m1 air-defense missile systems. At a press conference in January, the commander of the Russian Air Force, Gen. Vladimir Mikhailov, even talked of the possibility of selling strategic bombers the tu-22m3 and tu-95 to China.

China is also expanding its military capabilities in space. Concurrent with Beijing’s own rapidly advancing space program, the nation is said to be acquiring a variety of foreign technologies. Reports indicate that China is developing a jammer device which could be used against America’s Global Positioning System (GPS). Chinese engineers are also building technology to jam radar devices.

As China continues to swim in surplus cash earned from its immense exports, watch for the nation to maintain its momentum in the acquirement and construction of military hardware. Russia is China’s primary weapons supplier. It will remain this way as Moscow seeks greater Chinese investment and Beijing remains in the hunt for Russian oil and weaponry. The development of Sino-Russian relations is one of the most important trends you could watch for in the coming months and years. Later on this year, Russia and China will conduct joint military exercises for the first time in history. This will be the greatest milestone in Sino-Russian relations in decades!

Global Response

The speed with which China has refined and expanded its military potential has shocked many analysts. Where many American and Asian analysts said before that China would be able to mount a credible threat between 2010 and 2015, now they are saying it will come earlier, perhaps by 2006 and certainly by 2012.”

A key question comes to mind when reviewing China’s recent military growth: “How will other nations and power blocs respond to China’s newfound military preponderance?”

It is evident that the United States is carefully monitoring China’s military changes. Some even believe that a clash is coming between these two great powers. While specific details concerning Sino-American relations are not provided, it is clear that there will be no significant military clash between these nations. Even the current state of the U.S. military, which is already stretched too thin, indicates that America will avoid conflict with China. It is questionable whether the U.S. economy could finance another war. But more importantly, America’s moral, cultural and spiritual decline is steadily sapping its national pride. This doesn’t imply a rosy future for Sino-American relations, however.

With this in mind, don’t expect Europe to be too upset over China’s military buildup. In fact, in order to offset present American power and cash in on China’s surplus savings, watch for Europe to even contribute to China’s military expansion. Even now, the EU is considering lifting its arms embargo against China, thereby opening the possibility of supplying weapons and military hardware to Beijing.

For now, many Asian nations will retain their alliance with America, whose military is the primary stabilizing factor in the region. Over time, however, watch for a change in this trend. As the United States ability to police the region declines and China’s military aggrandizement continues, be on the lookout for Asian nations to rally more intensely around this Asian hegemon.

Japan is extremely concerned about China’s military buildup. Tensions between these two will probably continue for a short while. As long as America’s military might exceeds that of China, Japan will align with the U.S. But as the American economy and military weaken, watch for Japan to sever its ties with the U.S. and form a strong alliance with Russia and China.