Modernised PLA signals China’s aggressive posturing

On a daily basis, China is displaying aggression in the waters of and skies over the South and East China seas. It attempts to bully and cudgel Taiwan into submission…reports Asian Lite News

Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said in a United Nations General Assembly speech on 10 April 1974: “If one day China should change her colour and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression and exploitation, the people of the world should identify it as social-imperialism, expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.”

Alas, that fateful day gradually appeared a number of years ago under Chairman Xi Jinping. Tyranny at home and abroad, bullying, aggression and exploitation are the Chinese government’s modus operandi. Unfortunately, such is Xi’s dominion over China that none at home can resist him. In fact, hyper-nationalistic fervour is rampant, as many Chinese celebrate Xi’s conceits with this dictum, “Under Mao, China stood up; under Deng, China grew rich; under Xi, it has grown strong.” Furthermore, China has become such a global power that it does not listen to what neighbours are saying, and it deliberately opposes the USA in every possible way.

Uttered just before the earlier words, Deng also said: “China is not a superpower, nor will she ever seek to be one. What is a superpower? A superpower is an imperialist country which everywhere subjects other countries to its aggression, interference, control, subversion or plunder, and strives for world hegemony.” On a daily basis, China is displaying aggression in the waters of and skies over the South and East China seas. It attempts to bully and cudgel Taiwan into submission.

Why has China decided to extend its military exercises around Taiwan?.(photo:IN)

China interferes in the democratic, societal and governmental processes of the West, and seeks to control ethnic Chinese anywhere in the world. Beijing routinely subverts international norms by its truculent rejection of current regulations such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It also seeks to plunder profits, steal intellectual property and grab technologies from the West by hook or by crook. Unfortunately, all the hallmarks listed by Deng are key characteristics defining China under Xi’s rule.

This same spirit of obstinacy is apparent in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) military wing. For instance, military-led China’s effort to gather global intelligence through a series of high-altitude surveillance balloons that traverse foreign airspace yet had the temerity to deny it when caught red-handed. News outlets have recently latched onto revelations that China has been operating a spy base in Cuba since 2019. In fact, China is cultivating influence and seeking advantage all around the world, from the Solomon Islands to Cuba, from Pakistan to Antarctica. Spying, including cyber-hacking, is aggressively pursued by the CCP, even though it innocently denies culpability. There is newfound confidence within the PLA of its abilities, and a dangerous desire to test its mettle is emerging. Think of Wang Wei, a J-8B fighter pilot who died in a collision with an American spy plane near Hainan Island in 2001. This fighter pilot was known as a risk-taker, but the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) never considered his actions reckless. It posthumously awarded him one of the nation’s highest military decorations, the Order of Heroic Exemplar First Class. Wang has been immortalized, setting a benchmark for all PLA aviators to emulate.

Indeed, it appears that today’s young generation of PLA aviators are even more zealous than Wang, as it has become almost routine for Chinese warplanes to perform dangerous manoeuvres against counterparts from Australia, the USA and the like. Chinese naval vessels do the same, rashly sailing across the bows of foreign warships, or dazzling crews or aviators with lasers.

Unfortunately, the PLA’s risky antics and lack of professionalism are not likely to diminish, but only to grow, under Xi’s belligerent pathway towards confrontation. Xi is going to keep the PLA front and centre of his spending priorities, even during a growing domestic economic crisis. The PLA’s modernization will not slow, according to a Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) report entitled “China’s Choices: A New Tool for Assessing the PLA’s Modernization”, published last year.

Its authors concluded that PLA modernization goals appear affordable, at least over the next decade. The CSBA predicted that PLA spending will increase at an approximately 3% real annual growth rate over 2021-31. A cost-informed 2021-31 force structure projection “overall indicates that the PLA has the resources necessary to continue its modernization over the 2020s. The PLA can maintain, expand and improve its regional defence forces, including short-range fighter aircraft, land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, frigates, missile boats and diesel-electric submarines. At the same time, the PLA can continue building a range of large power projection platforms for global operations, including aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, blue-water logistics vessels, strategic bombers and strategic transport and refuelling aircraft.”

However, the PLA Navy (PLAN) will face “increasing strain from operations and maintenance costs over the next decade due to rapid procurement of large surface combatants and aircraft carriers”. Indeed, the PLAN has been commissioning assets at a rate akin to a dumpling chef in a busy restaurant. Nonetheless, these growing costs will not constrain the PLAN until after the 2020s. The report also noted likely trends for the PLA. The first was that China will consolidate power regionally before expanding globally. “This sequencing would emphasize that regional goals, especially Taiwan, continue to have precedence over China’s global ambitions.”

Secondly, obtaining platforms for the PLAN, PLAAF and Rocket Force are likely to come at the expense of the PLA Army, which traditionally receives the lion’s share of funding. “…Despite large reductions to PLA Army personnel and units over the last several decades, further reductions were needed to free up funds sufficient to realize China’s strategic goals in the maritime direction.” This creates greater risk along China’s continental borders.

Finally, the CSBA researchers predicted the PLAAF will retire legacy assets in order to invest in more modern air capabilities. The PLAAF and PLAN Air Force might end up smaller, but this would be a small sacrifice in order to project power farther from Chinese shores. Although still fighter-heavy, the air forces will have a more diverse composition and greater capability by 2031. “Whether and how quickly the PLA Air Force and PLA Naval Aviation proceed in this direction is an important indicator of China’s military modernization goals, the PLA’s operational concepts and Beijing’s potential timelines for engaging in future conflicts.”

It should be noted that American and foreign analysts have been consistently surprised by China’s strategic decisions, the capability of its defence industrial base, and the PLA’s ability to undertake new types of operations. One example is Xi’s emphasis on nuclear deterrence, particularly with massive intercontinental ballistic missile silo fields currently under construction. Xi’s change of direction demonstrates how linear extrapolations from past trends can cause wrong conclusions and strategic misjudgements about the PLA.

What does all this mean for the PLA’s potential adversaries? The CSBA report listed five implications. Firstly, “The allies should prepare to face a China that poses both a regional and, increasingly, a global military threat. Beijing seems likely to have sufficient resources to maintain a large continental army and a substantial regional force structure composed of air, sea and land-based missile capabilities, while simultaneously expanding and modernizing its air, sea and amphibious capabilities for global power projection. The PLA can also place bets on a variety of platforms and technologies, increasing the complexity and uncertainty that allied planners face in assessing future operational scenarios involving Chinese forces.”

Secondly, pursuing cost-imposing strategies against China will become increasingly important. This is vital since the US defence budget is facing relatively flat growth in coming years. “Given China’s resources, any one-cost-imposition strategy will not bankrupt the PLA. But, over time, the cumulative effects of multiple cost imposition strategies that stress the PLA in various areas and directions could prevent the PLA from mustering sufficient resources to accomplish its major objectives.” Next, the CSBA authors warned that if the USA seeks to limit the PLA’s ability to wage war in the Western Pacific, then policymakers must encourage the PLA to keep a large standing army. In other words, “Allied policymakers should thus seek to raise China’s perceived continental threats. Aiding the Indian and South Korean militaries in their modernization efforts, particularly in the ground domain, could induce PLA leaders to maintain large ground forces. The allies could also consider opportunistic ways to increase the relative bureaucratic strength of the PLA Army, through means such as publicizing corruption within or encouraging defections from the other PLA services.”

Moving on to the fourth implication, the report said there are strong incentives to limit China’s technological advancements in defence and dual-use categories. “The PLA’s modernization depends in part on the Chinese defence industrial base’s ability to develop and manufacture advanced capabilities. The allies have considerable agency in shaping Chinese technological developments, and policymakers should consider a range of means to limit China’s absorption of Western technology and know-how.” The final lesson is that Sino-US security competition extends far beyond the military domain, to include technology, trade, finance and politics. “US and allied policymakers must consider a variety of military and non-military means to impose costs on China’s military modernization and uphold the existing US-led international order.”


Of course, the PLA is keenly observing the failings of Russian tactics, equipment and morale in its barbaric invasion of Ukraine. These lessons will gradually filter through to the PLA to improve its capabilities. However, the UK-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), in its “2023 Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment”, concluded there is no evidence the war in Ukraine has “altered Chinese thinking on the timescale or methodology” for a possible attack on Taiwan.

The authors James Crabtree and Dr Euan Graham noted, “Beijing’s view of Taiwan as an internal challenge has shaped its assessment that a Chinese use of force to regain the island would be utterly dissimilar to the Ukraine war.”

Regardless, Beijing must factor in US/allied non-military reactions, as has occurred with NATO’s massive support for Ukraine against Russian aggression. However, following Russia precedent, China might be tempted to issue nuclear threats to ward off third-party intervention in a Taiwan contingency. Taiwan will also be learning from Ukraine’s example of the importance of regenerating combat forces during a protracted conflict through the use of reserves. In December 2022, Taipei announced a force realignment plan that extended minimum conscription periods from four months to one year.

Crabtree and Graham noted: “At one level it seems reasonable to conclude that Russia’s battlefield frustrations in Ukraine would give pause to those in Beijing who might be mulling military adventures of their own. Chinese officials rarely comment on such matters in public, however, so there is little conclusive evidence as to how Russia’s ‘special operation’ against Ukraine will affect the odds of any possible future Chinese invasion of Taiwan.” The IISS representatives continued: “Instead of focusing on the potential for China to engage in military adventurism, it may be more profitable to examine the broader developmental lessons that the PLA might take from the performance of Russia’s and Ukraine’s armed forces. In many cases those lessons are likely to support existing PLA priorities and modernization plans, for instance concerning the importance of developing greater expertise in combined arms or joint operations, and how to integrate new technologies in innovative ways. The onus placed on new technologies- such as drones – in Ukraine also chimes with China’s existing modernization plans.”

The academics pointed out one universal lesson is that unprovoked aggression and territorial conquest by major powers remains an active risk and a salient feature of international relations in the 21st century. “Perceptions of military threat have thus deepened in the Asia-Pacific.”

The IISS members concluded: “If Ukraine ultimately prevails, it will provide a considerable boost for the existing rules-based order in both Europe and the Asia-Pacific. By contrast, if Russia achieves some measure of victory, Moscow’s gains in Ukraine will likely lead to a weakening of those same rules and norms in the Asia-Pacific, setting revisionist precedents from which China and North Korea are likely to benefit.” Unfortunately, as Deng feared, China has already turned into a tyrant. (ANI)

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