COM 05/2018

China’s Military Rise through Reforms and Efforts against Rising Military Threats

By You Ji, Professor and Head, Department of Government and Public Administration, University of Macau


China’s external security environment has visibly worsened since the United States’ pivot restructured regional territorial disputes along major power rivalries and global geo-politics. U.S. naval Freedom of Navigation operations (FONOP) within twelve nautical miles of the Chinese holdings in the South China Sea have increased the number of hostile physical contacts between the two navies, and has thus raised the level of militarization in their bilateral relations. The White House’s designation of China as the peer rival will heighten military responses to their conflicts of interests and will, in turn, further stimulate China’s efforts to modernize its military. This upward cycle of tensions drives the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) current round of reform that focuses on the latest development of military science and technology. This paper will evaluate the PLA’s progress regarding this transformation in terms of war preparation.  

The Geo-strategic Threats, the National Defence Strategy (NDS) and War Preparations

Most advanced Western militaries routinely formulate their national defence strategies primarily to address defence policy and posture. This is in regard to the altered external military threats, not as an overarching directive for force transformation. This is where the National Defence Strategy’s role in force development in the West differs from that of the PLA. For the PLA, the NDS sets a strategic direction of its modernization. Identifying the proper upgrades can be more important than simple numerical increases in capability.  The PLA has revised its NDS no less than three times since the Gulf War in order to align with the changed ways, means, and ends of its war objectives. Currently the PLA’s NDS is entitled the fighting a limited regional war of informatization, which emphasizes armed protection of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity against major-power intervention. 

Xi’s primary guidance for PLA transformation is his push for the PLA to “fight tonight” shifts the focus from his predecessors’ concern war preparation to his own interests regarding war activities. This is in close agreement with the Clausewitzian notion that war is understood as consisting of two distinctive activities – preparation for war and conduct of war.[1] Furthermore under Xi’s assertive leadership, the PLA’s NDS provides both the political vision for war planning and specific war object/typologies defining engagement. Its offensive-defense nature  promotes  PLA external behaviour and resets the gun-and-butter balance. When Xi’s Belt-Road Initiative (BRI) is fully implemented, Beijing will increasingly undertake ambitious major-power diplomacy. As for now, it must gradually expand the PLA’s power projection with greater range along the BRI routes.

For the PLA force transformation is a process in which the top military leaders adjust the war posture through new capability enhancement programs, force restructuring and emended financial/material inputs. These designs are derived from objective analysis of the country’s national strength, available defence technology, and the changing international security environment.[2] Generally the PLA’s strategic planning has been greatly influenced by the IT-RMA ideas in the context of U.S. military pivot to Asia guided by the AirSea Battle concept and the QUAD evolution under the emerging Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Practically, the prospect of a war with Taiwan involving the US has prompted PLA strategists to construct the informatization strategy in the early 2000s. It later singled out four most likely war scenarios for the PLA in the coming decades. At the top of the hierarchy would be total war against a superpower. A major war in the Taiwan Strait ranks second in severity, followed by the third category of small or medium-sized war: either land warfare or a maritime conflict in the East and South China Seas. The fourth scenario includes low-intensity warfare, such as anti-terrorism operations in Xinjiang. With the Democratic Progressive Party in power again in Taiwan, the second scenario is potentially most realistic.[3]

Furthermore, a war doctrine that involves waging an full offensive war to protect sovereignty interests in the maritime domains, while waging defensive land campaigns in the context of a continental enemy taking advantage of Chinese distraction with a maritime crisis, has been envisaged at the national level as the guidance for PLA war preparation in the maritime domains and along the land borders..[4] Under this guidance the PLA formulates its overall force deployment, each service’s doctrines and posture, levels of combat alert and the pre-position of the weapons systems in likely conflict areas. It incorporates all relevant war ingredients in a hierarchical order.

War Designs and the Roadmap for Force Transformation

Strategically the PLA has designated new war typologies against the concrete adversaries. Accordingly it sets weapons R&D priorities, and creates the ‘new types of combat methods and forces’. Informatization synergizes all hardware and software equipment and is the key to force modernization. The PLA aims to become a network-centric force through C4ISR interconnectivity that provides the means for intelligence to be quickly shared, decision-making process accelerated, and orders smoothly implemented. Real time battle-field awareness is obtained and disseminated quickly both down from the top of the command structure and horizontally throughout it. Systems integration is now the driver for PLA war preparation.[5] Informatization entails a process of building IT force enablers to address the spectrums of external military threats and PLA counter-measures. 

At the tactical level, systems integration represents a rapid means for the PLA to improve combat effectiveness as compared to simply adding expensive hardware. The PLA informatization will go through a three-phased evolution: plugging IT assets into individual platforms as force multipliers in the first phase to 2010 (simulation). By 2020 the PLA would realize systemic systems integration at the central, war zone, and services levels through networking their C4ISR systems. Digitalization fuses various command chains. Finally thorough interconnectivity of all platforms and sensors would be in place by 2050. The PLA is intelligentized (智能化) to control a five-dimensional battle space.[6] Judging by the PLA’s informatization progress it is sufficiently clear that it has gone well ahead of its phased plan and objectives, thanks to China’s huge investment in its space and IT industries. The PLA has today transcended the digitalization phase in informatization and entered the era of “big operational data” and “comprehensive systems integration”, through which new war-fighting tactics are being innovated.[7]

The PLA transformation is first of all an offset measure against an enemy that is considerably superior. An asymmetric nature of warfare is natural for the PLA to contemplate offsetting. At the strategic level asymmetry exists universally among all militaries. At the tactical level, different weapons systems can generate inherent asymmetric effects, e.g., air power  against a ground force, and submarines against surface combatants. The PLA employs asymmetric measures that include offensive strikes or defensive operations from geographic proximity, using weapons systems with relative technological advantage against the weak point of an enemy’s main-battle platforms, hitting the enemy’s ‘soft-underbelly’, and employing pre-emptive means to attain tactical advantages. Typical of Chinese asymmetric warfare is the PLA’s emphasis on limiting opposing aircraft carrier effectiveness. An aircraft carrier is big, slow and relatively defenceless against fast, pinpoint and saturated missile strikes. An asymmetric condition is there to be exploited.

In a strategic parlance, the PLA’s war game plans require it to establish partial parity or even temporary superiority against the superpower at a chosen time, at an optimal geographic location, within a given duration, and for a limited objective so that a proper level of asymmetric advantages can be realized for a political settlement to proceed. The PLA’s asymmetric doctrine is foundational to anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) operations. The term A2/AD was coined by Western military analysts to depict the PLA’s specialized war plan to disrupt, delay and defeat U.S. military intervention against China and its efforts to protect its territorial interests vis-à-vis the U.S. and its allies and partners. These A2/AD ideas figure prominently in the informatiztion strategy, even though this designation has never been a PLA vocabulary.[8] The A2/AD notion reflects the reality that the PLA has to ‘use inferiority to frustrate superiority’ in future wars. So it demands that the PLA exploit the vulnerabilities of  a superior adversary from a deficit position. For the PLA, any successful A2/AD operations are based on smart stratagem, geographic advantage and suitable weapons systems that generate cost-effective deterrence to U.S. military pressure constraining PLA efforts to secure China’s core interests.

A2/AD is an asymmetric war doctrine whose execution is primarily dependent on concrete combat capabilities against exposed enemy bases, weapons platforms and troops in motion. The PLA has made great strides in this area through the acquisition of space ASAT power, cyber disruption measures and stealthy ‘assassin’s mace’, e.g., supersonic missiles, UVAs and submarines.

The PLA Transformation through Reshaping

On 23 November 2015, Xi Jinping announced a new five-year plan for PLA reforms. This marked a new page in the history of PLA transformation through a revolutionary programme. Apart from the heavy doses of politics of the reform that has greatly enhanced Xi as commander-in-chief, it has thoroughly reshaped the PLA in terms of organizational structure and command chains under Xi’s agenda in three stages: overhauling the apex of power in 2016; regrouping the mid-level theater command chains and services in 2017; and remoulding the overall force establishments by 2020.[9] In the 19th Party Congress in October 2017 Xi drew another road-map for the PLA to enhance its capabilities, representing another core content of PLA reforms through a subsequent three-phase plan: by 2025 completion of machination, by 2035 informatization and by 2050 a world class military. By then the PLA’s strategic objective for transformation will be fulfilled.


The reform dynamics

This substantial reform again transcends the original RMA scope of trinity but encompasses all of its ingredients, from theory to organization to technologies. It generally follows the PLA’s IT-RMA designs and incorporates every element of military revolution–for instance, joint warfare requires a suitable joint command chain and force structure. This was not an issue for the U.S. in applying the RMA program, as it had long been resolved, even though improvement had to be consistent. An integrated, joint and informatized warfare is not a new idea for the PLA which has written about it for a long time. Yet its application is new as it came to possess necessary IT-RMA capabilities only recently.[10]Furthermore, success in conducting this kind of warfare depends on many other internal and external conditions, e.g., overcoming the time-honored tradition of Army-centrality in the PLA, which can be realized only through substantial leadership and organizational reform.

 The reform package is very extensive. Among other things, consolidating Xi’s power tops all other agendas.[11] In a military explanation, this meets the needs of integrated command and control in a highly fluid combat situation of the future informatized wars. Clearly Xi’s heightened role at the core of the PLA decision-making process is integral to the PLA transformation, as indicated by the points below:

  • Power centralisation in the CMC. Following Xi’s guiding principle for the reform — the CMC takes the overall charge in unifying the PLA’s operational and administrative command.
  • The CMC chair’s one-man-rule system has been substantially personalised in Xi. This political act enables his domination in both party politics and military command, and serves as an institutional insurance for the PLA’s war readiness.
  • Rebalancing the civilian control through the person of the commander-in-chief over professional soldiers and his autonomy in PLA administration and operations.
  • Re-adjusting the military’s internal and external functions. The PLA is now more operationally focused on international matters of defensive mobilisation.

The overhauling the PLA’s “head” and “nerve” system is now institutionalised in the new CMC system with a new personnel line-up, a new managerial structure, and altered bureaucratic procedures. Thus, the CMC’s authority in the daily management of PLA affairs has been maximized, as has Xi’s own. It has facilitated realization of the key objective of the military reform to centralise CMC control over the entire armed forces.[12] Specifically, the new reform has thoroughly revised the PLA’s traditional combined CMC-headquarters command system that had allowed the CMC’s control to be circumvented when the four headquarters took over the policy initiatives and processes, even though all the major decisions still bore the CMC name.[13]

The key to CMC power centralisation is to reinstate the supreme authority of the CMC chair with one specific move to let him take practical charge of PLA operational command, which is the ultimate personal authority and absolutely exclusive. That Xi made himself chief of the new CMC Supreme Joint Command Centre reflects his hands-on leadership style. His role as the PLA’s operational chief, in addition to that of commander-in-chief, would be analogous to a combination of the presidency and chair of joint chief of staff in the American system. 

The Reform Agenda and Primary Contents

The PLA has set 2020 as the deadline of this round of considerable reform. As of 2017,  the bulk of the reform measures have been implemented. The next two years will involve consolidating the new systems, readjusting organisational incompatibilities, and overcoming the transitional void.[14] This is a process of reforming the reforms to fit all changes within the new realities in PLA administration and operations. Organisationally, the following are the highlights of the reforms in the “head”:

  • In abolishing the central headquarters system, fifteen functional departments have been established inside the CMC to service the administration of the PLA.
  • The CMC Supreme Joint Command Centre has assumed the PLA’s top combat command.
  • Creation of the Army headquarters.
  • A new national defence mobilisation system has absorbed regional military administrative authorities.
  • The Strategic Support Force (FSS) was established with a service-equivalent status.
  • A CMC DARPA was created to assist the State Civil–Military Industrial/Defence Integration Commission.
  • The military legal and disciplinary authority was made independent for internal checks and balances with a CMC member in charge.[15]

Below the “neck” of the PLA “body,” a new force foundation has been laid for the military transformation. The following are the key reform measures:

  • Exchanging the military region system (seven MRs) with a war-zone system (five theatre commandants).
  • The PLA’s eighteen GAs were consolidation into thirteen with substantial reorganisation among them.
  • The PLA’s seventy-seven institutions of higher learning were amalgamated into forty-three, along with the creation of a three-tiered tertiary education system.
  • A new combat logistics system was created.
  • Reduction of 300,000 personnel.
  • Elimination of all PLA activities for profit generation.

Militarily, there is little doubt that the ongoing reforms will enhance the PLA’s combat readiness through this restructuring. However, there are also risks as the transitional dislocations may temporarily undermine the PLA’s force coherence and command effectiveness at various levels.

Transformation and capability reconstruction

Capability rooted in technology is the core of PLA transformation without which nothing else matters. An appropriate national defence strategy can set of the correct course for the transformation to take off and proceed, but it does not ensure military effectiveness in the next war. The key to victory is, first of all, a reflection of capability effectiveness in the weaponry calculus among the chief adversaries. This is especially tough for the PLA, as the U.S. is targeted as force to match. The need to narrow the generational gap in hardware and software has driven PLA force a strategy for modernization that augments its effectiveness in war preparation. Xi is particularly worried about the generational gap between China and America.[16] Narrowing this capability gap has been the PLA standard measurement of military effectiveness.

Improving capability is foundational to the PLA’s overall transformation. The three-phased transition for a top-power military to become a superpower military by 2050 is ambitious, and the time-frame is tight. China’s anticipated preeminent GDP would allow military spending on a par with the U.S. The first phase of this transformation will see the PLA realize its long-desired objective of mechanization. The goal of the second phase is to reduce America’s overwhelming superiority over the PLA to one of only relative superiority, which will make the Pentagon balk at intervening in regional disputes against China. By the end of the third phase in 2050, the PLA will largely achieve a rough power parity with the U.S.[17]

Mechanization is important for the PLA because only advanced hardware platforms can informatization measures work effectively. Specifically it aims to equip the majority of the PLA with “third generation” weapons, comparable to those commonly used by NATO countries, such as the Typhoon combat aircraft of or Aegis destroyers. In the meantime it will introduce fourth-generation weapons the fourth-generation, similar to the U.S. F-22 stealth fighter aircraft. Advanced platforms will provide the PLA with confidence to engage powerful foes. Finally the emphasis on mechanization highlights the urgency for the PLA to address the “short plate” in its overall equipment modernization.[18] The typical example is the “heart (engine) disease” for China’s military aviation development that adversely affects all other weapon systems.

Completing PLA modernization by 2035 follows Xi’s general guidance on war preparation. Simply put, the goal is to narrow the generational capability gap with the U.S. In Xi’s opinion, it a major war cannot be won against top military powers while a generational gap in weaponry remains.[19] The best the PLA could do in that situation is to pursue an asymmetric A2/AD type of warfare from a position of weakness.

Of particular concern for the PLA is its weak capability in conducting network-centric warfare. To deny the enemy’s one-way battle-field transparency is a strategic necessity. To this end the SSF will integrate all “new types of fighting components” in modern warfare, such as those for “star wars”, cyber warfare, internet warfare, unmanned warfare and so on.[20] Even if the PLA narrows its capability gap with the U.S. military by 2035 as an indicator of its modernization, the latter will still remain far more superior in almost all categories of weapons systems. This dictates that the PLA stick to the A2/AD type of war fighting beyond 2050. There is rich inventory of platforms for the PLA to execute asymmetric warfare, but the very foundation for it to be effective is acquisition of three MAD capabilities: nuclear MAD (mutually assured destruction), space and cyberspace MAD (mutually assured disruption) that are effective asymmetrical means for a inferior military to deter a superior one. While the PLA never attempts a battle-of-order parity with U.S. military, it is confident that through a sustained increase in financial and material inputs in constructing the three MAD forces, and carefully employing asymmetric doctrines, it will remain able to deter the Pentagon from attempting to appliy military pressure on China.

PLA transformation is after all a number’s game. For instance, the PLA’s minimum but reliable nuclear MAD capability is measured by the number of warheads and delivery vehicles. By 2035 the PLA may possess about ten strategic nuclear submarines (SSBN). If each can launch twelve JL-3 missiles capable of hitting US mainland and each missile carries three warheads, altogether the PLAN 09 Unit will eventually have a likely number of 112 SLBMs and 336 warheads. This will give it confidence to survive the first wave of nuclear strikes and to launch retaliatory attacks.

By 2035 the PLA will own a combat ready space force and a cyber force. For the former, an aerospace first strike is a last resort in a hierarchy of possible military choices. To assist A2/AD operations a space strike is easier than a major battle at the sea and it is human-casualty free. Such a strike may take different combat configurations carefully weighed and designed, from show and threat of force to its actual execution, and from symbolic actions to paralysis of a few satellites.[21] Attacks on China’s homeland would diminish major psychological and physical taboos for aerospace retaliation, which is regarded more as self-defence than as a pre-emptive strike. China has made visible progress in its space launch and satellite-production capabilities. Since 2014 it has been the country that has achieved the highest number of rocket launches in the world.


Militarily, there is little doubt that the ongoing reforms will eventually enhance the PLA’s combat readiness through restructuring in accordance with the newest developments in military science, military technology and, above all, state-of-the-art types of warfare. However, the risks are evident, as the transitional dislocations may temporarily undermine the PLA force coherence and command effectiveness at various levels. For instance, the Sino-Indian Doclam standoff exposed the danger of devaluing the crucial role of the ground force in China’s national defence. Nowadays, it is trendy for PLA interlocutors to talk about the so-called Grand-Army-mentality when they highlight the importance of special services such as the Navy in the future integrated joint operations. Nevertheless, China is a continental power with very long and disputed land borders that are under military risk. A land war involving China is no smaller than a maritime one.


The separation of military operations and administrative systems at the levels below the CMC has created confusion in command and control. For instance, the authority of the war zone command is horizontally allocated. It is operationally and organisationally above all the troops of the services in the theatre, similar to America’s commandant command. The service headquarters are basically vertical administrative agencies whose power are now more functional and managerial, such as taking care of the daily training of the units in the services. Yet, they are still in charge of financial resources and personnel appointment of senior officers in the war zone who are placed operationally under the commanders there. Contradictions are bound to emerge. At this moment of change, the conflicts between the vertical and horizontal control mechanisms are wide-spread, affecting both troop stability and combat readiness.[22]


Politically, as all major reforms are a process of redistribution of power among involved parties, this round of PLA reform has created winners and losers. The power lost by the services to the theatre commandants in terms of influence and resource allocation generates discontent among service commanders. The officers dismissed in the process of force reduction would leave the PLA with bitter feelings and this has a negative impact on their remaining colleagues. Clearly, Xi and his CMC subordinates have to work hard to restore the morale of the affected rank-and-file members of the armed forces. This will not be easy in the short term.


More profoundly, China may now be in peacetime, but the persistent emphasis on war fighting and subjecting the armed forces to constant war games may eat into national resources at a time when the country’s economic growth and vigour have been weakened. Promotion of idea siege mentality shapes people’s idea of crisis that, in turn, drives a militarist thinking among the population. Last but not the least emphasis on war further lifts the military’s social and political status in domestic politics and in the decision-making process over foreign policy and territorial disputes.[23]



[1] Michael Howard and Peter Pret (eds.), On War, Princeton University Press 1989, p. 179.

[2] You Ji, “Learning and Catching Up: China’s RMA Initiative”, in Emily Goldman and Tom Mahnken (eds.), The Information Revolution in Asia, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, pp. 97-124.

[3] For instance, in The U.S. Army Operational Concepts: Win A Complex World (2014) China was singled out as potentially the most likely country the U.S. will fight a war with pp. 9-12.

[4] Liu Yongxin, “The guidance for defensive campaigns in the border regions in the context of armed conflicts elsewhere”, Military Art, No. 3, 2003, p. 39.

[5] Wu Renhe, On the new thinking of the informztized war, Beijing: the PLA Academy of Military Science Press, 2004, Chapter Introduction.

[6] Huang Yingxu, “The decision-making for defense strategy since 1949”, World-outlook Weekly, 5 August 2009.

[7] Tan Yadong, “Operational data: touch-stone of new war-fighting innovation”, The PLA Daily, 5 November 2013, p. 8.

[8] Li Shengqun, et al. The New Reform Trend in national defense and the PLA, Beijing: The Great Wall Publishing House, 2015, p. 25.

[9] The PLA Daily, 25 November 2015, p. 1.

[10] Zhou Xiaoyu, et al, On Joint Warfare, Beijing, The NDU Press, 2000, p. 27.

[11] Helena Legarda, “Xi tightens grip on Central Military Commission”, China Global Security Tracker, No. 2, 2017.

[12] Han Weifeng, et al. Military Reform for Combat, Beijing: the PLA Publishing House, 2015, p. 5.

[13] You Ji, “Military Reform: The Politics of PLA Reorganization under Xi Jinping”, Sebastian Heilmann and Matthias Stepan (eds.), China’s Core Executive: Leadership Style, Structure and Processes under Xi Jinping, Mercator Institute for China Studies: MERICS Paper, No. 1, 2016, pp. 46-51.

[14]  “Reshaping”, Episode 4 in a TV Documentary Series Strengthening the PLA, The CMC Department of Political Affairs Department, October 2017.

[15] These items are a summary of the Chinese open sources on the current PLA reform.

[16] “The great progress in PLA modernization”, Current Military Affairs, Shengzhen TV International, 24 October 2018.

[17] Major General Ren Tianyou, The Way to the Strengthening of the PLA through Reforms, Beijing: The PLA National University Press, 2015.

[18] Major general Lu Zhongyong, “Thought on effecting army transformation”, in Cheng Baoshan, et al. (eds.), Forum on Strengthening the PLA, Beijing: Renmin Publishing House, 2017, p. 64.

[19] Xi’s speech to the PLA delegation to the 19th National People Congress, 14 March 2018.

[20] Ji-Jen Hwang, “China’s military reform: The Strategic Supporting Force, non-traditional warfare and the impact on cross-Strait security”, Issues and Studies, Vol. 53, No. 3, 2017, p. 175008.

[21] Cai, Fengzhen and Tian, Anping, The study of integrated air and space warfare, Beijing: The PLA Publishing House, 2006, p. 32.

[22] Senior Colonel Zhang Yunfei. “How can the War Zone Commandants Command the Troops When They do not have Power over Financial Resources and Personnel Authority.” The PLA Daily, 15 April 2016.

[23] You Ji. “Xi Jinping and PLA Centrality in Beijing’s South China Sea Dispute Management.” China: An International Journal 15 (2017): 4–24.