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What America Can Learn from China’s People’s Liberation Army

President Trump recently called for a $54 billion increase in military spending to “send a message to the world… of American strength, security, and resolve.” The U.S. defense establishment is currently grappling with how these additional funds should be spent to achieve the stated objective. Merely investing in increasing the size of our forces is ineffective. Instead, the United States must prioritize modernizing its capabilities to meet new types of threats. As the United States advances down this path, it could look towards an unlikely source for inspiration: the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). China watchers around the world continue to characterize the PLA as a “paper tiger”, but the United States could stand to learn a thing or two about force modernization from its Asian counterpart.

Do Not Underestimate the Paper Tiger

China’s last major conflict with a foreign adversary, its failed offensive in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, led foreign commentators and military experts to deem the PLA a “ragtag” military that was disorganized and underfunded. Generally, the PLA lacked the technology and organizational wherewithal needed to fight even the smallest of adversaries. Today, the PLA has undergone massive military modernization efforts. They still note that the PLA is “not ready” to fight in a modern war due to technological gaps in China’s air defense, the nature of the bureaucratic and corrupt Chinese state, and its lack of combat experience.

The Chinese bureaucracy is cumbersome and beset with corruption. Yet its centralized nature has historically allowed China to rapidly adapt its fighting force to meet the shifting military-technological environment. Take, for instance, Deng Xiaoping and the first wave of PLA reform in the 1980s. The Chinese government recognized that mass alone could no longer assure its national security. Deng, therefore, shifted China’s military doctrine from a “people’s war” to a “people’s war with modern conditions.” In keeping with this doctrinal shift, the PLA rapidly deprioritized recruitment and manpower and instead focused efforts on acquiring a relatively modern arsenal. In just a few years’ time, Deng’s administration reduced the PLA’s military personnel by nearly one million and reformed China’s defense industry to focus on producing precision-guided weapons.

China shifted its military doctrine once more in 2015. This time Chinese strategists called for a return to an “active” defense, a notion reminiscent of an idea first surfaced by Mao Zedong in the early 1970s of using a large, mobilized army to protect China’s borders. Unlike Mao’s version, the modern notion of ‘active defense’ would have the PLA protect Chinese interests beyond the mainland’s borders by investing in new sea and air control technologies and reorganizing its services accordingly. The objective of these reforms is to create a force that is organizationally—and technologically—equipped to pursue joint, high-tech wars in the future multi-domain battlespace.

China’s Military-Technological and Organizational Investments

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