How China's Military Is Becoming Stronger

August 19, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaMilitaryTechnologyWorldA2/ad

How China's Military Is Becoming Stronger

Decades in the making? 

PLA Reforms in Progress

The 2019 NDWP introduces certain updates regarding force structure that are worth highlighting. The PLA has apparently succeeded in overcoming considerable bureaucratic impediments to adjust its force structure—away from the prior dominance of the Army to expand the Navy and Rocket Force—while increasing investments in “new types of combat forces.” This adjustment and rebalancing of China’s armed forces has shifted resources to new priorities: there is a new focus on special operations, “all-dimensional offense and defense,” amphibious operations, far seas protection and “strategic projection,” with the objective to “make the force composition complete, combined, multi-functional and flexible.”

As a significant innovation in force structure, the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) is a unique outcome of the reforms. The PLASSF has consolidated capabilities for space, cyber, and electronic warfare, contributing to Chinese capabilities to “fight and win wars in the information age.” At the same time, its supporting function is officially described as including battlefield environmental protection, information and communication assurance, and information security protection, as well as new technology testing. The PLASSF is called upon to “accelerate the integrated development of new-type combat forces,” which may allude to recognition of potential synergies in capabilities across these domains. In a notable indicator of progress, the PLASSF is “actively integrated into the joint operations system, and solidly carrying out new-type domains confrontation drills and emergency response training.” For instance, the PLASSF has engaged in exercises in which it acted as a “blue force” through engaging in electronic countermeasures.

Today, the PLA’s capabilities for “strategic deterrence” (战略威慑, zhanlue weishe) thus extend beyond the PLARF to emerging capabilities in new domains. In particular, the new strategic capabilities for space and cyber warfare have been consolidated through the PLASSF.  [8] The PLA Air Force was described in 2015 as endeavoring to “build an air-space defense force structure that can meet the requirements of informationized operations.” However, this discussion of “air-space defense” is not included in the 2019 NDWP, potentially reflecting organizational decisions that have resulted in the space mission being primarily entrusted to the PLASSF. [9] This shift thus appears to reinforce the assessment that the PLASSF is more likely to possess responsibility for the PLA’s space mission, though there is a possibility that the PLAAF and/or PLARF may retain some role in kinetic counterspace capabilities.

The PRC’s capabilities for and strategic thinking on deterrence are evolving. The subtle changes in phrasing across these NDWPs convey notable nuances regarding the role of its missile forces. In 2015, the role of the former Second Artillery was described as involving “strategic deterrence and nuclear counterattack,” whereas in 2019, the PLARF was characterized as responsible for “nuclear deterrence and nuclear counterattack.” The fact that the PLARF is not described as the service with the sole role in strategic deterrence further confirms the shift in the PLA’s nuclear posture: from a monad to a triad, in which the PLA Navy and Air Force are also called upon to serve as newly “strategic” services in their own right. Also new to this defense white paper, the PLARF is called upon to “enhanc[e] strategic counter-balance capability” (增强战略制衡能力, zengqiang zhanlue zhiheng nengli). The meaning of this phrasing is not clearly defined, but it could be an allusion to the potential of new capabilities, such as hypersonics, intended to maintain deterrence in the face of missile defense.

As the PLA continues to improve “preparations for military struggle,” its capability to “fight and win” future wars will depend upon the realism and sophistication of its training. This “actual combat” (实战, shizhan) training appears to be improving across the services. [10] For instance, the PLA Navy has started to concentrate on training in the far seas, reportedly deploying its new aircraft carrier task group for its initial “far seas combat exercise” in the West Pacific. The PLAN has also introduced “live force-on-force exercises codenamed “Mobility” (机动, jidong). Significantly, the introduction of the theater commands (战区, zhanqu) provides a critical mechanism to enable joint operations. This 2019 NDWP reveals that the theater commands have “strengthened their leading role in joint training and organized serial joint exercises codenamed the East, the South, the West, the North and the Central, to improve joint combat capabilities.” The existence of these exercises had not been previously disclosed, and their announcement is noteworthy as a new mechanism for improving joint combat capabilities.


Today’s PLA is very different from that of yesteryear. Chinese military power has increased dramatically over the past several decades, consistently surpassing the estimates of most analysts. The PLA is adapting to the challenges of military rivalry among great powers and pursuing new mechanisms for victory in future warfare. Of course, the PLA continues to confront numerous weaknesses and significant shortcomings—lagging behind the U.S. military, which is seen as the target of and teacher for these efforts. The apparent ambitions for the PLA to become truly “world-class” as a force by mid-century should not be dismissed. The gestures towards transparency, including new details on China’s defense budget, which reached $151.6 billion as of 2017, should be welcomed, but hardly resolve concerns about PRC intentions and growing capabilities. Meanwhile, the PLA remains more opaque about its actual military strategic guidelines and operational regulations, which are not, and are unlikely to be, publicly disclosed. [11] However, it is clear that China is well on its way to creating a military commensurate with its global standing and interests in this “new era.” This latest NDWP thus provides one more piece of the puzzle of reckoning with the rise of China’s military power.

Elsa Kania is an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program of the Center for a New American Security. She is also an Associate with the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute.

This article appeared originally at The Jamestown Foundation's China Brief.

Image: Reuters. 


[1] See this volume that provides significant assessments of major elements of the reforms: Phillip Saunders et al. (ed.), Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms(National Defense University Press, 2019).

[2] See these earlier assessments of the evolution and characterization of China’s “core interest” (核心利益) over time: Caitlin Campbell, Ethan Meick, Kimberly Hsu, and Craig Murray, “China’s ‘Core Interests’ and the East China Sea,” US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2013. Michael D. Swaine, “China’s Assertive Behavior: Part One: On ‘Core Interests,’” China Leadership Monitor 34, no. 22 (2011): 1-25.

[3] For instance, the only mention of the South China Sea in the “China’s Military Strategy” included the statement: “Some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China.” The question of whether the South China Sea was considered a ‘core interest’ was previously debated and debatable, but “China’s National Defense in the New Era” seems to settle that issue more conclusively.

[4] Department of Defense, “Summary of the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Advantage,”

[5] Potentially, the PLA’s military strategic guidelines may be revised someday to reflect its focus on preparing to fight and win future “intelligentized” wars.

[6] For more context on the Chinese military’s approach to intelligentization, see: Elsa B. Kania, “Chinese Military Innovation in Artificial Intelligence,” Testimony  to U.S.-China Economic and Security  June 7, 2019,

[7] For a more detailed assessment of China’s approach to national defense mobilization, see: Elsa B. Kania, “Testimony before the National Commission on Service’s Hearing on “Future Mobilization Needs of the Nation,”” April 24, 2019,

[8] For initial assessments of the PLA Strategic Support Force, see: John Costello and Joe McReynolds, China’s Strategic Support Force: A Force for a New Era,  National Defense University Press, 2018; Elsa B. Kania and John K. Costello,”The Strategic Support Force and the Future of Chinese Information Operations,” The Cyber Defense Review 3, no. 1 (2018): pp. 105-122.

[9] As a potential indicator of inter-service rivalry or dynamics, it may be notable that the PLASSF’s new commander, Lt. Gen. Li Fengbiao (李凤彪) is a career PLAAF officer who formerly commanded the PLAAF Airborne Corps. Potentially, his selection is an indication that the PLASSF is becoming more joint as an organization. For context and confirmation of this change, see: “CCTV screen leakage of personnel adjustment” [央视画面泄密人事调整], Duowei, May 15, 2019, For the original video of footage from the May 2019 conference, see: “Xi Jinping at the All-Nation Public Security Work Conference Emphasized” [习近平在全国公安工作会议上强调], CCTV, May 8, 2019,

[10] As for other services, the PLA Army has continued such major exercises as “Stride” (跨越) and “Firepower” (火力), the PLA Air Force has continued to engage in regular system-vs.- system exercises, such as “Red Sword” (红剑), and the PLA Rocket Force has focused on “force-on-force evaluation-oriented training” while continuing major exercises, such as “Heavenly Sword” (天剑).

[11] For a much more extensive discussion of the evolution of China’s military strategy over time, see: M. Taylor Fravel, Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949, Princeton University Press, 2019.