Consequently, the country’s domestic defense industry has begun churning out scores of new, modern weapons systems for the PLA. These include the made-in-China J-10 and J-11 (copied Su-27) fighter jets, Type-055 cruisers, Type-054D destroyers, Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines, and at least three aircraft carriers. In addition, the PLA’s expanding budgets have also allowed it to fund an array of new military R&D projects, such as its fifth-generation J-20 fighter, its DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, and its far-ranging nuclear submarine program.
NEVERTHELESS, BEIJING’S stated desire in this year’s work report to “promote mutual support between civilians and the military” lends credence to the idea that the CCP intends to modernize its coercive forces without having to exhaust the national coffers—preferring instead to utilize dual-use technologies as part of its new-fangled “military-civil fusion” strategy. Moreover, the same document also stands out by its increased attention on PLA personnel and veterans. Whereas the Party’s armed servants past and present continue to be referred to as “key groups” and “entitled groups,” this year’s report has underlined the regime’s commitment to ensure that authorities “at all levels” would “vigorously” support the development of the country’s “national defense and […] armed forces.” The declaration to improve soldiers’ welfare may be further proof that Chinese defense spending this year will increasingly be geared towards personnel and training—the other two components of the main PLA budget alongside equipment costs. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, economic compensation for PLA veterans in 2019 alone cost around $20 billion—or about 12 percent of the military budget that year. Despite the recent 300,000-troop reduction, leftover funds (if any) will likely be balanced out by higher personnel expenses (including salaries, food, and insurance) in addition to upgrades to the cost of their training and sustainment (such as training, education, and the “construction and maintenance of installations and facilities”).
One other important but less well-covered event in China also leads to the conclusion that the PLA is delivering more expensive programs to its active-duty personnel. In that regard, the reforms that began in late-2015 are now squarely focused on upgrading the PLA’s human elements. With the Ministry of National Defense making known a major policy shift on January 28 from a “grade-centric” to “rank-centric” officer management system, more generous remuneration packages are now also made available alongside more clearly defined career tracks. China’s best and brightest likewise are given more incentives to join their ranks. The enhancement of the PLA’s professional appeal continues the trend of the CCP’s pursuit of the former’s corporate interests. But in order for it to compete effectively with the Chinese private sector, such initiatives will not come cheap.
WHERE CHINA’S military build-up is concerned, adding some context to make up for the lack of transparency in its annual budget provides us with a better—albeit still limited—appreciation of the PLA’s budgetary allocations. In that regard, those trends in its previous expenditure and its official publications help bring us one step closer to understanding what the $209 billion might be used for this year. Notwithstanding that China’s military expenditure has grown exponentially in recent decades to become the second-largest in the world since 2008, it still remains about one-third of the U.S. defense budget, at last count. With continuing PLA shortcomings vis-à-vis other advanced militaries (particularly in terms of combined arms and joint operations), the rational assessment can be made that Beijing would rather exercise prudence in its dealings with Washington and other countries in the region—rather than contemplate all-out war.
Certainly, over the next fifteen years, China is expected to make major progress toward mechanization and informatization, with the goal of achieving “complete military modernization” by 2035. Should that come to fruition, the PLA’s C4ISR infrastructure should be vastly improved, with satellites and other platforms/sensors (e.g., HALE UAVs) for surveillance, command and control, communications, navigation, and target acquisition set up. Other improvements would include the modernization of its capabilities to conduct ever more aggressive operations against regional rivals, and the expansion of its capacity for sustained power projection, in addition to operations in space, cyberspace, and in the electronic domains. These would also include improvements to the PLA’s abilities to conduct real-time surveillance and reconnaissance, joint operations, and joint logistics.
Should that day arrive, the PLA will likely possess naval and air assets capable of projecting sustainable power out to the second island chain and, on an intermittent basis, into blue water oceans. The PLAN would comprise 530 surface combatants and submarines, confirming its status as the largest navy in the world. In particular, the acquisition of four (or more) aircraft carriers by then would likely mean the reorientation of the PLAN around carrier battle groups; with such a development constituting a major shift in PLAN strategic direction.
Meanwhile, by 2035 the PLAAF should be recapitalized with fourth-generation and fifth-generation fighter jets, along with a fleet of modern transport and tanker planes, airborne early warning aircraft, and increasingly sophisticated unmanned aerial systems. Put together, a growing inventory of modern warships and submarines in the PLAN, along with air-refuelable combat aircraft and long-range transport planes, supported by expanded overseas basing (such as China’s first foreign military base in Djibouti), will particularly expand the PLA’s global footprint—first in the western Pacific, then the Indian Ocean, and eventually almost everywhere. China’s military activities this past decade and its “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy of late suggest that Beijing will likely be anything but a benign hegemon, should it somehow manage to catch up with Washington. At the same time, to suggest—as some media have suggested—that China is somehow “itching for a fight” in the foreseeable future is unhelpful.
Richard A. Bitzinger is a Visiting Research Fellow with the Military Transformations Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is the co-editor of Reshaping the Chinese Military: The PLA’s Roles and Missions in the Xi Jinping Era.
James Char is Associate Research Fellow with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is the co-editor of Reshaping the Chinese Military: The PLA’s Roles and Missions in the Xi Jinping Era