Several days before the 89th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), on July 26, 2016, in a seminar focusing on national defense and military reform held for the group study of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, Xi Jinping, President of China and the General Secretary of the CPC, called for the building of a strong military commensurate with China’s international status and compatible with China’s national defense and interests. Notably, he also said that a more modernized military will be a strong safeguard for achieving the “Two Centenary Goals” and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation (Xinhua News Agency, 2016). On 27 July, President Xi visited the PLA Ground Force.
The same guidance had appeared in the Guideline on Deepening National Defense and Military Reform and the 13th Five-Year Military Development Plan which were released on January 1, 2016 and May 13, 2016 respectively by the Central Military Commission (CMC), and the speech that President Xi delivered at the 95th CPC anniversary on July 1, 2016. In the first half of 2016, President Xi completed the first step of a drastic military restructuring that he had inaugurated in November 2015. According to the restructuring plan, the military reforms initiated by President Xi will be preliminarily completed by 2020, which will fundamentally transform the PLA from a Soviet-style to a US-style military force and thereby facilitate China’s transition into a continental and maritime great power.
In fact, the proposal for “building a strong armed forces commensurate with China’s international status and compatible with national defense and interest” first appeared in a report by former President Hu Jintao which he delivered to the 18th CPC National Congress on November 8, 2012. President Xi expanded this proposal by underlining its implications for China’s “Two Centenary Goals” and the great rejuvenation of Chinese nation. In is noteworthy that the text both Presidents Hu and Xi used to highlight the relationship between the military and China’s international status were cited as headlines by the major Chinese news media that reported Xi’s speech on July 26.
We may understand the proposal this way: China’s rising international status is not only provided as a reason justifying the PLA’s ambition, but also defines the ceiling of the PLA’s modernization. In fact, as Presidents Hu and Xi hint, the state of the PLA is actually not commensurate with China’s rapidly rising international status. In a broader sense, China’s international status may progress ahead of the PLA.
Three notions that were emphasized after the 18th CPC National Congress may help us understand what kind of international status China is seeking: (1) Two Centenary Goals; (2) the great rejuvenation of Chinese nation; (3) a great maritime power.
Although the status of a state lacks precise scholarly definition, customarily used ways to measure it are its GDP world ranking and its positions in major international organizations. China does not just hold a permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), it also overtook Japan at the end of 2010 to become the world’s second largest economy, and its contribution since 2016 to the UN peacekeeping operations budget has also surpassed Japan’s and risen to the second highest next to that of the US (Gu, 2016). Therefore, we may believe that the current goal of modernizing the PLA, as indicated by President Xi, is to build at least the second most powerful military in the world, which will objectively be ahead of Russia’s and Japan’s. In fact, China’s military budget has been the second largest in the world since 2014, now standing at almost 2 percent of its GDP (World Bank, 2016).
However, given the fact that the PLA reforms will not be completed until 2020, the goal of becoming the No. 2 military in the world is probably more relevant to the second (2049) of Two Centenary Goals than the first (2021). Even if China successfully realizes the 2049 goal — when the modern socialist China will have GDP per capita (USD 8,000-20,000) as high as that of moderately developed countries — even if China has surpassed the US in terms of total GDP, China’s GDP per capita would still lag far behind that of the US, hence it is less convincing to conclude that China’s goal of modernizing the PLA is to compete with the US, at least according to Presidents Hu and Xi’s proposal on the compatibility of building the PLA and China’s international status.
We may believe that the current goal of modernizing the PLA, as indicated by President Xi, is to build at least the second most powerful military in the world.
Actually, “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” refers mainly to China’s restoration of its historical world status. Not only was China a leading empire beyond East Asia before “the Century of Humiliation,” but as was demonstrated by Ming dynasty’s seven major treasure voyages from 1405 to 1433, China was a great maritime power across the western Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean. After the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949, in contrast to the ground forces, the PLA navy was largely not seen as important to the PRC leaders’ strategic concerns (Ryan, Finkelstein & McDevitt, 2016: 248). However, since the late 1990s, China has attempted to build a blue water navy, and Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao both reiterated this determination in the early 2000s (Hartnett & Vellucci, 2011: 81-108). Significantly, the report to the 18th National Congress of the CPC in 2012 officially confirmed China’s aspiration of becoming a great maritime power, which means China will have to accelerate building its blue-water navy along with a more advanced power-projection capability.
The modernization of China’s naval, air, and rocket forces has become a major source of growth of China’s military spending (Fazhi Wanbao, 2014). According to 2016 statistics, in terms of overall numbers of cruisers, destroyers and frigates, the PLA navy has already become the second largest navy in the world next to the US navy (The Military Balance, 2016). Also, as declared in July 2016, China now has a homemade strategic transport plane, the Y-20, which is one of largest in the world and marks a key stage in the upgrading of the PLA air force into a strategic air force that will support the PLA’s demanding overseas operations.
In particular, along with China’s rise from a regional power to a global power, China’s national interests are increasingly extended globally, particularly around Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, and a stronger power projection capability seems increasingly needed. Notably, apart from the evacuation of Chinese nationals from Libya in 2011, China, for the first time, dispatched a combat battalion on a UN peacekeeping mission and deployed 700 troops to South Sudan in 2014. China also declared in January 2016 that it will establish its first overseas logistics base in Djibouti. In addition, as calculated by an expert in the PLA, given China’s two strategic maritime directions that it needs to defend — the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean — the PLA will probably build at least 6 aircraft carriers (Yin, 2015). In fact, PLA declared at the end of 2015 that China’s second aircraft carrier is under construction, and it is expected to be completed and ready for service in 2017.
Inevitably, President Xi’s military reforms and his rhetoric and endeavor of “the great rejuvenation of Chinese nation” have raised concerns in neighboring countries such as Japan, Vietnam, and Mongolia. China has to confront the misunderstandings among its neighbors and the US of its intentions in its modernization of the PLA and the rise of its international status, particularly when PLA chooses to show its muscle in deterring attempts to sabotage China’s territorial claims. Luckily, notwithstanding the construction of artificial islands and the PLA navy’s intimidating military exercises in the South China Sea, China’s more prominent international status, its welcome provision of economic assistance, its status as the world’s second-largest economy and the largest trading partner of most countries in the region, seem to offset fears generated from perceptions of the PLA’s aggressiveness.
Fazhi Wanbao. (2014, March 5). “Jiedu zhongguo junfei zengzhang: xiang gaoxin wuqi ji haikong erbao qinxie” [Interpreting China’s rising military spending: putting more weight on high-tech weapons, naval, air and second artillery]. Retrieved from http://mil.news.sina.com.cn/2014-03-05/1441767290.html
Gu, Z. (2016, July 29). Spotlight: China makes great contributions to UN peacekeeping operations. Xinhua News Agency. Retrieved from http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-07/29/c_135547791.htm
Hartnett, D. M. and Vellucci, F. (2011). Toward a maritime security strategy: An analysis of Chinese views since early 1990s. In Philips, C., Saunders, C.D.Y., Swaine, M. and Yang, A.N. (eds.), The Chinese Navy: Expanding Capabilities, Evolving Roles, pp. 81-108.
World Bank. Military expenditure (% of GDP). Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI ), Yearbook: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security. Retrieved from http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/MS.MIL.XPND.GD.ZS
Ryan, M. A., Finkelstein, D. M., and McDevitt, M. A. (2016). Chinese Warfighting: the PLA Experience since 1949. Routledge.
International Institute for Strategic Studies (2016). Chapter two: Comparative defence statistics. The Military Balance, 116(1). doi:10.1080/04597222.2016.1127562
Xinhua News Agency. (2016, July 27). “Xi Jinping: Jianchi dang zai xinxingshi xia de qiangjun mubiao nuli jianshe gonggu guofang he qiangda jundui” [Xi Jinping: insisting on the goal of strong military in new situation and working hard to build]. Retrieved from http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2016-07/27/c_1119291463.htm
Yin, Z. (2015, December 5). “Zhongguo haijun liangda zuozhan fangxiang gongxu liusou hangmu” [China’s navy needs 6 aircraft carriers required by two strategic directions]. Jinri Guanzhu (Focus Today). Retrieved from http://v.ifeng.com/mil/mainland/201412/01c4b468-3f8b-455a-bd76-845fcd7320c0.shtml