By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

Will Xi’s Military Modernization Pay Off?

For months, all eyes have been on the high-level personnel turmoil in the Chinese military. Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu has not been seen in public for weeks, raising questions about whether he still holds his position. Li Yuchao, the commander of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force, which oversees China’s arsenal of conventional and nuclear missiles, has also been replaced. Many observers have interpreted these shake-ups as a sign that deep problems plague the highest reaches of the Chinese military or that Chinese President Xi Jinping intends to continue consolidating his power. However, the frenzied media speculation around these personnel changes should not distract from the fact that the Chinese armed forces are making impressive strides in modernization.

Since he came to power in 2012, Xi has overseen a series of reforms that have strengthened and modernized the PLA’s warfighting abilities while reemphasizing its political role as “the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party.” Accomplishing this has not been easy; efforts by previous Chinese leaders to overhaul the PLA have often fallen short, thanks to the military’s insularity. Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Deng Xiaoping sought to rearm and reorganize the PLA to better defend China’s land borders from a menacing Soviet military presence to the north and an aggressive Vietnam to the south. But today, China’s most significant military challenges lie further afield. Consequently, Xi and his generals have sought to create a PLA that is more integrated and outward-facing—a PLA that can shape the country’s external security environment in Asia, secure Beijing’s expansive maritime claims in its neighborhood, back up Xi’s global political and economic objectives, and credibly challenge other advanced militaries operating in the Indo-Pacific. In short, a PLA can project military power close to home and far away to support Beijing’s larger global agenda.

Xi’s progress to date in revamping the Chinese military has been impressive. But even as his efforts have made the PLA stronger, they have generated new risks. The military’s improved capabilities, coupled with foreign leaders’ growing concerns about how Beijing intends to employ its military, have prompted a degree of pushback from abroad that Beijing may not have anticipated. Moreover, Xi’s leadership overhauls may be unnerving to the military officials charged with China’s defense. As Xi prepares the PLA for the future, he must acknowledge that military modernization alone cannot make China more secure—and that if he fails to accompany it with appropriate communication, especially with the United States, it could even backfire.

The modernization of the PLA has been in the works for decades, beginning with Deng Xiaoping’s efforts to overhaul the military in the years following China’s Cultural Revolution. In the 1990s, Jiang Zemin significantly revised China’s national military strategy, reorienting the PLA to counter offshore threats and increasing the country’s defense budget. Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, recognized that besides its traditional missions of defending China’s territorial sovereignty and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the PLA had to become a force supporting Beijing’s larger global ambitions. Indeed, in his work report to the 18th Party Congress in 2012, Hu declared that the country required “powerful armed forces” that are “commensurate with China’s international standing.”

As a result of these efforts, the armed forces gradually became more capable. However, Xi's inherited military—including the PLA’s account—still had critical structural flaws. Though it now had a stockpile of impressive weaponry, its organizational structure was ill-suited for fighting the multiservice offshore campaigns that would likely feature in Beijing’s future conflicts. Even more troubling, the PLA was unevenly managed, political indoctrination within the armed forces was viewed as weak, and corruption was ubiquitous.

Faced with these challenges, Xi has spearheaded the most significant retooling of the PLA since the republic’s founding in 1949, seeking to make it both “red,” or politically aligned with the CCP, and “expert,” or capable of advanced modern warfare. He considers building a competent and politically reenergized military a critical element of his greater quest to rejuvenate the Chinese nation. Xi has been much more personally involved than Hu was in Beijing’s efforts to revitalize the PLA, and his direct involvement in the military’s affairs has likely allowed him to succeed in areas his predecessors could not.

Xi has carefully consolidated and institutionalized his authority over the military. In 2014, the Chinese media began to promote the so-called chairman responsibility system, in which military control is placed squarely in the hands of the chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, who happened to be Xi himself. Two years later, as part of a sweeping reorganization, Beijing abolished the PLA’s general staff system, enabling the commission to absorb many of its previous functions. Xi is also the first party leader to take the title of commander in chief of the PLA’s Joint Operations Command Center, a headquarters established in 2016 to provide a supreme command over wartime operations. One of Xi’s signature domestic policies has strengthened the party's role in all Chinese institutions. It is, therefore, not surprising that he has focused on the political orientation of the PLA. Many of the institutional reforms and organizational changes Xi has wrought have focused on ensuring there is no daylight between the party and the military. These include steps to deal with endemic corruption and reassert party control over the armed forces through a network of CCP party committees within PLA units. Part of the work conducted by this military-political complex within the armed forces is ensuring that they understand the party’s assessment of China’s external security situation. For example, troops are being exposed to a narrative in which China is embattled by external hostile forces bent on containing the country’s rise, undermining its sovereignty, and supporting Taiwan's independence to keep China from becoming whole. The message goes that the PLA must become a more capable fighting force because of these threats.


Building A Stronger Force

Under Xi’s leadership, the PLA has undergone extensive administrative, organizational, and doctrinal changes to improve its capacity to fight. Over the last few years, the military has dismantled its 1950s-era Soviet-inspired organizational structure and streamlined wartime command and control of operational forces. Service-level organizations like the Strategic Support Force have been created to manage and deploy emerging technologies in new operational arenas, including cyberspace and outer space. In 2016, the PLA also reconstituted its conventional and nuclear missile forces, previously a branch of the ground forces, as a separate service known as the PLA Rocket Force and established a centralized logistics command.

The same year, the five legacy military administrative regions into which China had been divided geographically were abolished in favor of joint theater commands focused on war contingencies on the country’s periphery. The services were rebalanced to align the navy, air, and missile forces with the military’s need to project military power beyond China’s borders. Beijing has expanded the size and survivability of its nuclear arsenal. In 2020, the PLA adopted doctrinal principles to guide commanders in waging future wars as a multiservice joint force in all battle domains, including air, land, sea, and cyberspace. The Chinese military has also generated myriad regulations to manage and regulate its troops.

Xi was probably not the architect of the PLA’s reform program, although he reportedly chaired some military bodies overseeing its development and implementation. His contribution was nonetheless vital: he provided the previously absent political muscle needed to impose radical and dislocating changes upon an institution where vested bureaucratic interests had long stymied necessary changes. Xi dealt with this resistance by giving his imprimatur to a reorganization that dismantled institutional and geographic power bases, swept aside superfluous personnel, enforced mandatory retirements, and extended the anticorruption campaign being waged across the greater CCP into the PLA.

These changes have likely left the PLA better positioned to fight modern warfare than ten years ago. Given its streamlined organization and expanded doctrinal guidelines, it is closer to being able to conduct joint multiservice operations—an objective Beijing has aimed for ever since it observed how the United States and coalition forces conducted such operations in the Gulf War in 1990–91. And the PLA appears increasingly capable of operating beyond its shores within the Indo-Pacific region, a development that is provoking concern in the United States and elsewhere.


Flexing Its Muscle

 Xi is the first Chinese leader for whom the PLA can finally offer a wide array of credible military options for various uses, including noncombatant evacuations, crises that fall below the threshold of war, and significant conflicts, all conducted with the implicit backing of enhanced nuclear capabilities. Significantly, under Xi, Beijing has shown a willingness to flex some of its new muscles. On the border with India, confrontations between Chinese and Indian forces have recently flared over unresolved territorial disputes, resulting in casualties on both sides. In the South China Sea, Chinese influences, including the Navy and Coast Guard, are more vigorously enforcing Beijing’s maritime claims through coercive actions against other claimants. In August, for instance, the Chinese Coast Guard blocked Filipino boats from reaching the Second Thomas Shoal, a site in the disputed Spratly Islands that sits in the exclusive economic zone established by the Philippines. The PLA increasingly employs risky tactics to challenge U.S. and other regional military forces operating in nearby international waters and airspace and has ratcheted military pressure against Taiwan.

Beijing seems unlikely to take a softer military posture anytime soon. In the case of Taiwan, the PLA has been given the green light to maintain constant military pressure on the island. Over the past year or so, the military has conducted major multiservice demonstrations of force against Taiwan in retaliation for such events as the August 2022 visit of Nancy Pelosi, then the U.S. House speaker, to Taipei or the meeting of the current House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen during her transit of the United States in April 2023. Equally significant, the PLA sends dozens of Chinese fighter jets into the island’s air defense identification zone on a near daily basis, sometimes crossing the line that bifurcates the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese navy also continues to demonstrate its ability to operate around Taiwan. These operations do more than send political messages: they demonstrate China’s new capabilities.

The PLA has expanded its range of operations beyond Taiwan. Over the last few years, it has participated in combined naval exercises with foreign partners, such as Russia and Iran, in locations as wide-ranging as the Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and the Mediterranean Sea. In Asia, China and Russia have conducted joint naval exercises or patrols in the East China Sea, the Sea of Japan, and even near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The PLA established its first overseas military facility in Djibouti in 2017. Ostensibly created to service the Chinese naval flotillas that engage in antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, the facility also gives Beijing a permanent maritime presence at the far end of critical seaways on which China depends for its energy imports. Reports released by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2022 suggest that the Djibouti facility will not be the last overseas base the PLA establishes. According to the department’s assessment, the Chinese military is likely considering over a dozen other locations in Asia and Africa to support its ground, air, and naval forces in the future.


Paying The Price

Despite the irrefutable progress the PLA has made under Xi’s leadership, a more capable military has not made China’s leaders feel more secure. The assessments of the country’s external security situation in Xi’s report to the 20th Party Congress in October 2022 were the starkest in decades. “External attempts to suppress and contain China may escalate at any time,” Xi stated, and the country “must therefore be more mindful of potential dangers” and “be prepared to deal with worst-case scenarios.” By the time the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, an advisory body, convened in March 2023, Xi was no longer mincing words. “Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-round containment, encirclement, and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development,” he said, according to the official state news agency, Xinhua.

Beijing may properly assert that its security environment has grown more tense lately. Still, Chinese leaders do not seem to appreciate their role in generating this tension. China’s flexing of its new military capabilities has motivated some regional actors to find ways to hedge or even push back against its more assertive military posture. Undoubtedly, Chinese actions have created a strategic rationale for the United States and its partners to work together in new ways that Beijing finds highly worrisome. These new collaborations include the Quad, a dialogue among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States focused on the Indo-Pacific; AUKUS, a defense collaboration grouping Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; and an April 2023 agreement between Washington and Manila giving U.S. forces access to four more sites in the Philippine archipelago. Releasing its latest national security strategy in December 2022, Japan announced its intention to acquire new missile counterstrike capabilities. And U.S. and allied forces have ramped up their military presence and multilateral exercises in the Indo-Pacific. It can be argued that the American military posture in Asia has not been this robust in decades—a response, in large part, to China’s strengthening of its military. As a result, China is ironically feeling less rather than more secure despite its impressive progress in its military modernization programs.


How To  Build Long-Term Security

These challenges aside, Xi is well on his way to realizing his goal of an outward-facing PLA. China’s armed forces will continue to modernize, flex new muscles, and challenge neighbors and other actors perceived to undermine Chinese sovereignty as Beijing defines it. In a long People’s Daily editorial in November 2022, Xu Qiliang, the outgoing vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, exhorted the PLA to be prepared to “fight for every inch of land on issues involving national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The world should trust that the Chinese military is heeding Xu’s words.

This is the new reality. Another reality is that the U.S. military, its allies, and partners are not going away. And the stakes in a confrontation are growing higher. Should an incident occur between U.S. and Chinese forces escalate into a crisis, these countries—nuclear powers—could find themselves embroiled in a catastrophic conflict that neither side wants nor can afford. But to date, Beijing has decided to constrain its military-to-military communications with the United States to the bare minimum and eschew serious discussions with Washington about crisis management. This is not just worrisome; it is also dangerous.

Given the strides the PLA has made, Xi should have the confidence to have his military leaders sit down with U.S. interlocutors and work to find ways to decrease the possibility of misunderstandings. In the past several months, high-level Chinese and U.S. civilian officials have been working to reopen bilateral lines of communication with a flurry of diplomatic meetings. But military leaders are conspicuously absent from this process.

For its part, Beijing must understand that it is in its interest to engage. Xi wants a strengthened PLA so that China can project more sovereignty and authority. But he must acknowledge that a more robust military entails more responsibilities—not only to use force wisely but also to discuss ways to preclude and manage potential crises with the armed forces of other nations. Now is the time for serious discussions between the PLA and the Pentagon that draw a road map to a military relationship that can address the strategic concerns of both sides. Washington has been reaching out; the ball is now in Beijing’s court. Rejecting such dialogues and merely continuing to beef up the PLA risks undermining the security that Beijing seeks.



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