The Chinese political leadership has made two major announcements and accorded military modernization as one of the high priority for the country. First, the National People’s Congress (NPC) put into the public domain the draft new Law on National Defence on 22 October 2020. The document (in Chinese text) is available on the NPC website and the general public had a month to offer views. During a media briefing, General Wei Fenghe, a Member of the Central Military Commission (CMC), State Councilor and the Minister of National Defense cited two important reasons for the new law i.e. the current Law on National Defense which came into effect in 1997 had outlived its relevance and “cannot fully adapt to new missions and the requirements for the development of national defense”. Furthermore, “China is in a key period of strategic opportunity for development and is facing even more complicated security threats and challenges”.
Second, the Communiqué of the fifth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) notes that economic development and strengthening of the military should go side by side. The recently released 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) has listed modernization of national defense and armed forces as one of the main goals. The Global Times, a Chinese government mouthpiece, notes that Chinese analysts are of the view that there is an urgent need to build up national defence against “hegemonies, power politics and regional instabilities in other parts of the world when China is having more development interests overseas”.
There is no doubt that China is confronted with numerous geopolitical and geostrategic challenges particularly from the US who it has identified as the primary competitor to its rise. In particular, the US’ overt support for Taiwan by converting the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act into law and a new Bill ‘Taiwan Defence Act’ which requires the Department of Defense to provide weapons to Taipei, are unnerving. Perhaps what has also irked China is that a top US military intelligence official for the Asia-Pacific region recently made an unannounced visit to Taiwan.
Similarly, China is concerned about the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), or the ‘Quad’, a grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the US, which China believes is meant to contain it, add to its worries. In response to the recent Quad naval exercises in the Arabian Sea, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman stated “we hope that relevant countries’ military operations will be conducive to peace and stability in the region instead of the contrary”.
On its part, the US sees China as the primary threat to its global supremacy. The US military leadership has consistently warned about the rising military capabilities of the People Liberation Army (PLA). Numerous US Congressional hearings, policy documents and military strategy papers have unequivocally noted that the US military faces unprecedented threat from the Chinese military.
During the last few months, the US has attempted to test the Chinese resolve over Taiwan which was met with aggressive posturing by the PLA. It conducted numerous drills and live firing exercises to showcase to the US that it would not be intimidated. Among these drills the most spectacular was the firing of the ballistic missile DF-26B (4,000 kilometers range) and DF-21D (1,800 kilometer range) launched from Qinghai and Zhejiang provinces in August this year and were successful in hitting a moving vessel close to Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. This has rattled the US and Admiral Phil Davidson, Commander of United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) has noted that the PLA is “creating very advanced platforms — and weapons systems to go with those platforms - in the naval or maritime sphere, with their air forces [and] with their rocket forces,”
Since the last two decades China has focused on the modernization of the PLA and allocated significant fiscal resources for its modernization. All arms of the PLA i.e. the PLA Army, PLA Navy, PLA Air force, PLA Strategic Support Forces have undergone transformation and emerged as a strong fighting force that are now challenging the US military. At another level, the PLA has made significant strides in military related Industry 4.0 technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. Several Chinese academic, scientific and military related institutions are busy integrating Industry 4.0 technologies in their curriculum and research agendas. The thrust areas are integrated autonomous unmanned vehicles, and drones to support ‘remote warfare’.These will also help transform military production, logistics and supply chain management.China can potentially emerge as the leader of military Industry 4.0 technologies helping it leapfrog and gain ascendency over its arch rival the US military.
In the coming years, China will bring about significant changes in the way PLA undertakes operations. This is in line with the PLA’s thinking of evolving into a highly ‘digitalized’ and ‘intelligentzed’ force by 2027, a hundred years after its founding in 1927.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.