5.2   Xi's RMA & PLA’s New Goals

1 April 2018

1990s: PLA’s Decade of Great Awakening


To be sure, efforts to modernize PLA began soon after the genesis of New China. After the signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance in 1950, the Soviet Union provided assistance to help China's military R&D with training, technical documentation, manufacturing equipment and licensed production of Soviet weapons. Budgetary constraints and historical events (such as the Great Leap Forward, the Sino-Soviet split, and the Cultural Revolution), however, limited the development throughout the Mao era. After Deng Xiaoping’s accession to power, China resumed its efforts to build a modern army in the 1980s, albeit still constraint by a serious shortage of funding. It was only in the 1990s that China’s military modernization really picked up pace. By then, economic development was well on its way as a result of reform and liberalization programs initiated by Deng. More pertinently, 1990s was also a decade of great awakening for the PLA.

The first critical event that triggered that awakening is the Gulf War (1990 – 1991), when the use of precision munitions demonstrated to the PLA the success of the US’ Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA新军事革命) driven by advances in information technology (IT).[1] In 1999, that potency of the US brand of non-contact warfare based on precision strikes again distinguished itself in the Kosovo WarChina’s assessments of the performance of the US military in the two wars led to the conclusion that, given the asymmetry in capabilities between the two countries’ military, the PLA would not be in a position to effectively execute and win a high-tech local wars. That conclusion was made all the more real when five US guided bombs 'accidentally' hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in the same year.

The decade also saw the eruption of the Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995 when Beijing fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait in response to Taiwanese President Lee Teng Hui's visit to the US. The missile tests continued in the run up to the presidential election in March 1996. The US government responded by staging the biggest display of American military might in Asia since the Vietnam War when President Clinton sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the region. The demonstration of force by the US further convinced Beijing the need to accelerate its development of capabilities to deter or counter the threat posed by possible US’ intervention in the event of a Chinese reunification attempt by force.

Hence, by the end of 1990s, PLA was firmly on its road to modernization based on a new set of military strategic guidelines built on US’ RMA experiences. Since then, China’s defence spending has been growing, reaching double-digit percentage increases in most years.


PLA’s RMA since the 1990s [2]

As a concept, the origins of RMA could be traced to the Soviet observation in the 1970s that the US was exploiting developments in computer processing and other technologies to achieve a ‘reconnaissance-strike complex’ (RSC) capable of targeting Soviet forces based deep in the rear. The PLA was introduced to the RMA concept only in the 1990s, when Chinese military strategists, after watching how the US employed new RMA capabilities in Gulf War’s Operation ‘Desert Storm’ and in Kosovo, began to earnestly study how RMA could help transform PLA. 


Up till that time, PLA had advocated the traditional ‘People’s War’ and ‘Local War’ doctrines, which entail preparing China to absorb and then gradually fight off an invading force or to defeat another power in a limited, local conflict, respectively.[3] The debates over RMA, however, opened up new grounds. One such area that attracted attention was information warfare (IW信息战, alternatively translated as informationalized war 信息化战). It was thought that in the information age, war will emphasize the asymmetrical contest of information that is silent and invisible just as war in the industrial age is very much as confrontation of ‘iron and steel’. The importance of information was even compared to nuclear weapons. Some scholars, for example, extended the concept of a nuclear weapons umbrella to an ‘information umbrella’ and asserted that information superiority could play a similar deterrent role.[4] They see an information umbrella as even superior to the nuclear umbrella because, unlike nuclear superiority, information superiority may actually be exercised in peacetime. Because information umbrella can facilitate observing the enemy while denying the enemy the ability to monitor one’s own forces, PLA can thus use the information superiority to ‘gain the initiative’ to ‘make a huge strike on the opponent at an extremely small price,’ and thus win the war.


The flip side, however, is that information warfare creates not just opportunities but also new vulnerabilities in the conduct of war because militaries become over-reliant on computer networks. These vulnerabilities can be exploited by other non-violent forms of combat operations such as viruses and hacking. Viruses, for example, can be used to target command and control systems, radars, and sensors, as well as other computer operated platforms such as the navigation and fire systems on aircraft, ships, tanks, and missiles. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), for example, is said to have shown interest in ‘injecting computer viruses from very long ranges into the tactical systems of aircraft, ships, etc., so as to paralyze the computers in various kinds of weapons systems at critical moments….’ In the collision incident involving USS John S. McCain in the waters off Singapore in August 2017, there were talks about navigation system being infected by virus. Notably, the incident was the fourth involving a Seventh Fleet warship in the year. Statistically, the frequency of the incidents points to something more than just human error.[5] The incident is a succinct demonstration of how information security will be increasingly critical because of the dependence of modern militaries on information networks.[6]


Beside the issue of vulnerability, China also lacked the know-how to fully exploit the opportunities presented by IW. However, it was noted that, unlike nuclear and stealth technologies, information technology has greater potential for diffusion and penetration. Hence, by connecting into the international grid where the flow of valuable technological know-how is ‘swift’ and ‘unstoppable’, China could appropriate the fruits of other countries’ R&D to enable PLA to leapfrog into a dominant military position.[7]  


By 2004, according to the Defense White Paper issued by the State Council Information Office, the PLA had embraced an official doctrine of an ‘RMA with Chinese Characteristics’ that was described as having ‘informationalization at the core’. [8] At this point, it seems that the Chinese had conceptualized its RMA as a set of technological advances that could create new opportunities to soften an enemy’s resolve through inflicting focused, limited, but highly damaging strikes. In a world in which nuclear weapons raise the spectre of total destruction and are thus almost unusable, the Chinese had decided that cyber attacks and precision strikes would be better able to generate acute pain or losses.


The goal of reaping competitive benefits from open trade and technology flows, however, creates an imperative to reassure the US and other militarily advanced states of China’s military inferiority and lack of geopolitical ambitions. Hence, consistent with Deng Xiaoping’s famous exhortation of ‘hiding strengths while overcoming weaknesses’ (韬光养晦), China kept a low profile and carried out diplomacy to maintain good relations while gathering intelligence and acquiring and learning the necessary technologies. During this period, even though the PLA continued to pursue comprehensive modernization – from road-mobile missiles to upgraded nuclear forces, higher quality fighter aircraft and surface ships, more stealthy submarines, and improved air defenses – mostly through foreign purchases, these advances were made relatively quietly.[9]  With the important exception of the 1995–96 Taiwan Straits crisis, when missiles were fired into the waters near Taiwan, China did not demonstrate its new weapons systems through tests aimed at other powers. Many of the new platforms were installed at remote, interior bases, with limited exercises that would have exposed them to public view.

Moving into the 21st century, China entered a phase of rapid economic development with its accession to WTO in 2001. The high economic growth in the ensuing years afforded China the wherewithal to spend more on the modernization of PLA. Meanwhile, the security threats faced by China were evolving. With the end of Cold War, the US naval presence in the Western Pacific, once valued by China, looked increasingly like a menace. The demonstration of carrier strength by the US during the Taiwan Strait crisis also made clear to the Chinese leaders that China needed naval strength not only to defend the mainland but also to carry out re-unification with Taiwan. Finally, there was also a resurgence of territorial disputes in the China Seas. Hence, after the mid-2000s, China began to embrace sea power as a national priority. With the settlement, or suspension, of China’s land-border disputes with Russia and India, more funding was redirected from the PLA Army to the PLA Navy, the PLA Air Force, and the PLA Second Artillery Force.


Xi Jinping’s Modernization Reforms for the Military in 2015


By the time Xi assumed the presidency in 2012, PLA had transformed itself from a large but antiquated force into a well-equipped and professional fighting force after two decades of modernization efforts. Although China continues to lag behind the US in terms of aggregate military hardware and operational skills, its relative capabilities in many critical areas have greatly improved. Still, there were signs that modernization efforts were slowing as a result of institutional inertia and obstruction caused not the least by corruption in the military. Moreover, there was also added urgency to raise the combat effectiveness of the PLA in the face of rising threat from US' 'Pivot to Asia' initiative. 

Before instituting a new round of reform to add new impetus to the modernization of PLA, however, Xi enlarged the scope of its anti-corruption campaign to include also the military which was said to be "so rotten that a war, even a small one, could become a disastrous failure." Helicopters were disappearing from bases, sold off to private firms; thousands of army license plates were flogged off to truckers so that they could avoid roadside tolls; and military officers — who had officially been told to get out of private business entirely a decade before — were running condom factories and Beijing nightclubs.[10]  By 2015, over 100 PLA general officers had been investigated and punished since Xi came to power in 2012.[11] They included two former CMC Vice Chairmen General Guo Boxiong and General Xu Caihou who were arrested in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Western observers were quick to link the large-scale uprooting to Chinese internal politics. As with Xi’s anti-corruption efforts against various civilian leaders, many of the senior military officers removed were linked to Xi Jinping’s predecessors, Jiang Zemin (served 1992 to 2002) and Hu Jintao (served 2002 to 2012). But even if the allegation is true, there is little doubt that by openly wielding the cudgel of anti-corruption and replacing corrupt top generals with younger commanders more loyal to him, Xi succeeded in disrupting cosy networks of vested interests that might have been responsible for slow-rolling and other forms of organizational resistance towards past reforms. His moves thus helped to ensure that his impending reform efforts to overhaul the PLA would be met with minimal resistance, if not enthusiastic cooperation.[12]


In late November 2015, at a special three-day reform group session conducted to accelerate the long-term military modernization program, Xi unveiled a massive overhaul of the Chinese military that would represent perhaps the most fundamental structural reformation of the PLA since the founding of New China in 1949. The new reform measures, to be completed by 2020, included

  • the establishment of a headquarter for its ground forces thus creating a separate PLA Army (PLAA) services;

  • 300,000 personnel force reduction by the end of 2017, 70 percent of which would be from land-based units;

  • the transformation of the seven military regions (MR) into five joint theatre (or combat zones) commands (see map);

  • the transformation of the four powerful General Departments (General Staff, Political, Logistics, and Armaments) into fifteen organizations within the Central Military Commission (CMC);

  • the elevation of the Second Artillery Force (i.e. China’s ballistic missile force) to the PLA Rocket Force;

  • the creation of the PLA Strategic Support Force and

  • the creation of the PLA Joint Logistics Support Force.[13]

7 Military Regions (1985 – 2015)

5 Theatres (2016 – Now)

Source: SCMP

After the reformation, the PLA is structurally made up of the following operational forces:

  • PLA Army (PLAA),

  • PLA Navy (PLAN), including also an air component called the PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF).

  • PLA Air Force (PLAAF), and

  • PLA Rocket Force (PLARF)

  • PLA Strategic Support Force, which is a force optimized for combat in space, cyber-space, and the electromagnetic domain that will enhance the PLA’s capability to fight and win future informatized wars) and

  • PLA Joint Logistics Support Force

More importantly, the reforms create a new flatter command structure that provides the CMC with greater control and oversight over PLA affairs. Moreover, the navy, with the support of the air force, has assumed a more prominent AirSea Battle role than the army. At this point, observers believe China’s naval modernization effort is oriented toward developing capabilities for[14]

  • addressing the Taiwan situation militarily, if need be;

  • asserting and defending China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS), and more generally, achieving a greater degree of control or domination over the SCS;

  • enforcing China’s view—a minority view among world nations—that it has the legal right to regulate foreign military activities in its 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ);

  • defending China’s commercial sea lines of communication (SLOCs), particularly those linking China to the Persian Gulf;

  • displacing U.S. influence in the Western Pacific; and

  • asserting China’s status as a leading regional power and major world power.


Consistent with these latest goals, China wants PLA to be capable of acting as an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) force to deter US intervention in a conflict in China’s near-seas region (e.g. over Taiwan), or failing that, delay the arrival or reduce the effectiveness of intervening U.S. forces. The likely scenario will involve PLA fighting high-intensity, short duration "informationized" regional wars "in a complex electromagnetic environment" at greater distances from the mainland than the PLA had planned for in the past.[15] In this scenario, informationization remains the core.

In addition to restructuring of forces, PLA also finetuned its engagement procedures with respect to possible freedom of navigation activities by US vessels. To exert denial, for example, the May 2015 Chinese Defence White Paper asserts that PLA would seek to ‘strike a balance between rights protection and stability maintenance’ and work towards ‘preventing crises’. In South China Sea, the Chinese have been testing the capacity of the opponents in standing up to their coercive activities through aggressive and assertive activities but pulling back at the last moment before the incident leads to an unmanageable crisis.[16] Some Chinese analysts also warned of blocking and ramming operations against US warships. Standard rules of engagement mean US vessels would be reluctant to open fire and risk escalation, forcing them to withdraw.[17]


PLA’s RMA Under Xi: Moving to Integrated Joint Operations


To accompany the structural changes, Xi also redoubled efforts to ensure the diffusion of PLA’s latest doctrine and approach to warfare to help the PLA moves from coordinated joint operations to integrated joint operations (IJO一体化联合作战). In coordinated joint operations, services conduct operations towards the same operational goals, but have limited interaction at lower echelons. In contrast, IJO is the highly integrated and networked operations involving joint force groupings down to the tactical level.

The foundation enabling IJO is what the PLA describes as a system of systems” operational capability (体系作战能力). This capability  will be based on an integrated command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) structure linking systems and forces to facilitate jointness and information sharing amongst the services.

IJO is thus more than just modernization of the equipment and weapons systems or the coming together of different forces. Rather, it is the integrated functioning of joint forces and the various information systems, providing information fusion and linkage between informationized weapons and equipment to generate increased combat effectiveness. PLA refers to this process as “information system-based system of systems operational capability” (基于信息系统的体系作战能力). The development and deployment of the C4ISR architecture, including the regional integrated electronic information system (区域综合电子信息系统) and the integrated command platform (一体化指挥平台) will allow all the services to communicate with each other at all echelons and achieving a common operating picture. The establishment of theatre joint commands, Joint Logistics Support Force, and Strategic Support Force are all critical elements aimed to help the PLA acquire this advanced joint operations capability.

The success of Xi's reforms is not a foregone conclusion, but given the high level of support from all levels of PLA, due in no small part to Xi’s efforts to neuter the bureaucratic resistance within the military system, it is likely that Xi's reforms would be followed through much more thoroughly than in the past. Hence, if all go according to Xi's grand plan by the first milestone of 2020, expect to see not just more ships, submarines, modern fighters, and missiles but a better trained and more effective joint fighting force linked with each other at all echelons by seamlessly integrated electronic information system and command platform. 

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[1] See Kelvin McCauley. (2017). “PLA System of Systems Operations: Enabling Joint Operations.” The Jamestown Foundation. January 2017.

[2] See Jacqueline Newmyer (2010). This section is essentially a summary of major points in her interesting article on PLA’s RMA.

[3] See Michael Pillsbury. (2000). “China Debates the Future Security Environment.” (Washington DC: National Defense UP 2000).

[4] Zhou Fangyin, ‘The Effect of the Information Revolution on Military Affairs and Security’, CPP20010817000186 Beijing Xiandai Guoji Guanxi in Chinese, 1 Aug. 2001, 28–32.

[5] See Tim Johnson. (2017). “US Navy collisions stoke cyber threat concerns.” Tribune Washington Bureau. August 21, 2017.

[6] Zhou Fangyin. (2001).

[7] See Wang Baocun, ‘Military Reform in a Transformation Era’, FTS19980506000321 Beijing Jiefangjun Bao in Chinese, 21 April 1998, 6.; Quoted in Jacqueline Newmyer (2010) Pg. 486.

[8] PRC State Council, China’s National Defense in 2004 (Beijing: State Council

Information Office 2004).

[9] See Richard Fisher, China’s Military Modernization: Building for Regional and Global Reach (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International 2008).

[10] See Foreign Policy. (2017). "The Resistible Rise of Xi Jinping." October 19, 2017.

[11] See Jun Mai. (2017). “Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive brings down more generals than 20th century warfare.” SCMP. November 17, 2017.

[12] See Dean Cheng. (2018). “Xi Jinping And His Generals: Curiouser and Curiouser.” War on the Rock. January 18, 2018.

[13] See DOD. (2016). “2016 Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016.” US Department of Defence; Minnie Chan. (2015). “PLA to announce overhaul: five 'strategic zones' will replace regional commands, most army HQ to be scrapped.” SCMP. December, 2015.

[14] See Ronald O’Rourke. (2017). Pg 5.

[15] See Manoj Joshi. (2017). “China’s military modernisation and its implications.” Observer Research Foundation. March 01, 2017.

[16] See Brig Vinod Anand. (2015). “Trends in Chinese Military Modernization: Implications and Responses.” Vivekananda International Foundation. February 2016. Pg. 5.

[17] See SCMP. (2015). “China’s navy has edge over US through sheer weight of numbers in dispute over South China Sea, say analysts.” October 30, 2015