2014 PLA Conference
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 2025
In February 2014, the National Bureau of Asian Research, the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, and U.S. Pacific Command jointly convened a conference of leading experts on the Chinese military in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The conference theme, “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 2025,” focused on the outlook of the Chinese military between 2025 and 2030.
The 2014 conference sought to “look over the horizon” to examine alternative futures for the Chinese military. Participants identified key drivers of Chinese military modernization, discussed potential trajectories for the development of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and assessed the implications for the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
Given that China’s increasing military capabilities are creating complex shifts in regional security calculations, the analysis and findings from the conference are particularly timely for policymakers. Conference participants thus provided forward-looking insights into the evolving role of the PLA to inform long-term strategy and decision-making in the region.
The release event for The Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 2025 was held on October 23, 2015, at the National Press Club. Editor Roy Kamphausen (NBR) explained the purpose of the volume, which was to look beyond the horizon at three potential futures for the development of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA): (1) a PLA focused exclusively on regional issues, (2) the PLA as a global expeditionary force, and (3) a weakened PLA—be it from economic or political problems—that has refocused on domestic issues. The objective is to understand how each scenario could come to pass, explaining the drivers that could lead to particular futures and analyzing the implications of each future for the United States and the broader international system.
Douglas Lovelace (Strategic Studies Institute) followed with a brief backgrounder on the PLA conference, noting that this volume draws from the 24th iteration of the PLA conference and comes at a time when China is changing its approach to the security environment. He went on to explain that, while China’s desire to develop a military that is commensurate with its interests is understandable, how those forces will be used is the primary challenge for the international security system.
The event featured a panel discussion moderated by volume editor David Lai (Strategic Studies Institute) with several chapter authors, including Lonnie D. Henley (U.S. Department of Defense), Bernard D. Cole (National War College), Oriana S. Mastro (Georgetown University), and Phillip C. Saunders (National Defense University) speaking on these possible futures.
Henley began by reviewing the volume’s methodology. He emphasized the importance of looking to alternative scenarios for the PLA, as most existing analyses assume no major strategic shift even though history has often shown otherwise. The PLA’s current trajectory is pretty well set due to the nature of China’s five-year planning structure. But barring a major crisis, Henley sees an inflection point in 2020, when the Chinese leadership will reassess capabilities, reflect on achievements, and determine where to redirect efforts. In the short term, however, the primary objective in defense planning will remain focused on a Taiwan scenario and deterring massive U.S. intervention, though the Chinese leadership is also considering longer-range priorities related to expanding global capabilities. Henley underscored several significant variables that could influence the PLA’s future course, including the status of Taiwan; the pace of U.S. military modernization vis-à-vis China’s; domestic issues, in particular instability; China’s economic standing; the status of current territorial disputes; and whether China fights a war. He noted some constants in the equation, specifically Chinese views on history (especially the century of humiliation) and the political durability of the regime. He concluded his discussion with a reminder of the importance of rigorously assessing the authoritativeness of Chinese views on these scenarios, given the disconnect between the PLA and academia.
Based on the above parameters, the rest of the panel focused on two possible futures for the PLA and each scenario’s implications for China’s role in the international system. Cole discussed the possibility of a regionally focused PLA. In particular, he explained how the PLA Navy maintains a regional emphasis but is gaining the ability to project power into the far seas. Cole asserted that the primary focus of the PLA will remain on Taiwan, while the secondary focus will be on the Korean Peninsula, then on the East and South China Seas. A regionally focused PLA will not necessarily command the sea but rather aim to prevent unwanted events from occurring, such as U.S. interference. Furthermore, the PLA’s missions will essentially remain the same, prioritizing homeland defense and nuclear deterrence. However, the presence of the PLA will be more visible, with an increasing number of foreign visits and a rise in nontraditional missions. Enduring challenges will include the development of a noncommissioned officer corps and civil-military relations. Training on long-range operations will be the most important development, regardless of the military’s orientation.
Mastro discussed the possibility that China will pursue global capabilities, though more as a function of necessity than intent. For this goal to be achieved, the PLA will need to adjust its doctrine, force structure, organization, and training. Doctrinal changes could occur relatively quickly—as they are based primarily on assessments of what type of war needs to be won—but would face numerous challenges. The PLA will need to prioritize improving its ability to operate over its current approach of degrading an opponent’s ability to operate. The ongoing debate on whether China should pursue treaties to use foreign facilities highlights another challenge. Forward presence would raise questions about the PLA’s self-perception: China would need to square the circle on its much-touted non-interference policy. This could be achieved by maintaining its opposition to alliances and arguing instead that overseas operations are win-win arrangements between equal partners for mutual gains. In addition, a more practical problem would be a loss of home-court advantage.
Mastro then discussed challenges for changing the PLA’s force structure. In particular, the PLA must place greater emphasis on ground force mobility and adopt a new cyber policy—one that focuses on intelligence gathering and improved electronic warfare capabilities. Any change to the current force structure, however, will require the PLA to address several logistical issues, such as sea and air lift, and invest in relevant vehicles. She then briefly discussed organizational reform. Reform in this area could greatly improve the PLA’s overall mobility, given that the current structure is dominated by the army and military region commanders. Mastro concluded her remarks by speculating that, while newfound capabilities could be beneficial through the provision of global public goods, China’s narrow definition of its own interests could also have a destabilizing effect.
Saunders concluded the panel by assessing China’s role in the international system in each of the future scenarios. He framed his remarks by explaining that it is unlikely that China will possess either the power or the ambition to usurp the United States as the leader of the international system by 2025. Saunders instead characterized China as a moderately revisionist power that seeks to increase its influence on the margins. Beijing officially acknowledges and accepts U.S. leadership of a system from which China benefits. Thus, the calculus for change lies in a cost analysis of whether a change to the system is needed for China to survive and satisfy its interests—and, for the time being, the answer is no. Saunders noted the circumstances under which a global, a regional, and a weakened PLA would emerge, citing variables such as economic growth and the status of China’s relationship with the United States. He then explored how each scenario would play out in the international system and which foreign policy toolkit Chinese leaders would choose.
Summary prepared by Jessica Drun, Bridge Award Fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research.