China's Evolving Land Force

Interview with Roy D. Kamphausen
October 1, 2012

China’s rise as a global power has led it to initiate a rapid and wide-ranging program to update its armed forces. Although the U. S. and regional states have paid considerable attention to China’s advancing missile, aerial, and maritime capabilities, the People’s Liberation Army land forces are currently undergoing their own evolution toward becoming a more efficient, effective, and contemporary force. NBR recently sat down with Roy Kamphausen (The National Bureau of Asian Research) to ask for his thoughts on how China is upgrading its land forces.

An Interview with Roy Kamphausen

By Greg Chaffin
October 1, 2012

China’s rise as a global power has led it to initiate a rapid and wide-ranging program to update its armed forces. Although the United States and regional states have paid considerable attention to China’s advancing missile, aerial, and maritime capabilities, the People’s Liberation Army land forces are currently undergoing their own evolution toward becoming a more efficient, effective, and contemporary force. NBR recently sat down with Roy Kamphausen (The National Bureau of Asian Research) to ask for his thoughts on how China is upgrading its land forces.

Mr. Kamphausen is the author of “China’s Land Forces: New Priorities and Capabilities,” which appears in Strategic Asia 2012–13: China’s Military Challenge, the twelfth volume in NBR’s Strategic Asia series.

How has the role of the land forces changed over time, and what strategic motivations are driving China to modernize them?

The Chinese people and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been closely identified since well before the revolution that brought the Chinese Communist Party to power in 1949. The PLA was seen as having played a leading role in ending the one hundred years of humiliation that China had suffered at the hands of foreigners and was regarded as the force that would protect the newfound self-determinism of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the days before the PLA Navy and Air Force were formed, it was the ground forces whose mission was to defend China’s long land borders against invasion. The strategy that the PLA adopted to defend China—people’s war—both leveraged this connection with the Chinese people and made sense militarily by taking advantage of the PRC’s large territory and the superior defensive position conferred by maintaining interior lines of communication.

China is now a global power, and its interests reflect this reality. As a result, Chinese leaders have said that the country needs a military that can help secure its interests globally. And that necessarily means that the Chinese navy and air force will play increased roles, somewhat diminishing the place of the PLA ground forces. However, two of the four “new historic missions” given to the PLA in 2004 by Chinese leader Hu Jintao are to secure the party and the party leadership and to “contribute to world peace.” The first of these missions is the PLA’s oldest and most central directive—it is important to remember that the PLA is not a state army but, rather, a party army. The second—to contribute to world peace—is novel and reflects China’s position as a rising global power with global interests. The dramatic increase in the last decade of PLA contributions to certain types of UN peacekeeping operations reflect the ground forces’ contribution to this new mission.

In terms of what is driving ground force modernization, I think there are two important factors. The first factor is somewhat bureaucratic: there is a feeling that the land forces are the PLA’s largest service and have historically played the most important role, and so therefore they must be modernized. The second driver may well be a sense that the regional environment—which is much more secure from China’s perspective after two decades of border resolutions on the country’s northern and western borders as well as confidence-building measures with neighboring states—now requires some specialized capabilities to deal with different regional contingencies. An interesting point of growth within the PLA has been its special operations forces. Special operations forces would facilitate better accomplishment of China’s goals in a number of contingencies; however, I argue in the chapter that these forces are largely limited to operating at China’s periphery or near periphery due to the country’s lack of a significant airlift capability and, in particular, its woefully inadequate helicopter force.

What obstacles does China face to its technological modernization programs?

The chief obstacle China faces is how to become an “informationized” force. By this, I mean that China must figure out how to increase the number and capability of systems that allow the PLA to know where it is and where its adversary is, and to communicate internally in a highly efficient way.

The problem here, to put it simply, is that the PLA is a huge force. So as you retrofit or upgrade existing equipment, or replace it with new equipment, you are creating a wide disparity in capabilities, even among like systems. This in turn creates huge logistical nightmares for the folks that have to maintain those systems.

In terms of specific systems, as I mentioned previously, China lacks any meaningful airlift component. The Chinese helicopter force is a mere fraction of the size of the U.S. helicopter force. Although helicopters are not very difficult to produce, China has not taken the steps one might expect to expand its own force. This would suggest that the PLA will remain focused on internal instabilities and contingencies along China’s periphery.

What “software” modernization has the PLA identified as necessary to achieve its desired end-state army?

What the PLA has clearly recognized for a decade is that it needs more capable officers and soldiers to operate in the high-tech environment that characterizes modern warfare. The way it will get more capable soldiers is to have a more challenging military academy and professional military education system, as well as to leverage the best of what the civilian university system has to offer. In the late 1990s the leadership made a decision to downsize China’s military academies by a third. The idea was that this would enable the academy system to cut costs, consolidate where appropriate, and use the efficiencies toward developing a more capable end product.

Additionally, thirteen years ago, China instituted a program similar to the United States’ reserve officer training corps (ROTC) program, designed to rapidly increase, at low cost, the capability of officers in a whole range of technical areas by educating them at China’s best civilian universities.

In terms of organizational restructuring, the PLA ground forces are doing very interesting things. They are near the end of a decade-long process to largely do away with the division as a unit of organization and essentially replace it with a smaller brigade organizational unit. What this means is that the ground forces will have smaller, more agile combined arms units, with elements of infantry, armor, artillery, communications, intelligence, and in some cases aviation—all in a self-contained entity. Smaller unit size will endow Chinese forces with greater flexibility and mobility and enable rapid deployment in a wider array of contingencies. This is a lesson that the PLA has learned from looking at Western militaries.

The question is, for what contingencies are these new brigades being designed? I argue in the chapter that the contingencies are largely internal or located at China’s borders. If we begin to see Chinese-style power projection, the land forces will play a limited and closer-in role—compared to the PLA Navy, for instance.

Have the PLA land forces become marginalized by China’s maritime focus? Could this shift lead to a deepening inter-service rivalry, which might prove detrimental to China’s ambitions to develop a joint force?

Is the PLA marginalized by an increasingly outward-looking military? The answer that I try to convey in the chapter is yes and no. On the one hand, the PLA ground forces are not preparing to conduct the overseas missions that, for instance, the navy is preparing for and has begun to conduct. In fact, the only instance in which China is currently dispatching its ground forces abroad is for UN peacekeeping operations. Further, the PLA has been very self-limiting in the kinds of UN operations it has been involved in and has only been sending engineers, logisticians, medical staff, etc. Despite a twentyfold increase in PLA participation, the PLA has yet to send any combat troops. So in that respect, the ground forces are somewhat marginalized.

On the other hand, the ground force remains the last line of defense for the Chinese Communist Party. It is still the largest service and commands the most senior officer billets. While some change is expected in the makeup of the Central Military Commission (CMC) resulting from the forthcoming leadership transition—the navy and air force are set to increase their representation—the army will still have the majority of members, ensuring that it remains a central player.

The possibilities for rivalry definitely exist and can’t be either underappreciated or overemphasized. It’s part of the natural process for a military becoming a modern joint-operating force to go through these growing pains. The ways that these largely opaque struggles play out will be important for outsiders to pay attention to and will be indicative of what the future PLA force might look like. But in and of itself, the fact that the army is struggling to protect turf that it will be required to give up to the navy and the air force is not a new phenomenon. What it does raise are the questions of how long this process will take and how this might inhibit the development of a Chinese-style joint force.

Currently, China doesn’t have any military region commanders who are not army generals. Will that change at some point? Will some theaters become naval theaters, in the way, for instance, that we think about them in the U.S. military? Or will the air force and the navy always be subordinate components in a military region? To raise an even bigger question, what will happen if the PLA does away with the military regions altogether and moves to an operating force that could be more joint in its structure from the outset?

These are huge questions, and the PLA is only at the beginning of this transitional period. The composition of the new CMC will be an important indicator. If we see, as projected in some scenarios, as many as five or six officers promoted to the CMC from the navy and the air force, it is possible that the transition could be even more rapid. On the other hand, there may be some retrenchment, with the army maintaining its overwhelming advantage among the military leadership, which might slow this process.

How has China sought to engage with or alter the security architecture in its immediate periphery? How has it sought to extend its reach beyond its own neighborhood?

China has primarily sought engagement on regional security issues through two organizations: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The SCO is decidedly not a collective security structure; rather, it is a loose amalgam of states that share some common interests. Because these countries’ security interests are non-state in nature (e.g., international terrorism), their cooperation in the security dimension is much more focused on law enforcement and intelligence, although China has conducted several military exercises in conjunction with other SCO member countries in the recent past.

In 2003–4, China made a premature effort to exert a leadership role within ASEAN by proposing an Asian defense ministers conference, which would have excluded the United States. Predictably, the idea went nowhere. The region banded together against the proposal, and the idea was tabled. In 2010, ASEAN developed its own defense ministerial initiative, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus, and invited China and the United States to participate, with ASEAN in the lead. And importantly, China has been fine with that arrangement. China’s defense minister, Liang Guanglie, has announced China’s intent to “play a constructive role.”

There are several interesting takeaways. First, China is clearly not trying to steer defense issues the way it might be with some other issues pertaining to ASEAN. Second, China is comfortable with U.S. participation.

Although we are just at the beginning of this process, it’s certainly a development worthy of our attention, but one that has not received a lot of analysis to this point. For its part, the United States is very comfortable participating in this structure with China. The process will eventually result in some low-key exercises, and I think as long as the United States is not in the lead, China is comfortable with being a part of it.

Beyond the country’s immediate periphery, China’s approach to supporting itself overseas is through the use of existing infrastructure, supported by national companies operating overseas, where the PLA, particularly the PLA Navy, could refit, rearm, resupply, and so forth. This system appears to be relatively effective, particularly in support of the Gulf of Aden mission.

As was pointed out by a participant at a recent PLA conference organized by NBR, the U.S. Navy needs to become accustomed to different operating patterns of the PLA Navy. The implication of this statement is that China’s military in certain cases is already engaged in operations as if it possessed forward basing. For example, the day when China operates a small task force on an ongoing basis in the Persian Gulf is not far off. This would be a significant development and is an eventuality with which the U.S. military must reconcile itself.

Greg Chaffin is an Intern at The National Bureau of Asian Research.