PLA Developments

by Roy D. Kamphausen
December 19, 2013

This is one of eleven essays in the “2014 Asia-Pacific Watch List.”

By Roy Kamphausen

December 19, 2013

The Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress provided some hints about forthcoming changes in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Here are some questions to consider regarding developments we might see in 2014:

Will advanced “blue water” sea trials of China’s new aircraft carrier take place to better integrate the Liaoning into the operations of the PLA Navy? If a principal purpose served by the Liaoning is the regional impression it conveys of growing Chinese power—such as through the out-of-area sea trials in the South China Sea in November and December of 2013—then it has already achieved its objectives, whether or not further advanced sea trials occur.

Will the PLA test its much-acclaimed DF-21D by shooting a moving target at sea? Three years ago, then PACOM commander Admiral Robert Willard declared that the DF-21D had achieved “initial operating capability,” having already undergone significant testing. Earlier this year, a video came out purporting to show a Gobi Desert–based mock-up carrier target hit by the DF-21D. When a real shot at an at-sea moving target occurs, then claims about China’s “anti-access/area denial” capabilities would take firm shape.

Will China increasingly deploy drones in contested areas? Drones not only can provide situational awareness without putting human beings at risk, but “remote control” operations without troops involved potentially lower the threshold for conflict. The PLA has dozens of drones under design or in testing and reportedly entered Japanese airspace over the Senkaku Islands in September. Increased deployment of drones in other disputed areas such as the South China Sea or the Line of Actual Control seems only a matter of when, not if.

Will the PLA undertake significant reform to its military region structure? Reports from the Third Plenum indicate that structural changes for the PLA are forthcoming. The PLA has long since outgrown its antiquated, regionally based defense structure, and China’s challenging regional security environment would seem to demand a more flexible approach. The PLA has demonstrated that it can conduct exercises and training that cross military region lines. Some sort of joint, contingency-focused subregional structure that creates adaptable force packages and builds on successful exercises seems in the offing.

Will the PLA scale back its short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) deployments across from Taiwan? The military coercive component of China’s overall Taiwan strategy has worked well to date, at least from Beijing’s perspective. Scaling back the SRBM threat is, unfortunately, a development that is unlikely to occur anytime soon.

Will the PLA stage significant and observable exercises near the North Korean border?To be sure, the PLA occasionally is said to “seal its border” with North Korea using regional forces, but we have not seen the sort of large-scale military exercises in the border area that might convey Chinese concerns about North Korea’s stability. While Beijing is certainly worried about putting too much pressure on Pyongyang, the absence of such a coercive element raises questions about Beijing’s overall strategy.

Will China’s Peace Ark hospital ship arrive promptly if a natural disaster should occur? Beijing was much criticized for the tardiness of the Peace Ark‘s participation in the international response to Typhoon Haiyan. Irrespective of bilateral issues, Beijing and the region both lose when the Peace Ark‘s capabilities are slow to arrive.

Will any of these take place in 2014? Stay tuned.

Roy Kamphausen is Senior Advisor for Political and Security Affairs at NBR. He advises and contributes to NBR research programs on political and security issues in Asia. Mr. Kamphausen previously served as Senior Vice President for Political and Security Affairs and Director of NBR’s Washington, D.C., office.