The Dawn of a PLA Expeditionary Force?
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The Dawn of a PLA Expeditionary Force?

by Kristen Gunness
September 3, 2019

This essay examines the linkage between the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and China’s development of military expeditionary capabilities and assesses the challenges that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) faces in building an expeditionary force capable of securing BRI investments and protecting Chinese citizens overseas.



The PLA has been developing expeditionary military capabilities for over a decade, driven by China’s expanding global footprint. BRI adds to the security and operational challenges the PLA will encounter and increases the urgency to develop an expeditionary force capable of flexible and sustained deployment overseas. Potential contingencies along the Belt and Road routes include border skirmishes, maritime incidents, regional or host country unrest, and attacks on infrastructure. The PLA faces a range of challenges as it develops expeditionary capabilities to prepare for these contingencies, including the lack of trained personnel; insufficient command, control, and coordination of expeditionary missions, both within the PLA and with other countries’ forces; and the need for long-range logistics.

  • Given that the PLA had already been focused on improving its expeditionary capabilities, BRI does not appear to have changed the overall trajectory of its expeditionary force development.
  • The PLA’s focus on far-seas maritime capabilities likely means that its ability to conduct missions for BRI contingencies with a maritime component is more developed than its ability to conduct land-based missions. The PLA has not yet had to undertake a sustained deployment of ground forces overseas and would be challenged by a land-based contingency.
  • The PLA will likely be faced with non-maritime contingencies in the future, particularly along its borders, which could lead it to augment its border security capabilities.
  • Areas for expeditionary force improvement include personnel and command training, the development of better-connected logistics systems, and greater emphasis on the coordination of forces overseas through bureaucratic structures and the new theater command structure.

Kristen Gunness is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Vantage Point Asia, LLC.