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The PLA in 2009: The Year of the Ground Force?

Commentary, 18 May 2009
Land Forces, Pacific
Following the release of China’s defence white paper, an enormous amount of attention is being paid to China’s naval and air force modernisation as well as its nuclear and missile forces. However, it is the PLA’s less-discussed army that is going to play the most critical role in safeguarding China’s security interests in 2009.

Following the release of China’s defence white paper, an enormous amount of attention is being paid to China’s naval and air force modernisation as well as its nuclear and missile forces. However, it is the PLA’s less-discussed army that is going to play the most critical role in safeguarding China’s security interests in 2009.

By Ryan Clarke, for

The release of China’s much-anticipated defence white paper has prompted analysis from PLA watchers worldwide. Much attention has been paid to the modernisation of China’s Navy (PLAN) as it is often viewed within the framework of a Taiwan conflict scenario and as a major component of China’s energy security strategy. The PLA’s consistent focus on enhancing its ‘informationisation’ capabilities, expanding the reach of its Air Force (PLAAF), enhancing the range as well as the survivability of the assets under the control of the Second Artillery, and its increased interest in space and anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities have generated much interest as well as anxiety, especially amongst China’s immediate neighbours and the United States. However, many seem to have forgotten that this document is primarily produced for foreign consumption and as such, its assessments must be closely analysed in order to determine whether they accurately reflect the PLA’s actual priorities, particularly with regard to domestic and regional threats. The playing down of the army’s role in maintaining internal stability by the white paper is a case in point.

External Security Threats

Why do analysts feel that China is so focused on improving the capabilities of branches that, when compared to the army, are relatively small in size? It appears that China views its primary external security threats as follows:

  • Conflict over Taiwan that could prompt American involvement
  • The Spratly Islands dispute that involves many overlapping claims over what could be resource-rich and highly strategic areas
  • Disagreements with Japan over oil and natural gas exploration rights in the East China Sea
  • Disputes with Japan over the sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands, a small island chain located northeast of Taiwan that are currently controlled by Japan but claimed in their entirety by China
  • At least 90,000 square kilometres of disputed territory with India

Any enforcement of most of these claims would require extensive naval and air capabilities, something that the PLA readily admits that it lacks at present. However, for various reasons these disputes seem unlikely to flare up in the immediate future. Ma Ying-jeou, President of Taiwan, has declared his intention to lower tensions and enhance trade links with the Mainland. Meanwhile, China continues to adhere to Deng Xiaoping’s principle of pragmatism, avoiding escalating territorial disputes in the interests of greater regional stability. Nonetheless, in accordance with its long-term interests, China will continue to seek to develop a blue-water PLAN, which will likely include at least one aircraft carrier, as well as a PLAAF capable of carrying out complex missions (including combined arms) and sustaining itself away from its traditional areas of operation.

Chinese Energy Security

Many analysts, both within China and elsewhere, openly claim that the PLAN is integral to ensuring China’s continued access to reliable sources of energy in a world that seems destined to face an ‘energy crunch’ that could spark protectionist measures or even armed conflict. While dedicating most of their time to studying Chinese interests in energy-rich regions such as the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, analysts have often neglected the fact that research clearly demonstrates that the greatest threat to China’s energy security lies in inefficiencies within China’s own market and refinery and distribution systems. This results in high operating costs and unnecessary wastage. Some estimates have even suggested that Chinese refineries only operate at fifteen per cent of their capacity. Further, a lack of private sector participation in China’s energy market has allowed state-owned companies to remain overstaffed and inefficient as they face little to no outside competition. Correcting these deficiencies could do much more to enhance China’s energy security at this point in time than any PLAN operation. China also currently relies mostly on coal for its energy needs, a resource that China still has in ample supply even though there are environmental consequences.

Beijing’s Real Challenges in 2009

If China’s external security issues are likely to remain dormant in 2009 and the destiny of its energy supply is largely in its own hands at present, then what immediate threats does China actually face? Here it should be noted that there is a fundamental difference between the way the world views China and the way China views itself, with the latter having the most impact on PLA force structure. Internally, China views its periphery as highly vulnerable to instability on account of ‘separatists’ in Xinjiang as well as Tibet and although maintaining stability in these regions is officially the task of the paramilitary People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF), which also answers to the Central Military Commission (CMC), it is clear that the army has a pivotal role to play given its superior resources.[1]  Also, despite much fanfare regarding the other branches, it is the army that is the guarantor of CPC rule throughout China and would be the first to be called upon in the event of unrest that could threaten the legitimacy of the current regime.

The Hu Jintao administration has good reason to be concerned over developments in Xinjiang and Tibet. Tibet’s exile community is likely to face a succession crisis following the death or retirement of the Dalai Lama and could break up along factional lines not only between different sects, but also between those who favor the Dalai Lama’s ‘Middle Way’ approach and those who advocate a more militant strategy. Such an occurrence would be a double-edged sword for China in that internal divisions would weaken the exiled Tibetans’ collective bargaining power and possibly even their support from the West but could at the same time spawn small but difficult-to-detect splinter groups willing to carry out violent attacks not only within Tibetan-majority areas in China, but in major cities as well. From China’s perspective, it would have no alternative but to increase its security presence in Tibet, thus potentially exacerbating tensions. Maintaining stability in Tibet is going to require a strong yet professional ground force that is able to act decisively but with necessary restraint as the media cameras of the world will be closely watching any Chinese actions in the region. For historical as well as larger strategic reasons, this task is going to have to be allocated to the army. In addition, most of China’s intelligence gathering capabilities, an indispensible component in any effort to identify and pre-empt attacks by cells or splinter groups, lies with the PLA.

Trouble in the Northwest

Contrary to most analyses, the unrest in Xinjiang poses the greatest threat to CPC rule and has been a mostly ethno-nationalist issue rather than a matter of Islamic extremism although the latter is starting to figure in more prominently due to developments in South and Central Asia. The presence of Uighurs in Osama bin Laden’s security unit, which landed some of them in Guantanamo Bay, and their involvement in several Islamic extremist movements in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan is testimony to this. Although some argue that these are individual initiatives or actions taken by fringe groups, a knock-on effect on Xinjiang-based groups such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is inevitable. Fortunately for Beijing, even if there have been contacts between Uighur militants and groups such as Al-Qa'ida, these connections have not yet impacted on their tactics or strategic thought. Attacks remain primitive and suicide attacks appear still to be off-limits. However, Beijing cannot bank on this as a permanent reality and is going to continue to rely on the army and all of its capabilities, especially those that pertain to intelligence and the disruption of terrorist cells, to maintain the fragile stability in one of China’s most geostrategically vital provinces.

Given China’s entrance onto the world stage, Beijing is understandably seeking symbols of great power status such as a blue-water navy, an aircraft carrier, a world-class air force, and an advanced missile and nuclear deterrent. However, despite being neglected by the white paper and many PLA experts, it is the less glamorous ground forces that are going to play the most critical role in safeguarding China’s security interests in 2009.



[1] The PAPF was initially formed from members of the PLA and is generally viewed as second-class and not as prestigious as the PLA.


The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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