Beijing’s measures are in keeping with its spreading reach and influence and its efforts are moderate and defensive
The transformation of China’s military into a modern force is well on track. Data released recently showed the strength of the land-based force had for the first time fallen to below half of the total number of People’s Liberation Army troops, revealing the pace and breadth of President Xi Jinping’s reforms.
It was a landmark moment, showing the embrace of technology and shift of focus from the land to air, sea and cyberspace. Protection is no longer purely about national boundaries; it is also squarely on Chinese interests in the region and beyond. From the PLA’s beginnings in 1927, ground forces were the backbone of China’s defences. Not until the creation of the People’s Republic in 1949 were a navy and air force established, and for decades they remained underfunded and the military’s weakest branches.
China’s military overhaul likely to raise neighbours’ concerns
But China’s rise as an economic powerhouse made reforms inevitable and building strong sea and air forces are essential to protect interests. No foreign government could begrudge the need for having a military that is primed and able to ensure sovereignty, keep citizens and business operations and facilities safe, patrol shipping lanes and help with international peacekeeping operations.
Xi mandated in 2017 at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party the modernisation of the PLA by 2035 and China’s transition to a major military power by the middle of the century. Two years earlier, he had announced a downsizing of the army by 300,000 troops, a target accomplished last year. The PLA now has 2 million active servicemen and women, making it the largest armed force in the world. But technological achievements with missiles, aircraft and warships mean that increasingly, it is also fast becoming the most advanced.
The United States, which has by far the most powerful military, views China, along with Russia, as its biggest rival. A recent assessment by the Pentagon determined some Chinese technology, such as hypersonic weapons, were already the best in the world. The PLA has recruited top scientists and developed ultra-long-range ballistic missiles, fifth-generation fighter jets with stealth capability, robotic submarines, and a cruiser warship that is a match for counterparts in the West. Coupled with the revamping of the PLA’s military command and organisational structure, an ongoing anti-corruption campaign, recruitment of better-educated personnel and stepped-up training, there is every reason to believe targets and goals will be attained.
China has much to protect; apart from its coastline and waters, it is the world’s largest trading nation and it has an ever-growing roster of international commercial interests. Nations should not be alarmed by the PLA’s modernisation. Beijing’s measures are in keeping with its spreading reach and influence and its efforts are moderate and defensive.