Chinese Military Modernization: Sino-US Competition
By Kota Mallikarjuna Gupta
Military modernization has been part of military writings of Chinese scholars for many centuries. Technology played its role from the battles of Guiling and Maling in ancient China to the Gulf War of the 1990s. Chinese military strategist Sun Bin directed Qi’s military forces to deploy crossbows in large scale for the first time against Wei army in mid-fourth century BCE. The book titled ‘Six Secret Teachings’ associated with Chinese scholar Taigong has different descriptions of military equipment. Similarly, encyclopedias written during the Tang Dynasty has a military section highlighting the ‘Comprehensive Canons’ (Tongdian), compiled in the eighth century by a Chinese scholar, Du You, known for his commentary on the Art of War. These are some of the examples when weaponry was highlighted by ancient Chinese scholars.
Military modernization was mentioned as a goal of Deng Xiaoping’s “Four Modernizations” in 1975 itself, but defence modernization ranked in the bottom of the list. However, the Chinese military received its first double-digit budget increase only in 1989. China focused on creating a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) capable of winning a war against an adversary with higher technology capacities after the 1991 Gulf War. The White Paper issued by State Council in 2008 highlights superiority of developed countries in science and technology including military affairs.
China has set a goal to accomplish mechanization with significant progress in informatization of its military forces by 2020, before centenary celebrations of the Communist Party of China scheduled in 2021. The priorities of PLA include the development of informationized weapons to meet the requirements for integrated joint operations. Chinese PLA achieved progress in building command and control systems for integrated joint operations, enhanced battlefield information support, surveying, mapping, weather forecasting, navigation, and hydrological observation and space-environment support systems. Some PLA tanks, artillery, ships, and aircraft have been informationized.
The White Paper on “China’s Military Strategy”, released by the State Council in 2014, specifically, highlights US military presence and its alliances in Asia-Pacific and Japan’s overhaul of military policies. Such references on US and Japan’s military capacities and China’s concerns were missing in the 2008 White Paper. Chinese President Xi Jinping is promoting military development with infusion of latest technologies and has asked for innovation in dual use technology using the military and civilian technologies.
PLA Air Force (PLAAF) announced a roadmap to build a modern air force on November 11, 2018. The first step towards the roadmap is that China will build a strategic force integrating aviation and space power with fourth generation equipment as backbone and third generation as a mainstay with strategic combat capabilities enhanced by 2020. China will have modern and strategic air force by 2035 and fully world- class air force by the mid-21st century. This roadmap of PLAAF will enhance the technological capabilities of the Chinese air force significantly in the next three decades.
According to South China Morning Post (SCMP), China has announced its plans to build a deep-sea base for un-manned submarine and defence operations in the South China Sea as part of Project Hades, which is estimated to cost $ 160 million. It also has plans for constructing the world’s first manned the deep-sea station and floating nuclear power plants for commercial and military uses.
China’s missile technology progress is quite visible especially in PL-15 air-to-air missile with active electronically scanned radar which makes difficult for the fighter jets evasion. It is also developing another air-to-air weapon system to target slow-moving airborne warning and control systems at a distance of 480 kilometres away. Similarly, China’s PL-10 missile is compared with the best of the ‘fire-and-forget’ missile systems and as a strategic deterrent.
Chinese aviation industry also increased the production of support aircraft like Y-9 Turboprop and Y-20 transport aircraft. The Y-9, armed indigenously developed missions systems, is capable of airborne early warning, anti-submarine and intelligence gathering. However, Chinese manufactured aircraft are operational with imported Russian jet engines. China is yet to succeed in producing a jet engine to its satisfaction levels.
Private Companies are also helping China’s PLA military modernization. China’s private defence firm, Herakles Defense Technology located in Nanjing developed ‘Velociraptor,’ which can be mounted on tanks /armoured personnel carriers to fire off rounds against incoming anti-tank missiles. Similarly, Wuhan Guide Infrared designed QN-506, a ‘combat support vehicle’ with machine guns, grenades, a light cannon, missiles and drones for land and air targets. Both the military hardware developed by China’s private defence companies with fusing military and civilian sectors.
According to Department of Defense (DoD) 2018 report to US Congress, PLAN launched an aircraft carrier, cruiser and three destroyers to its fleet apart from support ships and intelligence - reconnaissance ships in 2017. In the same year, the world’s largest seaplane completed its first flight in China.
The Chinese military modernization with advanced technologies has raised concerns for other players in the Indo-Pacific region. The National Defense Strategy 2018 released by DoD of US highlights China as a strategic competitor, involved in intimidating its neighbours and militarizing factor in the South China Sea. It is pursuing military modernization with intentions of regional hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region and displacement of US for achieving global hegemony in the future. This document mentions that US military faces challenges in every domain –air, land, sea, space and cyberspace.
The two primary objectives of National Defense Strategy 2018 released by DoD of US are to restore America’s competitive advantages by blocking Russia and China from challenging the US and its allies and stopping the rivals from throwing the current global order out of balance. There are three US efforts to achieve two goals as listed above. One of the efforts is to build a more lethal force for the US which includes modernizing key capabilities which includes modernization of nuclear triad, investments in resilience, reconstitution, and assurance of space capacities and cyber defence, prioritize capabilities to gain and exploit information, missile defence, and advanced autonomous systems.
Overall, China and the US are in a race to modernize their military capabilities with the latest technologies to address their strategic challenges in the 21st century. China’s private sector has started to produced advanced military equipment for PLA. Sino-US strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific region will further increase military arms race and promoting military-industrial complexes in both countries. The military industrial centres in both countries will have to innovate and upgrade their technological capacities with huge investments. Technology retains its dominance as a factor for military modernization for countries like India as much as in China and US
The author is a doctoral candidate in Chinese studies from Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.