Chengdu J-20 Chinese peoples liberation army air force

The New PLA: Paper Tiger or Sleeping Dragon?

On January 3rd, Chinese President Xi Jinping oversaw an oath-taking ceremony involving thousands of troops, alongside a display of military technology in China’s North. Simuntaneously, 4,000 smaller parades took place across the country in a move that has been interpreted by analysts as both a threat to external forces, and a PR stunt for internal audiences. In this piece, Alexander Stafford examines the parade, Xi’s speech, and the geopolitical implications of a seemingly reinvigorated Chinese military.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Last week, China’s president Xi Jinping was in the northern province of Hebei (just outside Beijing) for the inspection of a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) division under the Central Theatre Command. Looking very much the part wearing combat fatigues, leather military gloves and a prodigious fur hat, Xi toured some of the PLA’s most modern armament and equipment, including the Type 99A Main Battle Tank and Red Arrow 10 anti-tank missile (similar in many aspects to the U.S. Hellfire series). Having observed training exercises and received briefings from the divisional command, Xi addressed the troops directly in a mass parade formation. Calling for the PLA to become an elite, combat-orientated fighting force, the President stressed the importance of improved digitization and cross-arms integration to “strengthen real combat training” at all levels of the PLA. Xi also said that efforts to should be made to “ensure the armed forces always follow the instruction of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and the Central Military Committee (CMC),” of which he sits at the head. The massed troops then chanted en-masse, swearing an oath to follow the commands of the Communist Party, constantly prepare for battle, and slightly ominously, “fear no sacrifice”. The event was the first of its kind to be organised by the CMC and was echoed by a around 4,000 other parades throughout the country.

Being a first for the PLA, it is unclear exactly what to make of the whole event, and some have noted a possible significance in the fact (reported initially by the China Daily) that the division inspected by Xi saw combat against U.S. Forces in Korea. Despite this, the parade does not feel like a warning message to foreign powers to many China watchers. More likely is that the massive parade is little more than a PR stunt aimed at principally at an internal audience, serving the purpose of highlighting Xi’s supreme authority following the 19th Party Congress last October, and the successes so far in efforts to modernize the PLA under his auspices.

China has been keen to display these military advances in recent years, with new weapons systems bringing significant increases to the capabilities of the armed forces, particularly the PLA Navy and Air Force. That the PLA has made significant strides in its modernization over the last few years cannot be doubted; aside from the attention-grabbing equipment procurement such as stealth fighters and aircraft carriers, the command structure has undergone a major overhaul, being reorganised from its old Military Regions to a more integrated five “Joint Theatre Command” structure, forming a new Joint Staff Department to bridge the gap between the CMC and the local theatres while streamlining staff.

Despite these advances, detractors like to point out that the PLA still lags well behind that of the U.S. military in many areas, with significant gaps in their anti-submarine warfare, air defence systems, and outdated, noisy attack submarines. Additionally, comparatively poor Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence (C4I) systems and an over-reliance on Russian jet engine technology compound the problem at more strategic levels. Even China’s much vaunted A2/AD capabilities are largely untested, including the DF-26 “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missile, which has not been proven outside of controlled test scenarios. Perhaps most significantly of all however is the fact that the PLA hasn’t fought a near-peer conflict in decades. Apart from a few border skirmishes, internal counterinsurgencies and maritime disputes, the PLA’s last real outing was in 1979, when China’s invasion of Vietnam ended in such ignominious failure that the war has been all-but expunged from the historical record in China.

It is right to point out these weaknesses and avoid over-hyping China’s capabilities. Even so, the time for complacency over China’s military ambitions is beginning to draw to an end. Events like those last week remind us that military modernisation has and will continue apace in China, and the reach with which the PLA can bring military mass to bear is increasing far beyond the borders of China. Xi’s focus on combat training in his speech implies that he at least foresees a time, perhaps not too distant, where the PLA will be called on to perform in a real world conflict. Who that may be against and to what ends is the cause of much speculation, but with Chinese interests expanding throughout the world, border disputes and large Chinese diasporas globally, it would be foolish to frame Chinese military action only in terms of potential U.S.-China conflict.

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Alexander Stafford is a geopolitical and defence affairs writer specialising in China, naval and maritime issues, insurgencies, military history and strategy. He is a graduate of King’s College London’s War Studies programme who has spent several years based in the Asia Pacific region, where he now focuses on South China Sea maritime issues.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


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