World’s Largest Army Worries Neighbors

The publicly announced Chinese 2002 defense budget of 166 billion renminbi yuan (US$20 billion) – 17pc over last year – reveals no more than a fraction of Beijing’s real outlay on defense.

Hidden from the public gaze are secret R&D programs, dual-use space programs, intelligence agencies, and other related costs, as well as special “large project” funding sources from the Bank of China for major defense projects that are carefully omitted from the regular defense budget.

Nevertheless, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Far East expert gains the firm impression that the regular People’s Liberation Army is transforming into a leaner fighting force. Defense Minister General Chi Haotian announced on 1 August 2000, the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the PLA, that 500,000 Chinese soldiers had been decommissioned since 1997, when the Communist Party ordered the PLA be reduced to a standing army of 2.5 million soldiers.

In addition, the PLA is increasingly moving towards a modern professional force structure, rather than the current selective quasi-conscript system. These force reductions are relative, as the Chinese military is still the largest in the world. Recent estimates suggested that PLA troops numbered 2.5 million, with 1.2 million reserves, and 1 million personnel in the paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP) force.

In addition, the exact number of additional paramilitary forces from predominately rural militia organizations such as the ‘Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Agricultural 1st Division’ is not available but is certainly immense (with potential mobilized forces of light infantry in the tens of millions during a time of crisis). Hence, the PLA will remain the world’s largest military force into the foreseeable future. China’s potential for fielding colossal forces is, in addition to its current technological modernization, of far more immediate concern to its immediate neighbors than is commonly appreciated in the West.

The bulk of PLA ground force divisions, currently numbering over 100, will probably remain low to medium technology forces, used for internal and border defense. They will also take the brunt of planned troop reductions. Perhaps from 12 to 18 elite divisions (zhu li bu dui, or ‘main force units’), plus integral rapid reaction or ‘fist units’, comprising a total of up to 300,000 or more troops, will become fully modernized for large-scale joint-service operations.

They will be equipped with long-range precision weapons, high-firepower and high-mobility systems, night vision systems, advanced C4I, surveillance, technical reconnaissance, IW, electronic warfare (EW) and targeting systems. These elite units will be able to deploy anywhere within and near China’s borders within 24 hours.

The PLA's traditional weapons procurement policy was you shenmo wuqi, da shenmo zhang (weapons determine how war is fought, or make do with what you readily have), but has now been changed to da shenmo zhang, zao shenmo wuqi (make whatever weapons to meet the requirement of war). The major 1995 and 1996 missile and combined forces exercises near Taiwan were seen by some as the initial stages of a long-term practical effort to develop forces to realistically wage ‘a limited war under high technology conditions’ (gaoji jixu tiaojian xia jubu zhanzheng).

In addition to the army, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Navy (PLAN) are undertaking a more technically sophisticated modernization process. They will introduce significant numbers of modern aircraft including Jianjiji J-8IIM, JH-7, FC-1, Su-27/J-11, Su-30, and J-10 fighter-bombers, strategic airlifters, aerial refueling tankers and electronic surveillance aircraft. The first J-10 fighter-bombers were put into service with the Chinese air force in May.

The navy is seeking new frigates, destroyers, conventional and nuclear submarines, and possibly aircraft carriers, along with correspondingly increased anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, shipborne air defense, sustained naval operations, and amphibious warfare capabilities. Air and naval modernization efforts will also include related weapons capabilities, particularly precision-guided munitions (PGMs). These programs have been accorded an even higher priority than ground force modernization, and could be realized before the year 2010.

The PLA Navy, PLAN, is gradually transforming from a coastal defense force to a “bluewater navy” capable of projecting force abroad. Aircraft carriers could be useful for enforcing regional territorial claims or supporting an invasion or blockade of Taiwan. China has been unable to apply military pressure to cease repeated atrocities committed against ethnic Chinese communities in nations such as Indonesia. An aircraft carrier task group and related amphibious assault capabilities would provide Beijing with military leverage in this problem area.

Whether or not PLAN is developing aircraft carriers, it has been confirmed that the ex-Russian carrier Varyag has been acquired by the Chinese navy and is docked under high security at the port of Dalian.

The PLAN also has a modernized version of its Luhai-class of destroyers under construction that may employ a modern missile vertical launch system (VLS) and advanced sensors and electronic countermeasures (ECM).

China has also reportedly taken steps to shift its strategic nuclear doctrine from one confined to a secure second-strike counter-value capability, to a more flexible strategy of nuclear deterrence requiring increased counterforce tactical, theatre and strategic nuclear weapons. China's nuclear forces may be increasing in inverse proportion to the decline in corresponding US and Russia forces.

New missile technologies (ballistic and cruise) are being developed domestically and through foreign technology transfers, particularly from Russia and other ex-Soviet states. However, China is very concerned about the Bush administration’s abrogation of the 1972 ABM Treaty, unopposed by co-treaty member Russia, and the resulting possibility that an interlocked network of US national, regional and tactical ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems, with the possible participation of Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, could negate China’s relatively small nuclear deterrent force.

China is now in the process of fielding a new generation of ballistic missile with multiple warheads (DF-31, DF-41, JL-2) and the development of long-range ground attack cruise missiles.

It is also probable that China will seek to develop aspects of innovative asymmetrical warfare. For example using IW techniques such as sabotaging military and commercial computer/telecommunications networks, and exploiting global multimedia coverage through focusing on the current Western societal squeamishness about the potential for large civilian or military casualties in any conflict.

Asymmetric warfare generally is defined as “attacks by a weaker or more technologically backward opponent on a stronger foe's vulnerabilities, using unexpected or innovative means, while avoiding the adversary's strengths.” Asymmetrical targets, intended to paralyze an enemy and induce a loss of a will to fight, include electrical power systems, civilian transportation networks (aviation, ground transport, railways and highways, seaports and shipping), television networks, and computer and telecommunications systems. However, the PLA’s doctrine of asymmetrical warfare should not be confused with outright terrorist activities, as this has never been officially advocated, and China has significant Islamic fundamentalist terrorist problems of its own.

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