Xi’s military signals global ambition

Journalists wait for the arrival of Chinese guided-missile frigate Wuhu at the international port in Manila on January 17, 2019. AFP

China’s military is undergoing significant changes and the world cannot but help sit up and take notice. In recent years, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been downsizing its ground forces. Now, for first time in the PLA’s history, land-based forces account for less than 50% of its total strength. Even as it has halved the size of its army, China has simultaneously boosted the strength of its air force, navy and strategic support forces. Since 2015, when President Xi Jinping initiated military reforms, almost half of the army’s non-combatant units have been retrenched, the number of officers reduced by 30%. The downsizing of the world’s largest land-based force cut the flab and allowed China to put more money into modernising the troops by equipping them with advanced weapons and cutting-edge technology.

Even more importantly, it is China’s growing global ambitions and its understanding of the nature of future wars that is driving the exercise. Hitherto, the PLA had been a homeland-based defensive force that focused on protecting Chinese territory. China has managed to settle its land border disputes with its neighbours, excluding those with India and Bhutan. It does not now face the age-old threat of invasions by its neighbours. Thus, it is focusing on the maritime dimension and distant powers. It is transforming its military from a largely defensive force to one that can assert its dominance over the South China Sea and over distant lands and waters in the western Pacific. Importantly, China is preparing for a potential conflict with the United States, possibly over Taiwan. The massive expansion of its navy and air force as well as the high priority being given to cyber warfare must be seen in this context.

China’s global ambitions have grown remarkably over the past decade. It has huge economic interests abroad, especially in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative. It is keen to become a major Indian Ocean power. Given that much of its trade — especially oil — is sea-borne, Beijing is anxious to protect its sea lanes of communication. This requires China to be able to project power and deploy forces quickly in lands and waters far from its own shores. This explains the increased priority being accorded to the navy, which already has one aircraft carrier and plans to have 5-6 more. That China’s navy, air force, the rocket force and the strategic support force now comprise over half the PLA’s strength indicates not just the magnitude of its ambition but also of the military transformation it has undergone. There are lessons here for India’s own much-needed military transformation.

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Xi’s military signals global ambition

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