A Strategic Crossroads for Chinese Military Power

Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 17

The 2005 Department of Defense Annual Report to Congress on “The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China” is to be commended for providing context, up-to-date information, and some new details about the complex subject of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) modernization program. [1] The Report raises the question of choices China’s leaders must make as the country faces “a strategic crossroads,” grows economically, and expands its international influence. It highlights many capabilities the PLA is developing, but also casts doubt on the intentions of the Chinese leadership with statements such as:

“China does not now face a direct threat from another nation. Yet, it continues to invest heavily in its military, particularly in programs designed to improve power projection. The pace and scope of China’s military build-up are, already, such as to put regional military balances at risk. Current trends in China’s military modernization could provide China with a force capable of prosecuting a range of military options in Asia – well beyond Taiwan – potentially posing a credible threat to modern militaries operating in the region.”

Shortly after the release of the Report, Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman General Peter Pace reminded that military threats include both capabilities and intent. [2] Hopefully, the Report can become a vehicle to spur informed discussion about Chinese military capabilities and intentions, and perhaps result in a better understanding of the often confusing and contradictory signals and implications of PLA modernization.

However, the full content of the Report must be carefully examined before conclusions can be drawn. For example, in the Executive Summary, there are at least five qualifiers in the forecast “Over the long term, if current trends persist, PLA capabilities could pose a credible threat to other modern militaries operating in the region.” Change any qualifier and the meaning of the sentence changes. Simplify the sentence by omitting a phrase (as headlines often do) and the meaning is changed. In the next paragraph, the Report makes this current assessment: “The PLA is working toward these goals…We assess that China’s ability to project conventional military power beyond its periphery remains limited.” While frustrating for those who want certain, unambiguous judgments, such craftsmanship reflects the Report’s acknowledgement that, “the findings and conclusions are based on incomplete data.” Unfortunately, to some extent, the Report itself is not as complete as it could be.

The Report is correct to mention “the PLA’s routine publication of a biannual Defense White Paper demonstrates some improvement in transparency,” but also notes that “China’s leaders continue to guard closely basic information on the quantity and quality of the Chinese armed forces.” [3] What the Report didn’t say was that in 2004 foreign observers (including U.S. allies) were invited to watch 1) a marine brigade conduct amphibious operations at Shanwei, Guangdong, 2) the 127th Light Mechanized Division execute joint training at a regional combined arms training center, and 3) a hostage-rescue demonstration conducted by the Beijing Military Region’s Special Operations unit at its garrison. While not an “all access pass” to these exercises, these are notable steps in allowing outsiders to observe conditions in PLA combat forces. [4] Marines and Special Operations units are identified in the Report as among the small number of PLA “expeditionary forces,” and the 127th is the first division of its type to be transformed. However, in each case, U.S. observers were not invited (unlike in 2003 when they viewed an exercise in Inner Mongolia).

Though the Report contains much information, some elements could have been presented more clearly and in more detail. While it should be credited with the first-time enumeration of both numbers of missiles and launchers in the short-range ballistic missile force and listing specific naval vessel acquisitions, the Report did not give any indication of either the number of third and fourth generation aircraft, such as Su-27/30, F-10, F-11, FC-1, and FB-7, or their percentage in the force. Moreover, no assessment was included about pilot proficiency, tactics, and maintenance for these new aircraft. Later, an important judgment about the training of expeditionary forces is made: “Combined training for all these units [airborne, special operations, amphibious, and marine units] is seldom conducted in a major amphibious assault exercise.” This conclusion is a significant change from the 2002 Report which stated, “In 2001, PLA training emphasized maritime and amphibious operations, integrating conventional ground units with marines, airborne, and special operations forces.” [5]

In describing the Chinese military as the largest in the world, the Report noted, “China’s military comprises four services…A fifth element consists of the paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP) and reserves. The combined total…exceeds 3.2 million.” Instead of trying to formulate its own explanation of the composition of the Chinese military, in this case the authors would be better advised to use the description in China’s National Defense Law of 1997, which defines the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China to be composed of 1) the active and reserve units of the PLA, 2) the PAP, and 3) the people’s militia. [6] (Unlike most other countries, the PLA also includes uniformed civilians on its active rolls. [7]) The Law also defines the PLA’s primary mission to be defense from external threats with the secondary mission of domestic security in accordance with the law, i.e., when requested by local authorities and approved by the central leadership, and the PAP’s mission to be internal security with a secondary mission of external defense. The Report is correct to call the PAP a paramilitary organization; it is sometimes incorrectly called “military police” by both Chinese and foreign sources. Though the PLA and PAP have similar organizational and rank structures, they have separate systems for command and control, funding, promotion, education, and training. In short, the PAP is not part of the PLA, but reserve units are.

The Report notes that official Chinese sources only give the personnel strength of the active PLA as 2.3 million (at the end of 2005) and 10 million in the primary militia. [8] The Chinese do not reveal the size of each service, the reserves, or the PAP. Nonetheless, The Military Balance estimates reserve personnel to number about 800,000 and the PAP up to 1.5 million. [9] If these forces are added to active PLA numbers (like the Report suggests) the total is closer to 4.6 million personnel, not the 3.2 million the Report inexplicably cites.

Like previous reports, the Report mentions “Assassin’s Mace” weapons:

“We assess that this conclusion [by China’s leaders that the PLA is unable to compete directly with other modern military powers] might have given rise to a priority emphasis on asymmetric programs and systems to leverage China’s advantages while exploiting the perceived vulnerabilities of potential opponents – so called Assassin’s Mace (sha shou jian) programs…Reflecting the emphasis China appears to be placing on anti-access strategies, most of the capabilities believed to fall under the Assassin’s Mace program are designed to blunt adversaries’ military advantages or deny entry into the theater of operations.”

Leveraging one’s advantages while exploiting enemy weakness is not a unique insight into the conduct of war. While “Assassin’s Mace” weapons are often perceived to be exotic technologies, such as high powered microwave weapons, electromagnetic pulse, or maneuverable warheads, the Chinese consider a much broader range of weapons to be “Assassin’s Mace,” including fighter bombers, submarines, anti-ship missiles, torpedoes, mines, nuclear weapons, and even rapid runway repair equipment. [10] One American observer quoted a PLA officer that sha shou jian can be “whatever the PLA needs to win future local wars…[including] weapons systems and equipment and every type of combat method.” [11] Chinese doctrinal writings, such as Zhanyi Xue (The Study of Campaigns) quoted in the Report, go to great lengths to stress that modern joint operations must combine all elements of military power, such as firepower, maneuver, information operations, and special operations, to achieve victory. PLA doctrine and practice on the training field increasingly include all combat elements as well as the use of deception, surprise, and stratagem and incorporate “Assassin’s Mace” weapons and techniques into operational methods for a weaker force to defeat a stronger enemy. In this regard, the Chinese concept of “Assassin’s Mace” is not that remarkable. [12]

In a similar manner, “People’s War” is often identified as China’s magic weapon, [13] relying upon mobilization of the Chinese population and economy. The Report mentions continued emphasis on mobilization of the civilian economy to support the PLA in war and peace. Much more could have been said about the system of National Defense Mobilization Committees, which extends from national to county level, integrating military, government, and communist party leaders at all echelons. These committees are involved in the coordinated development of the national economy and military modernization and in all aspects of civilian mobilization (personnel, materiel, transportation, air defense, national defense education). Many committees are prepared to set up joint military-civilian command posts in times of crisis. Tremendous effort has been expended over the past decade to build this system. It is likely to be a key element in any extended future military operation.

This year’s DOD report is an excellent starting point for additional examination of Chinese military modernization and transformation. It should be read along with the Chinese Defense White Papers by anyone interested in the developments of this rising power. These documents do not provide answers to every question, but form a basis for further investigation into an extremely complicated and important issue.


1. This Report addresses a series of questions specified by the National Defense Authorization Act for the year 2000.

2. DOD News Briefing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and General Peter Pace, Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Wednesday, July 20, 2005, at https://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/2005/tr20050720-secdef3427.html. The general actually used the terms “capacity” and “capacity to wage war.” The general concluded “there’s absolutely no reason for us to believe there’s any intent on their [the Chinese] part.”

3. The four Chinese Defense White Papers, starting in 1998, build on each other, each providing more information and commentary on topics of concern at the date of issue. They are all available online in English at https://www.china.org.cn/e-white/index.htm.

4. The “Annual Report on The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,” July 2002, noted on page 1, “Since the 1980s, U.S. military exchange delegations to China have been shown only ‘showcase’ units, never any advanced units or any operational training or realistic exercises.” The units observed in 2004 are considered by the PLA to be “advanced units.” Without attending them, it is difficult to judge how realistic the exercises were, however. Perhaps the PLA took the Pentagon’s criticism under consideration when it opened these exercises to foreign observers.

5. “Annual Report on The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,” July 2002, p.2. Interestingly, on page 26 of that report, this sentence was qualified as such, “Training activity in 2001 reportedly emphasized maritime and amphibious training, and integration of conventional ground units with Marines, Airborne, and SOF.” (Emphasis added)

6. “Law of the People’s Republic of China on National Defense, adopted at the fifth Session of the Eighth National People’s Congress [[NPC]] on 14 March 1997,” Beijing Xinhua Domestic Service, in FBIS-CHI-97-055. China’s first three Defense White Papers also define this organization structure, which more importantly is confirmed by actual practice and observation.

7. China’s National Defense, July 1998, “National Defense Construction, Reducing Military Personnel.” The U.S. does not include its 600,000-plus civilian workforce in its active duty rolls.

8. These numbers are found in China’s National Defense in 2004, “Revolution in Military Affairs with Chinese Characteristics.”

9. International Institute of Strategic Studies, The Military Balance, 2004-2005, London: Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 170-72.

10. The first five weapons are listed in “Annual Report on The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China,” July 2003, p. 21.

11. Jason E. Bruzdzinski, “Demystifying Shashoujian: China’s ‘Assassin’s Mace’ Concept,” in Andrew Scobell and Larry Wortzel, (eds) Civil-Military Change in China: Elites, Institutes, and Ideas After the 16th Party Congress, Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute, 2004, p. 315.

12. Proponents of aerospace power may disregard this statement as typical of a ground force (army) officer. If so, then I am guilty as charged.

13. “Article on Need to Shift Focus of People’s War From Rural to Urban Areas,” in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, CPP20030113000068 Beijing Zhongguo Guofang Bao (Internet Version-WWW) in Chinese 13 Jan 03 p 3.