Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 11

By Willy Lam

Although he is generally deemed a moderate–if not liberal–cadre on political matters, President Hu Jintao issued a remarkably tough message on defense and armaments at a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo meeting in late May.

During this special Politburo “study session” on military matters, the president and party chief pointed out that China must “achieve a leap-forward style development in defense and army modernization.” Hu hinted that much greater funding would be devoted to upgrading the arsenal of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) because, he said, economic progress “need to be safeguarded by a strong national defense.”

Hu put the most emphasis on boosting the PLA’s information technology (IT) and electronics capabilities. He called these capabilities “a major contributor to new transformations in the world’s armies.” The 60-year-old president, who is also one of three vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission (CMC), vowed that “China will ceaselessly strengthen its national defense and military modernization.”

What is behind the party and army leadership’s redoubled zeal in beefing up PLA weaponry?

A key factor was the dazzling display of American firepower in the Iraqi theater. Even before the start of the war, Beijing had dispatched a considerable number of military and intelligence experts to the Middle East with the purpose of watching the Allied Forces in action from up close. Since early April, military academies have run marathon series of seminars on what the PLA could learn from American tactics and equipment. This was behind the Politburo’s decision to–in the words of the official Xinhua news agency–“borrow from the experience of new military developments in the world.”

The PLA’s determination to bring its arsenal into the 21st century was also enhanced by the accident that struck the Ming Class Submarine No. 361 off the Bohai Sea in mid-April. All seventy crewmen on board were killed. Hu indicated immediately afterwards that the PLA must “draw the appropriate lesson” from the outdated fixtures and mechanical errors that were said to be responsible for the mishap.

In fact, a thorough study of ways and means to modernize China’s fighting forces had begun soon after last November’s 16th CCP Party Congress, which decided to give ex-president Jiang Zemin one more term as CMC Chairman. Over the past few months Jiang has stayed mostly in his power base of Shanghai, where he is putting the finishing touches to a package of reforms.

A military source in Beijing said the CMC is coming up with plans to streamline the PLA, as well as to modernize its doctrine and weaponry. The source said that the 2.4 million-strong PLA is to shed about 500,000 staff members beginning late this year. Most of the personnel to be laid off will come from infantry divisions. Also facing cuts are non-combat units such as academies, hospitals and engineering battalions.

Moreover, the command-and-control structure will be revamped, with unprecedented powers being placed in the CMC and its central-level command units. The source added that it was likely the seven military regions would be gradually dismantled over the coming year or two. For one thing, abolishing the Maoist institution of regional commands will curtail superfluous bureaucracies and staff–and prevent powerful regional commanders from building up local fiefdoms. Of more importance, centralizing decision making authority in the CMC will help build a better integrated command hierarchy. It is understood that the CMC has been modeling the structural changes partly along the lines of the U.S. joint operational command system.

In a speech delivered soon after the end of the Iraq War, Vice-Chief of the General Staff General Xiong Guangkai said a further reduction of military staff was necessary in order to achieve “hi-tech intensity” in the forces. Xiong, a veteran head of military intelligence, urged a much higher degree of coordination and synchronization among the PLA’s disparate branches. He said that in addition to land, sea, and air forces, the PLA must better train divisions skilled in astronautics and IT–and that units in these five areas must aim for real-time integration.

In terms of equipment and weaponry, the PLA will continue its decade-old drive to boost firepower in areas ranging from missiles to jet fighters. However, the leitmotif of modernization for the early 21st century is vastly expanding IT and electronics capacity in all military units–as well as using IT and telecommunication wizardry to better integrate operations by different PLA divisions. As military theorist Jia Fengshan pointed out, the main lesson to be drawn from the U.S. blitzkrieg in Iraq was that “IT superiority determines battlefield superiority.”

And the Chinese need to catch up fast. While most PLA units have yet to accomplish full-fledged mechanization, the generals are convinced that the forces could “leap-frog” to advanced standards in digitization and other IT-related goals. This was the rationale behind President Hu’s goal of “a leap-forward style development” enunciated at last month’s Politburo meeting. As the former chief of the General Staff, General Fu Quanyou, pointed out in a recent talk at the National Defense University, “we must speed up the pace of IT-related [military] construction based on high technology.”

The leap-forward imperative was underscored by the Liberation Army Daily in a commentary late last month. “It would not do to follow other countries’ [technological] development in a step by step fashion,” the paper said. It added that it would be misguided to try to achieve full mechanization first before going after state-of-the-art standards in electronics and IT. This old path, the Daily said, would merely “widen the gap between the PLA and armies in advanced countries.” It pointed out that mechanization and digitization could be achieved together.

Domestically, the new emphasis on fast-track PLA modernization means that more resources in civilian sectors will be devoted to military research and development (R&D). This dovetails with Chairman Mao’s old teaching about the necessity to “integrate war-time and peace-time requirements.” Expenditure on defense-related R&D carried out by civilian departments in areas including electronics and astronautics is not included in the published army budget. And it is thus difficult for the outside world to estimate the full extent of the financial outlay that the CCP leadership has earmarked for upgrading the PLA arsenal.

Aggressive defense modernization also has obvious foreign policy implications. Foremost is the fast-developing military relationship with Russia, China’s major supplier of sophisticated weapons ranging from jet fighters to submarines. Talking about his visit to Russia at the end of May, President Hu said Beijing was committed to “assiduously raising the Sino-Russian strategic partnership of cooperation to new and higher levels.” Apart from holding talks with his counterpart, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hu also toured such hi-tech facilities as a Russian rocket manufacturer. The joint statement issued by Presidents Hu and Putin on May 27 referred to the imperative of further consolidating the two countries “strategic, cooperative partnership.”

Because Hu’s visit was not military in nature–and due also to the sensitivity of the issue of PLA modernization–neither the Hu entourage nor its hosts played up the progress in Sino-Russian military cooperation. However, the Hu-Putin communique cited the need to pursue closer ties in the following areas: “economy and trade, military technology, science and technology, energy, transport, nuclear energy, finance, aeronautics, astronautics, as well as information technology.” Since most of the above items have a defense-related connotation, it is not difficult to gauge the extent to which the Chinese party and military leadership is looking to Moscow for help in the PLA’s new leap forward.

Moreover, there were reports in Russia that Defense Minister General Cao Gangchuan was in Moscow at the time of the Hu visit to discuss military cooperation. It is significant that General Cao, a CMC vice-chairman with special responsibility for arms procurement, is the only member of the CCP Politburo to have been trained in the former Soviet Union.

According to the Russian news agency Interfax-AVN, Cao held discussions on military and technological cooperation with military units that included the state-owned Rosoboroneksport arms trading company. The agency quoted Konstantin Makienko, the deputy director of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. He reportedly said that the PLA was particularly interested in areas that included upgrading the avionics of Su-27 and Su-30 jet fighters, and also in procuring anti-submarine missiles and ship-borne air defense missiles.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.