The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) plans to conduct 40 military exercises this year in order to improve its readiness as well as its ability to fight and win wars, according to the Training Department of the PLA’s General Staff Department (PLA Daily, February 28; Xinhua, February 27). Continuing with the PLA’s improving training regimen, the exercises will include a variety of combined arms—what the PLA calls “joint”—and live fire exercises. This announcement adds concreteness to the almost-continuous rhetorical emphasis on the need to improve the PLA’s readiness for combat operations. Despite China’s progress in modernizing its military with the milestone of major progress in 2020, the international environment is still not favorable for the PLA. As summed up by the Ministry of National Defense (MND) spokesman Geng Yansheng, the PLA “is shouldering the dual responsibilities of mechanizing and informationizing the armed forces…Compared with military capabilities around the world, however, there is still a gap” (Xinhua, March 1).
The injunctions for the PLA to continue the practical work of modernization and implementing the lessons of increasingly realistic exercises comes from the highest levels. During an inspection tour early last month, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) General Fan Changlong reiterated the call on the PLA to adopt “real combat criteria” in military training so as to meet future wartime needs in the information age (Xinhua, February 7). Later that month, CMC Chairman Xi Jinping “stressed that it is imperative to bear in mind that being able to fight and win battles is essential to building a powerful military…The important instruction has pointed the way for accelerating the modernization construction of the national defense and the military” (PLA Daily, February 22). Published excerpts from a PLA forum on implementing the spirit of the 18th Party Congress displayed a similar emphasis on practical learning from exercises. The essays also reflected the order of precedence given to the PLA’s various services, beginning with the PLA Navy and Air Force and followed by the Second Artillery (PLA Daily, February 5). This suggests no major changes to the PLA modernization program at least until the widely-anticipated defense white paper, China’s National Defense in 2012, is released—presumably sometime this spring after being delayed like the previous iteration.
In the absence of substantive changes, the focus of any new military modernization measures probably will focus on the PLA’s human side as the training emphasis suggests. Additional details may become available at the National People’s Congress (NPC) this month as some proposals are reportedly are being tabled. A Shenyang Military Region group army commander and one of the PLA’s delegates for the NPC, Gao Guanghui, has several proposals ready for the upcoming session for “combat power improvement.” The thrust of these proposals focuses on “improving the quality of conscripts as well as perfecting the methods on military officer selection from college-graduates.” Evidently, the PLA’s new equipment and technological innovations have posed “a series of challenges in several aspects including the organization and training mode, support mechanism, and talents cultivation” (PLA Daily, March 3). In order to realize the dream of “building a strong military,” according to Second Artillery brigade commander Tan Weihong, “we have to depend on military talents who are capable of fighting and winning battles.” A PLA Navy expert at the submarine academy and another NPC delegate, Li Danni, also said “to win a battle, the key lies in talents.” Professor Li added “not only the soldiers skilled in the operation of weaponry and equipment are needed, but also the military strategists possessing a deep understanding of modern warfare and the talents in commanding joint operation to win the information-based war in the future are indispensable” (People’s Net, March 3).
The new equipment and new operating procedures as the PLA informatizes appears to be a recognized challenge within the PLA. In a lengthy commentary for the Central Party School magazine, Seeking Truth, Nanjing Military Region commander Cai Yingting and counterpart political commissar Zheng Weiping summed up the logic of the PLA’s priorities: “upgrade the core military capabilities to fight and win a war.” The unswerving direction of military development is toward informatization and the PLA must improve its ability to process information to drive operations. The new way of fighting requires more realistic training under the conditions of actual combat to cultivate the “four kinds of talent”—joint operations command personnel, informatization construction personnel, information technology professionals as well as new equipment operations and maintenance personnel (Qiushi, March 1; PLA Daily, May 6, 2010).
Thus far, the PLA-related coverage, like that discussed above, does not suggest the newly appointed party General Secretary and CMC chair Xi is making any dramatic decisions about military modernization. The only noticeable change is the reframing of some PLA modernization objectives around Xi’s “China Dream.” For example, as an article written for the Central Party School magazine, Seeking Truth, by the PLA’s General Staff Department characterized it: “History and practice tell us that, in the final analysis, what decides the pattern of global political and economic affairs is the relative strength of great powers that ultimately must rely on power.” Peaceful development, then, cannot depend on Beijing’s diplomacy or the benign neglect of other great powers. China needs a strong military force to ensure its developmental goals can be met and its dream can be achieved (Qiushi, February 1).
The emphasis on talent and training going into 2013 serves as a reminder that the PLA is not just its equipment but also its people (“Assessing the PLA Air Force’s Ten Pillars,” China Brief, February 10, 2011). More aggressive focus on training should be useful for the PLA’s three services and one branch; however, observers should look for whether the additional and more realistic training is done on top of or in place of normal activities. For example, after heavy exercises, PLA Air Force pilots and planes do not take flight for some time to compensate for the exercise tempo, keeping their flight time at its relatively low average of a few hours per week. In addition, the PLA sometimes calls an exercise “joint” when different services exercise against each other rather than when the different services must work together in an exercise.