The Central Asian Dimension Of Chinese Military Strategy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 10

Although most analyses of Chinese military affairs focus on Taiwan, China also directs its ongoing military modernization program on border areas like Xinjiang and Central Asia. Indeed, at least one source maintains that those theaters are driving the modernization of China’s ground forces. [1] Two broad categories of motivation lie behind this military modernization in Xinjiang and Central Asia. First, since 1991 if not earlier, Chinese military forces, doctrine, and strategy have undergone systematic transformation and reform as the capabilities and requirements needed to maintain credible military forces in a time of revolutionary change have become ever clearer to the Chinese authorities. These transformations of China’s forces, doctrines, and strategy reflect changes in world politics generated by the end of the Cold War and U.S. military operations since Operation Desert Storm, which have greatly impressed Chinese leaders and commanders. The forces that would conduct operations in Xinjiang and Central Asia, the Army and Air Force, have been transformed to meet the many challenges inhering in those theaters, but also in conjunction with larger strategic considerations pertaining to changes in world politics and the so called revolution in military affairs (RMA).

The second set of forces shaping Chinese military policy has to do with the threat scenarios that dominate Xinjiang and Central Asia. These relate to the post 9-11 war on terrorism, although that war began earlier for China because of the seemingly endless war in Xinjiang and the presence of U.S. bases there. The rise of terrorism before September 11, 2001 had already galvanized China to move to create the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO) and to create the juridical foundation in its treaty of June 2001 for Chinese intervention abroad. This treaty, exemplified the principle of collective security and represented the first time China formally pledged to commit forces beyond its border in the event of a threat from terrorists and/or separatists to the other signatories of the treaty should they request assistance. Thus it represented an unprecedented innovation in Chinese foreign and military policies. [2] Since then, China has also conducted extensive maneuvers with Kyrgyzstan (in 2002 and 2003) and with all the members of the SCO where the scenario was explicitly described as being an anti-terrorist attack, highlighting the kinds of threat that both China and the other members anticipate as being likely to occur. And, as the SCO represents for China a model of what security structures in Asia ought to be, the implications of China’s new policies as first announced there have profound significance for the rest of Asia.

Similarly – even before September 11 – Chinese defense planners, based on NATO’s Kosovo campaign of 1999, feared that an Asian NATO might emerge through a U.S.-led policy that would encircle China through NATO bases in Central Asia. Thus, some analysts regard the spectacle of another Kosovo-like operation on behalf of forces that Beijing considers secessionists or terrorists as the operational template of Beijing’s main threat assessments. [3] Moreover, the Kosovo experience also suggested to some Chinese military and political analysts that the next likely theater of a major local war that will threaten, if not involve, China would occur in Central Asia. [4] The continuing and even growing interest and presence of the United States in Central Asia suggests three possible scenarios to China: Washington was and is pursuing a strategy of dominating Eurasia, Washington seeks to check the recovery of Russia and the rise of China, or Washington seeks to exercise a hegemonic presence with regard to energy access, a subject of increasing concern to China since it is now an importer of energy. [5] Clearly Beijing will not supinely acquiesce in what it regards as a growing strategic threat to its northwest and western flanks, and is already quietly undertaking strategic preparations to counter America’s presence in Central Asia.

Accordingly, Chinese armed forces are undergoing major reforms intended to prepare them for operations in theaters like Xinjiang or Central Asia. These reforms entail the addition of new capabilities for power projection on land and through air forces. China has also developed rapid reaction forces (RRF) and what it calls Resolving Emerging Mobile Combat Forces (REMCF). These forces are being trained to meet threats in all of China’s border areas, meaning that they will be able to move on land, over sea, and through the air to those areas. They are also intended to meet a wide range of contingencies spanning the spectrum of conflict from small wars to conventional large-scale theater wars. Similarly, the Special Operations Forces (SOF) have improved their training and quality and will be tasked with important reconnaissance or even direct military operations if the situation calls for it. Recent news reports indicate that Beijing is establishing a new airborne group power to expand its power projection capabilities. While this group of three divisions is apparently to be based in Zhejiang Province, the closest province to Taiwan, it certainly could be used elsewhere within hours if necessary. Thus, “in practice, the PLA is developing an elite core of more modern units to give it the flexibility and experience to act in a range of more likely circumstances.” [6] In these scenarios China is emphasizing the development of rapid reaction units (RRU) which will account for 10-15% of the PLA’s strength. To facilitate their deployment China is loosening its military region structure to make forces available as needed to regional commanders and to upgrade their mobility and striking power. Some RRU’s are divisional in scale, but increasingly they are brigade (around 6,000) or even battalion size. The aim is to give such units organic self-sufficiency in all the arms they need.

At the same time new programs, weapons, and operational concepts may enable the PLAAF to play a major role alongside of the Army in the event of a military contingency in either Xinjiang or Central Asia. A 2002 Indian assessment of the Air Force observed that, “in the case of local border wars, airpower will be the preferred tool. This is because it is usually time-consuming and expensive to move and deploy large ground formations. Distance from the border and terrain can further add to these difficulties.” [7]

These reforms indicate the seriousness with which China views the threats of terrorism in Xinjiang or Central Asia or the possibility that U.S. bases in Central Asia may remain there for the long term and place constant pressure upon its forces and territory. But these reforms also follow the global trend to make ground forces faster, more mobile, lighter, and yet more lethal through improved coordination with air power. They also betray an understanding that more and more militaries will be tasked with missions like counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and peace support operations, to use the American term. The requirements for waging such conflicts impose heavy demands upon forces which used to believe that they were only to be used in classical conventional conflicts. However, China, whose interests in the stability and prosperity of Xinjiang and Central Asia are growing, not least due to the need for regular and reliable energy access, now sees that its forces must be ready to play a more flexible and far-flung geographical role than ever before.

Thus, Chinese military programs pertaining to Xinjiang and Central Asia both reflect particular threats and scenarios but also are part of the broader process by which China is following global trends in regard to the conduct of war. Paradoxically, these military moves intended to safeguard vital territorial, economic, defense, and political interests also reflect the globalization of approaches to strategy and the conduct of operations.

We can certainly expect that as China’s power and economy grow that not only will it have broader interests to defend around its peripheries, but it will also be impelled to develop broader capabilities and to do so in ways resembling solutions found by other major military powers to similar problems. Undoubtedly, this paradoxical relationship between the need to protect particular interests by utilizing the best that contemporary military practice and thought have to offer from around the world will have a profound, if as yet unclear, impact on Chinese security policy and not only in Central Asia.

The views expressed here do not in any way represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department or the U.S. Government.


1. John Hill, “China’s Military Modernization Takes Shape,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, February, 2004,

2. “‘Shanghai Five’ Change Turns China in a new Strategic Direction,” Kyodo, June 18, 2001, Retrieved from Lexis-Nexis Robert A. Karniol, “Shanghai Five in Major Revamp,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, June 27, 2001, p. 5, Bates Gill, “Shanghai Five: An Attempt to Counter US Influence in Asia?” Newsweek Korea, May, 2001,

3. Michael Pillsbury, China Debates the Future Security Environment, Washington, D.C. National Defense University Press, 2000, passim.

4. Ibid.

5. Samantha Blum, “Chinese Views of U.S. Hegemony,” Journal of Contemporary China, NO. 12 (35), 2003, pp. 258-262, Gao Fuqiu, “The Real Purpose of the American March Into Central Asia,” Liaowang, May 10, 2002

6. Hill, Vincent W. Chen, “Comments on China’s Defense Paper 2002,” Strategic Analysis, NO. 2, 2003,

7. Air Commodore Ramesh V. Phadke,” People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF): Shifting Airpower Balance and Challenges to India’s Security,” Working Paper, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, 2002, p. 14