The Chinese Military Reforms and Transforms in the “New Era”

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 15

Image: A copy of the 2019 PRC defense white paper, “China’s National Defense in the New Era,” held up at the document release press conference at the PRC State Council Information Office on July 24. (Source: China Daily)


The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been undergoing a far-reaching transformation with strategic implications for the military balance in the region and beyond. Starting in 2015, the PLA has been undertaking historic reforms that have involved extensive restructuring of the force. [1] The 2015 People’s Republic of China (PRC) national defense white paper (NDWP), titled “China’s Military Strategy,” had confirmed revisions to the PLA’s military strategic guidelines, while previewing the direction that Chinese military reforms have since taken (China Brief, July 2, 2015; Ministry of National Defense, May 26, 2015). In July 2019, the PRC issued its first official NDWP in four years, “China’s National Defense in the New Era” (Ministry of National Defense, July 24). This new NDWP is directed towards purposes of signaling and propaganda, while revealing PRC ambitions to reshape the global security architecture (China Brief, July 31). However, it declines to provide much in the way of substantive transparency beyond only limited updates on PLA reforms. Nonetheless, a careful reading of “China’s National Defense in the New Era” reveals notable insights and indications of the evolution of PRC interests, the progression of PLA reforms, and new directions in Chinese military modernization.

Continued Evolution of PRC “Core” Interests

The PRC claims that its policy for national defense is inherently defensive. However, the scope and scale of what the PLA may be called upon to defend is expanding, motivated by the “fundamental goal” of “resolutely safeguarding China’s “sovereignty, security, and development interests.” This phrasing has replaced, and is tantamount to, earlier assertions of China’s “core interests” (核心利益, hexin liyi). There have been changes and a degree of consistency in the framing of these interests over time. [2] However, the characterization of the tasks of the Chinese military and objectives of Chinese defense policy have evolved slightly between the 2015 and 2019 NDWPs. [3] In particular, the PRC’s commitment to safeguarding “national sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity and security” is expanding.

“China’s National Defense in the New Era” declares, “The South China Sea islands and Diaoyu Islands are inalienable parts of the Chinese territory.” Although the militarization of islands in the South China Sea has provoked serious concerns in the region, the PRC’s apparent confidence in its approach appears to have only increased. In 2015, “China’s Military Strategy” had highlighted the importance of “safeguard[ing] maritime rights,” calling for the PLA to “strike a balance between rights protection and stability maintenance.” By contrast, this 2019 NDWP lacks that emphasis on stability, and instead provides a direct defense of PRC actions: “China exercises its national sovereignty to build infrastructure and deploy necessary defensive capabilities on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea, and to conduct patrols in the waters of Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.” The justification of such measures as defensive reflects the flexible concept of defense that animates China’s strategy of active defense, which involves an offensive approach at the operational level.

China’s national interests are continuing to expand into new domains and territories. The concern with threats and security interests in new domains, such as space and cyberspace, has been a consistent feature across the 2011, 2013, 2015, and now 2019 NDWPs. However, this latest document is more explicit in describing these as interests to be secured in China’s national defense, including not only outer space and cyberspace, but also the “electromagnetic space.” The PRC intends not only to improve its situational awareness in space but also to “enhance the capacity to safely enter, exit and openly use outer space.” The PRC’s future “use” (利用, liyong) of outer space could involve not only leveraging this domain for military purposes but also pursuing the exploitation of resources. At the same time, China’s attention to cyber security remains consistent with the concentration on cyber sovereignty, which requires reinforcing “national cyber border defense.” The emphasis on the electromagnetic space again highlights the spectrum as another domain for PRC interests.

China has continued to concentrate on safeguarding its “overseas interests,” which are expanding worldwide. This imperative has been relatively consistent across the past couple of NDWPs, but the language in this document indicates its heightened importance. In particular, China’s armed forces intend to “address deficiencies in overseas operations and support,” including “build[ing] far seas forces” and “develop[ing] overseas logistical facilities,” such as the base in Djibouti and a potential base in Cambodia, which may be the first such bases of a number to come (China Brief, March 22). Inherently, China’s national defense requires supporting “the sustainable development of the country.” At a time when growth is slowing and depending ever more directly upon access to markets and resources worldwide, China’s future growth is directly linked to this global outlook. This concern justifies the call for the PLA to contribute to “global security goods,” which may see continued internationalization of China’s military power in ways that could start to challenge the United States.

China’s Response to Global Military Competition

“China’s National Defense in the New Era” reflects the PRC response to the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy, which centered on sharpening the U.S. military’s competitive advantage. [4] American initiatives have evidently provoked a powerful response in the PLA, spurring on Chinese defense innovation (China Brief, October 4, 2016). As a result, the PLA has been greatly concerned with the risks of “technology surprise attacks” (技术突袭, jishu tuji), wary of a “growing technological generation gap” that could emerge as a result of this competition. By its own assessment, the PLA “still lags far behind the world’s leading militaries,” and a failure to adapt could place the PLA in a position of dangerous disadvantage.  This unfavorable situation necessitates innovation as a military, and indeed strategic, imperative.

The PLA is confronting the challenge and opportunity of the “Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA, 军事革命, junshi geming) believed to be currently underway. This 2019 NDWP builds upon notable themes from the 2015 edition, which stated that the global RMA was “proceeding to a new stage.” In particular, those trends were assessed to involve the development of weaponry and equipment characterized as “long-range precision, intelligent, stealthy and unmanned.” In the “new era” described in the 2019 edition, China is particularly concerned with advances in cutting-edge technologies with promising applications in the military domain, especially artificial intelligence (AI), quantum information, big data, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things. As a result of these trends, the form (形态, xingtai) of warfare “is accelerating in its evolution towards informatized warfare, and intelligentized (智能化, zhinenghua) warfare is on the horizon.” [5]

The PLA’s recent reforms have introduced unprecedented transformation into a force once considered resistant to change. However, the PLA continues to confront considerable challenges as a result of the disparities that persist even within the force. Chinese military leaders must “promote the integrated development of mechanization and informatization and accelerate the development of military intelligentization.” [6] The PLA today must undertake all three processes simultaneously, which presents distinct difficulties and potential chances to leapfrog in its development. Notably, this innovation is reportedly extending to the development of new military theories that may be formalized eventually into new “doctrine” or operational regulations (作战条令, zuozhan tiaoling) (The Diplomat, June 6, 2017). However, the PLA’s approach to the requisite technical and conceptual challenges is still taking shape.

New Paradigms of Chinese Military Power

Today, the PLA is changing its paradigm for military power: the PLA is “striving to transform from a quantity-and-scale model to that of quality and efficiency, as well as from being personnel-intensive to one that is S&T-intensive.” This objective has involved a significant downsizing of personnel, with 300,000 demobilized on the course of these reforms, and increased investment in human capital. At the same time, the PLA’s approach to military research has been restructured: the CMC Steering Commission on Military Scientific Research has been established, and a transformed Academy of Military Science (China Brief, January 18) has been officially designated to lead the military scientific research enterprise. Guided by Lieutenant General Yang Xuejun (杨学军)—the former commandant of the PLA’s National University of Defense Technology, known for his expertise in artificial intelligence and supercomputing—AMS appears to be undertaking rapid recruitment of the talent required to promote defense innovation in emerging technologies. The “new” AMS is also leading a new initiative to facilitate the integration of theory and technology (理技融合, liji ronghe), which could enable the innovative thinking required to realize the potential of emerging capabilities (Xinhua, February 14).

The PLA is also improving and modernizing its system for weaponry and equipment. The PLA, once described as the world’s largest military museum, is phasing out older equipment while working towards introducing a new “system of systems” (体系, tixi) composed of high-tech weapons, such as Type 15 tanks, type 052D destroyers, J-20 fighters, and DF-26 intermediate and long-range ballistic missiles. The PLA’s next-generation capabilities could prove to be more sophisticated, from higher levels of autonomy to hypersonics and a range of “new concept” systemss, such as directed energy weapons. Whereas prior armaments development had been characterized by a lack of jointness, current initiatives mentioned in the 2019 NDWP are intended to improve capabilities by “coordinating the efforts of all services and arms,” while “promoting the balanced development of main battle equipment, information systems, and support equipment” in order to increase “standardization, serial development and interoperability.”

The PLA’s apparent enthusiasm for technology and innovation can appear incongruous when juxtaposed against a concurrent attachment to tradition. For instance, Mao Zedong’s concept of “people’s warfare” (人民战争, renmin zhanzheng) was described in “China’s Military Strategy” as a “magic weapon” (法宝, fabao) for the PLA. Even as China’s national defense enters this “new era,” the espoused dedication to “give full play to the overall power of the people’s war[fare]” is again reiterated with calls for “innovating in its strategies, tactics and measures.” This is not merely rhetorical, but rather reflects a core concept: “China’s national defense is the responsibility of all Chinese people,” as the 2019 NDWP declares. This approach may appear to be anachronistic in an age of informatized warfare, yet arguably possesses enduring relevance, from cyber defense to a whole-of-nation approach to national defense mobilization. [7] The juxtaposition of low-tech concepts and options with high-tech ambitions can be strikingly incongruous. For example, the much-derided discussion of the PLA’s reintroduction of bugles in the 2019 NDWP can also be characterized as a measure with practical relevance, including to resolving the challenges of command and communications in a highly denied environment (China Military Online, September 12, 2018). China’s armed forces continue to attempt to reconcile such apparent contradictions.

PLA Reforms in Progress

The 2019 NDWP introduces certain updates regarding force structure that are worth highlighting. The PLA has apparently succeeded in overcoming considerable bureaucratic impediments to adjust its force structure—away from the prior dominance of the Army to expand the Navy and Rocket Force—while increasing investments in “new types of combat forces.” This adjustment and rebalancing of China’s armed forces has shifted resources to new priorities: there is a new focus on special operations, “all-dimensional offense and defense,” amphibious operations, far seas protection and “strategic projection,” with the objective to “make the force composition complete, combined, multi-functional and flexible.”

As a significant innovation in force structure, the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) is a unique outcome of the reforms. The PLASSF has consolidated capabilities for space, cyber, and electronic warfare, contributing to Chinese capabilities to “fight and win wars in the information age.” At the same time, its supporting function is officially described as including battlefield environmental protection, information and communication assurance, and information security protection, as well as new technology testing. The PLASSF is called upon to “accelerate the integrated development of new-type combat forces,” which may allude to recognition of potential synergies in capabilities across these domains. In a notable indicator of progress, the PLASSF is “actively integrated into the joint operations system, and solidly carrying out new-type domains confrontation drills and emergency response training.” For instance, the PLASSF has engaged in exercises in which it acted as a “blue force” through engaging in electronic countermeasures.

Today, the PLA’s capabilities for “strategic deterrence” (战略威慑, zhanlue weishe) thus extend beyond the PLARF to emerging capabilities in new domains. In particular, the new strategic capabilities for space and cyber warfare have been consolidated through the PLASSF.  [8] The PLA Air Force was described in 2015 as endeavoring to “build an air-space defense force structure that can meet the requirements of informationized operations.” However, this discussion of “air-space defense” is not included in the 2019 NDWP, potentially reflecting organizational decisions that have resulted in the space mission being primarily entrusted to the PLASSF. [9] This shift thus appears to reinforce the assessment that the PLASSF is more likely to possess responsibility for the PLA’s space mission, though there is a possibility that the PLAAF and/or PLARF may retain some role in kinetic counterspace capabilities.

The PRC’s capabilities for and strategic thinking on deterrence are evolving. The subtle changes in phrasing across these NDWPs convey notable nuances regarding the role of its missile forces. In 2015, the role of the former Second Artillery was described as involving “strategic deterrence and nuclear counterattack,” whereas in 2019, the PLARF was characterized as responsible for “nuclear deterrence and nuclear counterattack.” The fact that the PLARF is not described as the service with the sole role in strategic deterrence further confirms the shift in the PLA’s nuclear posture: from a monad to a triad, in which the PLA Navy and Air Force are also called upon to serve as newly “strategic” services in their own right. Also new to this defense white paper, the PLARF is called upon to “enhanc[e] strategic counter-balance capability” (增强战略制衡能力, zengqiang zhanlue zhiheng nengli). The meaning of this phrasing is not clearly defined, but it could be an allusion to the potential of new capabilities, such as hypersonics, intended to maintain deterrence in the face of missile defense.

As the PLA continues to improve “preparations for military struggle,” its capability to “fight and win” future wars will depend upon the realism and sophistication of its training. This “actual combat” (实战, shizhan) training appears to be improving across the services. [10] For instance, the PLA Navy has started to concentrate on training in the far seas, reportedly deploying its new aircraft carrier task group for its initial “far seas combat exercise” in the West Pacific. The PLAN has also introduced “live force-on-force exercises codenamed “Mobility” (机动, jidong). Significantly, the introduction of the theater commands (战区, zhanqu) provides a critical mechanism to enable joint operations. This 2019 NDWP reveals that the theater commands have “strengthened their leading role in joint training and organized serial joint exercises codenamed the East, the South, the West, the North and the Central, to improve joint combat capabilities.” The existence of these exercises had not been previously disclosed, and their announcement is noteworthy as a new mechanism for improving joint combat capabilities.


Today’s PLA is very different from that of yesteryear. Chinese military power has increased dramatically over the past several decades, consistently surpassing the estimates of most analysts. The PLA is adapting to the challenges of military rivalry among great powers and pursuing new mechanisms for victory in future warfare. Of course, the PLA continues to confront numerous weaknesses and significant shortcomings—lagging behind the U.S. military, which is seen as the target of and teacher for these efforts. The apparent ambitions for the PLA to become truly “world-class” as a force by mid-century should not be dismissed. The gestures towards transparency, including new details on China’s defense budget, which reached $151.6 billion as of 2017, should be welcomed, but hardly resolve concerns about PRC intentions and growing capabilities. Meanwhile, the PLA remains more opaque about its actual military strategic guidelines and operational regulations, which are not, and are unlikely to be, publicly disclosed. [11] However, it is clear that China is well on its way to creating a military commensurate with its global standing and interests in this “new era.” This latest NDWP thus provides one more piece of the puzzle of reckoning with the rise of China’s military power.

Elsa Kania is an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program of the Center for a New American Security. She is also an Associate with the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute.


[1] See this volume that provides significant assessments of major elements of the reforms: Phillip Saunders et al. (ed.), Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms (National Defense University Press, 2019).

[2] See these earlier assessments of the evolution and characterization of China’s “core interest” (核心利益) over time: Caitlin Campbell, Ethan Meick, Kimberly Hsu, and Craig Murray, “China’s ‘Core Interests’ and the East China Sea,” US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2013. Michael D. Swaine, “China’s Assertive Behavior: Part One: On ‘Core Interests,’” China Leadership Monitor 34, no. 22 (2011): 1-25.

[3] For instance, the only mention of the South China Sea in the “China’s Military Strategy” included the statement: “Some external countries are also busy meddling in South China Sea affairs; a tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China.” The question of whether the South China Sea was considered a ‘core interest’ was previously debated and debatable, but “China’s National Defense in the New Era” seems to settle that issue more conclusively.

[4] Department of Defense, “Summary of the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Advantage,”

[5] Potentially, the PLA’s military strategic guidelines may be revised someday to reflect its focus on preparing to fight and win future “intelligentized” wars.

[6] For more context on the Chinese military’s approach to intelligentization, see: Elsa B. Kania, “Chinese Military Innovation in Artificial Intelligence,” Testimony  to U.S.-China Economic and Security  June 7, 2019,

[7] For a more detailed assessment of China’s approach to national defense mobilization, see: Elsa B. Kania, “Testimony before the National Commission on Service’s Hearing on “Future Mobilization Needs of the Nation,”” April 24, 2019,

[8] For initial assessments of the PLA Strategic Support Force, see: John Costello and Joe McReynolds, China’s Strategic Support Force: A Force for a New Era,  National Defense University Press, 2018; Elsa B. Kania and John K. Costello,”The Strategic Support Force and the Future of Chinese Information Operations,” The Cyber Defense Review 3, no. 1 (2018): pp. 105-122.

[9] As a potential indicator of inter-service rivalry or dynamics, it may be notable that the PLASSF’s new commander, Lt. Gen. Li Fengbiao (李凤彪) is a career PLAAF officer who formerly commanded the PLAAF Airborne Corps. Potentially, his selection is an indication that the PLASSF is becoming more joint as an organization. For context and confirmation of this change, see: “CCTV screen leakage of personnel adjustment” [央视画面泄密人事调整], Duowei, May 15, 2019, For the original video of footage from the May 2019 conference, see: “Xi Jinping at the All-Nation Public Security Work Conference Emphasized” [习近平在全国公安工作会议上强调], CCTV, May 8, 2019,

[10] As for other services, the PLA Army has continued such major exercises as “Stride” (跨越) and “Firepower” (火力), the PLA Air Force has continued to engage in regular system-vs.- system exercises, such as “Red Sword” (红剑), and the PLA Rocket Force has focused on “force-on-force evaluation-oriented training” while continuing major exercises, such as “Heavenly Sword” (天剑).

[11] For a much more extensive discussion of the evolution of China’s military strategy over time, see: M. Taylor Fravel, Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949, Princeton University Press, 2019.