The Russian Origins Of China’s Revolution In Military Affairs

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 13

The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) refers to wide range of innovations in U.S. military thinking following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Included in this complex of ideas are new perspectives on tactics, strategy, and technology, as well as concepts such as informational warfare and asymmetrical warfare.

The Gulf War (1991) amply demonstrated to the world the military superiority of RMA-based U.S. forces, particularly, the American Navy and Air Force. This demonstration became a shocking lesson for the leaders of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Beijing’s political establishment. In April 1991, little more than a month after the war ended, Jiang Zemin, then General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), visited the Chinese Defense Ministry and insisted that no effort be spared in closing the gap between the PLA and the American military. Thus began PLA research on RMA.

At that stage, Beijing decided to accelerate its PLA “modernization building,” mostly through massive weapons imports from the Soviet Union. The structure, thinking, and military theory of the PLA, however, faced no serious reform.

In May 1991, Jiang Zemin visited for talks with Mikhail Gorbachov. The two signed a series of important agreements at that time. While in Moscow, Jiang also held a grand reception for several hundred Soviet comrades who had worked in China in the 1950s, so-called veterans of Soviet-Chinese friendship. Each veteran – former and acting ministers, directors of large enterprises and research institutes – received a valuable gift and a booklet entitled “Chinese-Russian Friendship in the 21st century.” [1] All this created a new atmosphere of Sino-Soviet cooperation, especially with regard to military-technological relations.

Remarkably, in 1991, major Chinese defense companies established offices in Moscow and other large Soviet cities. NORINCO, the PLA Ground Forces’ monopolist weapons provider, occupied the entire floor of one of Moscow’s academic institutes. [2] Already in 1991, Chinese weapons import from the USSR reached several hundreds of millions of dollars. At the same time, China’s defense industry undertook initial attempts at the reverse engineering of newly obtained Soviet equipment.

After the USSR’s disintegration in the fall/winter of 1991, Russia inherited and preserved this expanded military-technological relationship with China. Yeltsin’s visit to Beijing in November 1992, along with Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachov’s to visit Beijing in November 1993 and Ziang Zemin’s visit to Moscow and other centers of the Russian defense industry in September 1994 and May 1995, played a crucial role in maintaining the Sino-Russian partnership. PLA arms imports from Russia between 1992-95 approached an estimated $3 billion. In this way, the PLA managed to improve its weapons inventory to some extent. By the beginning of 1996, China had a definite quantity of SU-27 fighters, S-300 and TOR-M1 air-defense missile systems, Kilo-class submarines, and new generation Russian-made tanks and artillery units.

In March 1996, the PLA undertook its famous “missile maneuvers” around Taiwan, aimed at scaring the Taiwanese electorate and influencing the local presidential elections in Beijing favor. However, Beijing failed to achieve its goals: Taiwanese voted for Beijing’s archrival, Lee Tenghui. It appeared that the PLA’s newly amassed combat potential was of no great significance – even from Taiwan’s point of view, let alone from the United States’. Two U.S. aircraft carriers, the Enterprise and the Independence, transited the Strait as if there were no PLA naval presence in the area at all. This was the second bitter lesson for PLA leaders: they finally understood the necessity of introducing deep corrections into their military “modernization building” strategy. It took some 18 months for the PLA top brass to work out the main directions of the forthcoming reforms. But in 1997, along with further expansions in weapons deliveries from Russia, Beijing initiated the “great military reform” based on RMA.

It is possible to track the PLA strategists approach to “junshi geming” (RMA) in such journals as Zhongguo Junshi Kexue (China Military Science) and Junshi Xueshun (Military Art). The number of RMA-related articles in these and other journals grew steadily between 1996-97.

It is worth noting that in June 1997, the Russian Army proclaimed its own “RMA-based military reform” which failed due to lack of funding. [3] The Russian Army’s reforms reduced the number of servicemen and sold much of its existing weaponry. Some of these weapons, particularly transport helicopters located in the Russian Far East, made their way into the hands of the North Korean Army and the PLA. [4]

In September 1997, the CPC’s 15th Congress proclaimed comprehensive RMA-based reform of the army as one of the urgent tasks for the 1998-2002 period. Jiang Zemin informed the Congress on September 12, that the PLA would cut its personnel by 500,000 by the year 2000. While calling for the reform and modernization of the PLA, Jiang assured delegates that, even though the military faced new conditions in the world, its character and goals would not change. What would change was PLA strategy, which necessitated an upgrade of PLA combat readiness. “We should strengthen the Army by relying on science and technology, by putting greater effort into research in defense-related science and technology, and by gradually upgrading weapons and other equipment,” Jiang exhorted. [5]

Between 1997 and 2000, the number of PLA service men was reduced by 16 percent (from 3 to 2.5 million). PLA Ground Forces were particularly targeted, dropping 20 percent, while the Navy and Air Force reductions were limited to between five and seven percent. Concomitantly, there was a qualitative upgrading of PLA servicemen. The number of PLA officers with a university-equivalent education increased dramatically, as did the share of petty officers and privates with a 12-year high school education.

This period also saw a massive introduction of modern weaponry of all kinds (mostly of Russian origin or based on Russian weapons technology), dramatically decreasing the PLA’s weapons inventory gap with regard to the levels of the advanced world. Computers, telecom devices, and network technology in the military area were also added. These reforms were considered the basic condition for transforming the PLA into a “system of military sub-systems” or “network of weapon platforms.”

The PLA’s annual weapons imports from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine approached $2 billion between 1996-99, accounting for over 30 percent of all of China’s technology for weapons production. This figure reflects just how much China’s defense industry and science and technology base were maturing. Particularly between 1998 and 1999, PLA modernization progressed by quantum leaps, with a special emphasis on science and technology. Jiang Zemin and top PLA leaders used to repeat the phrase “Keji qiang jun” (science and technology strengthens the Army) at every available opportunity, while the Beijing media eagerly reproduced it for the public. Another favorite slogan of the time was “Meige fuuren yinggai chengwei kexueren” (each serviceman should transform into the scientist). In tandem with these changes came the introduction of new strategic concepts, including “the future limited war in high-tech environment,” “asymmetric warfare,” and “informational superiority as the key to overall superiority.”

However, 1999 brought home the third lesson for PLA reformers. Between March and June of that year, U.S.-led NATO Forces destroyed the Yugoslav Army, and with it the last anti-Western regime in Europe. Most significantly, this momentous task had been carried out with almost no loss of NATO life. In April 1999, Jiang Zemin issued the following warning: “We must take efforts to educate a large group of highly qualified military personnel…and raise the state of readiness of our armaments” [6]. From March to December, Chinese military journals such as China Military Science Art, Bingqi Zhishi (Armaments Knowledge), and Xiandai Junshi (Modern Military) devoted most of their pages to answering two critical questions: Would it be possible for the PLA to withstand a massive, high-tech air raid, similar NATO’s Yugoslav operations? What should be done to dramatically upgrade the PLA in the short-term?

This became the final impetus for launching overall RMA-based reform. “The PLA should learn from NATO and America” might well have been the official PLA slogan following 1999. Articles such as “Origins and history of the present RMA,” “Establishment of the information-based society and the present information-based RMA,” “Psychological aspects of the RMA,” and “Combining traditional Chinese tactics with RMA” filled the pages of Chinese military journals. Thus, by December 1999, the PLA’s RMA project was progressing rapidly, continuing to the present day.


1. (In Russian) “Kitaisko-Sovetskaya Druzhba v 21-om veke”

2. The author had a chance to visit this NORINCO center in Blagonravov Institute of Machine Engineering, Russian Academy of Sciences, in October 1992, and was literally astonished by the scales of NORINCO activity: they managed to establish stable ties with hundreds of Russian defense enterprises.

3. Moscow-based Segodnya paper (25 June 1997), p.3; Moscow-based Izvestiya paper (18 July 1997, pp.1,2)

4. Moscow-based Izvestiya paper (20 January 1999), pp.4,5 “Armeiskiy kolkhoz”

5. China News Service (12 Sep 1997)

6. Beijing-based Guangming ribao, (7 Apr 1999), p.1