Will PLA Modernization Continue Apace in Xi’s Second Decade?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 17

Xi Jinping inspects the Central Military Commission’s (CMC) joint battle command with other CMC members in November 2017 (source: China Daily)

Compared to his predecessors, Xi Jinping has been relatively focused on military modernization, which he views as a prerequisite for achieving the “China Dream” of national rejuvenation by mid-century (Xinhua, July 1). Modernization is a process and not an endpoint; Xi will face new tasks and challenges after the 20th Party Congress. This article previews changes in China’s military high command next month, outlines the next steps for People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and identifies challenges that could frustrate Xi and his “strong army” vision in the years ahead.

New Leadership

Xi Jinping will maintain his position as Central Military Commission (CMC) chairman but will have a new slate of senior officers to advise him. Four of the six current CMC members are expected to depart at the 20th Party Congress due to reaching the normal retirement age of 68, including both Vice Chairmen (Xu Qiliang and Zhang Youxia); only two members (Political Work Department Director Miao Hua and Discipline Inspection Commission Director Zhang Shengmin) are likely to remain (Gov.cn). Both Miao and Zhang are professional political commissars, who will provide continuity in sensitive responsibilities for maintaining party control over the PLA. Yet barring a decision by Xi to overturn the age limits, it is likely that no one with operational expertise will remain on the new CMC.

The new CMC members will be drawn from a pool of about 25 potential candidates who are currently in positions one level below the CMC. As a cohort, the next CMC will be similar in some ways to their predecessors – joining the PLA in the final two decades of the Cold War, attaining career success mostly in a pre-reform PLA dominated by the ground force, and demonstrating loyalty to Xi and his agenda (as evidenced by having survived purges of top military brass during Xi’s first decade).

Who is selected, however, could influence future CMC strategic and operational decisions. Appointing a technically literate officer such as former Strategic Support Force commander Gao Jin would ensure knowledge on joint operations and innovation in the high command, while elevating Eastern Theater Commander Lin Xiangyang would provide an authoritative voice on Taiwan Strait dynamics. Such choices can be read as indications of the types of expertise that Xi values and thus his underlying priorities.

Below the CMC level, there will also be a gradual transition to a cadre of younger and more highly educated officers who will be entrusted with steering the PLA’s transformation into a more modern force. This transition will unfold as their superiors hit the normal retirement ages over the next decade.[1]

Next Steps for Modernization

A new cadre of senior officers will oversee the PLA’s continued modernization. Various dates are important for strategic planning, including the PLA’s centennial in 2027. At the fifth plenum of the 19th Party Congress in October 2020, the party’s elite focused on two other timeframes: the 14th five-year plan (2021-2025) and the party’s long-range goal of “basically completing military modernization” by 2035 (Xinhua, November 3). There is also an even longer-term ambition to field “world-class” forces by the centennial of the PRC in 2049. [2] The development of the armed forces is to proceed in parallel with and support the party’s larger agenda both in the near term and into future decades.

The party has directed the PLA to prioritize several areas. The first is improving the military’s ability to conduct joint operations. The structural reforms initiated in 2015-6 have produced a modern joint command system—for instance, theater commands now have naval and air force units at their disposal in peacetime. The Eastern Theater Command was thus in a better position to organize a series of military operations around Taiwan after Speaker Pelosi’s recent visit. However, jointness, like modernization, is a process. Party directives have endorsed a continued focus on “joint training,” “joint support,” and cultivation of joint staff officers and commanders (Xinhua, November 26, 2021).

The second area of focus is the integration of cutting-edge technology into PLA force structure. Following the 5th plenum, a spokesperson noted that the integration of “mechanization,” “informatization,” and “intelligentization” would be a prerequisite for the PLA’s centennial celebrations in 2027 (Xinhuanet, October 26, 2020). Disruptive capabilities such as hypersonic missiles, in other words, should be fielded as soon as possible and not delayed until less advanced capabilities are fully modernized.

The third is developing closer cooperation between civilian and military planning, which Xi has prioritized under the label “military-civil fusion.”[3] The fifth plenum report highlighted the need to better integrate the military with civilian R&D in critical sectors—a necessary precondition for fielding “intelligent” military capabilities—but also to deepen cooperation in other areas, such as logistics, infrastructure construction at home and abroad, national defense mobilization, national defense education, domestic emergency response and border defense (Xinhua, October 29, 2020)

Progress in these three areas—joint operations, advanced equipment, and military-civil fusion—will enhance PLA capabilities and thus confidence in escalating disputes against regional rivals. Such improvements would also be necessary for the PLA to provide party leaders with more effective options to undertake combat operations. However, it is important to note that party documents focus more on force-building than on specific operational timelines (such as a purported 2027 deadline for reunification with Taiwan) (China Brief, March 26, 2021). [4] Any war of choice would depend on perceptions of military readiness as well as economic and political costs and risks, which could change in Xi’s second decade in power. [5]

Problems and Prospects 

Several challenges could frustrate the party’s ability to realize its military modernization agenda. One problem would be a deterioration in China’s security situation that requires the PLA to prioritize operations over acquisitions.  Maintaining a higher operational tempo in the Taiwan Strait will obviously expend finite resources. The PLA could also be called on to deal with an unforeseen domestic emergency. In his speech to PLA representatives at the 2021 National People’s Congress, Xi pointedly remarked that social stability remains “unstable and uncertain” (China Daily, March 9, 2021). Such concerns were far from theoretical as evidenced by recent protests in Shanghai and elsewhere, many in response to lockdowns and other zero-COVID restrictions.[6]

There are also questions about whether the PLA can sustain access to technology and expertise necessary for advanced warfighting. Western economies are increasingly erecting fences around high-tech industries, which could deprive the PLA of necessary equipment, know-how, and even educational opportunities for its officers. Meanwhile, competition from Chinese firms means that the PLA will struggle with recruitment and retention of technically competent personnel, driving up labor costs and reducing budget share available for acquisition.

Finally, an economic slowdown would intensify tradeoffs for the party. Slowing growth would require the party to choose between sustaining increases in military spending (7.1 percent in 2022) and advancing other governance priorities (China Daily, March 6). Reflecting an awareness of resource limitations, the party has instructed the PLA to streamline its internal management processes and pursue “symbiotic” developments with the civilian sector, which underscores that China is not immune from the same “guns versus butter” dilemmas that other countries face (Sohu, March 14, 2021).

In sum, Xi will have new officers advising him on what is certain to be a full agenda for military modernization after the 20th Party Congress. Success is not guaranteed, but is contingent on navigating obstacles that could hinder achievement of Xi’s “strong army” vision and force him to choose between military and developmental objectives.

Dr. Joel Wuthnow is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at National Defense University. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. He is on Twitter @jwuthnow. 


[1] Retirement ages are typically 63 for Theater Command Leader-grade officers and 61 for Theater Command Deputy Leader-grade officers. For more detail, see Joel Wuthnow, Gray Dragons: Assessing China’s Senior Military Leadership, NDU China Strategic Perspectives 16, 2022, https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Media/News/Article/3156126/gray-dragons-assessing-chinas-senior-military-leadership/.

[2] Collectively, 2027, 2035, and mid-century have been grouped as milestone in a revised “three-step development strategy” for the PLA. See Brian Hart, Bonnie S. Glaser, and Matthew P. Funaiole, “China’s 2027 Goal Marks the PLA’s Centennial, Not an Expedited Military Modernization,” China Brief, March 26, 2021, https://jamestown.org/program/chinas-2027-goal-marks-the-plas-centennial-not-an-expedited-military-modernization/.

[3] Alex Stone and Peter Wood, China’s Military-Civil Fusion Strategy (Washington, DC: China Aerospace Studies Institute, 2020).

[4] M. Taylor Fravel, “China’s ‘World-Class Military’ Ambitions: Origins and Implications,” The Washington Quarterly 43:1 (2020), 85-99.

[5] Andrew Scobell, “China’s Calculus on the Use of Force: Futures, Costs, Benefits, Risks, and Goals,” in Joel Wuthnow et al., eds., Crossing the Strait: China’s Military Prepares for War with Taiwan (Washington, DC: NDU Press, 2022), 65-84.

[6] Such concerns could drive greater tradeoffs between PLA modernization budgets and internal security spending, which has been increasing in recent years. For an overview, see Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “Rethinking China’s Coercive Capacity: An Examination of PRC Domestic Security Spending,” China Quarterly 232 (2017), 1002-1025.