The PLA Navy is the most important and interesting component of China’s military modernisation and we are likely to see more of it than any other service in the years ahead
China’s spectacular military parade on Thursday – the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Japan in World War II – marks the coming of age of the modern Peoples Liberation Army. This was underscored by the announcement President Xi Jinping made that China would cut some 300,000 personnel from its 2.3 million strong military. For the uninitiated, the cut is not about the country becoming more peace-loving, but about the compulsions that arise from the need for a military that is smaller, more technologically able and mobile.
Japan was only a pretext for the parade, after all a 70th anniversary is neither here nor there. Its main purpose was to establish Xi as the tallest nationalist leader of China since Mao, and to use anti-Japanese sentiment, which is always high in China, to consolidate his standing. So, predictably, Xi’s speech was laced with strong anti-Japanese rhetoric.
However, the event also had a subtext – the need to signal to the world that China was fully capable of defending itself against all adversaries, not excluding the global hegemon, the United States. As the official media noted, 84% of the equipment was being displayed for the first time and all of it had been made indigenously. The scale and direction of Chinese military development makes it clear that Beijing is determined to establish itself as the regionally dominant player in East Asia in the near term – and a global power by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.
Expectations that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would attend, as a gesture of peace towards China, were belied. The star guests were President Vladimir Putin of Russia and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, while India sent its junior foreign minister, General V K. Singh.
There were several foreign military contingents in the parade. India did not send one, probably so as not to give offence to the Japanese. The other problem for India is that its soldiers fought on both sides – that of the Allies which included China, and the Japanese under Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.
The scale of the parade was humongous, with some 12,000 soldiers displaying 500 pieces of hardware and some 200 aircraft participating. It marked the first public display of the DF-21D – the so-called “carrier killer” missile which has a range of 1500 kms and travels at 10 times the speed of sound, making it difficult to intercept. On display, too, was the DF-5B ICBM with a range of 12,000 km which is believed to possess a Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV). Another significant display was the DF-31A mobile solid-fuelled missiles, emphasising China’s ability to deliver a second strike after absorbing a nuclear first strike. The “Guam killer” DF-26 IRBM was also on display.
Among the other weapons systems were the H-6K bomber, a completely upgraded strategic bomber, the CJ-10 land attack cruise missile, surface to air missiles, airborne early warning and maritime surveillance aircraft, tanks, guns and so on.
An integrated military
According to the consulting firm IHS, which is known for its Janes’ series of defence analytical products, Chinese military spending will double between 2010 and 2020 to reach a figure of $260 billion.
According to the latest (2014) estimates, China’s military budget is $176 billion, behind the $586 billion the US spends. India’s figure is $48 billion.
The cut in forces is only the visible edge of the large reform of the Chinese military that is being envisaged by the Communist Party of China (CPC). Beginning 2013, there have been reports that the Chinese plan to integrate their forces and reorganise their deployment from seven military regions to five. Earlier this year, its Defence White Paper elaborated on the concept of ‘active defence.’
In the wake of the Third Plenum of the CPC, Senior Colonel Yang Yujun, spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of National Defence, told a reporter that modern warfare was characterised by what the Chinese call “informationisation” or IT-led warfare, and therefore, “it is a necessary demand of operations under information conditions on building a joint operation command system.”
Two months later, the defence ministry denied the report and even the Global Times was constrained to note that it had been based on an official briefing. Actually, the Chinese were only denying that the integration process had begun. What they emphasised was that it would be taken up in the course of time. And that is what Senior Colonel Yang had said. One reason for the denial was that the issue had been played up by the Japanese paper Yomiuri Shimbun which had emphasised that the change could involve the transformation of the PLA from a defence oriented force to one which is more mobile and managed in an integrated fashion.
What the Chinese are doing is part of the international trend, and reflects not only their confidence as a military power, but their intention of playing a larger role beyond their geographic frontiers.
It is significant that the parade took place days before Xi leaves for an official visit to Washington DC and at a time when the US Navy is tracking five Chinese warships sailing in the Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast – apparently the first time the PLA Navy (PLAN) has been seen so far up north.
PLA Navy holds the keys
It should be clear by now that the US and China are involved in a strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific region. Given that the US has a much more sophisticated military and routinely deploys naval assets close to China because of its historical links with the East Asian region, the going is not easy for Beijing. The challenge China faces has been compounded by its crude assertiveness, based on the fiction of its Nine-Dash Line claim over the South China Sea. China remains wary of Japan, which has a powerful navy and is a strong economic and industrial power backed by an alliance with the US. Chinese behaviour has spooked countries like the Philippines and Vietnam and allowed the US to make new inroads in the region.
While the equipment on display may be impressive, as was the precision of the parade, questions remain about the quality of the PLA, especially since the Chinese want to bench-mark themselves against the United States. The PLA has little or no experience in combat and remains a traditional continental force for the time being. The same is true of the PLAF – the Chinese air force.
The PLAN is the most important and interesting component of China’s military modernisation and we did not get much of a glimpse of its capacity in the parade. In a few years, the PLAN will be truly a mature force which will have consequences for other powers. Using piracy off the coast of Somalia as a convenient pretext, the PLAN has garnered considerable experience in functioning far from its home bases. This has been manifested by the increased showing of the PLAN in the Indian Ocean region since the beginning of 2014.
In the future, we are likely to see more of PLAN, than any of the other services. And that is where the 300,000 cut come in. It signals the CPC’s intention of focusing on a high-tech mobile military over the traditional manpower-intensive PLA. Of course, this will take time since the military tends to be the most conservative institution in any country and in China the Army has a unique status.
In India, reform still adrift
All these developments have implications for India. Unfortunately, our own trend lines are not very wholesome. Despite brave words, the new government has done little to reform the manpower-intensive Indian Army and shift budgets towards high-tech and mobile forces. Indeed, the biggest problem it has been grappling with – that too, without success – is the issue of pensions for ex-service personnel.
If there has been little effort to pick up the gauntlet of reforming the military and the Ministry of Defence., it’s not for lack of advice. The standing committee on defence in Parliament, the Group of Ministers in 2001 and the Naresh Chandra Committee in 2012 have given all the recommendations that are needed. The problem is that the Modi government seems to lack the understanding of how important it is for the political class to lead the reform process. Instead, it continues to drift with the tide, focusing on low hanging fruit like defence acquisitions rather than tackling the more difficult issues of the relationship between the civilian MoD and the armed forces, the need for the integration of the armed forces so as to enable them to become a more effective, war-winning force. Incidentally, the strategic missiles on display today in Beijing have implications for India’s nuclear posture. Hopefully in that area at least, someone in New Delhi is paying attention.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi