PLA’s reputation for belligerence, intimidation endures 95 years later

PLA’s reputation for belligerence, intimidation endures 95 years later


A viral video in late July 2022 showed People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tanks moving slowly along a crowded street to protect state-regulated banks. Ultimately an analysis by The Associated Press (AP) and France24 deemed the scenario untrue. What the video depicted was an annual military exercise in the city of Rizhao, unrelated to the bank protests hundreds of kilometers away.

The initial posts, however, led some to dub the scene “Tiananmen Square 2,” a reference to the 1989 clash in which both activists and average civilians were indiscriminately gunned down by their own government’s military in central Beijing. Decades later, a photograph of a man defiantly standing in front of one of many PLA tanks at Tiananmen Square still resonates around the world except inside China, where the June 4 “incident” has been aggressively purged from the Chinese conscious by the party-state.

It’s arguably understandable how the video could mislead people. Throughout the PLA’s history — August 1, 2022, marks its 95th year — the military arm of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has used belligerence and scare tactics to expand its territory at the expense of neighboring countries and silence civilians at home and abroad who don’t agree with party mandates.

Such tactics employed against PRC’s neighbors are “aggressive, often belligerent, diplomacy,” according to a July 2022 article by The Diplomat, an online news magazine. The approach, “combined with the growing use of state economic coercion against countries and foreign and domestic Chinese multinationals, certainly plays a central role in rising negative sentiments,” the article stated.

“The message is the Chinese military, in the air and at sea, have become significantly more and noticeably more aggressive in this particular region,” U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in late July 2022 in Indonesia during a trip to the Indo-Pacific, according to AP.

Milley said intercepts by Chinese aircraft and ships of U.S. and partner forces in the Indo-Pacific have increased significantly in the past five years as have unsafe interactions, AP reported.

The PLA’s current attempts at intimidation in places such as the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and along the Sino-Indian border were preceded by confrontations that besmirched the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and cost thousands of lives. For instance:

1950 — PLA troops invaded Tibet to procure its “liberation” and fulfill the PRC’s claim to the region, according to the BBC. In subsequent decades, the PLA has quelled uprisings by Tibetans demanding autonomy. Thousands of Tibetans are believed to have been killed during periods of repression and martial law since the occupation began, the BBC reported.

1979 — Thousands of soldiers and civilians died when the PLA crossed the border into northern Vietnam after accusing Vietnam of oppressing ethnic Chinese and fighting with Beijing-friendly Cambodia, The Diplomat reported. Both the PRC and Vietnam claimed victory after the campaign from mid-February to mid-March.

1989 — Pro-democracy protesters occupied Tiananmen Square in April and launched the largest political rebellion in the PRC’s history. After six weeks of demonstrations, PLA troops in early June opened fire on people in the streets, killing and wounding hundreds, perhaps thousands, according to the BBC. (Pictured: A protestor stands in front of a PLA tank at Tiananmen Square, one of the most iconic images of the standoff. His identity and fate remain unknown, and history remembers him simply as “Tank Man.”)

A sordid history

Launched by communist insurgents at the Nanchang Uprising in August 1927, the ragtag militia quickly grew into the Red Army. For the next two decades, the force participated in the Chinese Civil War against the pro-democracy Nationalist government, interrupted only when the two sides opposed Imperial Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1949, the communist force ousted the Nationalist military, recast itself as the PLA, and ushered in the PRC.

Though the PLA has grown, modernized and attempted to professionalize its land, sea, air, cyber and space forces, it retains the CCP’s longstanding reputation for aggression and intimidation.

In recent years, PLA forces have harassed other nation’s coast guards and fishing fleets in the South China Sea, most of which the PRC claims as its sovereign territory. Not dissuaded by an international court’s contrary ruling in 2016 that invalidated Chinese claims in a dispute with the Philippines, the PRC imposed its own vague maritime boundaries.

“The effect is an expansion of Chinese influence in the South China Sea and an increasing challenge to international law itself,” according to a Center for Strategic and International Studies report.

The CCP has attempted to reinforce these claims by seizing and militarizing atolls and reefs in the South China Sea and by challenging other claimants such as the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam with military flyovers and warship incursions in exclusive economic zones.

The PLA also has enforced the CCP’s rejection of assertions that the Taiwan Strait is international waters, threatening to keep other nations’ vessels out of the 160-kilometer-wide passage that separates the self-governed island of Taiwan from mainland China.

PLA forces also have exacerbated the China-India border dispute. The 3,440-kilometer line separating the countries has spurred disagreement for decades, alternating between militarily clashes and uneasy truces.

“If you disturb the peace and tranquility, if you have bloodshed, if there is intimidation, if there is continuing friction at the border, then obviously it is going to tell on the relationship,” Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said in May 2021, according to the Hindustan Times newspaper.

The PRC and India last clashed violently in the Galwan Valley along the Line of Actual Control in June 2020, with deaths reported on both sides. Relations remain strained, despite the nations’ trading partnership.

To counterbalance the PRC’s aggression and attempts to expand its presence and influence in the region, the U.S. and its allies and partners are strengthening relationships among like-minded Indo-Pacific nations.

The PRC is “trying to expand their influence throughout the region. And that has potential consequences that are not necessarily favorable to our allies and partners in the region,” Milley said.

Milley recently directed his staff to track interactions between the PRC and the U.S. and other countries in the regions, AP reported.