The rise of an assertive People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the past decade and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) pursuit of large-scale military capabilities challenge the international security order throughout the Indo-Pacific and beyond, experts contend. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) modernization could have near- and long-term implications for regional stability that impact the South China Sea, Taiwan and the vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific shared by the United States and its allies and partners.
The PLA’s path to a more prominent force — outlined in the PRC’s 14th Five-Year Plan that covers 2021-25 — has prompted militaries to assess the implications and adjust national defense strategies and budgets to meet potential challenges as the PLA evolves.
“In this decisive decade, it is important to understand the contours of the People’s Liberation Army way of war, survey its current activities and capabilities and assess its future military modernization goals,” according to the 2022 edition of an annual U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) report titled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.”
During the 19th Party Congress in 2017, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping announced a PLA modernization timeline to improve combat readiness. It called for accelerating the integrated development of mechanization (weapons and vehicles), informatization (information warfare) and intelligentization (applying the speed and processing power of artificial intelligence, or AI, to military planning) by 2027. The timeline also committed to comprehensively modernizing military theory, organizational structure, military personnel, and weaponry and equipment in step with the nation’s modernization and for completing national defense and military modernization by 2035. The aim: Transform the PLA into a world-class force by 2049. The CCP’s guiding military theory represents its systemic thinking about warfare and national defense, incorporating the thoughts of CCP leaders Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and now Xi, according to a Rand Corp. report titled “People’s Liberation Army Operational Concepts.”
The CCP’s 2027 goals align with the 100th anniversary of the PLA’s founding. Chinese media, citing a military source, “connected the PLA’s 2027 goals to developing the capabilities to counter the U.S. military in the Indo-Pacific region and compel Taiwan’s leadership to the negotiation table on Beijing’s terms,” according to the DOD report. In essence, Xi wants the military positioned and prepared by 2027 to invade Taiwan, “but that doesn’t mean he’s decided to invade in 2027 or any other year as well,” CIA Director William Burns told Face the Nation, a CBS television program, during a February 2023 interview.
“It’s a capability, not an intent to attack or seize,” U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee in June 2021. “My assessment is an operational assessment. Do they have the intent to attack or seize in the near-term defined as the next year or two? My assessment of what I’ve seen right now is no, but that could always change. Intent is something that could change quickly.”
Beijing allocated U.S. $229.6 billion for its defense budget in 2022, an increase over its 2021 budget of
U.S. $202.2 billion, according to the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The 2022 funding marked the first time in a decade that the budget’s growth rate increased for two consecutive years, China Power noted.
“The CCP has now directed 2027 as the target for the PLA to deliver the capabilities needed to counter the U.S. military in the Indo-Pacific and project power across the globe,” Adm. John Aquilino, Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, testified before the U.S. House Armed Services Committee in April 2023. “In October 2022, the 20th National Congress of the CCP set objectives focused on accelerating the PLA’s modernization goals over the next five years, including strengthening its ‘system of strategic deterrence.’ With the 14th Five-Year Plan, the Chinese government has doubled down on multiple national strategies already being implemented to ensure the CCP achieves a globally dominant position in the emerging technologies that it believes are necessary for enabling complex modern military operations. The PRC continues to target technology and talent around the world to secure these technologies in pursuit of advanced military capabilities.”
Military Budgets on the Rise Across the Region
Nations have allocated more money for armed forces throughout the region. The U.S. remains the largest spender, with legislators approving a fiscal year 2023 national defense budget of nearly U.S. $858 billion — U.S. $45 billion more than U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration requested. The total amounted to a nearly 10% increase over the 2022 national defense budget.
“Now more than ever, at a time when global democracy is under attack and the rules-based international order is being threatened, we need a strong national security and defense strategy, and this bill helps us deliver on that front,” U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, then chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in December 2022.
The U.S. had the world’s biggest military budget in 2021, followed by the PRC, India, the United Kingdom and Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Australia, South Korea and Japan also rank high among defense spenders.
India’s defense budget is U.S. $72.6 billion, according to The Economic Times newspaper. India has prioritized boosting defense capabilities through domestic development and partnerships. The country announced in January 2023 plans to spend U.S. $522 million on missiles, air defense and naval weapons, according to Defense News magazine.
The approved projects, to be acquired solely from domestic companies, include Helina anti-tank guided missiles, short-range air defense systems for the Army, and the Brahmos missile launcher and a fire control system for Navy ships, Defense News reported. India cited ongoing border clashes with Chinese troops as a reason to upgrade air defenses.
Australia boosted its defense budget by 8% for the fiscal year ending June 2023 and to more than 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) through mid-2026, Reuters news agency reported. The increased spending helps Australia’s efforts to expand diplomatic ties with Pacific Island Countries and to counter the PRC’s attempts to gain economic and strategic influence in the Pacific, Reuters reported.
Analysts suggest that much of Australia’s defense budget will fund research and development of naval vessels and submarines as it works to procure nuclear-powered submarines, modernize capabilities and upgrade its fleet.
“Rapid military modernization and technological developments in countries such as Russia, China and North Korea are expected to create strategic challenges for Australia,” Akash Pratim Debbarma, an aerospace and defense analyst at GlobalData, told the website Army Technology. “Being an island nation, modernization of its naval prowess is a necessity for Australia.”
South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense announced a 2023 defense budget of U.S. $42.1 billion, an increase of 4.6% over 2022, according to Janes, an intelligence analysis website. South Korea attributed the increase to the “severe security situation” on the Korean Peninsula, a reference to North Korea’s destabilizing nuclear and missile programs. In addition to modernization, the Republic of Korea Armed Forces will see more spending on strengthening operational response capabilities, procuring combat reserve ammunition, and developing capabilities in areas including AI, electronic warfare, robotics and automated systems, Janes reported.
Japan outlined a record defense budget for fiscal year 2023, with a commitment of doubling its spending to 2% of GDP by 2027. Tokyo cited security challenges from North Korea, the PRC and Russia as the impetus for the 20% increase to U.S. $55 billion for defense facilities, maritime defense ships and other vessels.
“Unfortunately, in the vicinity of our country, there are countries carrying out activities such as enhancement of nuclear capability, a rapid military buildup and unilateral attempt[s] to change the status quo by force,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in December 2022, according to the BBC. He said Japan would implement a U.S. $332.5 billion buildup over the next five years “to fundamentally reinforce our defense capabilities.”
Tokyo identified the PRC as the greatest strategic challenge ever to Japan’s security and stability.
Taiwan also budgeted record military spending, setting aside U.S. $19 billion for defense, a 15% increase over 2022, Time magazine reported. To improve readiness, Taiwan is implementing institutional military reforms and also extended compulsory military service for men 18 and older from four months to a year. The change, spurred by increasing threats from the PRC, takes effect January 2024 and could add up to 70,000 recruits annually to Taiwan’s Armed Forces of 165,000, according to Reuters.
“Taiwan stands on the front lines of authoritarian expansion, at the vanguard of the global defense of democracy,” Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said in December 2022. “Only by preparing for war can we avoid it — only by being capable of fighting a war can we stop one.”
The U.S. defense budget includes up to U.S. $10 billion in security assistance for Taiwan and provisions to fast-track weapons procurement for the self-governed island.
Chinese Forces, Capabilities and Power Projection
The PLA seeks to modernize its capabilities and improve proficiency across all domains to conduct land, air, maritime, nuclear, space, counterspace, electronic warfare and cyberspace operations.
“The PLA is aggressively developing capabilities to provide options for the PRC to dissuade, deter, or, if ordered, defeat third-party intervention in the Indo-Pacific region,” according to the DOD. “The PLA is also developing the capabilities to conduct military operations deeper into the Indo-Pacific region, and in some cases, globally.”
Here’s a glimpse at the PLA’s force capacity, according to the DOD’s annual report, also known as the “China Military Power Report.”
The PLA Army (PLAA) has approximately 975,000 active-duty personnel in combat units and is the PLA’s primary ground-fighting force. In 2021, the PLAA emphasized realistic and standardized training.
The PLA Navy (PLAN) has approximately 340 ships and submarines, including 125 major surface combatants. By numbers, it is the world’s largest navy.
The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLAN Aviation together constitute the largest aviation force in the region and the third-largest in the word. The component has more than 2,800 aircraft, excluding training aircraft and uncrewed aerial systems. The PLAAF in 2019 revealed its first nuclear-capable, air-to-air refuelable bomber.
The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) operates, equips and trains the CCP’s strategic land-based nuclear and conventional missile forces, associated support forces and missile bases. In 2021, the PLARF launched 135 ballistic missiles for testing and training, more than the rest of the world combined.
The Strategic Support Force (SSF) is a theater command-level organization established to centralize the PLA’s strategic space, cyberspace, electronic information, communications and psychological warfare missions and capabilities.
The Joint Logistic Support Force (JLSF) seeks to improve strategic and campaign-level logistic efficiencies through training and integrating civilian products and services. The JLSF also provides support for the nation’s COVID-19 response.
The National Strategy
The CCP’s modernization objectives align with the PRC’s national development aspirations, according to the DOD. “China’s economic targets abroad focus intensely on advancing what the party calls the country’s productive forces (industry, technology, infrastructure and human capital) which it views as the means to achieve the country’s political and social modernity — including building a world-class military,” the DOD reported. “The party-state’s relentless efforts to grow China’s national industry and technology base has significant implications for China’s military modernization as well as for China’s global economic partners.”
Modernization of the armed forces is indispensable to the PRC’s strategy to become a rich country with a powerful military, according to the DOD.
Experts say the PLA faces significant challenges on its path to catching up with the U.S. military.
“Specifically, the PLA’s ongoing struggles to embrace jointness among the service branches, as well as the challenge of updating doctrine to reflect the implications of their belief in a military revolution through artificial intelligence, reveal nuances that are crucial for a broader understanding of the Chinese military,” Ben Noon, a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute, and Chris Bassler, director of the Naval Science & Technology Cooperation Program at the Office of Naval Research, wrote in an October 2021 commentary for the website War on the Rocks. “Despite its continued growth, the extent to which the PLA can handle the less tangible side of military modernization will be vital for the Chinese military’s future warfighting capabilities.”
Though rapidly expanding, the PLA remains untested on the modern battlefield, leaving internal and external observers uncertain about its “true warfighting capabilities,” Noon and Bassler noted. This means analysts should closely watch PLA advancements and scrutinize what the PLA says about its trajectory.
The DOD’s report offered a similar assessment: “Understanding the tenets of the People’s Republic of China’s national strategy is essential to understanding the drivers of China’s security and military strategy. This in turn offers insight on the current and future course of the People’s Liberation Army’s reform and modernization in terms of its strength, technological advances, organization and operational concepts — all of which could offer PRC leaders expanded military options to support its national goals.”