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China’s Military Modernization- An Analysis; By S.Akshaya

C3S Paper No. 0095/ 2015


On April 20, 2015, China concluded a sale of eight conventional submarines worth USD 5 billion to Pakistan during president Xi Jinping’s visit to Islamabad. It is the biggest ever arms sale by China in its history. The sale reflects China’s military prowess. This development demands an analysis of the modernization of China’s military[i].

What is China’s military policy?

China officially states its national military policy as ‘defensive’ in nature. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China states the following objectives as its top priorities:  to safeguard their national sovereignty, security, territorial integrity, and the interests of national development. Above all of these interests, the PLA holds the Chinese people as the highest priority. The official statement of Chinese Government states that, ‘the Chinese are neither interested in developing a power bloc like the USA nor are they interested in building a hegemonic state’. Their alternative world model emphasizes multipolarity and equal treatment of all countries irrespective of their size, economy, power, etc. China explains that its rapid growth and development in economy and military capabilities are not to threaten other countries but also to offer opportunities to its neighbors and partners in what could be described as a ‘win-win situation[ii].The PLA is the largest army in the world, with an active force of 2.3 million. But China’s real military strength increasingly lays in A2/AD or “anti-access/area denial” capabilities. China’s high GDP growth is crucial for defense expenditure. The formulation and implementation of China’s foreign policy involves multiple institutions, factions, and ideologies.

What were the steps taken for modernizing the Chinese Army?

The military modernization of the PLA began in the late 1970’s with three major focuses:

  1. Separation of politics from defense: Deng Xiaoping was a political leader during 1978-1992; under whose leadership, the military was separated from the politics. The procedure for the promotion of ranks in the PLA was biased with political reasons at that time. As a part of modernization measure, the rank promotion is made only based on seniority.

  2. Restructuring the Army, creating better awareness in defense education and legal institutions: The procedures and tests to recruit officers in the Chinese Army were set with new and high standards. Moreover a new “military service law” was enacted in 1984. The military service law is regarding the active service and reserve service of soldiers and officers, the military training for reservist and students of institution of higher learning and students of senior middle schools, mobilization of troops in wartime, etc. It involves teaching the Chinese military personnel to use all the upgraded weapons. Selective usages of foreign weapons are made.

  3. Including civilian staff in certain military posts: The main focus was to transform the military into a system that is capable of independently maintaining an effective and an elite force of strong warriors. So a fixed number of civilian staffs were included in the military without affecting the integrity of uniformed personnel, thereby aiming at transparency.

According to the requirements of national security and the level of economic and social development, China pursues a three-step development strategy to modernize its national defense. The steps are:

  1. Promoting the informationization of China’s national defense and armed forces: Informationization involves the improvement of digital capabilities and prowess of the Chinese military. It is also involves the education of Chinese military personnel regarding the field of digital warfare. This process also involves in teaching the offices of People’s Liberation Army of China about the latest advances the field of defense and offence.

  2. Overall planning of economic development and national defense building: China plans to use its national resources to strike a balance between enriching the country and strengthening the military. The need of economic and social development can be done by insisting on having military and civilian aspects compatible and beneficial to each other, which helps to achieve more social benefits in the use of national defense resources.

  3. Rebuilding of national defense and armed forces: China is working to reform the organization, structure and policies of national defense and armed forces. They are planning to complete their goals by 2020. China wanted to establish and improve national defense mobilization system. Therefore, they wanted their defense to be well structured, authoritative, effective, rapid in reaction, centralized and unified. Improving the defense industry is associated with the merging of defense personnel working in the industry with the laborers working in civil industries. This process is aimed at improving the revenue earned by the defense industries. It also helps the Chinese to become one of the strongest competitors global weapon market.[iii]

Why does the People’s Republic of China aim to modernize its military?

China’s military modernization is integral to its future ambitions to expand its economic and political power. The improvement of armed forces eliminates the possibility of economic threats, if any, made by a developed power. A full-fledged and battle-ready military of the Chinese will make them appear strong among all the superpowers in the world. China also aims to safeguard its claimed territories and the resources within. China wants to prepare for a possible future emergency in the South China Sea and East China Sea where Beijing has been involved in increasingly tense territorial disputes with its neighbors. In the 1980s and 1990s, the People’s Liberation Army was saddled with outdated equipment and poorly trained personnel, as well as the distraction and corruption associated with its involvement in an array of commercial activities. For all these factors, the Chinese military must be upgraded and kept on par with the state of the art military technology. China is seeking to become a super power. In this quest, China perceives threats from the U.S and other democratic countries. China also fears that Australia, Japan, South Korea, the U.S and India are ganging up against China’s emergence as a great power. As a part of its military modernization program, China also focuses on enhancing its strategic nuclear capabilities.

What is the nuclear policy of China?

China’s nuclear policies of ‘no-first use’ and ‘self-defense only’ are in themselves a deterrent to prevent attack from other nuclear countries. Non nuclear missiles are not subject to defensive doctrines. Chinese defense ministry clearly states that, as a global power, the Chinese government is doing everything in its power to make its territory and people ‘defendable’ under any circumstance. Thus ultimately the Chinese Government gives an image of ‘Defensive growth’ for the questions regarding the offensive capabilities of the PLA’s modernization of nuclear weaponry. If the central government permits, they may start to build the world’s first commercial fourth generation nuclear power plant in east China’s Jiangxi province in 2017. On April 17, 2015, nuclear safety official Tang Bo said China has 23 nuclear power generating units in operation and 27 under construction[iv].

What are the latest trends in the PLA and its modernization?

In April 20, 2015 Pakistan and China signed 51 agreements and Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) for cooperation in diverse fields with visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping scheduled to unveil a USD 45 billion investment plan that can help Pakistan end its chronic energy crisis and transform it into a regional economic hub[v]. China’s military development pursues outstanding territorial and maritime claims in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea.

On January 15, 2014, China’s Ministry of National Defense confirmed in a press release that it had conducted a test of a “new ultra-high-speed missile delivery vehicle” which is a DOD Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) capable of traveling between Mach 5 and Mach 10. The HGV test was a direct response to the U.S Prompt Global Strike program and served as a signal of the steady and significant progress of China’s ongoing military modernization program, creating new risks for regional security. These risks include proliferation of advanced military capabilities, exposing vulnerabilities associated with integration of advanced Chinese systems and increasing competition in the global defense industry.

The following are indicators of growing indigenous capability of the Chinese, including military aviation, shipbuilding, missile development and space, where China has “enhanced its space-based ISR, navigation, meteorological and communications satellite constellations” and improved its capacity to deny “the use of space-based assets by adversaries during times of crisis and conflict,” according to 2013 US Department of Defense report to the U.S Congress.[vi]

The official Chinese annual defense budget grew from USD 20 billion in 2000 to USD 148 billion in 2014 and is estimated to reach USD 189 billion by 2018—but actual spending is estimated to be at least 20 per cent higher. Military and Security Development involving, the PRC for 2014 report have declared that China’s military expenditure continue to grow as its intention is to become a regional and world power. [vii]


The PLA Navy conducted its largest ever fleet exercise in the Philippines. This includes China’s acquisition of foreign technology and an impressive capability to reverse-engineer this technology to create indigenized versions of military platforms for internal use and export. China has moved up from the eighth-largest global defense exporter in 2012 to seventh in 2013. China successfully carried out a launch test for the DF-31B, an intercontinental ballistic missile, from a mobile launcher.

What are the challenges China is facing in its military modernization?

The Chinese working age population will begin to decline in number. Such circumstances would certainly make military recruitment more difficult and limit economic growth. Most of the other major powers in the world feel that, a nation which is growing as fast as China is a possible threat.

China is spending very huge amount of money among defense projects. This implies that, a huge amount of the net national income is spent on the military for various purposes. But certain sections of people in China feel that, a fraction of money that is spent on the defense sector can be diverted towards civilian life improvement schemes. Many people in China resent the establishment of strict governmental authority over the country. The handling of development in military matters also remains in the same perception. Thus the public support and cooperation to military developmental programs seems to be diminishing.

China’s military modernization has led to a security dilemma among its neighbors such as Japan and the ASEAN states involved in the South China Sea dispute. It has propelled them to enhance their own military modernization. However China states that it is a peaceful rising power and its military modernization is only for defensive purposes. Nevertheless China is showing a more assertive stance in its disputes with Japan and the ASEAN countries. It remains to be seen if China’s military modernization translates into an escalation of conflict in the disputed territories.


[i],”Pakistan close to buying eight Chinese submarines: FT”, April 2, 2015

[ii] Bernardo Mariani, “China’s role and interest in Central Asia”, safer world , preventing violent conflict, building safer lives, October 2013, chapter 2, Central Asia in China’s foreign policy

[iii] Ministry of national defense, The People’s Republic of China, “defense policy”, ministry of national defense, The People’s Republic of China,

[iv] Xinhua, “China to build world’s first-generation nuclear power plant”, global times, April 20, 2015

[v] Bloomberg, “China submarine sale to Pakistan ups nuclear clash risk”, The Economic Times, April 18,2015, defense,

[vi] Jim Garamone, “China continues military modernization, report says”, U.S Department of Defense, DOD news,

[vii] Tate Nurkin, Paul Burton, Tom Skomba and James Hardy, “The global implication of China’s military modernization”, IHS,

(S.Akshaya is an intern with Chennai Centre for China Studies. As a statutory requirement of her academic course in Stella Maris college, she is required to carry out research in a think tank on identified issues in China under the guidance of the members of C3S. The views expressed in this article however are of the author. Email id:

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