PLA’s January Surprises

China favors springing military surprises on January 11 each year. What might this January hold in store?

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army traditionally reserves its most dramatic moves for a date early in the new year that has important symbolic meaning for China. “The Chinese have an obsession with what for them is Jan. 11," says Owen Cote, Jr., a naval analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2007, 2010 and again in 2011, the PLA tested new military capabilities on that date. Western experts expect another major weapons test on January 11, 2012.

Many Chinese use their culture’s traditional calendar for ceremonial events such as weddings. But for official events, China uses the same Gregorian calendar as most of the rest of the world. In Mandarin, “January 11” is usually spoken as “1-1-1.” Sets of three are considered lucky in Chinese numerology.

“Every year they [the PLA] do something interesting on that day,” Cote notes. On January 11, 2007, the Chinese military launched a rudimentary anti-satellite weapon and destroyed a target satellite – a demonstration of the PLA’s intention to counter U.S. space developments. On January 11, 2010, the PLA tested another anti-satellite missile. And January 11, 2011, marked the debut flight of the J-20, China’s first stealth-fighter prototype.  

What surprise might the PLA have in store for the coming year? “People have speculated that the long-awaited Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile test against a ship is coming in 2012,” Cote says. He’s referring to the DF-21D, a version of China’s Medium-Range Ballistic Missile optimized for destroying warships, particularly American aircraft carriers. In development for many years, the DF-21D has yet to be tested in realistic conditions. The missile apparently relies on satellites and aerial drones for targeting.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

A successful demonstration of the DF-21D would signal the PLA’s continuing development into a modern military power – and Beijing’s intention to exert powerful influence on the Western Pacific.

Of course, those phenomena don’t depend upon any numerological tradition. China’s rise will continue whether or not the PLA celebrates the coming January 11 with a major weapons test.