Asia Defense

Review: The Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 2025

A new volume offers a cautious glimpse into the future of China’s military.

Review: The Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 2025
Credit: Official U.S. Navy Page

In July 2015, the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute published a collection of papers under the title, The Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 2025. The book’s editors, Roy Kamphausen, a senior advisor at the National Bureau of Asian Research, and David Lai, a research professor of Asian Security Affairs at the Army War College, describe it as “an effort to examine the drivers, potential vectors, and implications of China’s military modernization for the near-to-medium future.”

The contributors to the volume are experts on the Chinese military and the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region. The papers are grouped into three broad categories: (1) domestic, external and technological drivers of PLA modernization; (2) alternative futures for the PLA in regional and global affairs, including a weakened PLA; and (3) implications of alternative futures of PLA modernization for the Asia-Pacific region, the international system, and for U.S.-China relations.

Lonnie Henley, an intelligence collection officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), believes that the PLA has two major goals for the near-to-medium future: first, to prepare for conflict in China’s periphery, especially with regard to Taiwan, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Indian border; and second, to develop capabilities “to defend China’s interests outside the immediate East Asian region.” “[T]he most likely course of events for the PLA,” he predicts, “is to stay focused . . . on developing capabilities . . . necessary to fight and win a war with Taiwan and to thwart U.S. military intervention in that conflict.”

Domestic politics in China will undoubtedly play a role in determining the PLA’s priorities in the next decade. Joseph Fewsmith, a professor of international relations at Boston University and an associate of the Fairbank Center for East Asian Studies at Harvard University, points out that the current Chinese government faces growing challenges of legitimacy, frequently manifested in domestic unrest or “mass incidents” in which citizens engage in – often violent – protests against the regime. In 2010 alone, according to Fewsmith, there were 180,000 such incidents throughout China. Chinese communist leaders have expressed concern that further increases in domestic unrest may lead to an unraveling of Party control similar to what happened in the Soviet Union in 1989-1991. This “crisis of legitimacy” is occurring alongside a slowdown of the economy, an aging population, environmental problems, and a shrinking labor force. These factors have produced a regime focused on “stability maintenance” and “social management.” These domestic political factors, combined with a political leadership that swiftly consolidated power, may reinforce an aggressive security policy. China’s regime would not be the first government to foment foreign crises to shore-up political support at home.

The international drivers of PLA modernization are many and varied. Eric Heginbotham, a RAND Corporation analyst specializing in East Asia security issues, and Jacob Heim, an associate policy analyst at RAND whose research has focused on the western Pacific, discuss China’s disputes with Taiwan, Japan, India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and the United States. They explain that international variables could produce a PLA focused on operations in China’s periphery; prepared for regional or global power projection; or a weakened PLA less well suited for any such operations.

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The technological drivers of PLA policy are analyzed by Richard Bitzinger and Michael Raska, of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies. They explain that current Chinese strategic thought places great emphasis on “integrated networked attack and defense air, sea, land, cyber and space operations.” The PLA has upgraded its command, control, communications, computers and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities and its ability to conduct “electronic warfare.” The Chinese calls this “informatization” warfare, and with it they hope to transform the PLA into a “modern, network-enabled fighting force, capable of projecting sustained power far throughout the Asia-Pacific region.”

Robert Cole, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Navy and a professor at the National War College, expects China’s military modernization in the next decade to be impressive but focused on regional issues such as the status of Taiwan and disputes with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the East China and South China Seas. This means, he explains, that the PLA navy and air force will get an increasing share of the military budget. China will also invest in upgrading its nuclear arsenal under the control of the Second Artillery, and emphasize cyber operations and spaced-based systems. By 2025, Cole concludes, China in regional terms “will have completed the near-unprecedented development into both a continental and maritime military power.”

The PLA may also develop additional capabilities to conduct “global expeditionary operations,” writes Oriana Skylar Mastro, an assistant professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. This is partly a result of China’s economic growth and expanded global interests within the last two decades. “A range of domestic and international factors,” she explains, “could by 2025-30, compel the PLA to act increasingly globally.” This would mean a change in China’s strategic doctrine and force posture, including an emphasis on C4ISR, cyber and electronic warfare, and enhanced air and naval assets. Mastro notes that China may want to protect the sea lanes through which her energy supplies from the Persian Gulf travel, rather than relying on the United States to do so. Mastro warns that the development of global capabilities may drive China toward a global grand strategy. Colonel Liu Mingfu, who taught at the PLA National Defense University, argues that China should seek to become the world’s preeminent military power, surpassing the United States. Mastro notes, however, that an economic downturn could result in a slashed military budget and a less ambitious global strategy.

Daniel Gearin, a China military analyst with the U.S. Department of Defense, and Erin Richter, a senior intelligence analyst with the DIA specializing in Chinese military capabilities, explore what China’s force posture would look like with a PLA weakened by domestic unrest and an economic downturn. They suggest that such circumstances may result in delaying or slowing military modernization and redirecting PLA resources for internal security purposes. A weakened PLA, they write, “will remain chained to China’s periphery,” but will likely forego or reduce forces designed to enhance China’s global reach.

How China’s neighbors will respond to alternative PLA development vectors is the subject of Michael McDevitt’s paper. McDevitt, a retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral and a senior fellow with CNA Strategic Studies, notes that China has disputes with many of its neighbors and believes that those disputes will remain unresolved by 2025. He suggests, however, that China will likely have altered the regional status quo in its favor by non-violent means. China will continue to pose a threat to the security of South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam regardless of how swiftly or slowly the PLA modernizes its force structure. Those countries currently look to the United States to maintain a regional balance of power. Australia’s response will depend on whether the PLA develops a force posture of global reach, while India faces both land and sea concerns with a modernized PLA. Admiral McDevitt suggests the possibility that a coalition of Asia-Pacific powers, anchored by the United States, will balance China’s growing military power and political ambitions. He concludes that for the first time since the Ming Dynasty, China will be able to project power “anywhere along the Indo-Pacific littoral.”

Phillip Saunders, the Director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University, analyzes the implications for the international system of alternate PLA modernization vectors. China, he writes, “is best understood as a ‘moderately revisionist’ power” that will seek to increase its global influence but not to overturn the current international system that has been shaped by the United States since the end of the Second World War. A China focused on regional issues, Saunders explains, will at most “pursue an incremental approach to changes in the international system.” A China focused on areas beyond its periphery will “employ a range of instruments to protect its interests outside Asia,” including arms sales, security assistance, military training programs, and deployment of peacekeeping troops. A China with a weakened PLA will look inward to address domestic unrest and threats to the regime’s stability.

In the book’s final chapter, Robert Sutter, professor of international affairs at the George Washington University, assesses the implications of alternate PLA modernizations on U.S.-China relations. China’s assertive stance in disputes with regional powers in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, writes Sutter, “marks an important shift in China’s foreign policy with serious implications for China’s neighbors and concerned powers, including the United States.” Sutter contends, however, that there are constraints on China’s behavior, including domestic priorities, economic interdependence with the U.S., and China’s “insecurity” in the Asia-Pacific. Nevertheless, as China’s capabilities – both economic and military – grow, it will pose an increasing challenge to the international order created and supported by U.S. power. Sutter, surprisingly, recommends U.S. appeasement of a rising China as a “pragmatic adjustment in the face of new power realities.”

Predictions about the future are always risky. The contributors to this volume provide a cautious glimpse into possible alternate futures depending on the course of Chinese domestic politics and international developments. China’s role in the world will undoubtedly expand as its military modernizes. As Admiral Harry Harris, Jr., Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, notes in his introduction to the book, the challenge for the United States “is to understand how China will employ [its] growing military capability in support of its interests.” 

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 2025. Edited by Roy Kamphausen and David Lai. A publication of the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College.

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books) and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War (University Press of America). He is also a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books).  He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force QuarterlyAmerican Diplomacy, the University BookmanThe Claremont Review of BooksThe DiplomatStrategic Review, the Washington Times and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.