Features | Security | East Asia

Innovation in the New Era of Chinese Military Power

What to make of the new Chinese defense white paper, the first since 2015.

By Elsa B. Kania for
Innovation in the New Era of Chinese Military Power

In this Sept. 3, 2015 file photo, Chinese President Xi Jinping is displayed on a big screen as Type 99A2 Chinese battle tanks roll across during a parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender during World War II in Beijing.

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File

China’s State Council Information Office has just released a new national defense white paper, which is the first since the launch of major military reforms in 2015. This document includes an assessment of the international security situation and provides an official explanation of China’s defense policy, missions, military reforms, and defense expenditure. While unsparing in its critique of power politics and American “hegemonism,” the defense white paper also calls for China’s armed forces to “adapt to the new landscape of strategic competition.” In Xi Jinping’s “new era,” the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is urged to strengthen its preparedness and enhance combat capabilities commensurate with China’s global standing and interests. As the PLA pursues the objective of transforming into “world-class forces” by mid-century, the U.S. military may confront the unprecedented challenge of a potential adversary with formidable and rapidly advancing capabilities.

As an attempt to reassure the international community of China’s commitment to “world peace,” this defense white paper may have limited utility, particularly juxtaposed against the strident signaling of resolve on the “Taiwan question.” This articulation of China’s national defense is direct and explicit in highlighting the willingness to use force to prevent and defeat any attempts at “Taiwan independence.” In particular, China’s quest to achieve “complete reunification” is described as threatened by the potential “interference of external forces,” implicitly the United States, which is often characterized as a powerful adversary in Chinese military writings not intended for an external audience. The U.S. military is the target and often the teacher for Chinese military modernization, and the PLA must be prepared to use “all necessary measures” in order to “safeguard national unity.”

China’s National Defense in the New Era” constitutes critical reading for those concerned with Chinese military strategy and force development, which merit urgent interest in today’s geopolitical environment. While a notable gesture toward improved transparency, this defense white paper reveals and introduces only limited information on the reforms, relative to the available open-source assessments that have long since confirmed the primary conclusions, including the restructuring of its command system and leadership. Nonetheless, this defense white paper merits careful examination as an official indication of the direction of the Chinese military force construction at a midpoint for reforms intended to ensure the PLA can “fight and win” future wars and enhance its capabilities for joint operations.

Indeed, this new era heralds “historic strides” and future directions for Chinese military power that reflect the PLA’s assessments of the changing character of warfare. At a time when global military competition is intensifying, these threats are spurring China’s own agenda for military innovation. “The history of the people’s armed forces is a history of reform and innovation,” declares this defense white paper. Once, the PLA was seen as all but incapable of changing and overcoming the significant impediments to reform. However, the United States has consistently underestimated the scale and rapidity of Chinese military modernization. Today, Xi Jinping is personally emphasizing the imperative of innovation for the PLA, and his leadership has evidently contributed to substantial progression in the implementation these major reforms.

The PLA is preparing for the demands of future warfare. There is a trend toward the development of weaponry and equipment that are “long-range precision, intelligent, stealthy and unmanned.” Whereas conflict has been reshaped by information technology in recent history, today’s advances in emerging technologies are anticipated to create a new form or pattern of warfare, catalyzed by this latest round of technological and industrial revolutions. In particular, China is concerned with the increasing application of cutting-edge technologies in the military domain, especially artificial intelligence (AI), quantum information, big data, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things. Significantly, this white paper concludes, “The form of warfare is accelerating in its evolution towards informatized warfare, and intelligentized warfare is on the horizon.”

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The PLA is concentrating on adapting to and leveraging the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA, 军事革命) that is believed to be underway. This latest national defense white paper builds upon themes from the 2015 “China’s Military Strategy,” which had highlighted that the global RMA is “proceeding to a new stage.” At that time, China expressed concern about major military powers “speeding up their military transformation,” seemingly alluding to the U.S. Third Offset Strategy, which had been launched in late 2014 and received intense attention among Chinese military strategists. The “revolutionary changes in military technologies and the form of war” were believed to present “new and severe challenges to China’s military security,” and these concerns have only intensified since 2015 as such trends continue and accelerate.

China’s historic military reforms reflect a response to this RMA. The deepening and advancement of these reforms is described as intended to “focus on removing institutional barriers and solving structural and policy-related problems to adapt to the trends of worldwide RMA….” For instance, the elevation of the Central Military Commision (CMC) Science and Technology Commission, responsible for “organizing and guiding cutting-edge technological innovation,” and far-reaching transformation of the Academy of Military Science have positioned the PLA to pursue military innovation in developing new concepts and capabilities. The PLA is described as having achieved “great progress” in the “Revolution in Military Affairs (which is rendered 军事变革 in the original Chinese, also translatable as ‘military transformation’) with Chinese characteristics” to date.

For instance, as a significant innovation in force structure, the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) is a unique outcome of the reforms. The PLASSF has consolidated capabilities for space, cyber, and electronic warfare, contributing to Chinese capabilities to “fight and win wars in the information age.” At the same time, its supporting function is officially described as including battlefield environmental protection, information and communication assurance, and information security protection, as well as new technology testing. In a notable indicator of progress, the PLASSF is “actively integrated into the joint operations system, and solidly carrying out new-type domains confrontation drills and emergency response training.” The PLA’s improvements in joint training, including a growing number of more realistic exercises, reflects further progress toward jointness.

Looking forward, the PLA is focused on the risks of “technology surprise” and a “growing technological generation gap” at a time when global military competition is intensifying. This defense white paper is concerned that “The US is engaging in technological and institutional innovation in pursuit of absolute military superiority.” These American initiatives appear to be provoking a powerful response in China, spurring on Chinese defense innovation and perhaps justifying the dedication of greater resources to emerging capabilities. Indeed, according to “China’s National Defense in the New Era,” the PLA must “shoulder arduous tasks in following the trends of the worldwide RMA and speeding up the RMA with Chinese characteristics.”

The PLA is also clear-eyed about its present shortcomings and challenges. At present, the PLA “has yet to complete the task of mechanization, and is in urgent need of improving its informationization.” Even while still struggling to catch up with militaries that were the first to take advantage of the information revolution on the battlefield, the PLA is now confronting the daunting challenge of keeping pace with today’s technological transformations. Because of its past experiences of technological backwardness, China has an acute awareness of the threat of falling behind. By its own assessment, “The PLA still lags far behind the world’s leading militaries.” The ambition to become a “world-class” or “global first-class” force is juxtaposed with an awareness of the current disparity between its capabilities and those of the U.S. military, which is seen as the target and objective.

In the process, the PLA will continue to confront distinct challenges relative to the U.S. military. The PLA is presently at a stage in its development at which it must undertake three major initiatives simultaneously. This transformation will require that Chinese military leaders “promote the integrated development of mechanization and informatization and accelerate the development of military intelligentization.” Although the official English translation phrases this as “the development of an intelligent military,” the literal translation of “intelligentization” (智能化) conveys the relationship among these stages of Chinese military modernization, which are by necessity undertaken simultaneously, since the PLA encompasses great variety and notable disparities in levels of force development. The ongoing implementation of “informatization” can create an important foundation for this intelligentization, which will be the next thrust of Chinese military modernization.

The PLA’s transformation will require a paradigm change in its model for military power. Today, the PLA is “striving to transform from a quantity-and-scale model to that of quality and efficiency, as well as from being personnel-intensive to one that is S&T-intensive.” Among the prominent elements of the reforms has been a downsizing of 300,000 personnel and ongoing initiatives to improve recruitment of top-tier talent, including to support military research. This strong emphasis on science and technology is described as “a bid to maintain and enhance the strength of the areas where they lead, and intensify innovation in emerging domains.” This white paper heralds “great progress in independent innovation in some strategic, cutting-edge and disruptive technologies,” highlighting the Tianhe-2 supercomputer as a prime example.

The PLA’s quest for innovation involves not only technology but also theoretical innovation. As this latest update on China’s national defense emphasizes, while “focusing on war and fighting wars,” China’s armed forces have “innovated in military theories and delivered outcomes in military strategy, joint operations and informationization…” These theoretical advancements are significant, particularly because the PLA had failed earlier to complete the revision and release of a new generation of its doctrine or “operational regulations” Notably, the Academy of Military Science, which is responsible for developing the PLA’s strategy and doctrine, has pioneered a new approach of “theory-technology integration” that looks to leverage synergies between strategic and technical understanding. As U.S.-China military competition intensifies, the PLA’s capacity to operationalize innovation will be a critical determinant of the course of this rivalry. The success or failure of this endeavor may shape the future military balance, and it is critical to recognize the PLA’s progress, ambitions, and continued challenges in innovation to mitigate the risks of strategic surprise.

Elsa B. Kania is an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.