P L A : Guerilla Grown as Global Monitor


Rabb Majumder

The first day of August is PLA Day, a holiday for the citizens of the People’s Republic of China. Apart from ceremonial celebrations by various branches and units of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at home and abroad, Chinese leaders and public figures take particular care to pay their respects to the veterans of PLA for their contributions to laying the foundations of new China. They visit the veterans in their homes, and organize recreational programmers for the veterans.

The People’s Liberation Army is the unified organization of all Chinese land, sea, and air forces. The PLA is one of the world’s largest military forces, having both active and reserve components. Its standing units are retained within the limit of two and a half million members. 

The PLA initially called the Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army grew under Mao Zedong and Zhu De from 5,000 troops in 1929 to 200,000 in 1933. Only a fraction of this force survived the Long March in retreat from the repeated Kuomintang “Encirclement and Suppression” Campaigns in 1930, 1931 and 1933. But the revolutionaries gathered new strength in their march through rural villages and townships. On November 16, 1934, of the Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’, Red Army abandoned the Hubei-Henan-Anhui Border Base Area and started the epic Long March. In March 1935, the Fourth Front Army of the Red Army launched the Jialing River Campaign and then evacuated the Sichuan-Shaanxi Border Base Area to start the Long March. On September 16, 1935, the 25th Army of the Red Army ended its Long March by joining force with the Red Army troops in northwest China at the northern Shaanxi Province. On October 19, 1935, the main force of the First Front Army of the Red Army led by the CPC Central Committee arrived at the Wuqi Town in northern Shaanxi Province, which was the terminal of the Long March. The Red Army’s exploits during the Long March became legendary and remain a potent symbol of the spirit and prowess of the Red Army and its successor, the PLA.

The PLA continued to gather strength during the anti-Japanese war, when in December 1936, Kuomintang troops ousted from Manchuria by the Japanese invaders mutinied at Xi’an, and forcibly detained Chiang Kai-shek for several days until he agreed to cease hostilities against the Communist forces in northwest China and to assign Communist units combat duties in designated anti-Japanese front areas. Meanwhile, Chinese Workers and Peasants’ Army leaders had met in December 17 to 25, 1935, to lay down strategic guide line of their own Anti-Japanese National United Front. On February 20, 1936, all categories of anti-Japanese forces in different places in northeast China were reorganized into the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Forces. In July 1936, the 1st Route Army of the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Forces was established. In October 1936, the First, Second and the Fourth Front Armies of the Red Army jointed forces in the Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia Border Area.

On August 9, 1945, Mao Zedong published his statement The Last Round with the Japanese Invaders. Afterwards, Zhu De, commander-in-chief of the Eighth Route Army, issued the order to launch the counteroffensive against the Japanese aggressors. On September 2, 1945, representatives from the Empire of Japan signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender in Tokyo Bay aboard the USS Missouri. China’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression closed with a total victory.

After the war, the Kuomintang resumed attacks on Communist strongholds to establish full control over China. In resource rich Manchuria, where troops of Soviet Russia had moved in under the Second World War allied offensive to defeat Japan, the control of cities, ports and railways were handed over to Kuomintang when Soviet troops withdrew, since the Chiang Kai-shek government represented China in the Allies’ compact. But substantial quantities of arms and ammunition left by the Japanese were quietly collected by Communist units. In a decisive move, Mao Zedong dispatched General Lin Biao with a large army to Manchuria. By early November 1948, Lin had destroyed some of Chiang Kai-shek’s best armies and taken over Manchuria. Thereafter, Kuomintang divisions began to surrender to the Communists and then to reappear on the Communist side under new leadership with their modern American equipment. In January 1949, full enormity of defeat emerged, as the Kuomintang general in command of the Beijing-Tianjin region surrendered with 200,000 soldiers. In April 1949, Communist armies crossed the Chang (Yangtze) River and swept over huge areas under real or nominal  control. Chiang directed evacuation of the loyal remnants of his civil and military machines to Taiwan.

After the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China, and the adoption of the Organic Law for the “Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference”, for two decades the PLA was engaged in securing the territorial borders of mainland China in the process of which it met with external threats by fighting in the Korean War and a brief spell of India’s China war. Internally, the PLA subdued criminal gangs that subverted rapid industrialization of the Chinese economy. The Navy of the PLA was established on April 23, 1949. Its primary missions are, independently or jointly with the Army and Air Force, to guard against enemy invasion from the sea, defend the state’s sovereignty over its territorial waters, and safeguard the state’s maritime rights and interests. The Air Force of the PLA was established on November 11, 1949. Its primary missions are organizing homeland air defense to protect the territorial air, and providing air security for key facilities; organizing relatively independent air offensive operations; independently or jointly with the Army, the Navy or the Second Artillery Force, engaging in joint operations against enemy invasion from the air, or in conducting air strikes against the enemy. Adopting a system of combining aviation with ground-to-air defense forces, the PLA Air Force consists of the aviation, surface-to-air missile, anti-aircraft artillery and airborne units, as well as communications, radar, ECM, chemical defense, technical reconnaissance and other specialized units.

After the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao Zedong, the PLA under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping began keeping a low-profile, while feverishly acquiring and developing new technologies. Its goal was to modernize and build up forces at a rapid pace without raising alarm within the international community, especially the Asia-Pacific region. It had already acquired nuclear and space technologies. The Second Artillery (Missile) Force of the PLA was established on July 1, 1966. It is composed of the ground to-ground strategic nuclear missile force, the conventional operational-tactical missile force, and the support units. The strategic nuclear missile force is equipped with land-based strategic nuclear missile systems. The conventional operational-tactical missile force is equipped with conventional operational and tactical missile systems.

The PLA’s reserve force, established in 1983, is a force with its own preset organizational structure, with reserve personnel as the base and active personnel as the backbone. The reserve force implements orders and regulations of the PLA, and is incorporated into the PLA’s order of battle. In peacetime, it is led by the provincial military districts or garrison commands.

After the end of the Cold War, the PLA tuned itself with the new unipolar global security environment from its own pole of solid defense foundations. 

President Hu Jintao articulated the new bearing in China’s defense outlook, proclaiming “New Historic Missions”. China’s 2008 Defense White Paper enumerates the missions essentially as guaranteeing communist party rule, safeguarding national development, defending national interests, and protecting world peace and common development. In addition, the document makes reference to previously articulated diversified military tasks, a term meant to reconcile the new historic missions with the traditional PLA task of winning local wars under informationalized conditions. Moreover, the 2008 White Paper makes specific reference to the term military tasks other than war (MOOTW), which refers to a broad range of peacetime operations that include counterterrorism, stability maintenance, disaster relief, emergency rescue, and international peacekeeping, among others. On the domestic front, too, the PLA has been called upon to cooperate with the People’s Armed Police (PAP) to provide MOOTW support during disaster rescue and relief operations in the snow and ice emergency of January/February 2008 and the Wenchuan earthquake of May 2008.

On the international front from December, 2008, the PLA Navy (PLAN) undertook unprecedented actions abroad during its antipiracy deployment to the Gulf of Aden. The motivations and preparations for this mission were based on China’s assessment that there was a genuine threat to Sea Lines of Communication in the Gulf of Aden. PLAN proved its operational capability to deploy forces far from Chinese shores, to keep a ship underway for over 60 days, provide logistics support over a long distance, undertake at-sea replenishment and refueling, and participate in port visits. The PLA has also participated in an increasingly wide variety of ground exercises with foreign forces. Since October 2002, the PLA has participated in 24 such exercises, the vast majority of which were focused on nontraditional security issues, including antiterrorist actions, disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, antidrug smuggling, border security, and emergency response.

According to the latest Defense White Paper released by China among countries ranking high in defense expenditure in 2017, China’s share of defense expenditure in GDP and government expenditure, as well as per capita and per-serviceperson defense spending, are all at a relatively low level.

China has become the world’s second largest economy. The fact that China’s defense expenditure ranks second in the world is determined by the demands of its national defense, the size of its economy, and the defensive nature of its national defense policy. In terms of total spending, China’s defense expenditure in 2017 was less than a quarter of that of the US.

As a percentage of GDP, from 2012 to 2017, China’s average defense expenditure was about 1.3%. Comparative figures were: the US about 3.5%, Russia 4.4%, India 2.5%, the UK 2.0%, France 2.3%, Japan 1.0%, and Germany 1.2%. China ranks 6th among these countries in terms of defense expenditure as a percentage of GDP on average and is the lowest among the permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC).

As a ratio of spending to government expenditure, from 2012 to 2017, China’s average defense expenditure was 5.3%. Comparative figures were: the US about 9.8%, Russia 12.4%, India 9.1%, the UK 4.8%, France 4.0%, Japan 2.5%, and Germany 2.8%. China ranks 4th among these countries in terms of defense expenditure as a percentage of government expenditure on average.

China’s per capita defense expenditure in 2017 was RMB750 – 5% of the US, 25% of Russia, 231% of India, 13% of the UK, 16% of France, 29% of Japan, and 20% of Germany. China’s per-serviceperson defense expenditure was RMB521,600 – 15% of the US, 119% of Russia, 166% of India, 27% of the UK, 38% of France, 35% of Japan, and 30% of Germany. China’s defense expenditure ranks 7th and 6th in per capita and per-serviceperson terms respectively among these countries.

China reports and releases its defense expenditure through various mechanisms. Since 1978, the Chinese government has submitted annual budget reports to the National People’s Congress and released the total amount of defense budget. In 1995, the Chinese government issued a white paper, China: Arms Control and Disarmament, releasing data concerning its defense expenditure to the world. Since 2007, China has joined the UN Standardized Instrument for Reporting Military Expenditures and has submitted annually to the UN the basic data on its defense expenditure for the latest fiscal year, reporting total spending as well as personnel expenses, training and sustainment expenses, and equipment expenses for the active force, reserve force and the militia respectively, along with an explanation of the application of China’s defense expenditure and its ratio to GDP.

All in all, China’s defense expenditure is open and transparent, and its spending is reasonable and appropriate. Compared to other major countries, the ratios of China’s defense expenditure to GDP and to government expenditure, as well as the per capita defense expenditure of the country, remain at a relatively low level.

As the only major country yet to be completely reunified, and one of the countries with the most complex peripheral security environment, China faces serious challenges in safeguarding national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and maritime rights and interests. China is moving closer to the center of the world stage, and the international community expects more international public security goods from the Chinese military. In addition, China’s armed forces are moving towards informationization and shouldering arduous tasks in following the trends of worldwide RMA and speeding up RMA with Chinese characteristics. There is still a wide gap between China’s defense expenditure and the requirements for safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests, for fulfilling China’s international responsibilities and obligations as a major country, and for China’s development. In step with national economic development, defense expenditure of China will maintain a moderate and steady growth.

Thus, the PLA has grown from guerilla warriors into global monitors, exercising responsibility and restraint in a much broadened area of its national security interests, as well as being willing and able to take on a larger military role in the changing global security landscape.  

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