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The PLA Will Keep Modernizing Until 2035

October 18, 2017

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the 19th CPC National Congress in Beijing this week wasn’t too heavy on specifics, but it did set a lot of benchmarks. Some of them were for the armed forces. The Ministry of National Defense (MND) published a summary of the new marching orders for the PLA, which has undergone a historic reorganization during Xi’s time in office.

Three months since the institution celebrated its 90th anniversary with a lavish parade, Xi expects the Communist Party’s war machine to keep improving for decades. Xi promised “mechanization” and “IT application” will be achieved by 2020. He set 2035 as the year for the PLA’s modernization to be “basically completed.” But Xi made it clear China won’t be an aggressive world power and that its military capabilities are for national defense.

But Xi shared a grim reminder too. “A military is built to fight,” he said in Mandarin. According to Xi, “the army must prepare for war…manage crises, stop war and win battles.”

This echoed Xi’s earlier proclamations on the PLA’s new role. During the 90th anniversary of the PLA in August Xi delivered another speech where he told his audience, “No one should expect us to swallow bitter fruit that is harmful to our sovereignty, security or development interests.”

Weeks later, on October 18, Xi told the 19th CPC National Congress, an event held every five years that’s attended by hundreds of PLA top brass, the Communist Party’s goals were to “build a powerful and modernized army, navy, air force, rocket force, and strategic support force, develop strong and efficient joint operations commanding institutions for theater commands, and create a modern combat system with Chinese characteristics.”

Xi didn’t forget to emphasize national prestige, insisting the year 2050 will see China more powerful than ever, a statement alternately translated as “become a leading global power” or “will be truly a great power.” The Chinese leader also mentioned raising national incomes and eliminating poverty in the next 30 years. These could indicate a commitment to moderate GDP growth in the long run rather than the high annual growth during the 1990s and 2000s. China actually lags behind its East Asian neighbors when it comes to GDP by Purchasing Power Parity. Japan’s at $41,500 while Taiwan is $22,581. China? Somewhere between $8,000 and $15,000.

The PLA has undergone sweeping modernizations since the Deng Xiaoping era (1978-1992) but its evolution from the turn of the century until today has been the most remarkable. If Xi’s references to “mechanization” and “multi-dimensional conditions” seem vague, these are best understood as installing new wireless and data-driven technology on the PLA’s arsenal, where many aging weapon systems remain in service.

It’s now apparent the “network-centric warfare” embraced by Western militaries is going to be implemented across the Chinese military. This means allowing all units in the battlefield to communicate and share data with each other all the time. A few other goals in the same vein are inducting robots, allowing civilian R&D to flourish, creating vast satellite networks, and deploying for expeditionary missions.

Achieving these in the next few years won’t be a problem for the PLA. But judging by Xi’s remarks, the military’s continuous improvement is still going to eat up decades. This makes sense if Beijing anticipates potential rivals like Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are going to exploit their own technological advantages. Knowing a deadly arms race across Asia will go on for so long is quite a somber thought.

Like his predecessors Jiang Zeming and Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping’s stay in office spans 10 years, lasting from 2012 to 2022. But rumors are now swirling Xi may be tempted to handpick a Politburo who will grant him additional years as Paramount Leader.

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