Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) (File photo)
Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) (File photo)

PLA - A year in review and preview

ANI | Updated: Jan 01, 2020 16:27 IST

Hong Kong, Jan 1 (ANI): Overall, 2019 was a year of setbacks for China, as it tussled with President Donald Trump in a brewing trade war, received stiffening criticism about its incarceration of at least a million Muslim Uighurs, and faced growing criticism of its foreign interference in others' affairs. However, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) was immune from most of this, and there is little indication yet that its burgeoning budget will be threatened by a budget squeeze.
Indeed, the PLA continues to plow on with its modernisation, with 2020 set as the benchmark date for the goals of achieving basic mechanisation and making significant progress towards informationisation. Sprightly after the shedding of 300,000 troops, more money is now available for cutting-edge equipment.
On March 5, the Chinese government revealed a defence budget that rose 7.5 per cent to RMB1.19 trillion (USD 177.61 billion) for the coming year. Officials described it as "reasonable and appropriate". In fact, the year-to-year increase (RMB 83 billion) was the third largest annual increase in the PLA's history, and it was also more than Taiwan's entire current annual defence budget!
On July 24, Beijing released its first Defense White Paper in four years, this rather dry document justifying China's military buildup and regurgitating frayed arguments about why it is a force for good in a troubled world. The 51-page document entitled "China's National Defense in the New Era" was akin to a school report card self-written by a smug student, with occasional whiffs of self-humility to lend the report an air of credence. Nonetheless, it was perhaps the most transparent Defense White Paper ever to emerge from opaque China.
Amidst the uncertainty that China apparently keenly feels, the White Paper reiterated, "Overseas interests are a crucial part of China's national interests...To address deficiencies in overseas operations and support, it builds far-seas forces, develops overseas logistical facilities and enhances capabilities in accomplishing diversified military tasks." The document also expressed undisguised antagonism towards the USA.
China's roving eye was exemplified by its continued naval presence in the Gulf of Aden and its military base in Djibouti. Apart from a People's Armed Police base in Tajikistan near the Afghan border, there has been no further evidence of Chinese bases being established anywhere along the so-called "String of Pearls" in the Indian Ocean, despite Pakistan remaining a most likely location.
In 2019, there was a revelation that the PLA could be seeking to use Ream Naval Base in Cambodia, though both China and Cambodia vehemently denied such an ambition. Nonetheless, there is still a great mystery surrounding a 99-year lease for 45,000 hectares of land in Dara Sakor on Cambodia's coast, which includes a port and enormous airport that has little justification for its existence.
Australia and New Zealand were alarmed that China might be seeking a naval presence in Vanuatu in the South Pacific. Thus, many countries are now guarding against any PLA move to establish facilities anywhere outside China.
Without a single doubt, the acme of the PLA's 2019 scrapbook was the military parade conducted in the heart of Beijing on October 1 to celebrate the nation's 70th anniversary. And what a spectacle it was as the PLA basked in the limelight! Some 40 per cent of the equipment was shown publicly for the first time. There were impressive phalanxes of electronic warfare, communications and other vehicles from the Strategic Support Force (SSF), and also prominent were high-tech unmanned systems from the aerial and underwater domains.
However, it was probably missiles that had the greatest impact on the parade route. The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) put on the largest-ever public demonstration of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) the world has ever witnessed, with JL-2, DF-31AG and DF-41 ICBMs debuting. Also new were DF-100 supersonic cruise missiles and DF-17 ballistic missiles with hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV). The latter move at extremely high speeds to defeat an opponent's attempt to counter them. The DF-17's appearance in the parade showed that HGVs have formally entered PLA service, meaning China is ahead of the USA in rolling out this technology.
The USA described China as having "the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world". PLARF missiles are capable of devastating US and allied bases in Guam, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. More than that, China is using the PLARF as a serious deterrent against US intervention, as witnessed by all the ICBMs in the October 1 parade.
The Pentagon estimates that the PLARF possesses up to 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM), 450 medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM), 160 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) and hundreds of long-range ground-launched cruise missiles.
This emphasis by China helps explain why, on August 2, 2019, the USA withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a bilateral 1987 agreement between Washington and Moscow that banned the development and deployment of land-based missiles with ranges between 500 km and 5,500 km. We may expect the USA to develop and deploy missiles within these ranges in Asia in the future, to China's consternation.
Navy, Air Force and Army
The output of Chinese naval shipyards in 2019 was even more astounding than the previous year. The PLA Navy (PLAN) launched no fewer than 23 modern surface warships in 2019, including nine destroyers (two Type 055s and seven Type 052Ds), twelve Type 056 corvettes, one Type 075 landing helicopter dock (LHD) and one Type 071 landing platform dock (LPD). Never before has China launched so many destroyers in a single year.
The most significant event for the PLAN was the entry into service of a second aircraft carrier on 17 December. This Type 002 carrier, the first built wholly in China, was commissioned at Sanya-Yulin Naval Base on Hainan Island. The 65,000-70,000-ton Shandong took six years to build and test, and it features slight improvements over the incumbent Liaoning carrier, even if it still experiences the same limitations imposed by its ski-jump flight deck.
Shandong has been allocated to the Southern Theater Command, and its homeport in Sanya gives the PLAN more flexibility in responding to contingencies, including in the troubled South China Sea. Construction work on a third carrier continues at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai after kicking off in 2017. With two carriers now in service, we may expect to witness longer-range carrier task group voyages in the Pacific in future. Eventually one will also transit the Malacca Strait into the Indian Ocean, but this will not happen immediately.
The launch of China's first Type 075 LHD was another milestone. This was the first of an expected initial batch of three LHDs, with more to follow. They will allow Chinese amphibious and helicopter forces to deploy anywhere around the world. The PLAN continues to expand its Marine Corps so it can fulfil this expeditionary function beyond Chinese borders. By 2020, the Pentagon expects the PLANMC to have reached seven combat brigades and 30,000 personnel. An aviation brigade should be expected soon too.
China's 2015 Defense White Paper warned that the "traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned...great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests". Thus, we will see China fraying farther afield with more vessels and more frequently, since it already has its coastal waters completely wrapped up.
The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) is the third-largest air force in the world. It is particularly proud of its fifth-generation J-20 fighter, which began to appear in greater numbers in 2019. However, only 20 per cent of the PLAAF's fighter fleet can be considered modern, so China will continue to modernise it by rolling out more J-10s, J-11s, J-16s and J-20s.
The country remains dependent on Russian jet engines, and technological hurdles in developing an indigenous jet engine remain a major chokepoint for aircraft production. China is developing a new stealthy strategic bomber known as the H-20, but there was no glimpse of it in 2019.
China continues to rely on Russian technical expertise as it seeks to overcome deficiencies. This year, Russia acknowledged it is helping China to develop a multi-tiered ballistic missile defence system. Russian-supplied S-400 missiles will contribute to this Chinese network as well.
Territorial tensions
China would have been pleased that few countries now refer to the Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling in July 2016 that criticised its illegal territorial claims in the South China Sea. Beijing has so manipulated President Rodrigo Duterte that the Philippines does little but utter occasional bluster for domestic purposes.
In fact, Vietnam is the fellow claimant from Southeast Asia that most strenuously defies Chinese expansion in the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Major standoffs between Vietnam and China occurred at Vanguard Bank in the southern Spratlys in July and November, with coercive Chinese actions within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone demonstrating that China has not relinquished its Nine-Dash Line claims.
China continues to react furiously whenever foreign warships sail through the South China Sea, particularly as the US Navy ramped up its drumbeat of freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) in 2019. China uses these missions as a pretext to reinforce its military presence and patrols in the disputed area.
Fortunately, there was no replay of the Sino-Indian crisis that occurred at Doklam along the two countries' shared border in 2017, but Beijing shows no hint it is serious about resolving the border demarcation issue. The Indian Ministry of Defence accused the PLA of 1,025 transgressions across the Line of Actual Control from 2016-18, an average of about once per day. This figure included 273 transgressions in 2016, 426 in 2017 and 326 in 2018. Numbers for 2019 are not yet available.
Furthermore, the PLA continues to modernise equipment based in Tibet adjacent to the Indian border. Earlier in 2019, it was revealed that PLC-181 155mm 6x6 truck-mounted howitzers were now stationed on the plateau, in addition to ZTQ-15 tanks.
Attracting criticism
Under Barack Obama's benign presidency, China got away with a lot militarily and diplomatically. With Trump at the helm, however, US military leaders have been a lot more vocal about China's militaristic tendencies. For instance, Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), described China as "the greatest long-term strategic threat to a free and open Indo-Pacific and to the United States" before a hearing on 12 February.
Admiral Davidson added, "The PLA is the principal threat to US interests, US citizens and our allies inside the First Island Chain - a term that refers to the islands that run from northern Japan through Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia - and the PLA is quickly increasing its ability to project power and influence beyond the First Island Chain."
We may expect more demonstrations of hardening the US resolve against China in the South China Sea, with more naval and aerial FONOPs, and perhaps the occasional altercation as Chinese tempers flare.
Midyear, the PLARF fired a barrage of long-range anti-ship missiles into the South China Sea in a clear demonstration of coercion as it signalled a willingness to defend its claims. This action upped the ante in that contested region, and we may expect similar things to occur again in 2020.
Taiwan is a key issue for Beijing, especially as the island nation goes to the polls in January. Coercion by PLA assets before the elections, and afterwards if President Tsai Ing-wen is re-elected, should be anticipated.
China has embarked on the largest military build-up the world has seen since the end of World War II. The uppermost question is why. Perhaps more answers will be forthcoming in 2020 as the PLA throws its weight around more robustly and as others react more assertively. (ANI)