Balancing Politics and Power: Prognosis of China’s Military Build-Up
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Issue Vol. 32.3 Jul-Sep 2017 | Date : 29 Oct , 2017

PLA Force Capabilities

According to its own admission, “China faces no threat.” It is, therefore, a matter to consider as to why China requires such a massive military establishment, a humungous power-bank which, even if intrinsic to its ‘barrel of gun’ ideology, far exceeds its reckonable defence needs – unless it is to provoke, dominate or impose over other nations’ sovereignty. Besides, there are the other considerations.

The PLA Navy is fast configuring to be active over a vast and distant operational beat…

Firstly, military force-capabilities are organised based on four factors, namely, Aim, Terrain, Enemy and Objective. Notwithstanding that, field forces organised for one set of factors do adapt albeit with some compromise with capability, to varying conditions of terrain and opposition. It is, therefore, a matter of consideration that the manoeuverable-mechanised-informationalised category of the modernised PLAGF would have to be optimally modified to fight across the terrain that obtains along the Indo-Tibet, Sino-Myanmar, Gilgit-Baltistan or Sino-Afghan Borders. That would require some preparation and practice exercises to strengthen operational confidence. More suitably, this category of forces are better deployed for engagement along Sino-Russian, Sino-Mongolia, Sino-Central Asian States or the East Coast terrain or even the hinterland areas of Manchuria, Xinjiang and Greater Tibet. When connected with the build up of air and sea borne transportation capability, these forces assume further applicability in the sub-continental and out-of-area context. Coming to the second and the third categories of the PLAGF, when duly bolstered with additional combat power of the first category, these are best suited to undertake invasion across the rugged mountainous terrain that separate the PRC with some of its neighbours.

Secondly, the structure of the PLA Navy is definitive of its overwhelming domination over the blue waters of the ‘First and ‘Second Island Chains’, even to the extent that the superpower, the United States, would be circumspect in its indulgence over these waters. Further, the brisk build-up of PRC’s naval power is unambiguously aimed at registration of not just a bona fide presence, but its leverage across the Malacca Strait, beyond the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, further across the Indian Peninsula and right up to the East Africa Coast and the two Gulfs, may even be across the African continent where much of Chinese investments are coming up.

In this context, it is too obvious to reiterate that whatever shape the Chinese footholds over port facilities all across the waters of the China Sea-Indian Ocean might assume in the coming days, in the forms of operational halts, harbours, hubs or bases, the PLA Navy is fast configuring to be active over a vast and distant operational beat. Thus having secured its space within the Sea of Japan, Taiwan Strait, Yellow Sea and East and South China Seas, the second and the third stages are clearly aimed at domination over the South East Asian island chain, followed by acquisition of naval power projection capability in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Indeed, it will require a couple of decades’ gestation before the PLA Navy can flex its muscles in the Indian Ocean. But what is certain that it will definitely achieve that end.

The theme of militarisation is, however, best demonstrated in the manner PRC seeks to maintain its internal societal order and stability…

Thirdly, corresponding to the other two Services, the PLA Air Force is being built up for joint operations across a regional arena that extends through the Sea of Japan, the China Sea and to the chain of islands on the Eastern periphery of the Indian Ocean. By the creation of far away naval-air operating and logistic bases as also composition of an airborne corps of three parachute divisions, the strategic reach of China’s air power is expected to be further extended across the Indian Ocean to the Malabar and the East African Coast and to the Chinese economic acquisitions of faraway lands. Even among the five Joint Theatre Operational Commands, the inter-theatre air transportation capability would boost the deployment and redeployment of forces as necessitated by localised-theatre war situations.

With a formidable conventional force at its disposal, PRC needs no nuclear-missile cover, unless it is to deter the super power from ‘meddling’ in its sphere of hegemony or to prevent a victim of its aggression from retaliating too hurtfully. Fourthly therefore, reconfiguration of the Service status as well as command and control over the PLA Rocket Force and the PLA Strategic Support Force are clearly aimed at – one, political posturing to impose threat and two, employment in distinct stand-alone mode, not necessarily as a part of military campaign.

Lastly, unstated though, the CPC remains anxious of internal opposition to its autarkic rule. The Han state’s instinctive reaction to internal uprisings in the past has been to suppress these in a ruthless manner. Indeed, re-configuration of the PAPF addresses that concern regarding outbreak of people’s revolt against the regime, occurrence of which is not difficult to visualise. Designation of the reconfigured PAPF as a ‘police force’, but with para-military characteristics and the CMC-PLA’s control over it are indicative of a well-deliberated policy of decimating challenges against the regime without having to invite a Tiananmen Square kind of universal abhorrence of its military highhandedness. Besides, suppressing internal disturbances, this force would also be well utilised in low intensity and rear area tasks during hot wars and out-of-area policing duties.

Based on the above discussion, we may now examine as to how the PRC might wield the PLA’s force-capabilities in order to back its political articulations in the coming decades.

The Chinese leadership believes that economic progress fosters internal stability…

Application of Military Force Capabilities

The Chinese leadership believes that economic progress fosters internal stability, which by implication ensures the continuation of the CPC regime. Furthermore, it is also believed that progress and stability are best catalysed by the possession of strong military power that would favourably arbitrate over inter-state differences which are bound to crop up against China’s march to the status of global leadership – read hegemony. However, in deference to its hoary wisdom, it is to be appreciated that China, by nature, seeks to secure its inter-state claims and demands, arbitrary and hurtful as these are wont to be, through the offer of minor concessions and incentives to the extent that the quarry finds it expedient to give-in. PRC’s ‘settlement’ of border disputes with its ‘lesser’ neighbours is an example of that policy.

Like many hegemonic powers, China too detests war and would like the objects of its consternation to submit to its will without a fight in tune with the oft-quoted Sun Tzu’s concept of ‘winning without fighting’. But when that policy does not work, the next step in an escalatory situation is to isolate the ‘recalcitrant’ and then subject him to threat, arm-twisting and punitive measures to come without having to actually jump into war – instances of Taiwan and Mongolia, for example.

Finally, should the adversary remain obdurate and war becomes unavoidable, military action cannot just be to achieve a one-time victory, but a ruthlessly administered lesson in perpetuity. The consternation that seizes the Americans’ memory of the Korean War and the trepidation that the Indians suffered on account of the 1962 debacle, are fruitions of this policy.

China’s military build up is organised to immobilise any regional opposition against the Chinese Dream…

Thus within the concept of winning without having to fight, China’s articulation of military power may be postulated along the following steps:

  • One, diplomatic demonstration of a powerful military and the political will to unleash it. The pugilistic approach to United States’ South East Asian engagements and implied admonition of Taiwan are examples of this step.
  • Two, undertaking of ‘push actions’ with Category B and militia forces – violation of the Indo-Tibet Border and occupation of South China Sea Islands, for example.
  • Three, sharp ‘trailer actions’ with overwhelming strength to incentivise accommodation of the demands – of the kind displayed during invasion of Tibet and the Sino-Russian confrontation on the Uri River.

Four, demonstrative military build-up to offer a final opportunity to the adversary to back-off before launching well planned, meticulously prepared and competently executed ‘counter-attack in self defence’. The purpose here is to gain negotiated settlement from a dominant position, as it was in the case of the Korea and Vietnam Wars.

Concerns Regarding PLA’s Capabilities

A huge empire in possession of formidable military establishment, deep in a sense of humiliation at the hands of imperialist powers and consternated by the peripheral nations’ repudiation of what it claims as its naturally ordained superior entitlement, is a neighbour to be wary of. The wariness is exacerbated when that empire happens to be a revisionist and claimant power who declares that it faces no threat, is known to be militarily aggressive and commits to humungous military build-up.4

A new chapter of colonisation might be in the offing…

In general terms, China’s schemes of military build-up are indicative of the following possibilities:

  • Establishment of firm and unchallenged sovereignty over all waters and territory that China claims. China’s military build up is organised to immobilise any regional opposition against the Chinese Dream into helplessness before hurling military power at them.
  • Naval and air power put together serves the PLA’s intent to prevent the superpower and its allies from coming to the rescue of the targeted trouble maker at a cost that they would not like to suffer.
  • Establishment of effective control over the Japan-China Sea waters in a manner that the island or coastal states in the region are obliged to let China have her way as the first claimant over the region’s natural resources. Besides military usurpation, swarming the islands with civilian stakeholders – the Militia actually – would be one of the ploys.
  • To bind the neighbouring nations into an economic monopoly in a manner that these nations are obliged – with expedient reasons, under compelling circumstances, to link their survival to economic interdependence with the PRC.
  • Projection of military power as an insurance in favour of economic colonisation of the Indo-Pacific Region, the rest of Asia and Africa.
  • Finally, assumption of the role of regional hegemon to replace the US which many political analysts believe to be on the decline.

China and the Asian comity of nations have to work together to see that another era of internecine conflict does not interfere with the universal path of progress…

In more regional-specific terms, it may not be beyond the realm of reckoning that (exaggeration of worst case scenarios is intended):

  • In the coming years, passage of lesser powers across the China Seas might need China’s custom clearance, while the Indian Ocean Region, including the East African Coast and the Arabian Sea Gulfs could come under China’s Navy-Marine baton-beat.
  • As for Taiwan, the PRC is apparently sanguine that given the latter’s vulnerability to blockade, gradual isolation from the American guarantee and strong economic bindings, it is a matter of time before ‘Hong Kong’ is replicated without having to shed much Han blood.
  • Over the years, through incremental and innocuous ‘civil activism’, duly backed up with military ‘protection’, the claimed islands and territories could be dissolved into Chinese sovereignty. In that usurpation, the policy would be to apply incentive and persuasion of the opponent with the backing of implied military threat or even demonstration and skirmish actions.
  • As the China Pakistan Economic Corridor assumes the Central Asian centre stage, there would develop intra-state linkages between the fiercely autonomous and deeply conservative indigenous societies habiting in the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir-Gilgit-Baltistan-Baluchistan regions and the Chinese conglomerates. It would be a matter of time before such linkages would morph into stiff competition into the entitlement of profits. Situations of that kind have the potential of triggering internecine disturbances and eventual Chinese arbitration of political and military kind. A new chapter of colonisation might be in the offing.

…rise to superpower status requires mutual accommodation, solidarity with justified international causes and the benign use of power. The Chinese know that well.

China and the Asian comity of nations, therefore, have to work together to see that another era of internecine conflict does not interfere with the universal path of progress.

Super Power Attributes

So far we have attributed the PRC’s military build-up to its likelihood of turning into a regional tormentor. Indeed, it is wise to be circumspect. Besides, in the entire pan-Asian region, there prevails an innate apprehension of Han highhandedness. Over a period of time thus, the incongruities in cultural make-up of rest of the Asian nations, including the people of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, with that of the Chinese methods of functioning might surface. The Asians would, therefore, be wise to girdle up in any way they can to live through the times ahead that might be fraught with dangers of being pushed into subservience with occasional administration of small concessions, and punitive measures reserved for the defiant.

Conversely, Providence might come to the rescue of the weaker, particularly when either better sense prevails over the hegemon or its torment causes the coalescence of a coalition of the oppressed. On the positive side, rise to superpower status requires mutual accommodation, solidarity with justified international causes and the benign use of power. The Chinese know that well.


  1. The PRC’s hapless quarries prefer to use that softer euphuism for ‘aggressiveness’, to avoid provoking the imposing hegemon.
  2. Notably, there have been many exceptions when military back-up has failed to protect economic interests against popular uprising against exploitation.
  3. It is altogether a different matter that to a reckonable extent, the PRC itself sows the seeds of such opposition when it asserts its ‘entitlement’ to have the first pick of all that the region has to offer, and then acting magnanimous, as a show of grace, in ‘allowing’ its lesser partners to partake in residual benefits. In the domestic front too, the CPC stokes misgivings among its citizens by their absolute exclusion from voicing opinions or participating in any matter of governance.
  4. China’s outlandish claim over the seas enclosed by the so called ‘nine-dash line’ is unparalleled in its brazenness. Similar is the case with its claims over ethnically, culturally, linguistically, geographically – indeed, by every yardstick of nationhood – different regions of Tibet, Xinjiang and Arunachal Pradesh (India). To make matters worse for its intended victims, China reiterates often its stance of having already ‘given up’ much more, and that it will not compromise with the ‘rightful’ claims any more! 
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Gautam Banerjee

former Commandant Officers Training Academy, Chennai.

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