Introduction to Chinese Army
China is home to one of the largest armies in the world, with an estimated two million troops. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was formally established in 1949, following the Chinese Civil War. Remarkably, the PLA has not participated in a major conflict since the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. Even so, the size and strength of the Chinese forces have continuously increased since its establishment, especially in the last decade.
The Increase in Size of Chinese Army
The Chinese army has grown since the end of the Cold War in 1989, with an annual increase in defence expenditure of 8.6%, significantly higher than the global average. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the People’s Liberation Army was the second largest military force in the world in 2020 and accounted for 13.8% of global military expenditure. There has been an upward trend in the number of Chinese servicemen in recent years, from 2.3 million in 2010 to 2.6 million in 2019.
The Chinese Army Structure
The Chinese militray is divided into the Ground Force, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force, which focuses on cyber and space-based warfare. The PLA’s Ground forces are the largest branch, with an estimated 1.5 million personnel. It consists of seven military regions and 18 group armies, which are task forces responsible for regional and global operations respectively. The Ground forces also have their own armoured and mechanized infantry units, special forces and artillery.
Factors Behind the Increase in Size
China’s increased military expansion and its rise in defence spending have been driven by several factors including regional tensions, modernisation efforts and its contestation with the US-led international order. China’s improved economic prosperity has been a major contributing factor in their increased defence spending, with their GDP increasing from US$1.4 trillion in 2000 to US$11.4 trillion in 2019.
Effect of Modernization
The Chinese government has made a concerted effort to modernise the People’s Liberation Army. This includes the introduction of high-tech weapons, communications and surveillance systems as well as changes to the organisational structure. In recent years, the Chinese military has also integrated cutting-edge information technology into its operations and has introduced new unmanned and robotic platforms such as stealth drones, robotics and artificial intelligence.
The Impact of Large Army
China’s large army and its modernisation efforts have allowed it to assert itself militarily and gain influences beyond its own borders, leading to tensions between China and other states in the South and East China Sea. This includes its territorial dispute with Japan and its disputes in the South China Sea with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. The People’s Liberation Army has also provided support to Chinese-backed forces in Syria and Ukraine in recent years.
Reaction of Other Countries
The US and its allies in the region have reacted to China’s emergence as a major military power with concern, leading to a build-up in military personnel and resources in the region. The US has maintained military bases in Japan and South Korea since the end of World War II and has a strong military presence in the Pacific region, with approximately 50,000 troops present in Japan and South Korea combined.
China’s International Military Operations
The Chinese military is becoming increasingly involved in international peacekeeping initiatives and humanitarian operations, including the fight against piracy in the Gulf of Aden and South China Sea. The People’s Liberation Army has also been active in United Nations Peacekeeping Missions, with China contributing more than 2,500 personnel in 2019.
Implications of Chinese Military Power
China’s increased military power, presence and capabilities have international implications for stability and security in the Asia-Pacific region, fuelling perceptions of Chinese aggression and military expansionism. This has resulted in a greater US-China rivalry and the redevelopment of US strategic alliances in the region. Many experts have raised concerns that these developments could lead to an arms race and increased regional tensions.
Educating the Next Generation
For the People’s Liberation Army, the importance of educating its personnel and preparing them for future challenges cannot be underestimated. The PLA is investing in universities and simulators to improve the knowledge and skills of its personnel and training them in the latest technological innovations. This is part of an overall strategy of modernisation, which is aimed at ensuring that the Chinese are prepared for future security challenges.
The Cost of Maintaining China’s Army
While China’s military expansion has seen it become a major military power, it still faces considerable challenges and costs. From 2019 to 2021, the Chinese military intends to allocate an estimated 13.2 trillion yuan (1.9 trillion US dollars) for military activities and modernisation, which is an increase of 102.4% over the previous three years. This will further strain China’s already stretched budget and resources.