How strong is the Chinese army?
Amid repeated air raids near Taiwan and reports that China has tested hypersonic weapons, the world is paying more attention to the modernization of the Chinese armed forces and its pursuit of ever more sophisticated weapons.
Once hailed by the Communist Party as having defeated its opponents of the past with only “millet plus rifles”, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has now grown into the world’s largest fighting force, with more than two million troops. active people.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has become more assertive diplomatically and has shown an increased willingness to back its claims to the disputed territory through displays of its military prowess.
Neighboring countries and the United States (US) are watching closely.
“The increasingly loud voices sounding the alarm for a potential Sino-US conflict in the South China Sea are mainly due to the US now seeing China on an equal footing due to the ‘growing army of the latter, “said Yin Dongyu, a Beijing employee. analyst on the Chinese army. “And that’s already a pretty good indication of China’s growing military might.”
In recent months, the navies of the United States and its diplomatic allies have regularly sailed the waters of the Asia-Pacific – including the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait – to assert their navigation rights in the international waters.
In October, the United States announced AUKUS – a new security alliance with the United Kingdom (UK) and Australia – which will lead Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines from the United States.
Washington has also stepped up its arms sales to Taiwan, which is modernizing its military and developing so-called asymmetric warfare capabilities to thwart any attack from Beijing, which claims the island as its own.
President Tsai Ing-Wen this week confirmed media reports that the United States has been providing Taiwan with specialized military training for more than a year.
“No one can say without hesitation whether China and the United States would enter into a real conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea, but with China’s growing army, no one wants that to happen,” Yin said.
Rapid naval expansion
The PLA ground force has traditionally been China’s base for asserting power in the region. He recently took the lead with India on the Himalayan border of the two countries, for example.
In its ranks, there are more than 915,000 active-duty soldiers in its ranks, eclipsing the United States, which has about 486,000 active soldiers, according to the latest report on the Pentagon’s military might in China.
The army has also stocked its arsenal of increasingly high-tech weapons.
In 2019, the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, which experts believe could strike any corner of the globe, was unveiled during the National Day military parade. But it was a DF-17 hypersonic missile that caught most people’s attention.
This year, it was reported that China had in fact tested hypersonic weapons twice – once in July and once in August – with a senior US general describing the breakthrough as almost a “Sputnik moment”, referring to the 1957 satellite launch by the Soviet Union which signaled its lead in the space race.
With the South China Sea emerging as a flashpoint, the PLA is also expanding its navy.
China claims the sea almost entirely amid competing claims from Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLAN) Navy is now the largest navy in the world, according to the government’s Defense White Paper, and its submarines have the ability to launch nuclear missiles. To support the navy, China also has a so-called government-funded maritime militia known as the “Little Blue Men,” which is active in the South China Sea, while Beijing has authorized this year. its coast guards to shoot foreign ships.
“China’s military strength has been greatly enhanced by a large number of new weapons added to the arsenal, especially in its naval strength,” Yin said. “This is where the country’s army shows one of the fastest growth. “
The air force has also become the largest in the Asia-Pacific region and the third largest in the world, with more than 2,500 aircraft and around 2,000 fighter jets, according to an annual report from the Office of the Secretary of the United States. Defense released last year.
In particular, the Air Force now has a fleet of stealth fighter jets, including the J-20, China’s most advanced warplane. It was independently developed and designed to compete with the US-made F-22.
Globally, China is also stepping up arms exports to other developing countries in an effort to develop warmer relations with friendly countries amid regional competition.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China’s arms exports have mostly gone to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Algeria over the past decade.
During the same period, China has also been one of the world’s leading exporters of armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, with customers including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, according to SIPRI. .
“You see tons of drones exported to the Gulf because the US Congress has banned many countries from buying them from the US for human rights reasons, and China is soon filling that gap,” said Yin.
But China’s headline-grabbing arsenal of weapons and seemingly unstoppable military growth masks an opaque command system, rampant corruption and questions about the quality of its recruits.
Corruption stems largely from a tradition of nepotism and favoritism, and a general lack of oversight, while recruitment suffers because despite certain incentives, the younger and well-educated Chinese that the military wants are more attracted to the booming private sector.
This left the PLA dependent on conscription for about a third of its strength. Each province has an annual conscription quota, with each conscript required to complete two years of military service. This year, after a delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the military began organizing recruiting and induction twice a year instead of once. It has also started to allow more “second enlistments”.
And despite the accumulation of more advanced weapons in recent years, the PLA still has a large amount of older and more obsolete equipment, some of which was built using technology from the former Soviet Union. , which collapsed 30 years ago, analysts said.
The Chinese Navy, for example, owns more ships than the United States – with 360 ships – but the fleet consists mostly of smaller ships. It only has two large aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong, with the third Type 003 aircraft carrier still under construction. The United States has 11 aircraft carriers, the most of any country.
Additionally, the lack of training to operate and maintain newly developed weapons has also hampered the military’s ability to achieve “articulation,” according to a 2018 report released by the RAND Corporation, a state-based think tank. United, referring to the ability of an army to command its different forces simultaneously to achieve its military objectives.
“Corruption and an outdated command structure have left a very negative impact on the military,” said Shi Yang, a Chinese military analyst based in Beijing. “The large number of relatively obsolete weapons has also restricted the Chinese military’s combat capability.”
Learn from the United States
However, according to some analysts, a potentially bigger problem is that the PLA simply lacks contemporary combat experience.
“It was in 1979 when China last engaged in real-world conflict – and that was in Vietnam,” Shi explained. “Without waging real wars, some might argue that the [PLA] might not live up to their expectations.
Military units still organize various exercises resembling real combat. Earlier this month, for example, China stepped up military exercises near Taiwan, with massive air force incursions into the island’s air defense zone. During the same period, the military also conducted ground exercises in southeastern Fujian Province – directly across the sea from Taiwan – amid increasingly loud claims. according to which Taiwan is part of its territory.
Some say that a lack of real-world combat experience isn’t necessarily detrimental. Such inexperience “would not erode China’s military strength significantly,” according to Shi.
“The military might of the Chinese army in modern conflicts will depend mainly on technology, which has constantly moved in the right direction,” said Shi.
President Xi has taken a number of steps to address some of the military’s shortcomings.
Borrowing from the US military, he set up a new military structure that gives the Central Military Commission, chaired by the president, more direct leadership over the armed forces.
As part of the sweeping reforms, five “theater commands”, geographically located across the country, were created in 2016. Army, Navy and Air Force divisions in each area report directly to theater command, ensuring more effective integration of the PLA operation.
The fight against corruption has been a cornerstone of Xi’s presidency. In the armed forces, this has led to the purging of hundreds of officials accused of bribery and other forms of corruption.
Xi is also channeling more money to the armed forces with an ever-increasing defense budget. In fiscal year 2021, CNY 1.3 trillion (about $ 209.16 billion) was allocated to defense, 6.8 percent more than last year.
However, there remains a fraction of the US defense budget, which stood at $ 705.39 billion in 2021.
“Many countries in the region saw China as a threat, and the United States is also part of this group, so with the growing Chinese military strength, other countries, with the help of the United States to both explicitly and secretly trying to catch up, ”Yin Dongyu said of the escalating arms race in the region. “With China’s more assertive attitude towards its territorial claims, I don’t see this arms race ending anytime soon. “- Al Jazeera
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The ASEAN Post.