- A real turning point arrived in the 1990s when, having witnessed the US military’s war capabilities during the Gulf War and the Taiwan Strait Crisis, the CCP acknowledged the need for greater investment into modern warfare technology
- A second shift arrived in 2012 when current President Xi Jinping came to power. President Xi’s vision of the China Dream – a vision to restore China to its former glory – resulted in a slew of reforms that his predecessors had dallied on
- Having commissioned eighteen new ships in 2016, China’s navy is now believed to be the largest in the world in terms of numbers
A new report from leading conflict think-tank, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has revealed that China’s ongoing efforts to modernise the People’s Liberation Army has transformed the nation into the fifth largest arms exporter in the world. As per the report, three Chinese state-owned companies were included in the top arms manufacturers in the world with a fourth included the top 25. Collectively, the four Chinese companies accounted for sales of approximately $57 billion in 2019.
China’s drive to become top-tier military force has seen it expand its defence budget markedly in the last two decades. China’s Ministry of Finance pegged the nation’s military budget at $177 billion in 2019 but experts have claimed that spending could be much higher. Between 1998 and 2018, China has ramped up its defence spending by over seven times from $31 billion (1998) to $239 billion according to previous SIPRI estimates. The 2018 figure makes China the second-largest spender on defence in the world behind only the United States.
A multi-decadal effort
The dramatic change that the PLA has undergone has its roots in the 1980s when doctrinal and organisational changes were first introduced. During the time, China shifted from the doctrine proposed by the nation’s founding father Mao Zedong premised on a major conflict with the Soviet Union, to one more concerned with localised conflicts. Its war against Vietnam in early 1979 was also believed to have sparked an organisational revolution within the PLA.
The bulk of these changes focused on increasing joint operation capabilities, the production of indigenous equipment and turning the PLA into a more streamlined and efficient fighting unit. Yet, a real turning point arrived in the 1990s when, having witnessed the US military’s war capabilities during the Gulf War and the Taiwan Strait Crisis, the CCP acknowledged the need for greater investment into technology required to wage a modern war and rebuff foreign intervention in the region.
A second shift arrived in 2012 when current President Xi Jinping came to power. President Xi’s vision of the China Dream – a vision to restore China to its former glory – resulted in a slew of reforms that his predecessors had dallied on.
President Xi continues to head the Central Military Commission, the PLA’s premier decision-making body. Under a pledge to turn the PLA into a “world-class force” capable of winning global wars by 2049, President Xi embarked on numerous structural reforms including the set up of new joint theatre commands and increased cooperation between the military and civilian companies. He also oversaw deep personnel cuts with a view to stamp out corruption in the services that, reportedly, led to thousands of CPC members being relieved of their duties.
Once believed to be the largest army in service, more recent estimates from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) show the Chinese army to have shrunk to 975,000 troops while the focus has changed towards developing the nation’s aerial and naval capabilities.
Having commissioned eighteen new ships in 2016, China’s navy is now believed to be the largest in the world in terms of numbers. A 2017 study from the RAND Corporation also found that 70 per cent of its fleet could be considered modern, up from just 50 per cent recorded in 2010. China also already has two aircraft carriers in service with another scheduled to become operational by 2022.
Similarly, its air force has also grown to include 395,000 active service members as of 2018. There are numerous reports claiming that China has reverse-engineered aircraft and advanced equipment technology from the United States including airborne warning control systems, unmanned aerial vehicles and bombers. China is now also believed to have the highest number of mid-range ballistic and cruise missiles.
India faces significant challenges to replicate China model
The SIPRI report found India’s position as the world’s second-largest arms importer unchanged. In recent months, the central government has instituted a series of reforms aimed to make the nation’s defence sector more self-reliant but it is worth noting that its defence budget for the current fiscal has expanded by just six per cent from the previous year.
The arrival of the first batch of Dassault Rafale jets was hailed as the advent of a new era of modernisation in the IAF’s and, indeed, in the armed services’ history, however, the nation’s recent record suggests that this will be no easy feat.
Earlier this year, the Defence Ministry announced an import embargo on 101 military items as part of its ‘Aatmanirbhar drive’ but several analysts have contended that the move may have been premature. Despite the central government’s conviction to take weapons production in-house, the defence projects initiated under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ banner tell a vastly different story.
As of December 2019, projects that involved the manufacturing of light utility helicopters, infantry combat vehicles, fighter jets, transport aircraft and stealth submarines worth approximately 3.5 lakh crores had failed to enter the production stage six years from the when the campaign was launched.
Other obstacles are found in the many bureaucratic, commercial and technical hurdles that have stymied the launch of these projects. Some analysts have even raised questions of whether India is ready to carry out a transformation of its defence procurement strategy given the numerous complaints seen from the Indian Army and the Indan Air Force over the substandard gear and military equipment produced by the Ordnance Factory Board. The IAF has also cited several delays from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in the delivery of indigenous aircraft.