China presents its military posture as purely defensive, serving only to protect China’s legitimate sovereign interests. It calls its national military strategy “active defense,” a concept that prescribes the ways in which China can defend its interests and prevail over a militarily superior adversary. This strategy allows for the use of offensive operational and tactical approaches, and the PLA has and continues to develop capabilities to wage offensive operations across a range of domains.
China’s current military modernization push began in 1978 and accelerated in the 1990s. Xi Jinping, the General Secretary and “core leader” of the CCP, Chairman of the CCP’s Central Military Commission, and State President, has continued to make military modernization a priority and has linked military modernization to his signature issue: the “China Dream” of a modern, strong, and prosperous country. In 2017, Xi formalized three broad goals for the PLA: (1) to achieve mechanization of the armed forces and to make significant progress toward what the United States would call a “networked” force by 2020; (2) to “basically complete” China’s military modernization process by 2035; and (3) to have a “world-class” military by 2049, the centenary of the establishment of the PRC. Xi has initiated the most ambitious reform and reorganization of the PLA since the 1950s, in an effort to transform the military into a capable joint force as well as to further consolidate control of the PLA in the hands of Xi and the CCP.
After decades of modernization supported by steady defense budget increases and other policies that promote military technological advances, the PLA has become a formidable regional military with growing power projection capabilities. China’s armed forces are improving capabilities in every domain of warfare, have superior capabilities to other regional militaries in many areas, and are eroding U.S. military advantages in certain areas. China’s missile force, in particular, can put at risk a large range of targets in the region, including U.S. and allied bases. The PLA faces significant challenges and limitations, however, including a lack of combat experience, insufficient training in realistic combat scenarios, a limited ability to conduct joint operations, limited expeditionary capabilities, a new and largely untested organizational structure, and a dependence on foreign suppliers for certain military equipment and materials. Purchase on Amazon