by Lt Gen DS Hooda

Two Sessions’, or Lianghui—the meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s top political advisory body, and the National People’s Congress, the country’s highest organ of state power—in March was keenly followed by military strategists as the defence budget was approved in this meeting. The 1.36 trillion yuan ($209 billion) allocation for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) this year is a 6.8 per cent increase over 2020.

While the increase may appear modest, it comes at a time when the Chinese economy has slowed, though it remains the only major economy to show growth in pandemic-devastated 2020. More significantly, China’s military spending as a share of the overall government spending has risen from 5.1 per cent in 2020 to 5.4 per cent in 2021. This is indicative of China’s focus on the capability development of the PLA.

The PLA Navy has surpassed the US Navy in numbers of battleships. China's naval modernisation includes the acquisition of anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles as part of their anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy to restrict the operational freedom of the US forces in the Indo-Pacific region. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) is the third-largest in the world with approximately 2,000 combat aircraft. The 2020 China Military Power report of the US department of defence estimates that the PLAAF will become a major fourth-generation force within the next several years.

China’s 2019 national defence white paper notes, “War is evolving in form towards informationised warfare, and intelligent warfare is on the horizon.” In line with its understanding of the importance of information warfare, a PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF) was created in 2016, which unified China’s space, cyber, electronic warfare, and psychological warfare. The 2020 China Military Power report notes that the SSF has also inherited the former general political department’s 311 Base that “performs missions and tasks associated with the PLA’s concept of ‘Three Warfares’ which comprises psychological warfare, public opinion warfare, and legal warfare”.

Despite its modernisation, the PLA is aware that it lags behind the US in many areas of military technology. To close this gap, at the National People’s Congress in 2015, Xi Jinping announced that “military-civil fusion [MCF]” would be upgraded to a national strategy. Primarily, the MCF strategy seeks to synergise the efforts of the commercial and the defence sectors to acquire advanced dual-use technologies to build a “world-class” military. The MCF has a vast scope and includes areas like artificial intelligence, new materials, and the integration of civilian R&D, infrastructure, logistics and manufacturing for military purposes.

As we look into the future, the PLA’s strategic goals are to complete the modernisation of national defence and the military by 2035 and fully transform the PLA into a world-class force by the mid-21st century. While the PLA will not be wanting in the availability of funds to achieve these goals, it could hit a technology hurdle.

A RAND Corporation study, China's Grand Strategy: Trends, Trajectories, and Long-Term Competition, points out: “It is probable that China will become globally competitive in some areas of S&T [science and technology] because of focused investment of significant resources and creative attempts to build partnerships and innovation systems. However, without changes like effective IP [intellectual property] rights and academic freedoms, the system is likely to remain inefficient compared with the S&T system of the US and allies. China will likely continue to be limited to ‘pockets of excellence’; in the majority of S&T areas, the PRC will not be on the cutting edge globally.”

China’s MCF strategy is also a cause of concern among technology-exporting countries, particularly the US. The Donald Trump administration had imposed several export restrictions on items for “military end-use” to China. These are continuing under President Joe Biden. This will make it difficult for the PLA to obtain advanced dual-use technologies from the US. The exact impact of the ongoing technology Cold War on China’s military modernisation is difficult to assess as it will depend on how far China can overcome its shortfalls in niche technologies over the next decade.

Notwithstanding the challenges, the trajectory of the PLA’s growth seems evident. By 2050, it is set to become, by a large margin, the most dominant military power in Asia and a near-peer competitor to the US military. It is also increasingly evident that China has shed any reticence to use military force to enforce its territorial claims and cement its hegemony in Asia.

The long-term strategic rivalry between India and China is a geopolitical reality, and any notions that it can remain below the military threshold stand disabused with the events that unfolded in Ladakh in 2020. Apart from diplomatic and political steps to deal with China, the biggest challenge for India is to ensure that the capability gap between the PLA and the Indian military does not become insurmountable. This will require comprehensive military reforms, new doctrinal thinking and adequate budgetary support.