Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Chinese build a high-tech army within an army

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 17, 2005


Shi Jin wears a jean jacket, has razor-cropped hair, and seems gravely earnest. An officer in the People's Liberation Army, he was wooed from a Beijing vocational college three years ago by recruiters who talked up his technical aptitude - and his patriotism.

Skip to next paragraph

In the past decade, China has undergone two military high-tech reforms designed to give the country a modern fighting force. To sustain that progress, it must attract many more gung-ho young engineers like Shi, who spends most of his time working on an "informational" revolution that planners hope will one day allow them to "see" a battlefield with the same depth as the US military. "I will not do any direct fighting if there is a war, but I am contributing on the technical side," he says. "We are all needed in the new Army."

China's desire, often stated, is to be a great nation. Many in Beijing feel that the country's natural right is to be the major power in Asia. But China has rarely been given high marks in global military annals. It has a "brown water" Navy that doesn't navigate open seas. It can't project power by sending forces abroad. It has relied on states like Russia for jet fighters, cruise missiles, and other advanced weapons.

Yet it now appears China is methodically changing this equation.

In a surprisingly short time, China has accomplished two feats. One, it has focused its energy and wealth on creating an army within an army. It has devoted huge amounts of capital to create a small high-tech army within its old 2.2 million-member rifle and shoe-leather force.

The specialty of this modern force, about 15 percent of the PLA, is to conduct lightning attacks on smaller foes, using an all-out missile attack designed to paralyze, and a modern sea and air attack coordinated by high-tech communications. In other words, this new modern force is designed to attack Taiwan.

Second, China has taken painful but successful steps to create a "defense industrial base," or weapons-building capability. The PLA has improved its factory quality control and its ability to adapt foreign technology. It is bringing an indigenous small-wing F-10 fighter off the production line, and it is moving rapidly toward a "blue water" Navy with ships built in China.

Indeed, the past three years have yielded the impressive fruits of a modernization campaign started in the late 1990s: A nuclear attack submarine, the 093, launches in months; presumably it will be capable one day of firing satellite-guided cruise missiles that can blast a cruiser or carrier. China now has more accurate ICBMS, a host of land- and sea-based cruise missiles, and about 400 Su-27 and Su-30 Russian fighter jets it didn't have before.

"Do the old shibboleths still apply - that the Chinese defense industry is backward, poor, and low-quality?" asks Evan Medeiros, an analyst with the RAND Corp. in Washington, D.C.

"No," he says. "It seems China has turned the corner.... For the first time in 20 years, the PLA has adopted reforms that make sense. They adopted, and implemented, and are really learning quickly." Medeiros is lead author of a 300-page RAND study, "New Directions for China's Defense Industry," released this month.

"The PLA has undergone a revolution in communications," says James Mulvenon, of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis in Washington, D.C. "They have gone from dirt to wireless in a generation."

Taking China's power seriously

Such progress is catching attention, respect, and concern in the Pentagon. At Honolulu's US Pacific Command, and in military circles in Taiwan, Guam, and Tokyo, it is universally accepted that China is on its way to becoming a military challenge in Asia. US planners no longer talk dismissively of China's power or, potentially, its reach. In a key shift, US ability to quickly and easily defend Taiwan in an attack is no longer a given. Chinese cruise missiles are creating a more lethal environment in the Taiwan Straits.

This summer, Gen. Zhu Chenghu, dean of China's National Defense University, raised the subject of weapons of mass destruction, which China rarely mentions, in connection with Taiwan. Should US forces aid Taiwan in a war, he told bewildered US visitors, "Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds ... of cities will be destroyed by Chinese" nuclear weapons.