The People's Liberation Army (PLA), the largest land force on earth, is determined to modernize itself, keeping one eye on the Soviet Union and the other on budget constraints.
''We are faced with a highly modernized and well-trained, powerful enemy,'' wrote Gen. Yang Dezhi in a recent front-page article in the Liberation Army Daily, the PLA newspaper. ''To deal with such an enemy,'' he continued, referring to China's northern neighbor, ''we need not only high morale but also expertise in using modern weapons in any tactical or strategic operation in perfect coordination with other branches of the armed forces.''
Such language is a far cry from the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics developed by Mao Tse-tung during the communists' 20-year war against Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist) troops. It is also unlike the human-wave tactics used by the PLA against American troops during the Korean war.
''If we fail to upgrade the organization and discipline of the armed forces, '' General Yang warned, ''we would not be able to engage an enemy in modern warfare and may have to pay a much higher price in the event of an emergency.''
In a marginal comment on General Yang's article, the English-language China Daily Feb. 3 explained that the PLA ''has a history of successful guerrilla warfare, but has less experience in modern conventional combat. General Yang spoke repeatedly of the need to ''regularize'' the armed forces, an apparent reference to the need to upgrade military skills both technically and organizationally.''
General Yang's article, which appeared Jan. 22, was subsequently distributed by the New China News Agency and also carried by the China Daily.
General Yang is believed to be a strong supporter of party Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping's policy of economic modernization. General Yang, who fought the Americans in Korea and commanded the Yunnan front in the February 1979 action against Vietnam, is the only active general on the 12-member Secretariat, which runs the day-to-day affairs of the Communist Party.
Ten generals and marshals sit on the more prestigious 26-member Politburo, not including Deng Xiaoping who, as chairman of the party's Military Commission, is the titular leader of the country's armed forces. But only four are active in the PLA - Geng Biao, minister of defense; Wei Guoqing, director of the PLA's Political Department; Zhang Tingfa, commander of the Air Force; and Li Desheng, PLA commander in the northeast.
Conservatives in the party have opposed Mr. Deng's policies and it is believed that many PLA leaders are not happy about the reduced budget for the armed forces during the past two years. In 1981, defense spending was 25 percent below the 1979 level. But General Yang has accepted the party leadership's logic that only when the whole economic pie has grown larger can the armed forces be given a larger slice.
The PLA has slashed its conscript army of 4 million by one-third, according to some estimates, and it is retiring large numbers of elderly and incompetent officers.
Those who remain are being rigorously trained in specific technical services and in concepts of modern warfare. The first large-scale maneuver using both land and air forces was held near Zhangjiakou north of Peking last autumn.
The PLA leadership was apparently pleased with the results of the exercise. One outcome, said deputy PLA Chief of Staff Zhang Zhen in an interview with the New China News Agency Jan. 17, was that ''training was better geared to the study of how to solve actual operational problems in the initial stage of a war and the organization and command ability of cadres at all levels was greatly enhanced.''
Discontent among those being asked to retire, some sources say, has been assuaged by assurances that pay and benefits, including housing and the use of cars, will remain.
Active officers' discontent about PLA budget reductions may be more serious. They are being offered large pay raises, which means that qualified officers will earn as much as 40 percent more than civilians at comparable job levels. The budget for these personnel costs is separate from the regular defense budget.
After the Korean war, the PLA under Defense Minister Marshal Peng Dehuai, began a program to change from a guerrilla force into a regular army. This included universal conscription, the introduction of ranks, combat rules, and military discipline. Military academies with Soviet instructors were set up.
Late in the 1950s, however, Marshal Peng fell into disfavor with Chairman Mao. His successor as military chief, Lin Biao, denigrated the Peng concepts as ''bourgeois militarism.'' It was only after the downfall of Mao's widow Jiang Qing and her ''gang of four'' in October 1976 that the modernization of the PLA could begin anew.