PLA: Implementing the CCP Mandate
by R Hariharan on 19 Sep 2013 1 Comment
The long process of China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) modernisation going on since 1978 is conditioned by three things: Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s mandate, national leadership’s guidance, and the dynamics of strategic environment in which the PLA is expected to operate.


The 18th National Congress of the CCP held in November 2012 brought in fifth generation leaders in a thorough makeover of the national leadership. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang replaced Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao as President and Premier respectively in March 2013. Thus in the next decade or so the PLA modernization process will be guided by the 18th Congress deliberations, under the new leadership according to the strategic environment visualized by them. [1]


The 18th CCP Congress Work Report identified the broad contours of PLA’s strategic modernization as:

-        “Building strong national defense and powerful armed forces that are commensurate with China’s international standing and meet the needs of its security and development interests is a strategic task of China’s modernization drive.

-        “We should attach great importance to maritime, space and cyberspace security. We should make active planning for the use of military forces in peacetime, expand and intensify military preparedness, and enhance the capability to accomplish a wide range of military tasks, the most important of which is to win local war in an information age.”[2]


Translated in military terms, the Congress visualized PLA modernization as a continuous process in keeping with the strategic needs of China to enhance its global power projection. Its stress on maritime, space and cyberspace security are closely linked to informatization process already underway to bring PLA on par with modern armies of the West, particularly the US. The digitization process of PLA will go hand in hand as part of the “four modernizations” – the strategic direction provided by Deng Xiaoping for his holistic development vision in the fields of agriculture, industry, national defence, and science and technology. This enables the PLA modernization process to take advantage of the gains of national development.


PLA’s peace time employment envisaged by the Congress would be to further improve its competence in military operations other than warfare (MOOTW) that will include disaster relief as well assistance to the Peoples’ Armed Police (PAP) to handle internal unrest and counter terrorism tasks whenever required. Continued participation of PLA in UN peace keeping operations and anti-piracy missions would be in keeping with China’s growing international influence and desire to increase its international profile as a responsible global power.


PLA and the new leadership


President Xi Jinping in his first address made to the nation on March 17, 2013 as head of state spoke of the Chinese dream. He said “We must make persistent efforts, press ahead with indomitable will, continue to push forward the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and strive to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. “To realise the Chinese road, we must spread the Chinese spirit, which combines the spirit of the nation with patriotism as the core and the spirit of the time with reform and innovation as the core,” he added.


Since becoming President, Xi had been travelling far and wide throughout the country from Shenzhen “Special Economic Zone” in the south where China’s economic revolution started to arid Gansu in the north, one of the poorest provinces. He has been visiting military training institutions, PLA establishments and naval ships to spread his Chinese dream. Evidently Xi’s Chinese dream will have reform and innovation as ingredients in both economic and strategic security content.


The idea is reflected in PLA Colonel (ret) Liu Mingfu’s book, The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-America Era (2010). He says “Since the 19th century, China has been lagging on the world stage… President Xi’s dream is of a stronger nation with a strong military.”[3]


Even before Xi became President in March 2013, as general secretary of the Central Committee of the CCP he had “vowed to unswervingly fight against corruption and keep power reined within the cage of regulations” while addressing a plenary meeting of the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) on January 22, 2013. He “ordered enhanced restraint and supervision on the use of power.” He stressed, “Power should be restricted by the cage of regulations.”


According to a Global Times report, he asked “efforts to strengthen national anti-corruption legislation and relevant intra-Party regulations to ensure national organs exercise their power within the boundary of laws”.[4] According to the report Xi said “the CPC’s resolve and distinct attitude on handling serious rule-breaking among some of its cadres, including high-ranking officials, showed it is “absolutely no empty talk” that one will be severely punished for law or Party discipline violations no matter how high a person’s official ranking is.”


On June 18, 2013 Xi called for a ‘mass line’ for co-jointing the interests of the Party with the people in a year-long campaign for a “thorough cleanup” of undesirable work styles such as formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism, and extravagance. (Top leaders of the CCP launched the ‘mass line’ from the second half of the year to cement Party-people ties.). Xi also stressed the CCP members should be critical and self-critical in the spirit of rectifying improper work styles and the campaign should focus on self-purification, self-renewal and self-progression. This jargon reminiscent of Maoist days clearly indicates the Party’s and Xi’s desire to improve the Party members’ ideological commitment, discipline, eradicate corruption and improve their contact with the people.


This is impacting the PLA also. A circular issued by the PLA General Political Department said Xi’s speech showed that the CCP was “consciously adaptable to changing times and can maintain its advanced nature and purity.” Xi’s speech should be studied and combined with the spirit of the CCP’s 18th National Congress, adding that “the minds and actions of the armed forces” should be unified with decisions made by the central leadership”, it added. [5]


According to a Xinhua report of July 22, 2013 President Xi called for unswerving efforts to strengthen relations between military officers and common soldiers through a campaign inside the military. The campaign, which was initiated in April, requires senior PLA officers and the armed police to live and train as common soldiers for at least 15 days in grassroots units every one to five years, depending on their rank. Xi said the campaign will help promote military traditions, improve its work style, strengthen ties between officers and soldiers and reinforce the “construction” of grassroots military units. It also said the PLA General Political Department had issued orders for military officers to solve problems of soldiers and grassroots military units during the campaign. Officers must reflect on their responsibilities and problems through the campaign and make their work more scientific and efficient. The campaign will be part of the implementation of the “mass line,” the Party guideline under which officials and members of the Party are required to “prioritize the interests of the people and continue to represent them and work on their behalf,” it added.


Clearly President Xi’s aim is to prevent development of elitism among Party leaders and military officers lest they lose touch with ordinary people. In this context Xi Jinping’s observations on PLA-Party relationship and PLA soldiers’ professionalism during a visit to the Beijing Military Region headquarters on July 29, 2013 are of interest. According to Xinhua, he said, “We must make sure that troops obey the command of the Party and are absolutely loyal and reliable”… Officials and soldiers “especially those medium-level and senior officials” should be educated on consciously sticking to political belief, stance and discipline. He further stated, “They should maintain high-level unity with CPC Central Committee and the Central Military Commission any time and under any circumstances, and resolutely obey their command.” Currently and in the near future an important task is to strengthen efforts to build a strong military, Xi said, urging accelerated steps to enhance the military’s strength based on information technology. [6]


To summarize, President Xi Jinping’s aim appears to be to ensure the PLA modernization process which is bringing a lot of graduates and technical people with specialized roles into armed forces, does not encourage Bonapartist tendencies but sustains PLA’s total commitment to the Party.


Visualization of PLA’s role


China’s Defence White Paper 2013 visualizes the nature of China’s national defence policy and PLA’s strategic role as: “China unswervingly pursues an independent foreign policy of peace and a national defence policy that is defensive in nature… China will never seek hegemony or behave in a hegemonic manner, nor will it engage in military expansion… China’s armed forces provide a security guarantee and strategic support for national development, and make due contributions to the maintenance of world peace and regional stability” [7].


Its stress on the defensive nature of China’s national defence policy and avowal “never to seek hegemony” are only a reiteration of past views. However, it has become necessary now on two counts. China’s loud power assertion of territorial claims in South China Sea and its never-ending territorial pin pricks along its unsettled border with India have increased international perception of China as a bully out to destabilize Asia-Pacific region and South Asia. This has led to the US increasing its strategic readiness in China’s neighbourhood with more powerful neighbours like Japan, India and Vietnam realigning their strategic equations with each other.


DS Rajan in his paper on PLA modernization sees China’s military strategy undergoing “a fresh elaboration of operational tasks for the PLA.” [8] According to him the four demands being made now on the military are:

a.     To conduct ‘Historical Missions in the New Period of the New Century’ involving non-combat operations such as peacekeeping and disaster relief, as President Hu Jintao said in 2004. This is in keeping with China’s growing global interests and desire to be seen as a global power.

b.     To protect the country’s ‘core interests.’ These include maintaining fundamental and state security, safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and ensuring continued stable development of economy and society.

c.      To build new type of combat capability to win local wars in conditions of informatization and strengthen the composite development of mechanization and informatization, with the latter as leading force.’ This implies integrating C4ISR systems in mechanized forces command, control, deployment and operations and integrating air and naval support.

d.     To ‘build strong army that is capable of winning wars and strengthening combat readiness.’


Strategic implications of modernisation


The ongoing process of evolution of PLA as a modern fighting force started in 1977 after ten traumatic years of Cultural Revolution played havoc with PLA’s cohesiveness. PLA’s strategic modernization falls in four convenient time zones: [9]


1.      Period of implosion (1966-76): The Cultural Revolution played havoc with the cohesiveness and operational capabilities of PLA. Military training came to a grinding halt and most training establishments were closed down. PLA’s command and control structure broke down with specialists and officers denounced as ‘bourgeois.’


2.     Period of introspection and recovery (1977-85): The failure of the PLA in 1979 Vietnam War shook up the leadership leading to introspection on revamping PLA. Military influence on Party was brought down. PLA representation on the politburo and military membership in the Central Committee was reduced to lay stress on professionalism. PLA training institutions were reorganized and the value of defence education recognized. National Defence University was formed by merging the PLA Military Academy, the PLA Political Academy and the PLA Logistics Academy to promote ‘jointness’ in the PLA. The first simulated combat exercise was held in 1985.


3.     Period of strategic rethinking (1985-95): PLA formations were restructured, creating group armies. Training system was further revamped to complement simulated combat exercises. Recruit training was improved. The Gulf and Kosovo wars introduced to PLA the emerging informatized battlefields of the future. In 1995 President Jiang Zemin conceptualized the “two transformations” – fighting and winning local wars under “informatized” conditions, and becoming a force based on quality instead of quantity. To achieve this both the government and the PLA began “to cultivate a new generation of officers capable and competent.”


4.     Period of strategic change (1995 onwards): Chinese leadership realized the imperatives of hi-tech environment in warfare after US invasion of Iraq and war on terror in Afghanistan. It realized embracing informatized and digitized environment would enable PLA take a leap forward in modernization without waiting for full mechanization. To improve the quality of officers, recruitment of college graduates became the norm. Training of PLA personnel in civilian institutions was introduced to speed up informatization and digitization to suit 21st century warfare needs.


PLA’s strategic challenges and response


China considers the US as key contender in its power projection. Considering this, the PLA would be keenly analyzing some of the tasks visualized by the US from time to time. The US’s strategic realignments and developments in tactical doctrines and integrated warfare systems would be of special interest to the PLA.


Of course, China has publicized its rapid advances in science and technology which have speeded up PLA’s modernization process. Of strategic interest are the following developments: [10]

-        Rapid progress has been made in reconnaissance and surveillance capability using unarmed aerial vehicles (UAVs) and satellite resources with the positioning of China’s16 Beidou satellites. They cover the entire area across China and the Asia-Pacific and we can expect South Asia also to come under its coverage as more countries are opting for Beidou communication satellites. Trefor Moss writing in the Diplomat has reported that the China’s maritime agency – the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) – was setting up 11 UAV bases (one in each coastal province) to be ready by 2015.[11]


-        Upgradation of PLA Navy (PLAN) fleet strength with more submarine and surface platforms and better anti-aircraft and anti-ship systems is progressing well. The Navy’s fleet operation outside the South China Sea is taking baby steps. While the newly inducted Liaoning aircraft carrier is trying out landing of fighter jets, we can expect a carrier based PLAN fleet streaming in Indian Ocean in the coming years.


-        PLAN had been operating anti-piracy operational task forces since 2008 in Gulf of Aden. Though China had been projecting it as part of the international effort to fight piracy, these operations have refined PLAN’s fleet operational capability in international waters. PLAN ships have been exposed to an entirely new experience of operating in coordination with ships of Indian Navy and Japanese Self Defence Force on anti-piracy duties in the area.


-        According to the US Department of Defense “The road-mobile, solid-propellant CSS-10 Mod 1 and CSS-10 Mod 2 (DF-31 and DF-31A) intercontinental-range ballistic missiles have entered service. The CSS-10 Mod 2, with a range in excess of 11,200 km, can reach most locations within the continental United States. China may also be developing a new road-mobile ICBM, possibly capable of carrying a multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV).”[12]


-        Although PLAAF flight tested J-20, its first stealth aircraft in 2011, the US Department of Defense assesses “China’s first fifth generation fighter is not expected to enter service prior to 2018, and China faces numerous challenges to achieving full operational capability, including developing high-performance jet engines.”[13]


-        Similarly PLAAF which is refining its joint warfare capability, is said to be facing problems in providing accurate ground support using C4I systems as precision guided munitions (PGM) for accurate air strike is yet to be developed.


PLA training exercises 2012-13


PLA training exercises during 2012-13 provide an indication of how it is preparing to meet the strategic challenges. These exercises have been growing in complexity and size over the years. Of special interest are the trans-military region (MR) exercises by PLA along with PLAAF that have been undertaken since 2008. Jinan MR has emerged as central to these exercises indicating its role as strategic reserve. These exercises have shown China’s ability to move large forces using rail and civilian infrastructure and logistics over long distances.


According to a US War College report of 2012, “These exercises have allowed the PLA to experiment with operational techniques in areas such as command and control for joint operations, operations in a complex electromagnetic environment, the formation of combined arms battalion task forces, and logistics support. Thus, trans-MR exercises contribute not only to PLA capabilities but also to China’s overall deterrence posture and are important signifiers of overall PLA development and modernization exercises”[14]


China-Russia joint military exercises 2013


China in response to the changes in the international security environment in its neighbourhood has been carrying out war games with Russia. It carried out two joint military exercises with Russia in 2013, namely the “China-Russia Maritime Joint Exercise 2013” and the “Peace Mission 2013.”


Peace Mission 2013 was held in Chelyabinsk in Urals in Russia from July 27 to August 15, 2013 with battalion sized combat groups from Shenyan Military Area Command and Russia’s Central Military Area Command participated in the exercise. JH-A fighter bombers of PLAAF and Su-24 fighters of Russian air force participated in the exercise. The objective of the exercise was ostensibly to jointly train and exercise in planning and carrying out counter terrorism operations. But considering the battalion combat group training supported by armour and air force, probably the objective was to refine BCT operations jointly with air force in a C4I environment. It is significant as the PLA took part in training in another country and transported its troops over large distances.


The Sino-Russian maritime joint exercise termed as China’s “largest ever joint naval exercise” was carried out in the Sea of Japan in the second week of July 2013 with the participation of 18 surface ships including four guided missile destroyers, two missile frigates, a supply ship and three-ship born helicopters, and a submarine. According to Xinhua, Major General Yang Junfei, the Chinese fleet’s commander, said: “This is our strongest line-up ever in a joint naval drill.” China was sending seven ships, three helicopters and one special warfare unit to simulate “recapturing ships seized by pirates, as well as search-and-rescue operations and a number of air defence, anti-submarine and anti-ship exercises,” Xinhua reported. Two commando units took part in the exercise.


Apart from its relevance to the growing Chinese confrontation with Japan and Philippines in South China Sea, these exercises are sure to enhance the fleet operation, assault landing and joint operation techniques of PLAN.


Peoples’ Armed Police (PAP) exercises


Considering the growing counter terrorism requirements in its western borders, the PAP has increased its training on counterterrorism, riot control, border control, and natural disaster response operations. They are now better trained and equipped than before. The PAP training appears to be focusing on operating in integration with other ground forces in informatization setting. This will enhance PAP’s capacity during wartime as they provide light infantry support to the PLA and be ready to respond to civil unrest that may accompany an external threat in Xinjiang and Tibet.




The CCP under the new leadership of Xi Jinping is striving to tighten Party discipline, fight corruption and improve linkages between the Party and the people. PLA as the sword arm of the Party will be impacted by these measures. His approach to the PLA appears to be to ensure the modernization process which is bringing a lot of graduates and technical people with specialized roles to the Party.


As a continuous process, PLA modernization is progressing well to take on expanding roles and missions in keeping with China’s increasing global influence and power. Having completed the restructuring of forces and increased their fire power and mobility, PLA’s stress on informatization and digitization will be to improve its BCT capabilities with air support, increase its strategic mobility and firepower, using missiles on land, air and sea, in keeping with China’s increasing power assertion in its neighbourhood and ambitions to be recognized as a global power.


Some areas of development to watch would be PGM, fifth generation fighters, conventional missiles anti-ship cruise missiles, counter-space weapons, and military cyberspace capabilities. These would enhance PLA’s to take on anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) missions.


The PLA’s sophisticated training and exercises involving land forces, navy, and air force have enhanced its capability to carry out long-range conventional strike and regional power projection. The rapid modernisation of PLAN with greater operational exposure is enhancing China’s ability to project its power beyond the Near Seas. In coming years the commissioning of China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning with integrated air defence and submarine capabilities would further extend its power projection capabilities.




[1] Xinhua report, November 15, 2012

[2]  17 November 2012

[3] BBC June 5, 2013

[4] Global Times, ‘Xi Jinping vows power within the cage of regulations.’

[5] Quoted from South Asia Security Trends, July 2013 issue,

[6] South Asia Security Trends, July 2013 issue,

[7] China’s Defence White Paper, April 2013 quoted by DS Rajan from “The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces, Information Office of the State Council, People’s Republic of China, 16 April 2013 in “China: Enigmatic military modernization programme” C3S Paper No. 1148, May 9, 2013

[8] As above

[9] Adapted from DS Rajan’s C3S paper quoted above and Kemphausen and others ed., The People in the PLA: Recruitment, Training, and Education in China’s Military, a study of the PLA human infrastructure by Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, 2008.

[10] Extracted from Forecast of U.S. Army Tasks 2013, U.S. Department of Defense.
[11] Trefor Moss, Here come…China’s Drones, The Diplomat, March 2, 2013
[12] The 2013 China Report submitted by the U.S. Department of Defense to the U.S. Congress.
[13] As above

[14] Kemphausen and others ed., Learning by Training: The PLA training at home abroad, by Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, 2012.


Based on a paper presented by Col Hariharan at the Third Annual Conference on “Inside China 2013: New Leadership, Social Changes and Economic Challenges,” jointly organised by the India International Centre, New Delhi; Institute of Policy and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi; Department of East Asia Studies, Delhi University; and Centre for East Asia Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, on September 6, 2013 at New Delhi


Col R Hariharan is a retired MI officer specialising in South Asia and its neighbourhood. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and South Asia Analysis Group. Blog:

Courtesy: Chennai Centre for China studies Paper No.1191 dated September 14, 2013

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