Key point: The PLA has been building and purchasing all of the high-tech weapons a first-class power could want.
On January 12, 2019, the Defense Intelligence Agency released an annual report highlighting the radical reorganization of China’s People’s Liberation Army to become faster-responding, more flexible and more lethal than ever before.
The PLA was formed in 1927 as a Communist revolutionary force to oppose the Nationalist Kuomintang government and (later) invading Japanese forces. Unlike Western militaries, the PLA remains loyal to the Chinese Communist Party, not a theoretical independent Chinese state. A cadre of political officers (commissars or zhengwei) still operate at every level of the command structure to ensure loyalty and manage personnel.
Even after securing the mainland in 1949 and sprouting Navy and Air Force branches, the PLA adhered to a defensive “People’s War Strategy” which assumed that technologically superior foreign invaders (the United States or Soviet Union) would need to be lured deep into Chinese territory to be worn down by guerilla warfare and superior numbers.
Serious PLA modernization efforts began in 1991 when the trouncing of Iraq’s huge mechanized army in the Gulf War caused Beijing to realize its dated, World War II-style military was similarly vulnerable. By 2004, a new doctrine focused on proactively defeating enemies beyond China’s borders, including through preemptive strike if necessary, as well as undertaking global governance missions befitting its superpower status.
Between 2000 and 2016, while the Chinese economy averaged official annual growth rates around 7-8 percent, the PLA’s budget grew even faster at 10 percent. Despite that, the PLA’s current roughly $200 billion dollar budget totals less than one-third of U.S. defense spending. However, China pays much lower costs for hardware and personnel because of China’s “latecomer advantage” as the DIA report explains: