The PLA on Parade: There's More Than What Meets the Eye


The PLA on Parade: There's More Than What Meets the Eye

Sep 29th, 2009 2 min read
Dean Cheng

Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center

Dean brings knowledge of China's military and space capabilities as a research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs.

Perhaps the most prominent event marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China will be a massive parade showcasing the People's Liberation Army's newest technologies. Chinese and Western reports indicate some 52 weapons will be unveiled, including intercontinental and medium-range ballistic missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, long-range cruise missiles and the domestically produced J-10 fighter plane.

In some respects the big guns will be a distraction. The lower-profile command, control and communications systems, such as airborne early-warning and control aircraft and satellite-communications devices, more accurately reflect the comprehensive challenge of China's expanding military capabilities. These systems might not look that special while in a parade, but they evince the increasing sophistication of China's strategic thinking and technology.

China isn't aiming to match the United States weapon-for-weapon. Instead, China is pursuing an "asymmetric" approach. It is a view of future warfare, expounded in PLA analyses, that focuses more on enabling the PLA to gather, transmit and exploit information while denying an opponent that same ability.

China's knowledge of how to use its newly acquired advanced systems to counter more efficiently American strengths poses the biggest challenge. Space systems are crucial to this effort. Not only do they occupy the "high ground" essential for garnering information superiority, but they have been a key part of the American way of war-as evidenced in Kuwait, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Less noticeable, but arguably even more important and worrisome, is a coherent doctrine and improved training regimens. PLA training efforts also include extensive exercising of command-and-control capabilities, employing forces that cross military region boundaries, and "conducting training in complex electromagnetic environments," a reference to both electronic warfare and cyberwarfare.

In this light, what will be on display on China's National Day is only the tip of the iceberg. Detecting and understanding China's approach, including the less visible aspects, will require a sustained effort. This poses several challenges to the U.S. national security establishment.

For instance, America needs long-term, in-depth analyses of Chinese capabilities that go beyond the "bean count" of new systems to look at logistical capabilities and training regimens. This will require extensive examination of Chinese-language materials such as PLA reference volumes, textbooks and other official publications, because much of this will involve reshaped doctrine and adjusted metrics rather than physical systems. This entails expanding the ranks of analysts familiar with Chinese military publications and capable of assessing their authoritativeness.

Addressing changes to Chinese strategy also will require maintaining a substantial force in the East Asian region. While there is a focus on the two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there remains the potential for conflict in East Asia. Conventional forces and capabilities in the area, long the American strong suit, must be maintained, both to reassure American allies and to signal to China continued American commitment to the region. This is especially true when it takes 20 years to develop and deploy a new fighter aircraft and seven years to build a new aircraft carrier.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge for American policy makers will be interacting with members of the PLA itself. There is arguably no better means of learning about changes within that military than by talking with its members, observing their exercises, and even going to its academies and institutions of higher military education. These benefits must be balanced, however, against potential lessons that the PLA might also learn from the Americans when the Chinese side inevitably seeks reciprocal visits and interactions. Neither side is likely to sustain a program that is seen as primarily benefiting the other. Washington must make clear to the Chinese leadership that it is as much in Beijing's interest as it is in Washington's to clarify Chinese intentions toward the region.

The U.S. is clearly the dominant military power in the Asia-Pacific region today, but China is gaining fast. China's expanding range of national interests and military capabilities suggest there will be greater likelihood of brushing up against the U.S., both inside and outside Asia. It is important that the two sides reduce the opportunity for misunderstanding or miscalculation-be it of capabilities or of intentions. This is impossible unless U.S. analysts can get beyond the bean count and focus on China's growing operational capabilities.

Mr. Cheng is a research fellow in Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

First Appeared in the Wall Street Journal