How strong is the Chinese army?

Shanghai china Amid repeated air raids near Taiwan and reports that China has tested hypersonic weapons, the world is paying more attention to modernizing China’s military and its quest for increasingly sophisticated weaponry.

Once hailed by the Communist Party for having defeated past adversaries with just “millet plus rifles,” the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has now become the world’s largest fighting force, with more than two million active troops.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has become more diplomatically assertive and has shown a greater willingness to back up its claims to the disputed territory with displays of its military prowess. Neighboring countries and the United States have been watching closely.

“The louder and louder voices sounding the alarm of a potential conflict between China and the US in the South China Sea mainly stem from the fact that the US now views China on an equal footing due to the growing army of the latter, “said Yin Dongyu, a Beijing resident. analyst on the Chinese army. “And that is a good indication of China’s growing military strength.”

In recent months, the navies of the US and its diplomatic allies have regularly sailed through the waters of Asia Pacific, including the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, to enforce navigation rights in waters. international

In October, the United States announced AUKUS, a new security alliance with the United Kingdom and Australia, which will lead Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines from the United States.

Washington has also increased arms sales to Taiwan, which is modernizing its military and developing so-called asymmetric warfare capabilities to thwart any attack by Beijing, which claims the island as its own.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is reforming and modernizing the Chinese military and developing its navy [File” Li Gang/Xinhua via EPA]

President Tsai Ing-wen confirmed this week media reports that the United States had been providing Taiwan with specialized military training for more than a year.

“No one can say without question whether China and the United States would get into a real conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea, but with China’s growing military, no one wants that to happen,” Yin said.

Rapid naval expansion

The PLA’s ground force has traditionally been China’s basis for asserting power in the region. Recently, it took the lead with India on the Himalayan border of the two countries, for example.

Within its ranks, there are more than 915,000 active duty soldiers in its ranks, dwarfing the United States, which has around 486,000 active soldiers, according to the latest Pentagon China Military Power Report.

The military has also been stocking its arsenal with increasingly high-tech weapons.

In 2019, the DF-41 ICBM, which experts say could hit any corner of the world, was unveiled during the National Day military parade. But it was a DF-17 hypersonic missile that caught most people’s attention.

This year, it was reported that China had tested hypersonic weapons twice, once in July and once in August, and a top American general described the advance as almost a “Sputnik moment,” referring to the Union’s 1957 satellite launch. Soviet which signaled its leadership in the space race.

With the South China Sea emerging as a flash point, the PLA is also developing its navy.

China claims the sea almost entirely amid competing claims from Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLAN) Navy is now the world’s largest navy, according to the government’s defense white paper, and its submarines have the ability to launch nuclear-armed missiles. To support the navy, China also has the so-called maritime militia, funded by the government and known as the “little blue men”, which are active in the South China Sea, while this year Beijing authorized its coastguards to shoot at boats. foreign.

“China’s military strength has been significantly strengthened by the addition of a large number of new weapons to the arsenal, especially in its naval force,” Yin said. “That’s where the country’s military is showing some of its fastest growth.”

China’s military advances have found willing buyers in other parts of the world, notably its unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as the Chindrones. [File: Alex Plavevski/EPA]

The air force has also become the largest in the Asia-Pacific region and the third-largest in the world, with more than 2,500 aircraft and approximately 2,000 combat aircraft, according to an annual report by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. from the US Released last year. .

In particular, the air force now owns a fleet of stealth fighter jets, including the J-20, China’s most advanced fighter jet. It was independently developed and designed to compete with the American-made F-22.

Globally, China is also increasing arms exports to other developing countries with the aim of developing warmer relations with friendly nations amid regional competition.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China’s arms exports went mainly to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Algeria over the past decade.

During the same time period, China has also been one of the world’s leading exporters of armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, with customers including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, according to SIPRI.

“You see a lot of UAVs being exported to the Gulf because the US Congress prohibited many countries from buying them from the US for human rights reasons, and China will soon be filling that gap,” Yin said.

But China’s headline-grabbing arsenal of weapons and seemingly unstoppable military growth masks an opaque command system, endemic corruption and questions about the quality of its recruits.

Corruption is largely due to a tradition of nepotism and favoritism, and a general lack of oversight, while conscription is suffering because, despite some incentives, the younger, well-educated Chinese the military wants feel more attracted by the burgeoning private sector.

That has left the PLA dependent on compulsory military service for about a third of its workforce. Each province has an annual draft quota, and each recruit must complete two years of military service. This year, after a delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the military began conducting recruitment and induction twice a year instead of once. It has also started allowing more “second enlistments”.

And despite amassing more advanced weapons in recent years, the PLA still has a slew of older and more obsolete equipment, some of it built with technology from the former Soviet Union, which collapsed 30 years ago, according to analysts.

China’s navy, for example, has more ships than the US, with 360 vessels, but the fleet is mostly made up of smaller vessels. It has only two large carriers, the Liaoning and Shandong, and the third Type 003 carrier is still under construction. The United States has 11 aircraft carriers, the most of any country.

Additionally, the lack of training to operate and maintain newly developed weapons has also hampered the military’s ability to achieve “union,” according to a 2018 report released by the RAND Corporation, a US-based think tank, Which refers to the capacity of an army. command your various forces simultaneously to achieve your military objectives.

“Corruption and an outdated command structure have left a very negative impact on the military,” said Shi Yang, a Chinese military analyst based in Beijing. “The large number of relatively outdated weapons also restricted the combat capability of the Chinese army.”

Learning from the USA

However, a potentially bigger problem, according to some analysts, is that the PLA simply lacks contemporary combat experience.

“It was in 1979 that China was last involved in a real-world conflict, and that was in Vietnam,” Shi explained. “Without waging actual wars, some might argue that the [PLA] it might not live up to your expectations. “

Military units still organize various exercises that resemble actual combat. Earlier this month, for example, China intensified its military exercises near Taiwan, with massive air force incursions into the island’s air defense zone. In the same time frame, the military also conducted drills on land in southeastern Fujian province, directly across the sea from Taiwan, amid growing claims about its claim that Taiwan is part of its territory.

Some say that a lack of real-world combat experience is not necessarily detrimental. Such a lack of experience “would not significantly erode China’s military strength,” according to Shi.

“The military power of the Chinese army in modern conflicts will depend mainly on technology, which has been steadily moving in the right direction,” Shi said.

President Xi has taken a series of steps aimed at addressing some of the military’s shortcomings.

Borrowing from the US military, it has established a new military structure that gives the Central Military Commission, chaired by the president, more direct leadership over the military.

Under the sweeping reforms, five “theater commands” were established in 2016, geographically located throughout the country. The Army, Navy and Air Force divisions in each area report directly to the theater command, ensuring that the PLA operation is more effectively integrated.

Fighting corruption has been a cornerstone of Xi’s presidency. In the military, that has led to the purge of hundreds of officials accused of taking bribes and other forms of corruption.

Xi is also funneling more money to the military with a growing defense budget. In fiscal year 2021, 1.36 trillion yuan (approximately $ 209.16 billion) was allocated to defense, 6.8 percent more than last year.

China has also been developing its air force capabilities with new stealth fighters and other advanced combat aircraft. [File: Alex Plavevski/EPA]

Yet it is still a fraction of the US defense budget, which amounted to $ 705.39 billion in 2021.

“Many countries in the region have seen China as a threat, and the US is also in that group, so with the growing Chinese military force, other countries, with the help of the US. Both explicitly secretly, they are trying to catch up, Yin Dongyu said about the escalating arms race in the region. “With China’s more assertive attitude towards its territorial claims, I don’t see this arms race ending anytime soon.”

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