From Men Intensive To A Technologically Developed Force: Recent Chinese Military Reforms

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been rapidly improvising since the Gulf War period, ‘from men intensive to a technologically developed force’. As China celebrates its 76th Independence Day in the coming month, here is the analysis of China’s recent military reforms.

Inspiring from overwhelming military superiority exhibited by the U.S. forces; the Gulf War 1991 marked a momentous shift in Chinese national military strategy with subsequent issuance of “The Military Strategic Guidelines for the New Period” by the CPC and PLA in 1993. The Serbia- Kosovo conflict of 1998-99 also made a point for Chinese to indulge more in the military modernization. (1)

It seems there are also wide-ranging repercussions over Chinese mind which has led to the aggressive development of its military force capability. One reason can be due to China’s defeat at the hands of the British during the First Opium War (1839-1842). Scholar like Richard Harris notes that the Chinese have one very broad generalization about their own history: they think in terms of ‘up to the Opium war’ and ‘after the Opium war’; in other words, a century of humiliation and weakness to be expunged. (2)

Since 1990s, China is steadily transforming PLA from a defensive force to an expeditionary force with U.S. been the prime objective. As PLA is becoming a more offensive force, China has a vision to transform its military to a force which can fight and win any conflict by 2050. Since, India is the only land neighbour with whom a conflict is possible due to number of border disputes and growing stature of India in world politics these modernization progrmmes has direct implications on India’s defence and security.

Doctrinal Shift

The National Defence White Paper of China published in the year 2019 which majorly addressed U.S. as threat and India got very little attention. The 2015 White Paper gave directive to the PLA to prepare for “winning local wars under high-technology conditions”, it further directs the PLA to “win informatized local wars” with emphasis on struggle in the maritime domain. These phrases have been adjusted twice, once in 2004 and again in 2015 Defence White Paper which is largely taken from 1993 guidelines to PLA. Chinese military science sources describe key modernization efforts as driven by an “information system–based system-of-systems” approach, akin to U.S. network-centric warfare program. (3)

The 2013 Lectures on the Science of Army Campaigns provides updated PLA thinking on campaigns. An informationized military would experience greater offensive advantages than in the past in conducting sudden, concealed indirect attacks with dispersed forces to disrupt the cohesion of the enemy’s defensive system. Informationized systems like the reconnaissance, communications, navigation and positioning systems can support concealed assembly, deployment, manoeuvre and attack. Today, China has in place the full spectrum of space military capabilities to fight and win local wars under informationization conditions as enunciated by its leaders in past. (4)

Such modernized force could better conduct three-dimensional manoeuvre and multi-directional feints to confuse and stress the defender, seize key terrain, and achieve a deep attack against the enemy. PLA also believes that informationized logistics and equipment support can overcome many of the difficulties posed by the complex environment. Ultimately, the PLA seeks to turn itself into a modern, network-enabled fighting force, capable of projecting sustained power far throughout the Pacific region.

Reforming Higher Defence Management

In 2016 the four semi-autonomous General Departments (responsible for operations, political work, logistics, and armaments/equipment) were disbanded and replaced by 15 functional departments, commissions, and offices within the Central Military Commission (CMC) which is the highest decision-making body in Chinese military affairs, it directly comes under the President of PRC. These changes align the military’s top body to its post reform structure and underscore key themes of jointness, party loyalty, and anti-corruption.

As part of Xi Jinping Anti-corruption drive, over 40 high-level PLA officials, including two Vice Chairman of the CMC faced anti-corruption probes under an unprecedented anti-graft campaign in the past years. Western Analysts note that this campaign was basically to ensure loyalty towards Xi Jinping and the party in the top military hierarchy.

Theatre Commands

China decided to transform the Seven Military Regions and form it into five theatre Commands. On 1 February, 2016, President Xi Jinping officially inaugurated five theatre Commands: North, South, East, West and Central. This primarily means optimising forces available to Effect-based Operations (EBO) in a coherent manner.

PLA is moving toward a command structure more closely resembling the U.S. military. PLA restructuring has drawn comparisons to the U.S. military’s reforms as part of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defence Reorganization Act of 1986. Many experts refer to these reforms as “Goldwater Nichols with Chinese characteristics”.

Increasing Defence Budget

China committed $59 Billion in its Defence sector in 2008, this increased to $175 Billion in 2018. In a decade time China increased its defence budget by almost 3 times besides modest GDP growth on average in this decade. In 2019, China’s defence budget was three to four times larger than that of India’s which stood to 1.19 Trillion Yuan ($177.6 Billion), making it the highest spender on defence sector in the world just after the U.S. China has increased its defence budget by 7.5 per cent in 2019, hiking it to $177.61 Billion from last year’s $165 Billion.

Overseas Military Bases

On January 11, 2017, China elucidated its position on Asia Pacific security through its first white paper on its positions and policies on Asia-Pacific security cooperation. Between 2000 and 2014 in the transport and storage sectors, China committed $126 Billion. Today, nearly two-thirds of the world’s 50 major ports are either owned by China or have received some Chinese investment.

A study of July 2017 reported that China had doubled investment in acquiring overseas bases in 2016-17 to US $ 20 Billion. China has sealed long-term port deals that span the globe, including in Australia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Djibouti, Tanzania, Mauritius, Namibia and Greece. Sri Lanka and a Chinese State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) signed a 99-year lease for Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka following similar deals in Piraeus, Greece, and Darwin, Australia. (5)

These deals were signed with stated purpose of commercial gains rather military utility. To India’s concern China has sealed deal for ownership of ports in IOR with Pakistan, Djibouti, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.

Military Industrial Complex

From 2011 to 2015, China sold $8.4 billion worth of arms, overtaking long-established arms exporters France ($8 billion) and Germany ($6.7 billion), although it still lags the leaders: the US ($47 billion) and Russia ($36.2 billion). China’s share in the international arms exports market has risen from 3.6% in 2006-10 to 5.9% in 2011-15. (6)

China’s long-ailing Military-Industrial Complex (MIC) appears to have successfully transformed itself and is finally delivering relatively advanced weaponry to PLA. U.S. DoD 2019 Report on China’s military Power notes that PLA initiated defence-industrial reforms in 2016 that aimed to reduce bureaucracy, develop a more structured Research and Development (R&D) and produc­tion decision-making apparatus, streamline developmental timelines, promote innovation, and institutionalize Civil-Military Integration (CMI).

Within an industrial context, the latter entails establishing a formal relationship between China’s defence and civilian industrial bases to develop a technologically advanced, domes­tically reliant, and internationally relevant defence-industrial complex. Key components of the initiative include the establishment of widely distributed “science cities,” industrial parks, and high-tech zones—most near China’s defence-industrial corporations and commer­cial industrial centres, large cities, and pro­vincial capitals harbouring significant R&D and manufacturing capabilities to facilitate effi­cient logistics and supply.

For instance, Chinese company NORNICO is one of the largest arms manufacturers in the world with a total asset of about 290 billion Yuan (USD 46 billion), while the employees total around 2,79,600. The NORINCO group an arms manufacturer ranked 161th in the list of 2013 Fortune Global 500.

China’s Science and Technology (S&T) priorities and Civil-Military Integration (CMI) goals clearly indicate that China intends to achieve military advantage from key technologies such as quantum computing and communications, hypersonic, artificial intelligence, big data applications, cloud computing, 3D printing, Nano-materials, and biotechnology etc. The S&T Commission under CMC created the Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (CSTIND).

It is reported that this Commission would integrate developments in the civilian sector with defence and have its focus on self-reliance and innovation. In 2017, the Central Military–Civil Fusion Development Commission, under the leadership of Xi Jinping himself, established the Cyberspace Security Military-Civil Fusion Innovation Centre.

Not just defence, China’s police alone will be spending an extra $30 billion on new gear. U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Congress on Chinese military and economic powerstates that thousands of Chinese private companies have become a non-negligible force in the security field which has the ability to dominate global security market. They offer smartphone surveillance equipment, facial-recognition technology, deep packet inspection gear, application filtering, CCTV, biometrics and other key security technologies.

Establishment of PLASSF

The PLA sees space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic domain as critical ‘strategic frontiers’ and the ‘commanding heights’ of future warfare. PLA is concentrating on ‘information operations’ that include cyber warfare, electronic warfare and Information warfare. The establishment of the PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF) in 2015 integrated the PLA’s space, cyber, electronic and information warfare capabilities in order to enhance its capability to achieve dominance in these new commanding heights of future warfare as part of its unrestricted warfare strategy of China to use legal warfare, public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, economic warfare, financial warfare, and other asymmetric/irregular components of warfare.

In particular, the PLASSF will advance the PLA’s capability to provide information support to joint operations. That is, it is responsible for engaging in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance within the space, cyber, and electromagnetic domains, acting as an “information umbrella” for the PLA as a whole the SSF would thus serve as a critical enabler of the PLA’s ability to project power, not only to conventional but perhaps also in support of nuclear forces. It may also ensure counter-space, cyber and EW attacking capabilities.

Unsurprisingly given the perceived dominance of offensive attacks in this domain, the PLA is believed to prefer seizing the initiative through a first strike. Increasingly, the PLA considers cyber capabilities a critical component in its overall integrated strategic deterrence posture, alongside space and nuclear deterrence. 

In 2015 China’s Defence White Paper also called to expedite the development of a Cyber Force. Besides cyber domain, China has one of the most diverse space based ISR capabilities second to just U.S. and one of its stated missions includes achieve near-real time image and communication coverage of earth. China’s space missions perpetually help the PLA ‘informatization’ dream. China’s Space White Paper, December 2016 states “to explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry, and build China into a space power is a dream we pursue unremittingly.”

Establishment of PLA Rocket Force

At the end of 2015 the missile branch of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Second Artillery Corps was formally elevated to a full service and renamed as the Rocket Force (PLARF). It is part of a sweeping drive to improve the PLA’s joint operations, command and control, and combat effectiveness.

Establishment of PLAJLSF

In September 2016, PLA announced the creation of another quasi-service called the PLA Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF). President Xi Jinping stated that the JLSF should serve as the “main force” in “strategic battle support missions” and urged it to better integrate civil and military logistics support into joint operations. Organizationally, the JLSF has subordinate Joint Logistics Support Centres (JLSCs) in each of the five new Theatre Commands.

Reduction of PLA Troops

On 3 September, 2015 Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that the PLA Ground Forces (PLAGF) will reduce 300,000 troops. China, in recent years, has resorted to major reforms of its military, which included giving priority to expand its Navy and Air Force to enhance its influence beyond the borders, while cutting down three lakh troops of the PLAGF. PLA Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force – now together make up more than half of the Chinese military, overtaking the Army, which has traditionally been the dominant unit of the PLA. Reportedly, Xi Jinping has aimed to cut PLAGF strength to half, this move will possibly make Indian Army as the largest ground force in the world. Also, the PLA in recent times has started providing greater focus on improving training infrastructure of PLA in order to make it more effective force by updating training methodologies and focus on practicing real scenarios of battlefield.


  1. Rourke, Ronald O’. CRS, 2018, China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress.
  2. Kazianis, Harry J. “The Real Reason China Has Built a Massive Military.” The National Interest, The Centre for the National Interest, 15 Oct. 2017,
  3. Cooper, Cortez A. III, PLA Military Modernization: Drivers, Force Restructuring, and Implications. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018.
  4. Lectures on the Science of Army Campaigns (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), p. 220; Science of Campaigns (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2006), pp. 416-421
  5. Fanell, James. “China’s Global Naval Strategy and Expanding Force Structure: Pathway to Hegemony.” US House of Representatives, 2018,
  6. “China behind Pak’s Growing Confidence, Supplies 63% of Islamabad’s Arms Need.” Hindustan Times, 30 Sept. 2016,

The article first appeared on IADN Strategic Focus magazine, September-October 2022 Issue.

Views expressed are of author’s and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the website or its affiliates.


  • Shantanu K. Bansal

    Founder of IADN. He has more than 10 years of experience in research and analysis. An award winning researcher, he writes for the leading defence and security journals, think-tanks and in-service publications. He is a senior consultant at the Indian Army Training Command (ARTRAC), Shimla. Contact him at:

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