Is the PLA's modernisation a sign of power, or a repeat of a tragic mistake?
Ignoring the need for social reform while modernising the military risks repeating the mistakes of the Qing dynasty
China's military development is generating more international controversy than at any time in the past decade, despite the People's Liberation Army's attempts to convince the world that it is increasing its transparency by publicising progress on some new weapons projects.
Military observers agree that the past decade has been a golden era for PLA modernisation, with Beijing busily harvesting the fruits of weapons research and development made possible by three decades of rapid economic growth.
Beijing has been stressing the need to upgrade its military capacity since the early 1990s, with double-digit annual increases in defence spending. It has recently speeded up the development of new weapons projects including China's first stealth fighter jet, the Jian-20; its first aircraft carrier and a carrier-killing ballistic missile, the DF-21D, and a third-generation, nuclear-armed, solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile, the DF-41.
In January 2007, China shocked the world by shooting down a weather satellite 850 kilometres above the earth, sparking fears that it could become engaged in a secret "star wars" battle with the United States. But back at sea level, the PLA Navy set new benchmarks for international co-operation and blue-water missions, playing a key role in the international anti-piracy effort off the coast of Somalia from late 2009.
Tai Ming Cheung, an associate professor and director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Co-operation at the University of California, said the PLA had taken advantage of 10 years of growing prosperity, continued peace and rising technological sophistication to make important progress in its defence modernisation, narrowing the gap with leading global powers and becoming more professional.
A white paper released by the defence ministry last year said the PLA Navy had sent more than 20 ships in more than 10 convoys to more than 30 countries in the previous year. It also sent its biggest hospital ship, the Peace Ark, to underdeveloped countries in Africa for the first time in mid-2010 to provide medical and humanitarian aid.
The PLA has also participated in military drills with the US, Russia and other countries, especially focusing on co-operation in humanitarian and anti-terrorism operations.
"There is certainly a greater sense of pride and prestige in the PLA's progress and accomplishments from within the ranks," Cheung said. But, he added, the PLA's fighting capability still lagged that of Western forces.
"[The PLA] still can't operate jointly, it lacks combat experience, its defence modernisation has been concentrated in limited pockets, and personnel quality is still mixed," Cheung said. "So rather than giving the PLA a gold for achievement, its performance was a silver or bronze."
Antony Wong Dong, president of the International Military Association in Macau, said today's achievements in military modernisation could be attributed to the efforts of former leaders in the past few decades, with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao being the lucky successors who reaped the rewards.
"Hu and Wen's contributions were that they did not interfere in the PLA's modernisation in their era because they do not understand military affairs," Wong said.
"Hu is actually a so-so chairman of the Central Military Commission because many of the top leaders in the army were promoted by his predecessor, Jiang Zemin , which means he is living under Jiang's shadow."
Some military experts have warned that Hu and Wen's failure to introduce political reforms to counter corruption and unfairness in both the military and civilian sectors could lead China into a new period of crisis.
Ni Lexiong , director of a defence policy research centre at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said a modern army should be built on the base of a modernised country, but Beijing had to spend more than 700 billion yuan (HK$ 858 billion) this year on maintaining social stability. That's nearly 5 per cent more than the country's defence budget.
Spending on internal security - "building a harmonious society" - has exceeded the defence budget since 2009, much of it directed at cracking down on mass protests and preventing individuals from petitioning higher levels of government.
Ni warned that papering over those cracks could weaken the army's fighting ability.
"The army is an important part of our society," Ni said. "Everything that happens in our community will have an impact on their morale.
"PLA soldiers enjoy high salaries, the best equipment and other benefits in the army … but it is a fact that their parents, brothers, sisters and friends are not living well because of the expanding gap between rich and poor and other social problems in our country, which Hu and Wen have failed to solve."
Wong said the PLA's modernisation stood at odds with its poor transparency and conservative image.
"The PLA's current transparency is much lower than in the 1980s," Wong said, saying the exact number of army personnel is now a secret. "In 1982, the State Statistics Bureau announced that the PLA had 4,238,210 servicemen. Now, even the number of troops in the Hong Kong garrison is unclear."
Cheung said China's reluctance to increase transparency in the military had hindered efforts to build international confidence and trust.
"The paucity of detailed information about China's defence budget is at the centre of international concerns, as is the limited amount of detailed information contained in its defence white paper," he said.
"The PLA is making steady efforts to improve its transparency with press conferences, the establishment of a defence ministry spokesman's office and a willingness to disclose more defence-related information online … but the push for defence transparency should come from domestic sources, through popular demand via the media and the political system, and not be driven by foreign requests."
Ni, citing the examples of the Beiyang Fleet and the New Army in the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911), warned that a powerful army risks being annihilated by outside forces or becoming a tool to trigger a civil war if it was not part of a society that undergone social and political reform.
On December 17, 1888, the Qing dynasty ordered 12 warships from Germany and Britain to establish Asia's finest navy - the Beiyang Fleet - which was sunk by the Japanese during the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War.
The New Army was a modern military force, trained along Western lines, that was raised during the Qing government's military modernisation project in 1907. But this powerful force later mutinied and played a key role in the 1911 Revolution that ended more than 2,000 years of imperial rule in China.
"The key reasons for the defeat of the Beiyang Fleet and the uprising of the New Army was not their weakness - they were well-funded and powerful - but ignorance of the need for political and social modernisation. I hope the new leadership will carefully learn the historical lesson of the Qing government about the need to introduce comprehensive social and political reform, otherwise it will be a disaster for the Communist Party," Ni said.