From misfire to big shot: how the military helped China open up and become a force to be reckoned with
- The PLA took a back seat to economic development in the first decades of the country’s determination to lie low and foster growth
- In expanding its military reach, China has raised suspicions about its regional and global intentions
When late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping gave the order for more than 300,000 People’s Liberation Army troops to cross from southwest China into Vietnam in February 1979, there was more than regional rivalry at stake.
Within a month, the PLA occupied more than a dozen cities in northern and southern Vietnam, overcoming the heavily outnumbered Vietnamese troops and militia. Then on March 16 China suddenly withdrew all of its troops, declaring that it had “successfully given Vietnam a lesson”.
On the surface, Beijing said it was punishing Hanoi for helping Moscow advance its political influence in the region at the expense of China.
But a Chinese military historian, who also served as a senior colonel in the PLA, said Deng’s real goal was to use the conflict to test the ragtag armed forces and cement his domestic agenda of reform and opening up.
“The PLA had not fought for nearly three decades and Deng wanted to use the attack against Vietnam to expose the PLA’s weaknesses in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution,” the historian said.
While third-party estimates put the Vietnamese death toll at more than 80,000, China paid a great price for its apparent victory – the death of nearly 7,000 Chinese soldiers and the wounding of 15,000 others.
Those casualties gave Deng the justification to overhaul the military, cutting 1.5 million troops and streamlining the armed forces’ administration, the historian said.
It also helped usher in four decades of Deng’s taoguang yanghui, or lie low, policy, which allowed the country to focus on building its economic rather than military strength.
Fast-forward four decades and China has developed into the world’s second-biggest economy and its military has become a multipronged machine, with ambitions to become a blue-water navy capable of projecting power and protecting national interests around the globe.
The foundations for that military strength were laid at the start of the open-door era, when the armed forces became a lower budget priority than economic development.
The Chinese military of four decades ago was a bloated, ineffective bureaucracy sapping national resources and in dire need of change. It had expanded to more than 6 million troops in the mid-1970s after relations with the Soviet Union collapsed, and its top ranks had swollen as PLA officers were sent to head local governments in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.
The excesses left few resources for training and weapons.
Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Dong said many of the PLA troops sent to the battlefield in Vietnam were not well-trained, and a lot of their ammunition had expired.
“Guns failed to work properly due to a lack of maintenance, resulting in countless soldiers being killed by their own weapons,” Wong said.
Troops also died because of the disarray caused by late leader Mao Zedong’s decision to abolish military ranks, according to the Chinese historian, who served on the front line.
“The PLA didn’t have a systematic operational command system. Chinese soldiers recognised their commanders by their face,” the historian said.
“When their commander was killed, soldiers would not know who to turn to and would refuse to take orders from a new commander they did not know.”
The military had to shrink and regroup as well as adapt to Deng’s new policy of engagement with the world.
For the first two decades of reform, the PLA had to absorb successive cuts to the defence budget, half a dozen structural overhauls and the demobilisation of more than 3.5 million personnel.
“The PLA had to make all kinds of sacrifices and support the country’s economic, political and diplomatic development,” the historian said.
As funding for defence shrank, Deng allowed the PLA to run their own businesses to support a heaving apparatus of farms, factories and construction teams. At the time, the military was not only responsible for maintaining defences, it had to fund pensions, housing and health programmes.
Many PLA units raised money by selling surplus products from their farms on the open market.
Then the military’s former General Logistics Department struck gold with a stomach medicine that evolved into a profitable brand in the 1990s. According to a veteran with the Southern Theatre Command, which covers Guangzhou, other military units followed the logistics department’s lead, setting up companies and contracts with outside firms to create a vast network of revenue streams.
Military hospitals and hotels were soon opening their doors to civilians, barracks and warehouses were rented out, and military construction expertise was offered to the commercial sector.
The income eased the pressure on the national coffers but it also encouraged corruption. For example, military vehicles and licence plates were used for illegal activities such as smuggling, as more senior officials began abusing their position and promoting their own business interests.
“It was an open secret that in coastal cities submarines and other PLA Navy warships were used for smuggling cars, home appliances and even fuel from overseas … in the 1980s and 1990s,” an active naval officer with the navy’s headquarters in Beijing said.
The corruption was endemic, prompting then president Jiang Zemin to order an end to the PLA’s commercial activity in 1998. To make up for those losses, China began expanding the defence budget at a double-digit rate thanks to the country’s rapidly growing economy.
Corruption persisted until President Xi Jinping asserted his authority over the powerful Central Military Commission and launched a sweeping anti-corruption campaign in 2013.
The campaign brought down former CMC vice-chairmen Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou and numerous followers, with at least 13,000 military officers punished over the past five years for being involved in Guo and Xu’s corruption, the PLA Daily reported in October last year.
Ties with the US
Deng’s opening up campaign also fostered political trust with the United States, a development that paid military dividends for China, according to Michael Pillsbury, director of the Centre on Chinese Strategy at the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.
In his book The Hundred-Year Marathon, Pillsbury said Washington provided military assistance to Beijing after the war with Hanoi, including the decision in 1985 to sell six major weapon systems to China for more than US$1 billion. The sale included Black Hawk helicopters and MK46-2 torpedoes, help to upgrade the PLA’s J-8 fighters, and other advanced weapon components, according to Chinese sources.
Two Beijing-based military sources told the South China Morning Post that the US also provided intelligence to Beijing about the Soviet Union’s relations with Vietnam.
Washington even offered long-term training to help China develop the expertise needed to establish a series of national research centres on advanced technology, from genetic engineering to manned space flight. The assistance allowed China to make significant progress on more than 10,000 projects, according to Pillsbury.
But the military-to-military relationship has had its limits, even with opening up and warmer relations with the West. Broader adoption of US technology was prevented by the US embargo imposed in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, and then with the approval of the US sale of 150 F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan in 1992.
“Indeed, both the US and France started selling their third-generation fighter jets to Taiwan in the aftermath of Beijing’s crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen [democratic] protest, pushing the PLA Air Force to enhance its weapons build-up,” the Chinese historian said.
There were also crises in following years, including the 1999 US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the mid-air collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a US spy plane two years later.
Nevertheless, the US indirectly provided a model for China’s military, particularly in the air.
US air superiority in the Gulf and Kosovo wars in the 1990s convinced the PLA to speed up fighter jet development. Until then, China’s military focus was on ground forces; now the PLA Air Force has more than 3,000 fighter jets, bombers and helicopters, the third-biggest aviation force after the US and Russia, according to FlightGlobal, a London-based aviation intelligence website.
Beijing also developed its first stealth fighter jet, the J-20, in 2017, as an equivalent to the US’s fifth-generation F-22. The aircraft has stealth technology, supersonic cruising speed, and highly integrated avionics, but there are still some engine problems to be overcome, military insiders say.
China has made maritime advances, with one aircraft carrier on active service, another one expected to join the PLA Navy next year and at least four aircraft carrier battle groups expected to be in the water by 2030. Beijing has built more advanced warplanes and warships, such as Asia’s largest Type 055 destroyers, new generation Type 098 nuclear-powered attack submarines, Type 075 amphibious assault docks, as well as the world’s second largest supply ship, the Type 901, making it the world’s second most powerful navy after the US.
In addition, the PLA has a range of missiles, including the powerful DF-41, which has a range of 12,000km and by some claims can strike anywhere in the United States.
But Chinese military insiders admit that the country’s defence-related technologies relied on transferring foreign countries’ key components. Aside from buying Soviet and then Russian fighter jets and engines, Beijing used intermediaries to skirt embargoes to buy dual-use technology and equipment from the West.
“Chinese scientists copied foreign technologies for decades, and failed to put effort and patience into developing core technologies such as chips and aircraft engines, causing today’s inherent shortages in some core defence-related science and technology research,” Wong said.
Forty years on from Deng’s desire for the country to lie low, China’s goal now is to be a top-ranked military by 2050. The PLA has prepared for a possible conflict with Taiwan, and grown more assertive in the East and South China seas, building military installations on various reclaimed islands in the contested waters.
In 2013, China rapidly built reefs into seven artificial islands in the disputed Spratlys, projects that cost more than 70 billion yuan each.
Farther afield, it is building its second offshore naval base in Gwadar, a strategically important Pakistani port, following the opening of its first facility in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa last year. Beijing describes the two bases as military logistics outposts for resupplying Chinese vessels on peacekeeping and humanitarian missions in the Indian Ocean.
China has also deployed thousands of troops on United Nations’ peacekeeping missions and conducts regular anti-piracy missions in Somali waters.
In expanding its military reach, China has raised suspicions about its regional and global intentions.
Some experts warn that the escalating tensions between Beijing and Washington over trade might force Asian neighbours to strengthen their strategic partnerships and alliances with the US and other Western powers.
Beijing-based retired military theorist Qiao Liang said the PLA’s military presence in the region would help it better protect China’s maritime lifeline on the high seas, but he stressed the PLA would not develop into “an expansionary military” to seek hegemony like their US counterpart.
“The top mission of the PLA is to defend China’s overseas interests, and then maintain world peace, but Beijing is neither prepared to encroach on other countries’ territory, nor seize resources abroad. The resources China gained from overseas were achieved through fair trade,” said Qiao, who is also a retired PLA Air Force major general.
“It doesn’t matter if the militaries of great powers like the US are everywhere. But it’s a big problem when they want to topple some political regimes that they don’t like. That’s typical hegemony, and China will never do it.”
Collin Koh Swee Lean, a defence expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the PLA’s more active participation in international security missions had won plaudits from the global community.
But the military’s increasingly aggressive “island encirclement” drills around Taiwan and its huge investments on port and infrastructure in the South China Sea had raised concerns about Beijing’s intentions in the region.
“The China today under Xi is a radically different one these days: it’s assertive, very confident … and more than eager to flaunt its strengths,” Koh said.
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