As regional tensions rise, a more assertive China has set a goal of turning its vast People’s Liberation Army into a modern fighting force by 2027 , and a world-class military by 2050 – but how far has it come, and where is it headed? The Red Army The PLA began in 1927 with an armed uprising launched by the Communist Party against the Nationalist Kuomintang forces in Nanchang, Jiangxi province. This motley collection of communists, peasants, Kuomintang deserters and bandits was known as the Red Army. They had no ranks or formal command chain, and used guerilla tactics – irregular, fast-moving and small-scale actions – against their better armed and bigger enemy. It was renamed the People’s Liberation Army in the later stage of China’s pre-1949 civil war. What does it look like today? China’s military has been significantly downsized since the 1980s as it tries to streamline operations, but it remains the world’s largest army with more than 2 million active personnel. That is even after the most recent efforts to reduce the numbers, when some 300,000 troops were retrenched, according to a defence white paper released by Beijing in 2019. As well as troop reductions, the PLA has also undergone a massive structural reform that began in 2015. The four general departments – staff, politics, logistics and armaments – were reorganised into 15 agencies under the Central Military Commission. And seven military area commands were merged and replaced by five theatre commands. That put the CMC in charge of overall administration of the military, while the theatre commands focus on operations and troop development, according to state news agency Xinhua, citing an adviser to the commission’s leading group on reform. The restructure has also been seen as a move to consolidate the ruling Communist Party’s control over the military – President Xi Jinping is also chairman of the CMC. What’s the plan? Xi laid out his ambition of building a strong army less than a month after he took power in 2012. Eight years on, at a policy meeting in October, the party unveiled its plan to build a “fully modernised army” by 2027 – the year the PLA will mark its centenary. The ultimate goal, according to analysts, is to have a military that is on par with that of the United States – the world’s strongest fighting force. But they say it still has a long way to go. Beijing’s latest plan calls for military modernisation to be sped up and highlights an urgent need to improve the PLA’s strategic capabilities to safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and development interests. As well as developing advanced weapons, smart technologies like artificial intelligence will be a big part of the push – modernising military theories, formations, personnel and strategic management, CMC vice-chairman Xu Qiliang said in an official publication in November . He said the PLA had to be more proactive in designing how war was fought , rather than just responding to conflicts. To do all this, Beijing’s defence spending has increased. In 2020, a budget of 1.27 trillion yuan (US$193 billion) was announced, up 6.6 per cent from the previous year and the second highest in the world after the US. But China has long been criticised for a lack of transparency in its defence budgets and for omitting important items. For 2019, Beijing claimed its military spending was US$176 billion, but the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated it was US$261 billion . In comparison, it said the United States spent US$732 billion in 2019. Allies and regional tensions In its 2019 defence white paper, Beijing stated that “China advocates partnerships rather than alliances and does not join any military bloc”. China also seeks to position itself as a defender of peace, and claims it stands against aggression and expansion and pursues a policy that is defensive in nature. But tensions are building in the region, with Beijing entangled in territorial disputes with neighbours including Vietnam and the Philippines over parts of the South China Sea , where its military build-up on artificial islands has caused consternation, over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku or Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, and at its Himalayan border with India, where a protracted stand-off has been under way since May – the worst in decades. Beijing is also ramping up pressure on Taiwan , which it sees as part of China’s territory to be retaken by force if necessary, including by staging war games near the self-ruled island and entering its airspace .