China’S Military Build-up – Its Significance for USA and India

Part I – Growing Military Might

An IDC Analysis


New Delhi, 05 September 2006  

Two decades of economic growth have fuelled China’s military build up that makes even USA see red and has a concomitant effect on India too. Experts in the US, including the intelligence community, are increasingly of the opinion that the Chinese military has successfully achieved a far-reaching qualitative advancement in its security and fighting capabilities since the beginning of the new century. The PLA with its Airforce and Navy, is quickly becoming an increasingly credible threat against Taiwan and may even begin to pose a challenge to US military preponderance in East Asia in the next decade.

The Chinese "string of pearls" strategy of bases and diplomatic ties stretching from the Middle East to the South China Sea, all point to the fact that China may well be on the way to contain and challenge India’s immediate strategic interests. The bases include a new naval base under construction at the Pakistani port of Gwadar –– within hearing distance of the Persian Gulf –– a container port facility at Chittagong, naval bases in Myanmar and electronic intelligence gathering facilities on islands in the Bay of Bengal and near the Straits of Malacca, the railway line upto Lhasa and modern roads all over across the Indo-Tibetan border.

The RAND Corporation in a US Air Force sponsored report, “A New Direction for China’s Defence Industry” as a follow up to an earlier report, had highlighted that notwithstanding the general perception that China’s defence infrastructure was ancient, five factors point to a major improvement.

  • First, a consistent rise in weapons spending, up by 153 per cent between 1997 and 2003, fueled by a booming economy

  • Second, the exposure of government owned defense companies to commercialisation,, improving their research, development and production

  • Third, consistent access to sizeable foreign military equipment and technical assistance in the last decade, particularly from Russia and Israel

  • Fourth, defence procurement reforms introduced since 1998 and

  • Fifth its successful forays into space

All these factors have helped China to sharpen the teeth of it Armed Forces. Much as China would like to diversify its purchases, especially from Europe, it is constrained in this regard by an arms embargo imposed after the massacre of pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. In Mid April this year the European Union decided under intense political pressure, not to lift the embargo.

Ground Forces

The ground forces are currently engaged in a series of cutbacks that will result in a 10% reduction of troops from 1.6 million to 1.4 million by the end of this year. Since the mid-1990s, a large number of the PLA's estimated 100 manoeuvre divisions have been downsized, deactivated or transferred into the paramilitary police, leaving around 40 divisions and 43 brigades. With a vast arsenal of outdated equipment, the Chinese military leaders are seeking to maximise the effectiveness of their limited funds by selectively procuring modest amounts of new advanced weapons, while devoting substantial resources to upgrading existing equipment and investing heavily in the development of next-generation weapons that are compatible with its new concept of IT-based warfare.

PLA Air Force

The PLAAF has been at the top of the funding allocations for much of the past decade, which had led to a concerted effort to upgrade capabilities through the acquisition of predominately Russian weapon systems. China bought Su-27 and Su-30 fighters; AA-12 air-to-air missiles; SA-10, SA-15 and SA-20 surface-to-air missiles. Last year alone, China spent $1 billion on 24 advanced Russian fighter aircraft. It now has around 300 advanced Russian and Chinese combat aircraft, which are armed with sophisticated munitions. The Air force, however, also faces the pressing challenge of coping with the spreading obsolescence that affects the rest of its inventory of more than 3,000 combat aircraft.

PLA Navy

The PLA Navy (PLAN) has rapidly transformed itself from a coastal force into a blue water naval power with an unprecedented force modernisation drive in the post-Cold War era. The range and number of warships the Chinese navy had acquired can be compared to the Soviet Union's race to become an ocean-going navy to rival the US in the 1970s. Chinese weapons for sea-lane control include new warships equipped with long-range cruise missiles, submarines and undersea mines. China is also buying aircraft and long-range target acquisition systems, including optical satellites and maritime unmanned aerial vehicles.

Surface Fleet

Since 2001, the Chinese shipbuilding industry produced 23 new amphibious assault ships and 13 conventional attack submarines, including the launch of the first of a new class of conventional submarines at Wuhan in May 2004. Two new guided missile destroyer classes called 052B and 052C have been launched. The 052C will be fitted with an advanced integrated air-defense system, supposedly similar to the US Aegis phased-array radar display, with a high capability to engage multiple targets simultaneously.

China's surface fleet (currently consisting of 64 large combatant units –– 21 destroyers and 43 frigates), for the next decade, is engaged in the process of replacing obsolete ships with more modern units. For this reason, PLAN continues to bring into service units of Russian Sovremenny class destroyers, while pursuing the construction of 052B and 052C class warships, in addition to the construction of a completely new ship, being built in China's Dalian shipyard, that is expected to be very large and loaded with heavy surface armament (probably similar to Russia's Slava class cruisers). At the moment, the creation of an extensive ship-borne air power by way of aircraft carriers does not seem to be China’s priority but serious efforts are afoot to build its first indigenous aircraft carrier.


For its underwater fleet of 57 units –– 51 diesel submarines (SS) and six nuclear powered attack submarines or SSN, PLAN follows the same pattern as for its surface forces. With significant help from Russia, PLAN is modernizing the diesel sub fleet by the decision to acquire eight other Kilo class boats, following the first four-unit batch purchased during the 1990s. Beijing, at the same time, is proceeding with the construction of diesel submarines based on domestic projects (Type 039 and 039A), which was slowed down by a number of problems discovered in the planning phase. However, in the next few years, this process will give rise to the complete replacement of the large but ineffective diesel submarine force (packed with old Soviet-design vessels) with a modern and efficient diesel fleet. The building of the new SSN Type 93 class is proceeding in the same direction; these vessels, according to PLAN's intentions, should allow a significant improvement in Chinese submarine warfare capabilities, especially if the rumors suggesting that the Type 93 class can perform like the Soviet Victor III class or even like the early US Los Angeles class, are confirmed. It is important to note that construction of the new Type 094 nuclear powered ballistic missile class submarines (SSBN) is proceeding very slowly, even if China can now deploy one unit of this kind (Xia-class).


Over the last few years, China has been reasonably transparent in highlighting its major goals in the modernisation of its armed forces. It is preparing its forces for a new form of future warfare. Its forces are striving to adapt themselves to characteristics of modern warfare, focusing on defensive operations under high technology conditions as the main objective. China is striving to secure a stable regional environment for continuing development. It wants to engage in multilateral and regional institutions based on stronger economic and military cooperation. However, to avoid miscalculation, senior US officials have called for more transparency from China. The Pentagon’s latest annual assessment of China’s military capabilities has highlighted the advanced military equipment the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is buying or seeking and its emphasis on western style training, military education and doctrine, which can strengthen military capability more than just high tech equipment alone. But the report leaves open the possibility ––– couched in diplomatic terms as “strategic cross roads” –– that China could pursue a benign path or a more aggressive one.

Back to Top

Disclaimer   Copyright